A Beginning Rather Than an End: Reframing Summer as the Start of Next School Year

By Kristen Thorson and Erin Gohl

If you walk into most classrooms this time of year, the frenetic, pent-up energy of the students is palpable. Nearly every student seems prone to distraction. Kids are chattier and wiggling more vigorously. Having spent so much time together on a daily basis, students interact more like rival siblings than cohort peers. The classroom environment seems a little ill-fitting, as though they’ve outgrown their current grade’s lessons and routines.

As the testing season comes to an end, final projects are evaluated, and end of year concerts and showcases fill the calendars, students, teachers, and parents eagerly commence a countdown towards the anticipated relief of summer. Many teachers, students, and even parents feel exhausted from a year filled with challenges, hard work, and growth, and yearn for a different routine. For most stakeholders involved in the day-to-day of school operations, the tradition of summer break represents a time to pause, to recharge–a reprieve from the intensity of the school year.

The leitmotif of these common conceptions of summer is one of a break, pause, and respite. This sentiment lacks a sense of opportunity or expectation for student development and growth. This stasis is borne out in the academic research about student learning in the summer. You are likely familiar with the dreaded “summer slide,” where the break in structure and continuity from the lessons and routines of the classroom cause a regression in student skills measured in schools. And, as noted by the National Summer Learning Association, this decline in academic performance is exacerbated for students in high-poverty environments.

Teachers often end the school year with efforts to provide learning resources for summer use. These well-intentioned actions aim to give families vetted activities to prevent that summer learning drift. All too often, though, those resources go unused or ignored until the last few days of summer. Then, for some parents, the frenzied concern about their child’s readiness kicks in and they feverishly try to fill many weeks worth of educational resources into a matter of hours. For most of the summer, students and families feel disconnected from a particular class and lack accountability or clarity on specific expectations.

What if, with only a little added effort, summer could be a time of growth for students?

By reframing the potential of summer, from “ten weeks of academic wilderness between school years” to “the start of the next learning opportunity,” summer has the possibility to serve as a smooth, engaging, and uninterrupted continuation from one school year to the next. It can even be a catalyst to propel students on a path of growing and learning. This can be accomplished with small shifts in how teachers and schools communicate to families at the end of the school year. These shifts will provide guidance for families on how students can find greater success through meaningful learning experiences during the summer.

Communicating to Families How to Propel Learning During the Summer

As mentioned, many teachers already provide a list of suggested resources for their students to utilize over the summer. These lists often include links to websites, community partnerships, and summer reading suggestions. They are usually created by the student’s current teacher and centered around reinforcing the skills and activities from the grade level a student is completing. In shifting how we approach summer, consider instead using these communications to give families a preview of what is to come in the following grade level and guidance on how families can help students build new skills over the summer break.

As educators put together lists of resources for summer, they might consider framing these summer materials as a low-pressure, but fruitful time to build and focus on by considering the following approaches.

Family Engagement: For many families, the transition from intense connectedness to the school community during the school year to the solitude of summer break can feel jarring. Relationships and habits that are developed and fostered over the course of the school year are put on hold. By receiving a letter from the new team of teachers that will work with a given student, families feel like they have a contact point as they say goodbye to their current teacher. Beyond the summer email or letter, the school might also set up a Remind account to send out periodic messages and tips for families to continue learning.

Social-Emotional Skills: Summer is also a great time for developing social-emotional skills. There are many natural opportunities for play, and since kids often spend more time with family, the ratio of adult (or older sibling) to child is perfect for modeling and talking through experiences. Building social-emotional skills can be fun and easily incorporated into common activities. Summer focused communication can explain to families that as their children play games in the backyard or interact with friends they can help them to reflect on their experience. What did they see or hear from others that was kind? What did they do to be helpful? What makes a good friend? As families play board games on summer nights, talk about taking turns and being a good sport. When children go to the grocery store or doctor’s office, talk about ways to practice patience. Can you sing a song? Tell a story? Play I Spy? By processing through these activities outside of school, students are more prepared to succeed in similar activities in school.  Suggest utilizing the resources on Confident Parents, Confident Kids, a site that provides games, stories, and resources for kids and adults, with the explicit intention of helping families promote social-emotional skill development at home.

Familiarity with Upcoming Content and Curriculum: Simply by letting parents know the major themes that will be taught throughout the year, they can use opportunities throughout the summer to build background knowledge and familiarity. Will students be studying about life cycles of frogs? Encourage parents to take an extra moment to notice the frogs in a nearby lake on a walk around the neighborhood during the break. Will there be learning about fractions? Families might talk about fractions during a pizza night or while baking with measuring cups. By giving families tools to introduce students to these topics as they vacation or visit the zoo or simply walk around their neighborhood, students will have more to share and classroom conversations will increase in depth. Communications may suggest students explore news stories about these given topics on Newsela, a site that adapts news articles to varying reading levels. Or, families can be prompted to search for given topics on a custom search engine like kidtopia, that returns results from sources vetted be teachers, librarians, and educational organizations.

How to make it happen

Before teachers pack up their classrooms and put away their last lesson plans, setting aside some time to collaborate with grade-level colleagues to draft a note to next year’s students could accomplish a great deal.  Some tips to maximize the effectiveness of this process:

  • Send the letter out as a grade-level or grade-band team to all students rising to your grade-level.
  • In this letter, include information about reimagining summer, and then invite families to use the freedom and energy of this time to get a jumpstart on the next school year.
  • Work with school administrators to coordinate sending out or emailing this letter a week or two after the last day of school to ensure that this important information does not get lost in the overstuffed backpack filled with every book, handout, and leftover snack from the school year.
  • As teachers construct this letter, they can talk as a team with previous grade level team to identify some general areas of weakness for the particular cohort. Use these suggestions, along with ideas to engage families, build independence, practice social-emotional skills, preview content, and enhance academic learning, to draft your letter.

Put Me in Summer and I’ll Be a Happy Snowman

Summer and academic gains might seem as realistic a combination as a summer-loving snowman. But, teachers, parents, and students need to channel their inner Olaf and see beyond traditional conceptions of this time of year. Reaching out to families and communicating tangible, low-pressure ways to build student skills over the summer can have far-reaching benefits for students, teachers, families, and the overall school community. The transition from the leisurely pace of summer to the structures and routines of the school year will be filled with much less anxiety if parents have a sense of what readiness looks like and can work on those lessons beforehand. Students will meet the school door with more confidence having remained engaged in learning. Teachers will be able to jump into high-quality instruction much more quickly. And all this can be accomplished in ways that are easily integrated into common summer plans and activities.

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Kristen Thorson

Kristen Thorson is a Getting Smart Columnist. She is known for her experience as a teacher, interventionist, and curriculum and assessment developer

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1 Comment

Jennifer Miller

Thanks for sharing, Confident Parents, Confident Kids' as a summer resource! Of course, I think it's a great one for families! :) I love your ideas for teachers helping students with the big transition from school to summertime. The reframing of summertime as the next learning opportunity is such an important one. And there are so many experiential learning opportunities to be had through nature, camps, vacations and more. Thanks so much and happy endings and beginnings to you! Best, Jennifer Miller, Founder, Confident Parents, Confident Kids

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