Summer School is Stupid.
But it doesnt have to be.
Taylor is a founding teacher at Brooklyn Ascend High School, New York.
Summer school? Seriously?
Let’s paint a picture of what summer school is and means in the United States. Stick with me here and try and step into the shoes of one of my students, Rasheem:
As the regular academic year came to a close, you’re eager to step out of the routine grind of the school day and into a job at your uncle’s bodega down the street. You love the socializing that comes with running the deli counter and the empowerment you feel when operating the cash register. While you struggled throughout the year to learn and practice useful study habits, you thought you’d squeak by with a “pass” like in years previous. However, this year is different; you’ve just learned that your academic performance fell short. You failed to demonstrate understanding of key learning standards. The summer you were hoping for melts away as the shame and drudge of school in the summer hits you in the lower gut. You sit down, and feeling like the wind has been kicked out of you, the only option left is to breathe in resentment. Summer school is stupid.
Okay, bring it back now:
The traditional paradigm of summer school is not simply stupid but largely damning to the student psyche and investment surrounding education. This is because the prevailing mentality of those who administer summer school largely comes from a motivation to punish students for failing semi-random exams at the end of the school year. Despite the varying opinions on the merits of state testing, I believe that taking students who are unable to demonstrate understanding of core content and skills and putting them in a room during the warmest month of the year, and demanding them to “do it again” but with fewer resources and in less time is not just recipe for failure, but it is criminal. We have a responsibility to do better.
While I’ve felt this way about summer school for a long time, it really shook me this spring as my school team realized that over twenty of our students were going to suffer this fate come July. Rasheem was just one of these stories. Instead of sending our students to the local summer school hub down the block where the traditional paradigm prevails, I got to work with parents, students, and teachers to design an alternative program. Modeled off of our first ever Winter Exploration in January 2017, we offered two module experiences this summer. The key learning experiences in each module provided students with alternative avenues to engage with standards from each of the core classes. This allowed us the freedom to create an interdisciplinary experience that ensured students could practice the content and skills they needed the most support with while keeping them on track to graduate in four years.
Summer Exploration provided us the opportunity to engage as both intellectuals as well as civic-minded community members, not just of our school, but also of the larger world. Using Brownsville and the greater New York City community as our classroom, students learned alongside teachers through a process of immersion in two different topics: Religious Thought and Action and Climate Change. Through field lessons, guest speakers, and texts, students grappled with the overarching questions of each module in order to determine a focus for their own independent research. Each exploration culminated with an action-based project that allowed students to showcase their personal findings and reflections.
The first module was called “Searching for the Good Life: Religious Thought & Action.” We spent the first day searching through texts for a definition of “religion” as well as crafting and administering a survey for Brownsville surrounding questions about the “good life” and how people should live it. The next eight days focused on one belief system per day and took on a protocol that first engaged students with a close-read and interpretive discussion on a sacred text, followed by a visit to the corresponding place of worship. We ended each day with an essay that asked students to compare and contrast the ways the text instructed worshipers to live the good life versus the directions provided by the minister/ rabbi/ priest/ imam / monk. We ended the module with both an AP style essay and a rubric guided synthesis project that students injected their own personality and interest into. Students took an amazing amount of ownership over the process and the culminating projects were strong examples of what happens when we break the ugly paradigms that keep our kids unmotivated.
The second module was called, “Island Life: Climate Change in the Big Apple.” We followed a very similar protocol to previous module but folded in field lessons that required students to become biologists, social scientists, and authors. While we kayaked the shores of Rockaway beach in order to see how climate change is physically altering the geography of New York City, we also trekked to salt marshes in Queens that had been filled in by trash since the early 1800s. We visited a refugee community that had been displaced by climate related changes and examined how our society is now changing because of our consumption. Students wrapped up this module by creating a graphic novel highlighting their relationship with climate change. Again, the results were not only strong against a rubric, they held real purpose to our development as socially conscious citizens.
Summer Exploration brought our school values to the surface of our community. These weeks of instruction brought out the curiosity in students (and teachers) as we heard from guest speakers and engaged in field lessons. Students felt empowered as they explored the content as budding experts within the overarching questions. They certainly lived out the integrity of the liberal arts. And finally, we lived out seva as we showcased our explorations for both the greater Brownsville community.
Now, bring it back to Rasheem:
Rasheem finished both modules of Summer Exploration excited about the chance to dive into field lessons that had a direct connection to his life. He was proud about the projects he created and the relationships he cultivated. He wrapped up his summer school experience feeling empowered and said to me on the final day of the second module, “why can’t school be like this during the year?”
Yes Rasheem, why can’t school be like this?