A recurring moment in my life as an overnight camp administrator for many summers was when older campers and staff—many time “lifers” who had been campers and moved on—declared in some comfortable setting that “camp is the only place I can really be myself.”
I never actually went to camp, but I could relate: there was a month each summer when I could be myself as explored the space around my grandparents’ place, mostly free of the structures and judgments of growing up among teachers on a school campus.
The past couple of conversations on the #PubPriBridge Twitter chat have been inspired by the very general topic, “K-12 Education and Summer,” and there have been moments that brought the whole idea of “being yourself” back to me. One of the questions with which we wrestled, in general, even global terms, was the whole idea of school responsibilities for students during the long summer break.
Most schools take one or another approach to summer reading, from gentle, almost laissez-faire programs with “suggestions” to hard-core requirements that build toward some kinds of assessments for accountability in the fall. Over the years I’ve worked with both and generally, as a reader first and as an educator second, been disappointed. The light-touch systems don’t seem to create more engaged readers, and the heavy-touch systems manage to build most students’ (and to be sure, many parents’) antipathy toward coercive summer reading that is often assigned as almost a medicinal measure, ostensibly to counteract learning loss and the slipping away of habits of mind.
The #PubPriBridge participants didn’t dwell on the summer reading question. Rather, we found ourselves asking bigger questions about things like “student interest” and equity. “Research says,” we are told, that summer slide is lower for kids on the higher end of the socioeconomic scale, and certainly many more affluent students have more opportunities for summer enrichment of one sort or another, including summer camps and family travel. Teachers of younger students (to generalize from a small sample) are more inclined to want summer to be a time for kids to develop or follow their own interests, while teachers of older students are more likely to fret about academic loss. We’re keenly aware that summer jobs, once a staple of student growth across the socioeconomic spectrum, are harder to come by; grown-ups now need to work year-round in low-paying jobs that kids could take or leave in summers past.
Whatever the requirements schools do or do not place on kids during summers, most students continue to live in an asymmetrical world, where summer break is very different from the school year. I’m not sure whether a change is needed, or which side of the equation—the way we construct school or the way we construct summer—ought to be modified if we deem it desirable to figure out how to make kids’ live more holistic, or consistent, or whatever we’d want to call it if we wanted kids’ lives (and maybe our own) to be less about contrasts and more about “being ourselves,” year-round.
This all got me musing on the origins of my grandfather’s school. Reports from a century ago have him as something of a martinet as a schoolmaster, a man who ran a taut ship. But in the summer, starting sometime in the early 1920s, he began a tiny summer “camp” in which he explored how he might teach the boys in his regular classes whom he was beginning to identify, with the help of a neurologist named Samuel Orton, as having dyslexia.
By all accounts—and there aren’t many of them—this summer camp/school was idyllic. Boys lived in tents, had lots of time to mess around in the woods, and had plenty of one-on-one time with their teacher, who at least worked in his shirtsleeves instead of all three pieces of a woolen suit. The few remaining photographs show happy men, young and old, and we know that from this experience grew the teaching methods that were to become in a few years the centerpiece of the program of a new—also tiny, at first—school. There must have been something magical, no doubt in part because my grandfather genuinely liked and believed in his students, who must have figured this out as they worked, studied, and played in the woods at the foot of what became the school’s ski hill. In any event, something was working.
In Mindstorms Seymour Papert writes of the samba schools in Brazil, which he presents as a kind of model learning environment where “learning is not separate from reality” and where the intentionality behind their establishment was collective and natural: “They were not made. They happened.” I wonder now about that little summer encampment where a teacher tried to figure out how best to teach dyslexic boys, and what those students/campers felt about learning and reality. There was a teacher, more at ease than in their school building and certainly more focused on their needs, and there were the pleasures of life when they weren’t being tutored. They were in tents, not their comfortable city mansions, and one imagines that their daily responsibilities differed considerably from their pampered home lives. But some of them went on to work at the school in later years, and one married the teacher’s daughter; there must have been something in it.
I wish I knew how to offer each kid something that met his or her own needs or fed his or her particular interests each summer. I wish that opportunities were equitably available to all kids and that every child might have a safe, resource-filled environment in which to make the most of their long summer breaks as experiences for growth and learning—different from “school” or like it, as they might prefer—that would carry them forward with the best kinds of momentum that the school year can support. I wish, in other words, that we could put more of our energy into considering the nature of summer, and its meaning for students (and for teachers, of course), as a time when individual, whole-child needs might be met just as we aspire to meet them during the academic year.
If wishes were fishes…
But the #PubPriBridge conversations at least began to clarify for me another aspect of that “Whole-Child Education for Every Child” dream that serves me as a mantra, a goal, and perhaps a promise. However we manage it, we ought to give every child the chance to know, and to be, who they are, 24/365.