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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Avoiding the Summer Slide in Reading and Writing

As an eighth-grade teacher, I constantly hear from high school teachers how "we" don't teach certain topics in middle school. The students, they claim, don't know how to write a thesis statement or don't know how to use proper grammar, and this is clearly because we don't teach it. News flash: We're not just twiddling our thumbs down here in 'tween-land. It's taught. Retaught. Revised. Reworked. All those gaps you might see as deficiencies in the middle school teaching are misguided. What you are seeing, however, is the curse of the summer slide.

Perhaps high school teachers don't realize that this summer slide can happen to the best of students in the shortest of time periods. That's why scheduling finals after winter break is a bad idea. Perhaps, however, there is greater slide between middle and high school because these young humans are constantly morphing in so many ways anyway. Their retention of material, despite our most innovative or rigorous of efforts, can be overshadowed by the changes that these kids are going through physically and chemically.

Regardless, I'm here to report that while some of it might be unavoidable, there are steps to at least help lessen the gap of knowledge leakage.

Some Language Arts Activities to Lessen "Summer Slide"

Below I've focused on some activities to help students continue to interact with words and reading throughout the summer.

#1. Introduce students to what's out there in the media. Research the based-on-books movies that are coming out during the summer months. Show trailers the last day of school (like when the kids from your first period are trapped in your classroom for three hours while promotion is going on elsewhere). Show these trailers and hand out a list of books that correspond to each. Challenge students to read the books before seeing the movies.

#2. Have students develop a way to recommend books before summer begins. Before the end of the year, have students look back over their book logs from the school year. Then, have them write a review (in other words, a form of literary analysis) for 10 of their choices. Have them develop icons that represent their opinions of the literature (thumbs up, stars, books, whatever). Post these reviews on a website that students can click through for recommendations all summer long.

#3. Develop a way for students to contribute the titles of what they are reading all summer long. If you know the students you might have the following year (as I do with my speech elective or my honors classes but not with my mainstream classes) set up a Google Drive document for kids to add to throughout the summer about what they've read. Create a Google Form that they fill out with each book, or they can directly enter them into a public spreadsheet.

#4. Model reading and discussing all summer long by sending out a newsletter or email blast with every book read or literature-based movie that you enjoyed. You can even share thoughts on ones you didn't enjoy. Design a newsletter via MailChimp and make your reports a monthly newsletter (two or three times over the course of the summer). You will find a good percentage of students respond in one way or the other, but even if they just open the newsletter, any interaction over the summer about the love of reading is a valuable interaction.

#5. Work with your local library to develop student-run volunteer programs. Create a program for your students to help run the sign-ups in your classroom so the public library doesn't have to do the legwork of registering volunteers. Provide peer helpers from your own pool of readers. I know my local library has middle schoolers come in during the summer as guides for the kids to learn how to use the library. 'Tweens also run the monthly crafts table. Create the outlet to continue being surrounded by books. So many students don't interact with books once the summer bell rings. Change their summer environment.

#6. Inform parents about their local Youth Writing Project. Much like a summer institute for teachers to hone their writing skills, the Youth Writing Project is a summer program with WP teachers at the helm to guide kids of all ages through innovative writing activities. It's writing camp! Check local college or university campuses for information on whether they are hosting a youth program this summer.

But is a Little "Slide" Really so Bad?

I think it's important to note here that while we would all clearly love to see kids retain every fact and skill ever taught from year to year, this is simply not a realistic expectation. Heck, I have to relearn the darn grading program every year as if I've never seen it before, and this sends our office manager into fits of eye rolling. Given that "slide happens" (perhaps that should be a bumper sticker), I'd like to make a case here for the necessity of a little slide and the need for summer break for those students.

For one thing, summer is important to get a different kind of education. It's the time for soccer camps, theater camps, debate camps, cooking camps. It's the time for building forts made out of branches between the hours of nine and three, for meeting other kids down the block, for reading the books you want to read, and for vacations in far off lands or in campgrounds in your own backyard. As a Facebook post I saw the other day claims, "A child only educated at school is an uneducated child."

Transference is a skill with which K-12 struggles overall. How do students transfer skills from one level to the next, even from one classroom to the next?

The answer comes with making school applicable to the outside world. But that will come, not with more time in a formal school setting; it will come when we all philosophically decide to articulate the skills that students must know in a way that they recognize as applicable to the real world.

Perhaps that's not happening and that's why kids go to their brain's computer and "empty trash" at the start of each summer. Or perhaps it's more about what we all do: take a break from learning one way and instead learn in another.

Perhaps the real goal here is to recognize and exploit the different lessons that have been learned over the summer months rather than condemning students or teachers for lessons seemingly lost. Incidentally, I don't think they've been lost, just packed away in a trunk somewhere for the new teacher to help unfold.

What are your thoughts and ideas on this post? Please share in the comments section below.

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