In August 2006, we asked our readers about after-school programs: Should after-school activities be an extension of the school day and include structured, academic components? Or do students need less structure and more time to relax after school?
Both, poll respondents said. With 445 and 441 votes, respectively, results were nearly equal.
The reason for the virtual tie? Most said extending the school day with structured, academic activities could be fun and that academics need not be mutually exclusive. As one respondent put it, "Why not a combination of the two schools of thought?" Students can certainly benefit from structured after-school programs, many reported, particularly if they incorporate learning and academics. But, according to the opposition, these programs should never be an extension of the regular school day.
"After school should be an opportunity for students and teachers to explore different and exciting material," wrote one respondent, "not the same old thing."
"How much time do we need to devote to classroom academic learning?" asked another. "Most students have absorbed as much as they can possibly handle at the end of the regular school day and, most likely, will not gain any additional knowledge in an extended classroom setting."
In fact, some respondents suggested, the necessary difference in structure between school and after-school learning might be the key to improving academic performance, as "the point of after-school programs is not to provide more instructional time, but to provide an opportunity that makes the other school time more effective."
This can happen, some argued, even with after-school activities that are not tied to a specific academic standard or goal; in other words, informal learning can be the door to lifelong learning. "By allowing schools to offer a variety of nonacademic experiences," one commenter wrote, "we help balance the students' perception of what education encompasses, develop their self-esteem, and reinforce the value of informal learning," which can, in turn, support the acquisition of more formal learning during the school day.
At Edutopia, we're keeping our eyes peeled for successful after-school programs: those that -- as many of you suggest they should -- combine educational content with exciting hands-on and social activities that are as engaging for students as the traditionally "extracurricular" ones. In the Edutopia article, "A New Learning Day," Lucy Friedman, president of the After-School Corporation, describes successful programs as ones that "may not look like learning" because, through activities such as cooking classes, robotics teams, or poetry clubs, they use "stealth learning."
The concept is simple: Start with something engaging, and students will learn. The effectiveness can be surprisingly far reaching. A new study from the Chapin Hall Center for Children, at the University of Chicago, found that students who participated in the City of Chicago's After School Matters program -- which didn't have specific ties to what they were studying in school -- had better attendance, better grades, and higher graduation rates. And one poll respondent described a successful program at her school, suggesting that "kids want to stay after school to get help and move ahead" in large part "because of the structure and fun involved."
Still, it's no easy task bringing these ideas to fruition. How do we go about implementing a program that neither extends the school day nor relinquishes an opportunity for learning? As a respondent to a more recent poll indicated, the greatest obstacle to maintaining successful after-school programs can be "producing and implementing programs that are enriching and educational, but that are also fun and don't seem like a repeat of school."
Suggestions or comments, as always, are appreciated.
Fun While Learning After School: A Resource Roundup
"Fine Tuning: Art and Music in the Afternoon" (Edutopia.org)
"Pen Pals: 826's Volunteer Writing Coaches" (Edutopia.org)
"Like Technology?: Join the Club!" (Edutopia.org)
"After the Bell: Time for Fun and Learning" (Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory)
"Science by Stealth: How After-School Programs Can Nurture Young Scientists and Boost the Country's Scientific Literacy" (The After School Corporation)
"Fun Ways to Learn After School" (Harvard Gazette)
"Discovering the Math and Science All Around Us: After School and Informal Learning" (Technical Education Research Centers)
"Afterschool Training Toolkit" (National Partnership for Quality Afterschool Learning, Southwest Educational Development Laboratory)
Fun Literacy Activities for After School Programs: Books and Beyond (Sue Edwards and Kathleen Martinez; published by School Age Notes)
Sara Bernard is a former staff writer and multimedia producer for Edutopia.