George Lucas Educational Foundation
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As we glide through the month of May, I know that many teachers and students are steadily dreaming of how to spend their summer vacations. Some will be off to sleep-away camp, some will travel to faraway places, and many others are still trying to figure it out. But for many families, the summer will also bring a level of anxiety. In the age of budget cuts, the opportunities for quality programs and government subsidized summer jobs will be few and far between. According to the National Summer Learning Association, many low-income and underserved students will face two to three months' summer learning loss in reading and math, while affluent and better resourced students may show slight gains in reading over the summer because of their access to summer enrichment.

What does this mean?

It means that the kids with the least access to educational resources and high-quality teachers during the school year are at great risk of forgetting many of the things they've spent the last nine months learning. The cumulative effect leaves our most vulnerable students of falling further behind with each passing school year.

Tools to Fight Learning Loss

The challenges that emerge are even more evident when one considers the dearth of structured, low-cost academic summer activities for kids in middle school and beyond. Luckily, groups like the Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF) are working to change all that. This summer, we will once again be providing our middle school students with an academic summer camp that is aimed not only at reducing the summer learning loss gap, but also positioning students to be ahead of the game when they return to school in the fall. As one student told me, "I complained about going to HEAF during the summer at first, but then when I got back to school, I kept raising my hand when others were stumped. I felt proud to be ahead of the class." Here are a few ways that we keep the kids coming back.

1) Thematic Approach

While we offer standards-based instruction in math and English language arts, we also work to develop a summer learning theme that engages both sides of the brain and requires problem-solving skills. Students write about math and use numbers to answer questions in ELA. In a testing culture, natural application of learning can sometimes be diminished, but we understand that these skills are vital to future academic and career success.

2) Collaboration with Kids

Young people are important players in our summer planning. Each year we ask the kids what they're curious about and what they wish they could learn more about in school. As a result, we've offered everything from Japanese to Green Urban Planning.

3) Everybody Out of Their Seat

We are wholly committed to project-based learning that has kids out of their seats and requires them to expand the classroom to the city itself.

Do Try This at Home

If you don't have the resources to launch a summer program in your community, make sure you arm parents with some great advice for keeping kids stimulated.

1) Summer Reading

Work with teachers across grades to establish a summer reading list for the entire school. To keep kids thinking, you might ask them to rewrite the beginning or ending of a book; write an autobiographical essay using the voice of a less prominent character in a book; or make a smart phone movie with friends that features characters from one of their assigned books. Don't just ask them to write about the book. Use summer reading as an opportunity to develop decoding, inference and critical thinking skills.

2) Scavenger Hunt

Most museums and zoos have at least one free or lost-cost day that families can take advantage of. Develop a "scavenger hunt" that brings families into these cultural institutions and provides them an opportunity to fully explore art and science in new and exciting ways.

3) Flash Cards

Yes, I know that in this modern age good old flash cards might seem antiquated, but daily review of basic math facts will go a long way in helping students to stave off summer learning loss. And throw in a few word problems while you're at it. You might even want to feature characters from students' summer reading list in those word problems just for good measure.

4) Current Events/Media

Assign some kind of research project or campaign-related activity that requires kids to create a visual and written journal of election year activities during the summer, when political conventions begin to dominate the news cycle. Have students present their reports at a publishing party in the fall.

Finally, there are a host of websites -- some teacher driven, some parent driven -- that offer all kinds of ideas to keep your kids on track each summer. So get out there and keep the learning going all year long.

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Comments (5) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Mary Madsen's picture
Mary Madsen
Marketing & Media at Bellevue University

This is such an under-discussed, essential topic. There is a considerably stark difference between children and youth who participate in active learning engagement throughout their breaks as opposed to those who do not.

This reminds of me of an item discussed in our behavioral science program. With so many devices thinking for us the last thing we should do is completely shut off active learning throughout long periods like summer breaks.

Great article on this here:

Danielle Moss Lee's picture
Danielle Moss Lee
Chief Executive Officer of the YWCA of the City of New York

Thank you for your comment and the link. I've been a bit surprised by the number of educators who feel it's "unfair" to assign summer homework. I've never thought of learning as punishment or communicated that summer assignments were punishment to my students. We need to do more to change our orientation on this issue. Learning can and should be fun!

Natasha Ricketts's picture
Natasha Ricketts
High School English Teacher from Pittsburgh, PA

It is sad that there is such an educational gap in America. It is also sad that this gap can be directly related to opportunity. It does not surprise me that under-served children lose a large percentage of their knowledge base to the lack of summer enrichment. For my students I give out summer reading lists and I count it when they come back to school. I also spend time tutoring my students over the summer. I feel that these are small steps that I try to take in order to better serve my students.

Jeryn's picture
Mom to three beautiful girls

this summer we are touring America - virtually! We created a website so parents and kids all over the country can follow our adventures. Join us!

Ellen Z.'s picture
Ellen Z.
Reading Specialist from Hellertown, PA

Danielle, your list of suggested activities are excellent. We tried the scavenger hunt at The Allentown Art Museum in Allentown, PA. Every Sunday the admission is free, and they even provide children with sheets that have a painting to go and look for! It was a great time.

My kids and I also tried a wonderful website this summer called Cubert's Cube. Cubert's Cube is a site that makes writing a whole lot of fun. Your child will not suffer from writer's block one bit, since they have built in story-starters which are game-like and interactive. It's a great activity for a group too. The whole family can get in on the act, since multiple people can work on the same story. The website is Wiki based, and is quick and easy to use. My kids also enjoyed the "gallery feature." In the gallery, they could draw a picture or upload a graphic to illustrate their tales. It is a secure website where you can set the privacy level to protect your children's identities.

As a Reading teacher, I found the extra writing really benefits their language development. On the website they can publish their work too, which really is the beauty of an Internet tool like this. Since they not only get to explore the writing process, but they also get the chance at seeing their work published.

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