While many consider “summer school” to be an oxymoron, it can actually provide wonderful opportunities for students, staff and schools given the right mindset and support. In this article I will share my experience with summer learning and the opportunities to prevent the “summer slide,” pilot new programs and support transitions.
Positive Pilot Programs
The 2017-18 school years was my first year as the elementary school principal at the Thai Chinese International School (TCIS) located in Bangkok, Thailand. In addition to working with elementary school, I was also the summer school administrator. In the U.S. I had been a founding teacher for a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) middle school program. The program had been successful with students. In my view, one measure of success is students are both challenged and having fun. Based on the success of this program, and my reflections on my first year with elementary school, I thought it would be a great opportunity to introduce STEM in our summer program. As an American curriculum school located in Bangkok we, along with U.S. schools, would be making the transition to NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) and thus we would be required to rethink not only what we were teaching, but how we would teach it.
Rather than a complete NGSS rollout in the fall, we decided to pilot different resources, activities and lessons in our summer school program. The teachers who taught summer school could then be resources to other teachers who would implement NGSS in the fall. As it turned out, parents also had concerns about STEM, as it was quite new to them. Piloting the STEM summer program on a small scale allowed us to make mistakes, learn from them and adapt quickly. This meant a more effective rollout in the fall thanks to the effort that went into our pilot program and our teachers who led the way.
Preventing Summer Slide
It’s often cited that during summer, students regress in their learning. By going to summer school this academic slide can be prevented and allow students to start the fall at the same level or even above the level they were working at in the spring. That said, it is summer after all, so the learning needs to be engaging and hands-on for students.
The STEM program was perfect for this. While we included plenty of reading and writing during the summer program, we also offered many hands-on science projects, demonstrations and experiments. Students built rockets, websites, water wheels and more. They worked in groups to create, build and investigate. Given most of the students in our summer program were learning English as a second or third language, these activities helped them connect to the books they were reading and the papers they were writing.
In addition to these lessons, we had spirit days, flexible recess and half-day options. For students who wanted to stay in the afternoon we offered language classes, robotics and sports. The students continued to be immersed in language, learning and community. And this community aspect leads to my final point.
Getting ready for fall
In our STEM summer program, students and parents had the option to “reach ahead.” This meant that students would enroll in their fall grade for the summer program. For students who struggled with school, this was a perfect opportunity to have some early exposure to the next year’s curriculum and get a bit of a head start. Or, they could stay in their current grade and strengthen specific skills. Either way, it eased the transition into the next grade for many of our students.
In addition to supporting current students, we found that new students especially benefited from summer school. These students, and their families, had an opportunity to meet new friends, meet the teachers, and learn their way around campus. For our youngest students (2-3 year olds) these transitions away from mom and dad can be quite challenging emotionally. Naturally it took these young students, who were experiencing school for the first time, time to adapt during the summer but they were all happy to see their new friends and teachers once they returned in August. Starting the year on such a welcoming and positive note was a special, albeit unexpected benefit, of our summer learning program.
As I reflected on my own experience with summer school, I felt as though it was what school was meant to be. Our summer program was a place to make mistakes as we tried new things, reflected and moved forward together. The lessons were hands-on and engaging and we didn’t even have grades. We did not use school bells; teachers moved throughout the day taking breaks and transitioning activities based on the needs of the students. We had a full hour for lunch and started a bit later than in the normal school year. Students could stay half the day or all day depending on their needs and the goals and schedules of the parents. We were a small community working together to best serve our students and support our community. I learned, or was reminded, of these best practices and was inspired to continue many of these practices for the fall term.
For my fellow educators, I encourage you to embrace summer school as an incubator for innovation. An opportunity to start small, fail fast and move forward with practices that most positively impact learning in your community.
For parents, I would encourage you to find summer programs which allow students to find the joy in school so learning can become a lifelong habit and not something done simply for a grade or a job. Summer can be a time to learn, as well as a time to inspire creativity and spark imagination so students are energized for the fall term.
Summer school – it’s really not an oxymoron. Given the right mindset and support it can be a model for best practices, an innovation opportunity and a source of pride for your community.
About the Author
Betsy Fitch is the Elementary School and Summer School Principal for the Thai-Chinese International School (TCIS) in Bangkok, Thailand. Before joining TCIS Dr. Fitch was an educator in San Jose, California in the Oak Grove School District for sixteen years. In California, Dr. Fitch taught kindergarten-grade 8, was a founding teacher for the Indigo Parent Participation Program, a founding teacher for the AdVENTURE STEM Middle School Program, and a principal for Taylor Elementary School. She earned her master’s degree and her doctorate degree at San Jose State University and her MBA at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.