Rethinking/Rebranding “Back-to-School”

Last week, my wife and I were conversing about our “back-to-school” experiences as children. She reminisced about how she was so excited to go back to school. She elucidated her enthusiasm for meeting her new teacher and seeing her new classroom. She declared, “I couldn’t wait to meet my new teacher, see my new classroom, and see my new desk/seat!” She also recalled her excitement for back-to-school shopping. She would go back-to-school shopping with her entire family. She detailed her peculiar admiration for school supplies (special pencils, pretty-looking paper, extraordinary erasers, etc.) and how she loved these experiences and the back-to-school time of year.

For me, back-to-school was completely different. I was never excited about any of it. I wasn’t looking forward to meeting my new teacher. I was dreading my new seat in my new classroom. I loathed back-to-school shopping. In fact, I usually just handed my school supply list to my mom and she went to the store by herself and purchased everything. Interestingly, I have a feeling that my experience isn’t all that dissimilar compared to many kids, past and present.

I began to cogitate on the following: As educators, what can we do to ease the transition back into learning after summer break? I’m not talking about simply getting students excited about going back to school. I’m talking about getting students excited and prepared for re-engaging in cognitive activity. I’ve seen the back-to-school parades on youtube and twitter. I’ve seen entire school rallies with popular sports mascots encouraging students to “get back in the game”. I’ve seen schools begin the school year with field trips and field days in order to ease the transition. I’m sure those types of activities certainly have the potential to excite students about being present in school after the culmination of summer break. However, I see getting excited about simply being present back at school as different from getting students excited about re-engaging in learning.

I also thought about a typical response to my cogitation: Students should continue learning throughout the summer. Thus, if students continued learning all summer (by going to the library, experiencing museums, engaging in activities at day camps, etc.), re-engaging in learning once school started back up wouldn’t be such a shock to the system. I completely understand the validity in that notion. Yet, I try to think about the kids like me (and the kids worse off than me). It’s not that my parents didn’t help continue the learning journey throughout the summer. They did. I went to summer camps. My family and I traversed the plethora of museums throughout Illinois and beyond. At dinner time, we talked about all the fun stuff we did during the day. We engaged in continuous dialogue about world events. My parents encouraged me to read (though, don’t tell my mom, I rarely ever read anything over the summer). Put plainly, I simply did not care about re-engaging in learning, let alone being present back at school.

In addition, throughout my years in education, I’ve served students who did not engage in a single learning activity the entire summer. I assure you, this is not an isolated incident. Unfortunately, this happens everywhere, regardless of race/socioeconomic status/culture/etc.

Therefore, as educators (parents are educators, too), what do you do to get your students (or your children)/prepare your students (or your children) for re-engaging in learning? Have you seen a school/district successfully rethink/rebrand “back-to-school” to encourage the dive back into cognitive activity and not just garner excitement about being present back at school?

Any tips or tricks you’d like to share? Feel free to do so!

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School’s Out For Summer! That Doesn’t Mean Learning Should Stop. Help Prevent the “Summer Slide.”

“Summer slide” is the name given to the regression in learning that many students experience over the summer. The achievement damage resulting from a lack of academic activity that occurs during the summer months may go by other names, such as “summer loss,” “summer learning loss,” or “summer learning regression.” The name you give it doesn’t matter. Acknowledging that it exists and then actively doing something about it is what matters.

Every summer, we have students (and often, families of students) regressing because they are not actively involved in some type of worthwhile academic activity over the summer. What is more disheartening, summer slide has been shown to more negatively impact disadvantaged communities. In fact, some researchers decry summer slide as a contributing factor to the widening achievement gap between the rich and the poor.

The education of our students occurs around an agrarian calendar. Almost always has. Knowing that change in education (and changing the education system itself) is very hard, year round schooling is probably not a valid option at this point in time. However, we need not despair! According to many researchers, reading is essential for curtailing summer slide. Some research has shown that reading just six books (“just right books”) may help prevent regression. Other researchers suggest that providing students with opportunities to read something everyday (morning = newspaper; daytime = schedules, magazines, online articles, etc.; night = book, graphic novel) will do the trick. In addition, researchers have found that reading aloud over the summer is extremely important.

Whatever certain researchers may say/suggest, it seems clear that reading over the summer is important and may help prevent summer slide. This sounds like a forgone conclusion. However, as usual, this also sounds easier said than done. As just one example of a barrier that parents lament in response to their role in preventing summer slide, I know parents work over the summer (or have other obligations) and may not be able to partake in a family read aloud or help ensure that their child is reading everyday. However, if preventing summer slide is a priority (which I believe it should be), parents will find a way to help their children prevent learning regression over the summer. I heard a quote today from a fellow administrator/colleague that I really liked. She said (not verbatim), “Show me your calendar or your checkbook (account statement for those of us in the digital age) and I’ll be able to tell you what your priorities are with a fairly significant degree of accuracy.” Point being, if you make it a priority, it will happen.

There are so many community resources out there to help parents in this endeavor. Community libraries are always a huge resource over the summer. Many libraries have camps/programs that are dedicated to preventing summer slide. I’ve also read about “neighborhood read alouds,” where parents team up to help ensure reading is occurring in the community over the summer. I just saw an article about a program that invited kids to the local animal rescue so they could read to the animals (reading aloud). Parents, over the summer it’s up to you. Make it happen!

Have a safe and restful summer break full of reading (or other academic pursuits)!

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Safety in Our Schools: A Parent’s Poignant Question Regarding Erin’s Law

Last night, I had the pleasure of meeting Tom Kress. He will be presenting information concerning Erin’s Law to our entire district (parents, students, teachers, administrators, and other community members). His presentation was very informative. In addition, it was certainly geared towards his most important audience members: students.

Last night’s session was intended for parents and community members. Tom presents to parents and community members first in the event that a parent may wish to opt out his/her child from the school-wide presentation. Thankfully, it didn’t seem that any of our parents desired to do so.

After the presentation, Tom opened the floor for a Q & A session. A parent asked a question that rattled me all night and has stayed with me this morning as well. She asked, “Why aren’t training and informational sessions such as this [Erin’s Law training and informational sessions] mandated like other safety drills throughout the district/schools?” The parent was referring to tornado drills, fire drills, lockdown drills, etc. I began to cogitate on her inquiry. We have fire drills. We have tornado drills. We have lockdown drills. We constantly engage in other safety precautions and measures throughout the entire school year. It’s not that these measures aren’t important (especially from a preventative perspective). I’m not saying that these drills are not essential. Of course, anything that has the potential to keep our students safe is pivotal. However, we haven’t had a fire in years. We’ve never had a tornado. We do occasionally have external lockdowns (when something unsafe or potentially unsafe for students occurs within the city or community), but they are always resolved by the community police force. Yet, we have an abundance (unfortunately) of students who are the victims of sexual abuse. As a teacher, I had multiple students confess to me about sexual abuse they experienced. As an administrator, I’ve had teachers bring their concerns to me regarding potential abuse of students in their classrooms. Clearly, as a mandated reporter, I brought these concerns to the proper authorities. But, one can’t help but wonder about this reality.

In the room last night, a parent broke down and admitted to being the victim of sexual abuse as a child. She mentioned knowing others who were also victims of sexual abuse. If we work to keep our students safe at all times from ALL threats, isn’t sexual abuse training just as essential as the tornado drills, fire drills, and lockdown drills, especially considering that many of us teachers and administrators have actually had to navigate situations where children confide in us regarding some of their horrific experiences?

I encourage you to reflect on this parent’s question. Should we mandate and normalize sexual abuse training the same way we’ve mandated and normalized tornado drills, fire drills, and lockdown drills? In addition, should parents be able to opt their children out of training regarding sexual abuse? This is an issue that impacts so many and truly has the potential to alter the trajectory of a child’s/family’s life.

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