Summer learning activities, especially those for students who struggled or whose learning lagged over the past year, present multiple challenges. The students will likely be experiencing the effects of what was a frustrating and less-than-successful year. Consequently, enthusiasm for learning may wane. They are also giving up a significant portion of their summer to engage in what they may not see as fun. As adults, we too may feel the exhaustion of a difficult and less-than-satisfying year. We may not be looking forward to spending more weeks teaching when we feel the need for rest and rejuvenation.
Still, building and supporting the learning of these students are crucial and urgent tasks. We need to do all that we can to have students be prepared to succeed when school begins again in the fall. If they are left to fall farther behind learning expectations now, the consequences will likely be long-term; maybe even lifelong.
Yet, there is little reason to expect that repetition of what was less than successful during the year will be more successful in the summer. We need to find strategies and approaches that can offer better learning hope for students and a measure of leverage, support, and relief for our instructional efforts. Simply pressing harder will not be enough.
Sometimes, the solutions to problems we face emerge when we look at the problem from another perspective. For example, trying to convince someone to shift their thinking can be more successful when we stop arguing and start listening. Our dilemma for summer learning may also be eased by thinking about the challenge from a different perspective.
We know that learning is a social activity. Relationships matter. Yet, most students spent the past year learning in relative isolation. We know that engaging with peers can lessen feelings of anxiety and lead students to take learning risks with and learn from others. We also know that students sometimes feel more open and at ease with adults other than the teacher in the classroom who holds authority and requires accountability from them.
We can engage these learning “levers” in a variety of ways to shift our practice and provide instructional variety, offer new support options, and support new learning. Here are four potential strategies from which you can draw to craft your approach.
First, consider forming study teams within your class. We know that when students study and learn together, their learning often accelerates. Unfortunately, for most students this strategy becomes routine only when they are in college and need to rely on each other to learn complex content. At first, you may need to spend time helping students to form productive groups and learn how to leverage each other’s learning. If students experienced learning pods during the past year, they may have a base of experience on which you can build. Regardless, the payoff can be significant as students study, problem-solve, complete tasks and even engage in some assessments together. Equally important, you will be teaching students a strategy that can support their learning for a lifetime.
Second, consider pairing your students with others who are older or younger for cross-age tutoring, practice, and reinforcement. If you are teaching older students who need to practice and solidify skills that were introduced in earlier grades, explaining and practicing the skills with younger students can be a powerful learning experience and confidence builder. If you are teaching younger students who need motivation and encouragement, having older students give attention and support to their learning can provide a strong motivational boost.
Third, consider recruiting students who may be interested in teaching as a career to work with students who need attention and support. We do not have to limit our recruitment to older students. They just need to be interested in service and possess adequate academic skills to support the learning of your students. When these students form relationships and share their enthusiasm, the impact can be substantial. You will be providing your students with learning support while also providing experience to and feeding the vision of potential future educators.
Fourth, consider enlisting the support of retired adults from the community. Many retired adults spent the past year in isolation and feeling purposeless. They are also among the population most likely to be vaccinated. The opportunity to engage with young people and support their learning can be compelling. Students, too, may value these relationships. Local senior centers and adult living communities are good places to contact. The adults may need some guidance, but even if they spend their time listening to students read and hearing students explain processes for solving math problems, the benefits will be far more than worth the effort.
The past year has been trying like few others. It has been exhausting. However, renewal can take a variety of forms. Sometimes, making changes to our routine and trying new approaches can provide us with the energy and renewed motivation to carry us through—and even help us to thrive.