Monday, June 13, 2011

Should we Break for Summer?

              As a public school teacher, I heard teachers and parents both dread the summer months.  Businesses in the United States are open all summer, some exclusively for summer months.  “These students/my child will lose everything they learned!”  I heard that lament multiple times, and there frequently was some truth to it.  So, my question is, should we break for summer?
              First, let’s look at the problem.  If students stop working for the summer, the fear is that the lack of daily review will cause the child to backslide in their abilities.  Textbook writers recognize this.  A very popular math program – Saxon math – has designed the first eleven weeks – yes, almost 3 months – to review skills from the previous year.   Students who had been behind in reading skills the previous year, after a long summer break, return to school and are unable to do the work which they could complete only a few months before.  In fact, some students seem to be right back where they began!  Some teachers and parents try to counteract this problem by sending home additional work.  However, as a teacher, I know that I would spend an average of three hours standing at a copier every May, making copies of papers which I felt would be useful for my students to review.  I would also empty out my file cabinet of papers which we completed throughout the year, which I had copied too many duplicates of, and I would offer them to students who wanted them.  After all this work and effort on my part, however, most students would not complete the packets which I so meticulously prepared.  Many of those who claimed to complete them were very quick to announce that no one at home ever helped them or corrected their paper, so they ended up just writing answers, and it really didn’t matter if they were right or wrong – not exactly the purpose for which they were copied.  Some schools are going to “Year-round school.”  This does not mean that the children go more days – simply that the breaks are spread out through the year instead of having such a long summer.  However, this greatly affects summer-working students and teachers.  While it’s nice to have a 3 week break in December and January, it’s hard to get a job to cover only that amount of time. I have not even addressed businesses that depend on summer – namely amusement parks and swimming pools – whose loss of income during that earlier break affects the local economy.  That puts us back to the original question:  Should we break for summer?
              Some people say that yes, the break over summer is necessary.  After working for 9 – 10 months, children need time to simply relax.  Older children should be able to hold a summer job.  Families should be able to take vacations, without having to remove their child from the classroom.  While there is some loss of skills, most children are generally back up to “speed” fairly quickly and ready to go on with the new learning, this time much more refreshed by the time off. 
              Others say that no, summer breaks were only for agricultural societies, so the children could help out on the family farm, and that is not a part of today’s America.  They say that breaks should be shorter in duration and less frequent so that the children have a better chance to remember what they have learned the previous school year.  Businesses that depend on vacationing children just need to adjust and hire students when they are out and have activities for them when it fits into the published school schedule.  In fact, many who subscribe to this point of view say that schools need to add days.   Businesses don’t get that many days off, so the children should not, either.
              Let me explain my opinion on this subject.  I think that both sides have a point.  Children are children, and they do need a break that adults don’t necessarily need, so they do need a period of time to just relax.  On the other hand, there can be a great deal of loss when children return from a long summer break.   One of the biggest problems with our school system is that elementary ages do not teach age appropriate skills, which means that the skills which are taught the previous year are easy to forget because they weren’t really learned in the first place.  Not learning these basic skills in the elementary ages affects the children in Middle and High school.  In our homeschool, I am finding that learning is becoming a way of life, and we can’t just “turn it off.”  One skill Babygirl learned this year was to count backwards from larger numbers.  Since this is appropriate for her, she finds ways to review these skills herself.  She will watch the microwave and ask for help on higher numbers that she is not strong on, but she does it without being asked because it is what she is ready to learn.  She recently got very upset with a neighbor’s two year old who colored in her dot-to-dot book (we connect the dots backwards to develop this skill).  A child who is simply assigned to do something s/he is not ready for will not care if someone destroys their copied worksheet – they may, in fact, later thank the child.  I plan on teaching more in projects next year, with my daughter doing as much of the research work as she is able.  Those projects will be on hold this summer, though we will still continue taking field trips and trips to the library on a regular basis.
              In my opinion, long breaks are necessary.  As Jean Piaget says, “Children are not just little adults.”  They do need more breaks than adults do not need.  If the work is age appropriate (particularly in elementary ages), then the children will not have as much loss for the beginning of the next year, because they will have truly learned them the previous year.  After a brief review, the teacher should be able to continue with the new skills.  Whether or not summer breaks are kept, children should still be allowed to be children and they should be allowed to explore the world around them.

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