How to Make the Most of Summer

Posted by Michael Zavada - 15 June, 2017

IMG_3640.jpgThe summer of 2013, as we rolled out a redesigned Randolph summer program, I had to pinch myself. My daughter Collette had just finished kindergarten. I had a mental picture of her spending the previous summer chasing butterflies in the backyard. Now that she was a rising 1st grader, who could read and write, I was in a different place. Her education had truly begun.  Her summer rightfully needed to take on a slightly different shape as we continued to nurture her love of learning. In this frame of mind, I found myself feeling a certain pressure to find the best enrichment opportunities for her.

Like every parent, I was weighing factors like cost, time, experience and skill of the instructor. How much fun would my daughter have if she enrolled? Would she be better served by an art course or one directed toward math? Would she have more fun at softball or cheer? Would too many courses be too much of a good thing? Or, alternatively, could just one week be enough? The last thing I wanted was my mental picture of the summer to be of Collette lying on the couch watching the Disney Channel for hours on end.

As I compared what I was anticipating for my daughter, I found myself answering the questions my team had posed as we had researched and redesigned Randolph’s summer program.

Here are the issues we wrestled with as we worked to design the best possible program for the community:

  • Should summer mean the end of learning?
  • Should summer be carefree or can children benefit from some balance and structure?
  • How might parents and schools partner to incorporate the much-needed downtime recommended by renowned child psychologists like Dan Kindlon and Rob Evans while still providing desirable enrichment opportunities?
  • What does new brain research tell us about how a summer should be spent?

This was some of the research behind our program.

To the question “Is it important to continue learning during the summer?” the obvious answer is yes. After all, Randolph at its core promotes lifelong learning, so why should we think any differently about our summers? Additionally, we came across significant research about the dreaded "Summer Learning Gap."

The Summer Learning Gap is a somewhat ominous term for the loss of learning gains made by students, particularly in schools where high-stakes testing is emphasized to ascertain the status of the school. Several studies suggest there is indeed a "summer learning gap" whereby students lose the gains they have made during the school year by taking two-and-a-half months off in the summer. However, most of these studies looked at populations different from the student body at Randolph and most of the surrounding public schools in Huntsville.

2012-09-22 15.39.39Another question that came up was “What does a balanced summer look like for children?" We thought about how we could partner with parents to incorporate a balanced lifestyle during the summer. Randolph spends significant time planning and working toward the balance between the arts, athletics and academic areas, so we wanted to carry that over to the summer.

In 2012, the School brought child psychologists Dan Kindlon and Rob Evans to campus to discuss the need for more balance in the lives of students at excellent schools like Randolph. Both suggested that parents and schools need to be careful to provide much-needed downtime for students.

One danger, they submitted, that exists in schools like Randolph is that we attempt to fill every moment of time, never allowing students an opportunity to catch their collective breath. If there is a hole, we immediately try to fill it.

This is one of the reasons Randolph consolidated camps for the month of June. Likewise, this is one of the reasons Randolph continues the option of taking just single classes during our summer program, rather than offering only full-day options. Finding the right balance between free time and organized activities will vary from child to child. As parents, it is important to help our children find that balance.

In addition to the studies about the learning gap, we also looked at brain research. Randolph’s faculty had read John Medina’s Brain Rules. Medina suggests that a “summer off” is a bad idea because of the way the brain formats information for later retrieval. Medina explains his fantasy “school of the future” would not have summers off so that information could be processed more slowly during the school year with more periods of review during the day and every couple of weeks (pp. 143-145). While we were not ready to jump to the year-round school approach Medina champions, we did see that some connections in between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next would be wise. We felt that our summer offerings for the month might just be the ticket to keep these connections charged.

It is important to create learning environments in the summer that allow for innovation. With no set curricula to cover, our teachers are free to explore new areas of interest and different methods of instruction. The summer classroom then becomes a laboratory of innovation for both students and teachers. And since the added blessing of summer is time, students and teachers have the opportunity to learn about things they only had a chance to encounter during the school year or try things they would not have a chance to do from August to May.

wizardryOur faculty are, in fact, the critical component in the summer program. We felt that the Randolph summer program would not represent a true Randolph experience unless our faculty members were the prime camp instructors. For faculty, summer offers the opportunity to combine outside interests with their core subject areas in the spirit of innovation.

In sum, Randolph offers camps in arts, athletics and academic enrichment, enabling students to keep learning, playing, and growing. It is the perfect place to bridge the summer learning gap and to continue the promotion of lifelong learning in an invigorating atmosphere. We hope that your child will join us to discover more this summer than they would on the couch or in a traditional summer classroom setting. They can do this all in Randolph’s fine facilities and engage with our excellent faculty in full-day/full-week opportunities or single course options throughout June. 

Whether or not your child goes to camp, family time is the best investment you can make. For all the benefits of summer enrichment and development programs, what children will benefit from the most  is family time, including reading together, taking trips to the library, and talking. So whatever else you do this summer, be sure to do some things together. 

The following research articles and books were resources for this post:

Alexander, Karl L., Entwisle, Doris R and Steffel-Olson, Linda. "The Lasting Consequences of the Summer Learning Gap." The American Sociological Review. Vol. 72, No. 2, Apr., 2007.

Heyns, Barbara. "Schooling and Cognitive Development: Is There a Season for Learning." Society for Research in Child Development. Vol. 58, No. 5, Oct., 1987.

Medina, John, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School. Seattle: Pear Press, 2008. Chapter 6: “Long Term Memory.”

Mike Zavada originally wrote this post for us while he was Randolph's K-8 Athletic Director (2006-2013). While he is no longer involved in the program, the work he did still shapes our program today. In addition to his duties in that role, Mike also taught U.S. History and Speech, directed the Randolph Summer Program and coached basketball and golf.  Prior to coming to Randolph, Mike was an Instructor of History and Basketball coach at Punahou, the nation's largest independent school.  After Randolph, Mike became the Middle and Upper School Principal at Trinity Presbyterian School in Montgomery, where he currently leads.  He also maintains active involvement in helping SAIS school leaders grow as an accreditation chair and as a regular contributor and presenter at SAIS functions.  Mike is married to fellow educator Pamela and they have three children, Collette (10), Zeke (8), and Wyatt (6), who all attend Trinity.  You can find links to Mike's interests and writings on Twitter @MikeZavada.

Photos: Mike Zavada and family, 2013; Kelley Wolfe at the Summer Learning Expo, Spring 2013; potion-mixing at Hogwarts: The Journey Continues!, Summer 2017, by Kelley "Dumblewolfe" Wolfe

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