Friday, June 04, 2010

Question of the Day: Summer Projects

With summer approaching, lots of teachers are again debating the merits of summer projects.

In my experience, summer projects -- usually reading assignments with some sort of summative component graded by the teacher during the first week back -- are relatively unrevealing of a student's learning. They tend to be more of the 'proof you read the book' variety.

It seems that if you were really going to do an authentic summer project, you'd want to do something with a formative component. After all, it's not like we just give a kid a book during the school year and then test them on what they read three weeks later without ever talking about the story in the interim. So why give a student an assignment over the summer if the teacher isn't going to be there to assess understanding in an on-going way throughout the student's learning?

Unless of course, typical summer projects aren't really about learning.

Obviously, a virtual environment would offer students and teachers to meet throughout the summer. There students could ask the questions they are bound to have and engage in real-time in online discussions with their peers in learning. Of course, that would mean something of a summer commitment by the teacher, as well.

So, today's question: In a 24/7 connected world, should we require students to complete summer projects? And, if we do, should we require teachers to assess the projects on an ongoing formative basis throughout the summer?

I look forward to seeing where this conversation leads.


  1. I think the bigger question is how do we create a culture where teacher and student learners will naturally want to continue their learning over the summer?

  2. I loved my summers! That's when I dabbled in computer programming, other languages, and training horses. I flourished in the summer. There's something to be said for freedom. Yes, even freedom from certain communities and institutions. Disconnecting can be a good thing.

  3. The entire school - Kindergarten through 12 and every adult in the building will be reading Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson. It is published in a number of different ways - picture book, Middle Reader, memoir - and we will all be using it in different ways in our classes in the fall. We will all (4-12 and adults have school email) be getting Tea-mail this summer with ways to connect and talk about the book virtually as the summer progresses. I'm not sure what back to school book groups will look like, but I know they will be cross divisional and cross graded.

  4. When I was to be teaching AP Chemistry in the upcoming year, I had envisioned a learning unit with the primary mode of content delivery being vodcasts. Students would have to respond in both a qualitative way (via Voicethreads, for instance) and quantitative way (via online assessments through Moodle). I planned on creating a space (again, probably using Moodle) for real-time chatting, Q&A and discussion. The goal was to give my students a solid knowledge base with which to enter the harsh schedule and quick pace that is the AP Chem curriculum. Alas, since I'm no longer on the schedule to teach it (at least I don't think!) my vision for a meaningful summer assignment remains just that.

    My answer to both your questions is an emphatic yes. Learning should not take a break during the summertime, and teachers need to open to this. It's a shift in the thinking that will probably take a long time to occur.

  5. I'm not a fan of summer work. I don't think students give it the effort or time required and probably just do it last minute.

    I think we should give our students suggestions for fun things to do over the summer that are also educational or experiential. Telling them about local museums, fairs, activities, etc. (especially free or low cost) is great. Many may not know about them.

    For my AP Physics class, I give next year's students info on how to subscribe to the class blog, the URL for the class web site, and a few websites to go to, to get a feel for what we will be studying. These sites have demo's and videos of physics in action. There is no required homework and I've found that students do go to these sites and get excited about the topic.

    Just like teachers, students need the summer to recharge and reset their brains. But, if we can give them some "optional" things or fun ideas to do, we keep them thinking over the summer.

  6. Well, why not just have year-round school, then? Though, I'm not sure if that is a great option since in big cities lots of kids take necessary gainful employment during the summer.

    I'm all for enrichment programs, where kids come together in different environments for various learning programs, but I don't like the idea of forcing kids to use virtual learning environments without guaranteeing that every single child had access to a computer with internet access.

    It's important to think about the different situations that kids are living in. Some are urban poor, some are rural poor, some are urban rich, some are suburban well-off, etc. No state will be able to enact a program with public funds that doesn't allow equal access to each child. That's what they try to do with regular schools, and that job is running the coffers dry in many places.

    I'd rather see summers used for service projects and self-guided learning/reading. We have a literacy crisis to combat. Summer is a great time to work on that. Libraries would make good sites for this sort of work, but it will be extremely hard to mandate it.

  7. We should absolutely not require summer work. Kids need to play and work at summer jobs. Not be stuck in the house. Teachers too!

  8. @Will

    I think year-round school could help create that culture. But by "year round school", I don't mean "going to school year round".

    Rather, and this gets into @Aaron's concern, I think the current school week itself needs a serious overhaul. I'd like to see days and places scheduled in a completely different way. Hybrid f2f/online learning could open up time for students to take part in paid internships, meaningful work assignments, and community service (we'd need a buy-in from the public and private work sectors to make that a reality).

    Further, we should use mobile to our advantage and get kids out of the classroom and into museums, parks, canoes, aquariums -- not as "field trips", but as regularly scheduled "field learning" not unlike what happens at a museum school.

    Lastly, the re-distribution of time could mean year-round learning, but less time each day sitting in desks. Traditional school-day schedules would have to be altered, perhaps rather than studying many subjects each day, different days could be dedicated to different content. The link between days would be in addressing multiple literacies across content areas.

    Thinking out loud,

  9. @Rebecca

    I agree that "freedom to dabble" is a good thing. Perhaps a bit of direction for many kids would lead to more effective dabbling.


    I really like the idea of everybody from K-12 sharing in an experience like that. I'm not a fan of grade levels; I prefer students of all ages working together.

    I've definitely felt like I needed more (and better) time to meet the demands of AP curricula. And it's not that the AP curricula in and of itself is too hard to get through, but rather that the AP curricula if anything tends to be too limited to really take on a serious broach of a subject (in my case it was Art History and Latin) -- I always wanted more time to teach the stuff beyond the curriculum that I thought the students would best respond to and learn from.

    I really like the idea of giving students sort of a scavenger hunt for the summer. ie -- As you are out and about this summer, shoot a few pics: the inside of the public library; your library card; you at the art museum; you exploring the woods... etc.

  10. All of my students groan when they hear "summer reading" because they view it as a punishment. So do I.

    I am completely against the traditional summer assignment. Instead of encouraging a love of learning or reading, they yet again force students to read books they are not interested in and force them to complete an uncreative writing task.

    Why can't we allow them to choose a book they actually want to read and then find a way to connect it to an academic theme? Give students a chance to pursue a topic they are actually interested in and they will pursue it with vigor.

  11. I taught my horse to bow in three days. Three whole days - hours upon hours. No adult encouraged me in that. Thank God no adult stopped me. If someone would have told me, "Hey, go teach your horse to bow," I don't think I would have done it for them. Not that I was rebellious but I had an internal goal and the rewards were only seen and known by me. I can't remember the little steps that it took to get IBN from "picking up his hoof," which he did when I touched his leg and pushed with my shoulder so that I could clean his hooves, to actually bending one leg and putting his head and body to the ground. But, it wasn't until Psychology 101 that I learned that the big task and all the little steps to get there actually had fancy names. So, that free time where kids just play or out of boredom come up with a goal - even when the adults see NO value in it - will mold their brains or their intellect for future learning: get it ready to understand bigger concepts or to one day finally smack a fancy name on something they KNOW. Does that make sense? I think that unfettered play is so important to intellectual development. Boredom has a purpose. If a teacher would have stopped me for "school" I would have been disgusted. Summer is freedom and freedom is GOOD. (My parents were both teachers.)

    Just taking initiative should have value even if the activity is not deemed valuable or have academic value to an adult...

    I'm not a kid anymore so I wonder why I feel defensive about my summers. We can all laugh at that.

  12. @Steph

    I like the idea of letting kids decide on a book... or a movie, or music, or a TV show, or a website, or a computer game. There are a ton of options.


    I follow what you mean. The random learning that comes out of being a kid is extremely powerful.

    That said, not all kids have a horse; and for some kids, "summer freedom" means being in a more oppressive situation than they are in school.

  13. I'm sure every kid has a "horse." It may be a Ford Mustang or a dirt bike or a sketch pad and a pencil...

    If you are saying that kids need a safe-haven, even in the summer, that is a bit different than extending "school" into the home and over the summer break. Not every kid is at risk. I enjoyed my sacred time of self-discovery and rejuvenation of autonomy.

  14. Admittedly, I wasn't a great student. So, summers for me were more rewarding and offered more choices for "success." Activities outside of school brought me more joy because I wasn't a great student. That's something to consider too. Not everyone is at risk and not everyone finds their confidence and value in school-work. But, a saturated sponge doesn't absorb more because you keep pouring water on it. D=

  15. @ Rebecca

    I'd like to hope every kid has a "horse"; I hope at least every kid wants a "horse". But there are many kids who don't even know what a "horse" is. Or who think that their "horse" is no good. It's a long summer for those kids.

    As I mentioned to @Will above, I'm not really thinking about "extending" school into the home for summer break; I'd much rather completely get rid of the conceptual model that school schedules currently fall into and change it radically using field-experiences, internships, mobile learning, and a fundamental alteration of our concept of what constitutes a "school day".

    Because I don't think kids just have "self-discoveries and rejuvenation" in two-month spurts in the summer time. And I think if you really want to get at autonomy, you must change the industrialized aspects of a one-size-fits-all school schedule.


  16. I'm all for year round learning but not necessarily in school. Why couldn't the students keep a running account of their summer activities and report on what they are learning each week?
    I am sure we could take many of their experiences and turn them into 'learning' opportunities, even just to go back and discuss what took place and what decisions were made and why, or how it could have gone differently.

    By the way, I'm taking the CS4HS Google sponsored program the week of 6-13 in Charleston SC. Has anyone every been to one?

  17. This is a great question! I have to admit that growing up I hardly ever read the summer reading and always went to the bookstore and got the cliff notes! As a 2nd grade teacher, I would like my kids to read and write over the summer to maintain the skills that they learned with me, but I would also like them to have a choice and be motivated! One thing that I do is write my students or send them postcards and encourage them to write me back. Often I will send stamped, addressed envelopes to ensure that they all have an opportunity to send me a letter. This is motivating as kids love to get mail and communicate with their teacher. In addition, the kids are reading and writing which are the 2 things I want them to do most, other than have fun outside and relaxing! Another idea is through email and blogging. I do realize that all of my students do not have easy access to computers, so this cannot be the sole means of communication, however, it can be an additional way for students to write and read what I have written as well as what others have written. For example: I will be posting a picture on my purple martin blog tomorrow of a bird nest that is being built in one of the pods. I am not quite sure what kind of bird is building it, so I have asked for opinions of my followers. This open ended opportunity is motivating. Some students may choose to research, while others may reflect back on what was taught in science and make an inference. Once again I realize that all of my kids may not access the blog, so I will probably send out a newsletter with photographs. This may take a little extra work on my part, but I want any educational activites in the summer to be motivating and fun! So I guess I would have to say I am not for mandatory, specific summer projects, but I am for maintaining and practicing skills in authentic situations!

  18. By definition we are learning all the time. We learn as we sleep. We are saying that we want to make sure that whatever learning happens outside of school that it should conform to some narrow standards? Or be directed by an outside force?

    If you take something someone loves and you force a lesson around it - it won't be loved for long.

    There needs to be more real life hands on learning in the schools not more schooling in real life experiences.

  19. This is something that I'm currently having mixed emotions about. Our district recently instituted a summer reading initiative like the one described. I believe that we need to provide choice for children & in today's world it should be across media. I really like your idea of having a blog set up so that the learning is more authentic & facilitated.

  20. I agree with you Rebecca! We are always learning and sometimes the best learning takes place when you least expect it! Young children should be encouraged to visit their local zoo, library, or park and explore the learning opportunities that exist. We just need to help children explore what is important to them and encourage them to become life long learners outside of the school environment.

  21. I add a comment fromt he stand point of a 1st grade teacher, I see validity in reading over the summer to keep skills sharp (and avoid the summer slide). Having that discussion point at the start of school helps with focused instruction at a time where teaching routines and rules is so important! I can see where that may be more beneficial to change as the children grow and advance in their learning.


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