Column: Keep their minds and bodies engaged in wonder

Joe Nathan
Joe Nathan

“Keep their minds and bodies engaged in wonder during the summer months when they are not attending school.” That’s what Julie Olson, director of elementary education for the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools recommended last week. She was one of 39 education leaders who responded to my request for suggestions about what parents could do to encourage continued learning during the summer. They described a combination of community, school and family activities that can produce a summer with happy memories and student growth.

Raymond Queener, Cambridge-Isanti superintendent, and many others agreed: “ My advice is first to encourage students to read, read, read! Also, enjoy some activities at the Science Museum, maybe an art exhibit, spend some time outside in fun activities, and maybe get involved in a Community Education class of their interest. There are a lot of activities available, so make sure students stay involved, engaged, and try to find ways to encourage learning to continue.”

Corey Lunn, Stillwater superintendent, explained: “I always encourage families to keep their kids active and involved in different experiences. There are many opportunities through community ed., libraries, zoos and museums. Some teachers and schools offer summer work, most frequently with math. There are also many websites to keep kids learning as well, such as Kahn academy. I think the goal would be to balance added family time with perhaps a bit of academic enrichment.”

Steve Allen, of Cambridge, director of the Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs, pointed out: “Summer programs often come in the form of applied learning opportunities that tend to really engage and/or motivate students. I’ve seen students really become encouraged about their learning after a summer of relevant and meaningful activities. Another reason that I encourage students to continue with summer extended time activities is that it continues to reinforce good study habits. Particularly with potentially at-risk students, it is beneficial to keep them in the routine of going to school. Finally, some of the best programs I’ve ever run have been summer credit make-up programs. Students may fail one or two classes along the way. If you can make those credits up during the summer, students don’t get overwhelmed and ‘give up hope.’ If a student gives up hope, we all lose.’”

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state’s teacher union, wrote: “For students in elementary and middle school: Read! Students should read books all summer (not too easy, but not too hard). Give children daily opportunities to read (maps, newspapers, even recipes) and give children a chance to read aloud. For students in high school: Read! Also, find opportunities to grow life skills, like meeting deadlines and personal responsibility through part-time jobs, volunteering and service projects.”

Gary Amoroso, executive director of Minnesota Association of School Administrators, urged families to consider programs that districts offer: “These activities can include academics as well as arts and crafts. This is a great way for a child to continue the learning process throughout the summer.”

Tom Kearney, director of New Heights charter in Stillwater, wrote: “I administer a school with a minimal or sensible homework philosophy and parents are always asking why we don’t send more ‘homework’ or they ask for us to provide them with things to ‘keep my kids busy.’ Well, with so many software options and community options such as the Minnesota Historical Society of the Science Museum of Minnesota, I always tell them that all educational moments do not need to be at school or facilitated by a teacher. We suggest tapping into what makes the student excited and then planning some excursions around those interests. Take some great field trips and have the children write or journal about what they saw. See if there is a treasure hunt of sorts available at the places you visit. Also, insist that your children are reading something all summer and that they are engaged in the material. Summer should be different, but not a full break from learning. Moms and dads should be asking questions all the time about things students are engaged in. Learning can be fun when students have a say in what they are learning.”

Modeling from families is key. That along with helping youngsters set and work toward goals, plus encouraging reading, exploring and talking, are great ways to spend the summer.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]