Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Disengaged and Non-Traditional Learners Can Thrive Through Summer Learning

Little known fact: I didn’t actually learn to read until I was nine years old. A combination of what was then diagnosed as dyslexia, a phonetic processing disorder (I still for the life of me cannot distinguish vowel sounds with any accuracy) and frankly a unique learning style, all left me at a significant disadvantage. School was, needless to say, a very stressful place. Homework time could best be described as an outright battle of wills between me and my (in hindsight, highly patient) parents.

This reality completely influenced how I spent my summers. My parents realized early on that I could not afford to sit idle during the 8 weeks of summer. So, while other kids went to sleep away camp, traveled with their family or roamed the woods of Vermont, I was in tutoring. During the early years, it was with a reading specialist matched by additional spelling and math work with a teacher from my elementary school. To say I perfected the art of non-violent protest during these sessions is an understatement. I would sit in silence and refuse to acknowledge the presence of the tutor with the finesse of a practiced CIA agent under interrogation.[1] Growing up in a family on a limited income, wasting expensive tutoring sessions was an untenable proposition for my parents.

That’s when they got creative (possibly manipulative). During the third grade I had heard about a local theater camp organized by a group of high school teachers for elementary and middle school aged students. I was enthralled until my mother gently pointed out it would be fairly difficult to participate if I couldn’t read the script. So, we struck a bargain. I could go to KidShow so long as I also participated in tutoring.

In an act of sheer brilliance, my parents found a summer opportunity that incentivized the horrific tutoring sessions and ensured that I practiced reading without the battles that had defined previous summers.  

The creativity my parents employed is a powerful parable. Did I need and benefit from the academic tutoring? Without question. But it was in KidShow that I thrived. For the first few summers, I remember re-reading the plays over and over again, practicing every word and eventually, sentences for hours. By the third summer, when my reading had improved and I had a speaking role, I began to learn memorization techniques and started to appreciate how the rules of grammar create the cadence of language: That a comma or semi-colon required a dramatic pause, or that an exclamation point suggested excitement or perhaps fear in the delivery of a line. KidShow not only gave me a reason to practice reading, it made it fun. It helped me discover learning strategies I still utilize today, and it built my confidence and willingness to keep trying even when faced with difficult and seemingly insurmountable tasks.

That’s the beauty of smart summer learning opportunities. Enrichment activities that blend in academic skills that can engage non-traditional learners and provide them the space to shine are priceless. They can give real world applicability to what seem – to many children and adolescents- to be entirely esoteric academic concepts. Physics takes on whole new levels of importance when learning to sail. Chemistry and fractions can come to life in cooking classes. Good artists understand not only color theory, but geometry.

All children, but especially disengaged or non-traditional learners deserve the chance to discover what I did over those 6 summers: That learning can be fun and that I can be good at it.  

(Maggie Riden, who now consumes books of all types with complete abandon, calls her parents at least twice a year to thank them for their patience and to apologize for 8 years of tears, tantrums and outright rebellion over school and homework. She would also like to note that her parent’s creativity didn’t end with school. Ask her how her parents broke the door slamming habit that emerged during her obnoxious high school years and how they dealt with epic sibling battles. Sheer brilliance.)

[1] Brief aside: If you believe my mother/the editorial fact checker of this blog post, I actually made a special education student teacher cry when I was in 6th grade. I was stubborn- this was no shock. It wouldn’t have been so embarrassing (for her, and frankly my Mother) except that she and my Mom were in the same Speech and Language Graduate Program. Apparently this made for some awkward lecture hall discussions. 

Maggie Riden is the Executive Director of DC Alliance of Youth Advocates and has luckily grown out of her sleeping bag moth costume. She also no longer makes teachers cry. To stay updated on youth issues in D.C. you can FOLLOW us on Twitter, LIKE us on Facebook, and VISIT us at 

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