Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Saga of Summer Learning Part II: Karma Kicks In

You may recall an amusing blog series we posted last summer detailing the important role that summer plays in youth development.  Our Executive Director, Maggie Riden,  talked about her parents' brilliant creativity in signing her up for a summer theatre camp in the hopes that a new space would motivate her to try and learn to read and end her protracted campaign of summer tutor torture. In the spirit of continuity, we’d like to share with you Part II of that saga: 

Fast-forward nearly 10 years. I was 17 and it was the summer after my senior year. I was desperate to save enough money to avoid working my first semester of college. So to compliment my ice cream scooping job at Friendly’s,  I signed up with the local elementary schools to work as a summer tutor.

In the weeks leading up to my first session, I remember diligently tracking down worksheets and lesson plans from teachers and the library, neatly filing them into a variety of folders. I recall carefully writing out spelling words and math facts on index cards.  What I don’t remember as clearly (but she loves to mention it) is the look of utter amusement as my Mother watched me.  She gently suggested that given the kids I’d be working with, maybe I should consider a different approach than worksheets and rote memorization at a desk. She even offered her special education expertise to help me come up with some ideas. I, with the arrogant certainty that defines adolescence and early adulthood, scoffed at the suggestion that I didn’t know what I was doing.

Oh the irony. 

Two weeks later I found myself in one of those amazing life moments when karma catches up with you and not only smacks you in the face, but laughs with glee while doing so.  It was my second or third session with “Kevin”.  I remember sitting at his kitchen table watching in disbelief as he athletically tossed a massive pile of 3x5 index cards into the air, launched himself out of his seat, leapt over an ottoman and then slid with the practiced ease of a baseball player into the bathroom deftly locking the door behind him.

20 minutes and numerous bribery offers later, Kevin emerged.  

I arrived home frustrated and embarrassed and attempted to relay the incident to my Mom. Once she had stopped laughing and regained the ability to speak, we sat down and she helped me come up with some teaching strategies that were good for him. I can say with certainty, we never sat at his kitchen table or at his desk again.

For Kevin school was a frustrating and anxiety filled place. To ask him to replicate that setting with the added stress of 1:1 attention as he exposed his weaknesses (all while watching his brother play outside on a lovely summer afternoon) was never going to work, and it was borderline cruel to expect it to. So we turned his backyard into a giant clock to teach him how to tell time. We did math fact foot races with the neighbors. We incentivized reading by celebrating the completion of each goal with a scavenger hunt based on the theme of the book (he was into nature and we lived in Vermont which made it fairly easy).

Info-Graph: National Summer Learning Association 
For kids who struggle to learn or face barriers to academic progress, summer has to be a part of the learning equation. Summer learning loss is real, it’s cumulative, and it’s a major contributor to the achievement gap. However, as Kevin demonstrated, that doesn’t mean summer should be more of the same.  Learning can take many forms. Summer is a chance to see what works, to allow children and teachers the time to explore, and ultimately, it's a prime opportunity to engage developing brains in new and exciting ways.  

DC is fortunate. We live in a city with many organizations and educators that embrace the opportunity of summer. They are creating spaces that build the skills and academic confidence of those who may be struggling, and challenge high fliers to aim for even greater heights. 

However, despite improved funding and increased availability, there are still thousands of children who don’t have the chance to enjoy the opportunity of summer learning - but would benefit deeply. So, DCAYA would like to pose two challenges.

First, we need to do a better job of explaining to all parents the benefits of summer learning programs.  We need to be clear that signing up for a summer program is critical to a child’s academic, social and emotional success.

Second, we must message to policy makers that we need universal access and a range of programs that ensure youth can access opportunities that excite them, and provide what they need as they grow and mature. To achieve that, we must have smart funding and strong partnerships between schools, community organizations, parks and recreation and libraries. This must be a priority.

Kevin and I, like many of you, were lucky. Our parents and teachers got it. They realized early on that we would need additional support throughout our academic careers and that our learning styles would require multiple approaches. Many of which could not occur sitting at a desk. Isn’t that an opportunity we should extend to all our kids? 

Maggie Riden learned spelling words and history facts by setting them to music, recording herself singing them, and then playing them over and over again on a Walkman while jumping on a trampoline. All strategies she credits her Mother, a special educator and multi-modality teaching savant, with coming up with. 

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