"Keep their Minds Engaged in Wonder": Educators' advice about summer learning

“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 41 union leaders, superintendents, principals and other 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 modeling, advocacy, exploration and encouraging participation in community, school and family activities.  This can produce a summer with great memories and student growth.

Olson continued: “I encourage parents to provide their children with opportunities for experiences that help them discover more about the world around them, and then have conversations around those experiences. Talk with your children, not just to them. Read with your children and make sure they see you reading. Have your children write and make sure they see you writing. Children can journal about their trips or experiences, make lists, write notes, letters or email messages. Provide variety for your children. Get them up, out of the house and moving, but also provide them with quiet time.”

Bernadeia Johnson, Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent wrote, “ Our Minneapolis Public School students need more learning time, which is why we have a strong summer school program that starts June 16. We also are investing in winter and spring break academies to expand opportunities for learning through the year. These programs are vital to helping reduce the learning gap and accelerate academic outcomes for students.”

Valeria Silva, St. Paul Public Schools superintendent urged more advocacy by parents.  She wrote: "Providing equitable access to premier summer learning experiences, for students who are off track, is a great way to reduce summer learning loss and, potentially, close the achievement gap. We need parents to advocate for increased access to high quality summer learning experiences for their children at the local, state, and federal levels of government. Help
support a system of premier summer learning for all of our students."

Ben Barton, Caledonia Superintendent explained, “I tell the students at the elementary that their brain is just like their muscles.  They must exercise it daily to keep it strong.  Many, if not all, of our elementary teachers send students into the summer with the challenge to keep reading and writing.  My advice for parents is to sit down with their child and set goals and action plans around learning for the summer.  The goals hopefully will be aligned with the child's interest and area of need.  There are numerous resources available online or the public library.  I also recommend that parents research opportunities in the community through community education, park and recreation, etc.

Bill Wilson, founder and executive director at Higher Ground Academy in St .Paul noted that “many schools offer summer programs.  Parents definitely should check out the possibilities, matching what’s offered with their youngsters need and are interested in.”  Wilson also urged use of free on-line learning programs such as the Khan Academy.

Stillwater Superintendent Corey Lunn agrees with Wilson about the value of “Khan Academy.”  He also urged that families “ 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. 

Samuel Yigzaw urged regular use of the library, possible purchase of what he called “highly valuable self-paced online resources such as IXL ™ and Lexia ™

and museum visits.

Speaking only for myself, one of the Twin Cities top museums for youngsters this summer would be the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS).  There are many exhibits that youngsters will enjoy, such as the current “Toys of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s” .  Plenty to play with and think about.  MHS also has an intriguing exhibit, “Sights, Sounds and Soul” which is worth checking out – but unfortunately has not received as much attention as the exhibit on toys.   “Sights, Sounds…sounds the Twin Cities African American scene through a very talented African American photographer,  Charles Chamblis, pictured above.

Mary Olson, communications and public relations director for the Anoka–Hennepin School District, also encouraged use of online resources to gather information, particularly about the outdoors: “Learn life science lessons by observing the natural world. Whether it’s studying a colony of ants carrying crumbs to an anthill in the backyard or listening to a loon yodel across a northern lake, children can learn much by observing the natural world, taking note of what they have seen and asking questions of themselves. (I wonder how much weight an ant can carry? I wonder if different loon calls have different meaning?) They can learn more about their observations by visiting a library or finding online resources.”

North Branch Superintendent Deb Hinton explained: “The world around us is a laboratory. As families are out and about this summer, making the most of the summer months, use real situations as examples for concepts learned in class. Many students learn much better when they are able to relate what is taught to real life.”

Steve Allen, 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.”

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.”

Cam Hedlund, director of charter school Lakes International Language Academy in Forest Lake, agrees with Queener. He responded: “For the little ones, read with them books at their level and read to them interesting books that are a little above their level to expand vocabulary and create a thirst of wanting to know what comes next in the story. Also, the car is a great place to practice mental math. There are a host of games that make practicing math facts fun and easy.

“For older children, read, read, read, and then read some more. Have them split their time between great fiction and interesting nonfiction. And then regularly engage them in conversation about what they are reading.”

Jackie Saunders, director of charter school North Lakes Academy in Forest Lake, recommended: “Parents should place limits on the time their children spend with electronics and social media and encourage them to engage in outdoor, loosely structured activities. Building brain connections is crucial to success in school.  A good resource is Richard Louv’s ‘Last Child In the Woods.’”

Sabrina Williams, founder and chief education officer at charter school EXCELL Academy in Brooklyn Center, said: “Parents are definitely doing the right thing by continuing their students’ learning in some way. At Excell Academy, we strongly encourage parents to allow their students to participate in summer learning and/or enrichment programs. We have collected data that shows Excell students who participate in our summer school or summer enrichment program return to school in the fall more ready to learn; they have retained or gained learning. Students who stayed home or did not experience any or very little summer enrichment showed a loss of two months or more of learning.”

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.”

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 joe [at] centerforschoolchange [dot] org (joe [at] centerforschoolchange [dot] org)

CORRECTION 6/17: The St. Paul school superintendent's last name is spelled Silva. 

  • We've become so academically oriented that we've forgotten nature. Asked that question I would have responded - learn science through visits to the Aroboretum, state and national parks. Give your kids a cheap camera and let them document what they are seeing and write a story they can read to the family. Keep a family journal as you travel where children get to see that their parents write too! That said - all the suggestions in the column are great! Lonni Skrentner - by Lonni Simpson Skrentner on Fri, 06/20/2014 - 9:06am
  • All good advice, folks. Now we need the parents and the kids to include this helpful advice in their summer activities. Never stop learning. - by Tom King on Fri, 06/20/2014 - 6:58am

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Joe Nathan's picture
Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Email him at joe [at] centerforschoolchange [dot] org

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The Arts

I am glad to see a consensus around the imoprtance of summer learning, an issue I wrote about on the MinnCAN blog. In addition to the historical and natural resources around the Twin Cities, I want to add the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, a fine source of artistic and intellectual history, as a resource to this conversaton.