Column: ’Keep their minds and bodies engaged in wonder’

“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.

Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

Mary Olson, director of communications and public relations for the Anoka-Hennepin School District, urged: “Get outside! Learn life science lessons by observing the natural world. Whether its 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.”

Peter Wieczorek, director of charter Northwest Passage High School in Coon Rapids, agreed: “Learning opportunities are all around. You don’t need to be in school to find great learning opportunities – visit a museum, nature center, parks program, community education, library or a local makers space.”

Cory Klabunde, director of PACT Charter in Ramsey, stressed the importance of reading: “PACT Charter recommends students to be involved with reading by looking for opportunities in everyday living: directions to games they play, recipes that they can actually prepare, comic books, interesting magazines, newspaper articles, jokes and puzzles on cereal boxes, road signs, subscripts on moves/shows, trips to the library, and books that appeal to them. Find as many ways to encourage your child to be active readers.”

Jordan Ford, director of charter Beacon Academy in Maple Grove, explained: “Parents will often ask the administration and their child’s teachers for advice on quality summer programs to help their child continue to learn. We often tailor our suggestions to meet the ability levels of the students and to match their interests with summer opportunities. Beacon Academy has also provided during the past two summers different camps for our students to continue learning.”

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.”

Mark Bonine, Brooklyn Center superintendent, noted that the district offers summer programs to avoid “summer learning loss.” He explained: “If students aren’t practicing and reinforcing their learning, they can forget what they learned during the school year. Summer learning loss can be a huge contributor to the achievement gap and high school drop out rate. Studies have found students taking part in summer learning programs substantially increased their academic and social skills.”

Elk River Superintendent Mark Bezek recommended: “Read, read, read. Limit digital game and television time, get them outside and in any physical activities (organized or other). Tour Minnesota and connect with the great outdoors.”

Monticello Superintendent Jim Johnson wrote: “Just because it’s summer kids can still continue learning. Whether it’s taking part in community education classes, accessing programs through the local public library, putting some educational apps on your electronic device or just spending time reading a good book, kids can keep their minds engaged and they can explore areas of interest.”

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.”

Finally, 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.’”

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@centerforschoolchange.org.

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