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Three Tips for Designing High Impact Summer Learning

Lisa B. Hurwitz
Apr 26, 2021

The majority of American adults should be eligible for vaccinations by late Spring/early summer, but that won’t mark the end of the pandemic for the K-12 educational system. Research has begun documenting concerning trends about missed learning opportunities as a result of pandemic-induced disruptions to education. Unfortunately, such opportunity gaps might be compounded by upcoming summer breaks. Historically, we know that many students experience “summer slide” or “summer learning loss”, forgetting content learned the preceding school year in the absence of classes. What is worse, students from lower resource households are at greater risk for both COVID-related learning disruptions and summer slide.

How can educational leaders stymie these opportunity gaps and pave the way for recovery? Anything we do to encourage students to engage with high-quality texts and educational content during the summer months will do worlds of good. To that end, schools have long sponsored summer reading programs, and we’ve recently heard of schools that encourage students to independently use their favorite edtech programs during summer vacation.

As readers of this post are likely well aware, learning is even stronger when educators or other adults or older students are able to scaffold the learning process. At Newsela, we’re fully behind school systems that plan to sponsor formal summer learning programs or academies, where educators or other educational staff will lead students through academic enrichment.

Below, we share three tips for successfully designing formal summer learning experiences.

1. Set realistic and future-focused learning goals

When students may have missed out on instructional time during the school year, it can be tempting to think “Well, if my summer ELA program meets for five hours every day for one month, I can cover the entire 7th grade curriculum so my students are ready for 8th grade!” Unfortunately, that’s not how students learn. Realistically, there’s only so much material that learners can consolidate into long-term memory in a short amount of time. Put differently, students might not absorb every nuance of every lesson after a long and busy day of schooling or might be quick to forget much of what they’ve learned.

The graph below models typical standardized trajectories for students with and without engagement in summer learning opportunities.

As shown in purple, in the absence of any enrichment, students may experience summer slide or decreased progress. The blue line shows one possible achievement trajectory for students participating in brief but intensive summer learning programs. Like their peers, they’ll experience learning loss up until around when the program starts. They may demonstrate gains immediately after the program ends but forget much of what they’ve learned over the remaining weeks of summer vacation. Patterns like these are not unusual. For example, following an intensive 3-week summer literacy intervention, Johnston and colleagues found that students increased their oral reading fluency by about 14%. However, by the time that they returned to school their reading rate was at the exact same level as it had been the prior spring. Although that might seem underwhelming, the reading rate for students who did not participate in any kind of summer intervention decreased by 12% relative to the prior spring.

To maximize learning in a summer program, it helps to incorporate plenty of spiraling, review, and repeated opportunities to practice the same skills and to engage with the same learning standard. But educational leaders shouldn’t feel pressure to force intensive remediation programs into brief summer break windows.

A successful summer program should stop slide in its tracks, expose students to new content — prioritizing skills and experiences essential for success in the following grade level — stimulate students’ interest in the focal subject (see #2 for strategies to do just that), and prime them to be ready for learning in the fall.

2. Prioritize engagement

Students always do their best in school when they're motivated, interested, and ready for “minds on” learning. There may be a special need to design for motivation and engagement this summer. Students may feel less confident and enthusiastic about learning after a particularly challenging year. And they may be used to experiencing pure vacation during the summer months or be in communities with friends or cousins not engaged in academic enrichment — all priming them not to be in the right mindset for learning. In a typical year, it’s not unusual for summer programs to suffer from poor student attendance for this reason. To keep students motivated and engaged, find programs replete with content that is high-interest, authentic, and culturally responsive. For each assignment, try to establish goals that are as clear, meaningful, and relevant as possible. As an illustration, students could be tasked with writing a blog post to members of their community about the best way to keep their school and the surrounding neighborhood clean, as opposed to an essay listing such strategies in the abstract. To the extent possible without sacrificing learning goals, allow students agency in choosing content that most appeals to them — for example, choosing among several potentially high-interest texts or choosing between a text and video on a similar topic.

When students are able to exercise choice and engage with content that is interesting and personally meaningful to them while working on authentic tasks, they’ll expend greater energy learning and develop enhanced subject matter interest / motivation. Regardless of which curricula you use during your summer program, it’s important not to jam pack each day. Students need regular brain breaks and opportunities to play and recharge. Mixing up the day by providing students with opportunities to collaborate with peers and engage in inquiry-based activities, or allowing students some freedom to dictate when they might want to work on certain tasks also can help restore innate curiosity, interpersonal relationships with peers, and confidence.

3. Support staff success

In conversations with educational leaders around the country, we’ve heard that schools and districts are planning to staff summer programs with a mix of in-service teachers and community volunteers such as pre-service teachers, high school students interested in mentoring younger learners, retirees, and more. Many steps can empower staff with varied levels of classroom experience. First, select learning solutions that are easy to use with vetted instructional content, rich teacher resources (e.g., discussion prompts and lesson suggestions), and teacher-facing data to inform instruction. When teachers can spend less time in instructional planning, they’ll have more time to focus on building and sustaining relationships with students, and fostering a collegial, collaborative, and engaging classroom environment. Even with the best learning solutions at their disposal, however, professional learning opportunities that focus on shoring up subject matter knowledge and classroom management and implementing target programs will be helpful — particularly for staff who are new to teaching or even just new to a particular learning solution. Educators using a familiar curriculum or solution over the summer might benefit from training focused on more advanced features. Any summer-focused professional learning should occur shortly before and/or during the summer program so that staff can immediately apply what they’re learning.

Less formally, both paraprofessionals and experienced educators may benefit from opportunities like regular staff meetings or joint planning blocks to build community and collectively lesson plan and problem solve. Much the same way that students may need emotional support to maximize learning, it also can be just as important to consider staff’s socio-emotional needs. Summer program leaders can support staff by being honest, respectful, kind, flexible, and patient, and empathetic and empowering listeners who shine a spotlight on student and staff successes. With this approach, leaders can effectively partner with staff to solve pedagogical and behavioral challenges. School leaders, staff, and students are all working towards the same mission — accelerating student learning in a safe, emotionally supportive fashion.

We'd love to hear from you about your plans. Get in touch via Facebook or Twitter.

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