UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – School’s out for summer

As the school doors shut on another year, the screen door opens into summer. The annual break from formal schooling generally arrives near Memorial Day when the pools open, camps begin, part-time jobs ensue, and warm weather recreation kicks off. Summer vacation is a much needed respite from the rigors of schooling, both for students and teachers. In fact, each summer as that last bell rings, and the kids go streaming out the doors, the young ones only think they’re the people most excited about the break. 

Yet every year, some curmudgeons and critics try to take the joy out of summer vacation by suggesting schools do away with the annual time off from classes. As blasphemous as that may sound, especially to anyone under the age of eighteen, the anti-summer voices believe they have a pretty strong argument that there is no real need for students to take the months of June and July off from classes. Critics of summer vacation fret about the alleged “summer slide” that happens each year when kids take an eight week break from formal schooling and instruction. 

Some studies have suggested that during the summer months, some students regress in their math and reading skills, arriving back in the fall behind the learning levels they were at in May. Thus, it’ll be no surprise this year when people discuss the learning loss associated with the pandemic and conclude kids are falling behind and have no time to take a break. However, the data on the summer slide has always been selective in its criticism, and it rarely paints a full picture of student learning. Additionally, it’s simply wrong to conclude that the only learning a child achieves happens within the walls of a classroom. Kids not only have time to take a break; they need and benefit from the time off.

Much criticism of summer break is actually based on a myth. Despite evidence to the contrary, many people believe summer vacation is a relic of America’s agrarian past when schools supposedly let children out during June and July to work on the farms. That’s actually false. In reality, throughout the nineteenth century, American schools were generally in session during the summer. It was only in rural areas that schools took breaks in the spring and fall for planting and harvest. Anyone who’s familiar with agrarian life knows those are the seasons extra help is needed on the farm, not the middle of July. The concept of summer vacation was actually created in the days before air conditioning to appease middle and upper-class families who fled hot, crowded cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago each June to “summer” in resort areas like the Catskills or the Dells. 

That said, the practice of taking a break from school in the summer has stuck around because it’s actually a good idea. The benefits of summer vacation aren’t simply about increased playtime and sleeping late. Summer breaks are filled with opportunities for growth and learning that extend well beyond the confines of the classroom. Many people cherish the memories and appreciate the value of summer camps, which offer all sorts of experiences for recreation, friendship, and learning. Whether kids attend day camps or leave home to stay for a week or even a month, the independence and camaraderie of camp can be a truly special experience. Summer sports leagues provide similar benefits as young people immerse themselves in their love of the game. Summer vacation is also a time to release kids from regimented schedules, letting them explore, daydream, goof off, and simply play.

Summer employment is an additional benefit of the annual break from school, whether that’s entrepreneurship for young kids running a lemonade stand, doing yard work, or babysitting, or it’s teenagers earning real paychecks at part-time jobs from lifeguarding to retail. And, it’s not just kids who take advantage of summer jobs. Because teachers work on ten-month contracts, many of them supplement their income with summer jobs as well. Often the managers of the neighborhood pools or the directors of those summer camps are teachers. 

So, here’s to summer vacation in all its glory. Let us never forget the joy and benefits of summertime. Except for those unfortunate few stuck in the worst idea of all – summer school.

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. Ytou can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com