Summer Education

Now that summer vacation is upon us, students across the United States will have time to have fun, catch up on some sleep, and do the things that they find most interesting. It is also a time when children (at least the younger ones) get to spend more time with their parents, other family members, and friendly adults; a time when they get to spend time in the real world, learning from experiences that occur outside the confines of school. This is how we all learned before school began. Indeed, parents, family, and friends are our first (and potentially best) teachers!

If the opportunity is taken, the summertime can be a truly educative experience for children. As the internationally acclaimed educator Pasi Sahlberg suggests, one of the things that supports the best educated countries in the world is strong cultural support for education. Indeed, he is specifically talking about Finland, where there is a socialist system that actively attempts to support the learning and health of all children; however, there are some lessons that we can use here in the United States as well.

In 1975, a scholar named Dan Lorite wrote about a concept he called the “apprenticeship of observation.” This concept refers to the idea that many teachers teach the way that they were taught as students, not necessary how they were trained to teach in their teacher preparation courses. Much to the chagrin of teacher educators, there are powerful connections between the past and what people do in their everyday lives, even when solid evidence suggests a different approach is much more effective.

Here, I’d like to draw a connection: the lessons that children explicitly and implicitly learn from their parents, family, and friends can often direct the way they approach learning throughout their lives, regardless of the quality education that they may receive. These lessons are not all academic either. The perseverance, grit, and determination to figure things out is just as important to future success as is the “book learning” so often the focus of formal schooling. This means that teachers can’t educate children all on their own; they need the support of the community to continue their work when the school day and year are over.

So, what can parents do to help their children succeed in the future? Surely, parents can send their children to camps, summer schools, and educational programs. These activities can be fun while also opening their worlds to new possibilities. However, I would also suggest that children need to be apprenticed to what life-long learning looks like by trusted adults in their everyday lives. Parents might try:

1. To read with and/or near their children. Literacy, if it is to become developed throughout ones life, can’t end at the end of the school year. Many schools provide summer reading lists that support the curriculum. These are important for students to complete. However, it might be more important for children to see their parents reading too. Taking an hour of the evening to read together as a family (with the tv off) could help to show children that this is something important at all ages.

2. Learning with their children. By involving children in the day-to-day work of life, they can get the sense of how to function in the “real world.” Importantly, the real world often forces us to think on our feet, look things up, and figure things out. Instead of simply doing this by themselves, parents should encourage their children to help them figure out problems with them. For example, if a trip needs to be planned, ask the children to help you research places to stay on the internet and map the course to get there. Not only will activities such as this help them to think more critically (e.g., not all of the comments/recommendations on hotel websites are from actual customers) but it will help them to become better problem solvers.

3. Gaming with their children. More and more, children play online games as a way to connect with others. They are also learning some important social skills (both positive and negative) regardless of the type of games they are playing. The way that children talk to each other through messaging and voice software during these games are largely secret, hidden from adult view. Playing gaming with and against children will enable parents to see how their children interact over the internet and might spark some good discussions about what it means to be a good digital citizen.

These are but a few ideas but they might begin to help all of our children become more effect 21st Century learners and thinkers. Regardless of the new technologies and activities out there today, we learn the most from watching what people we respect do. Parents are an incredibly important part of this equation; children are apprenticed to what it means to be an adult by their actions. This summer, let’s commit to working together as a society to support youths’ learning both inside and outside of the classroom.

Learning Through Lesson Planning

The dreaded lesson plan. I don’t know of a single teacher who likes to write them. They seem quite inauthentic, really. Educational and psychological theorists tell us that we should begin our lesson plans “with the end in mind;” What do we really want our students to learn during this lesson? Often, however, we begin with the question, “What standards do we have to meet?” It is this latter question that illustrates why lesson planning is so hated. Despite some of our best efforts to create meaningful learning experience for students, we teachers often think about what our students “need to know and be able to do” rather than our own professional connections to the material. What got me thinking about this disconnect was a quote by Richardson (2001, p. 35) in Hatch’s (2002) Doing Qualitative Research in Education Settings. Richardson explains, “I write because I want to find something out. I write in order to learn something that I did not know before I wrote it” (p. 212). When is the last time you wrote a lesson plan and learned something for yourself?

I’ve decided to try an experiment this semester, one involving a lot of reading and some reflection. I’ve decided to take one of my classes and completely redesign it, learning new material, new more-constructivist instructional strategies, and new technologies. What I’ve discovered so far is that I can’t write in the lesson plan format at first. The whole format is too procedural for me and doesn’t let me work through some of the conceptual, theoretical, or practical details the way that I would normally think about writing a paper, journal, or other more prosy piece. This discovery actually came as a shock to me because, as a former middle school teacher with multiple preps, I think I’m really good at creating lesson plans.

The more I’ve thought about this whole process, though, the more I think that lesson planning might be more like creating a PowerPoint. A PowerPoint may not be powerful or have a point without the creator first working through all of the details and pathways behind the major concepts. Watching a PowerPoint presentation without an argument is like reading a social studies textbook… a whole lot of facts that are quickly forgotten for more important, meaningful information.

So, here’s what I’m trying and I challenge you to do the same:

1. Select a class for which you have a particular passion.
2. Instead of getting right to your lesson plans, write/journal/draw/score an argument for each lesson you will teach.
3. Once you have your argument down, create an activity that enable your students to make their own argument.
4. NOW, write your lesson plan.
5. After you teach, add two more sections to your creation in Step #2:
a. What did you learn from your students?
b. Your conclusions about the topic under study.

This is going to take a lot of work. I’m just getting started and I’ve caught myself trying to skip some steps. However, this process just seems right to me… it feels more real and intellectually stimulating. I’ll let you know how my semester goes. If you try it, I’d love to hear what you find!