Making Summer Homework Count

Making Summer Homework Count

Most teacher are familiar with the summer slide. In particular, in the United States, students suffer a full three months of vacation in the summer.  Oh, I remember dreading all the free time wasted on movies, video games, and time with family. My teachers didn’t assign us summer homework, reading or otherwise. And should they have?

In the face of this, we as educators face bleak numbers when it comes to summer learning loss. After all, the average student loses nearly 2 months of reading skills over a typical summer vacation. These numbers are far darker when framed against students from lower income families or with reading disabilities (Chard et al., 2002; Snider & Tarver, 1987; McGill-Franzen & Allington, 2008). We as teachers struggle to find an answer to this problem especially since the students who suffer most from learning loss are the most likely to succumb to it.

The Summer Slide in South Korea

The school year in Korea is a little different. Our summer vacations are quite short, often a month at most. Of this free time, it is far more common for students to spend their afternoons toiling away in hagwons. But as a country where English is a foreign language, and as a teacher in an immersive English elementary school, English and reading therein is often overlooked.

Anecdotally, we can often claim to see tangible results of this slide from semester to semester. As ELL students, if they lack opportunities to use the English they learn on a regular basis, to think, read, and interact in English, progress is lost. As a result, it’s common to see this “summer slide” year-’round simply because our students can get away with avoiding English outside of the handful of classes each week.

Uchon Elementary School addresses this issue through summer homework packets. They vary from grade to grade, put together by the teachers of their respective students. They often include journals and reading logs with the intent to keep students using their English.

Uchon Summer Homework: Grade 6

In grade 6 this year, our answer to summer homework was a little different. On the whole, we’ve been making moves toward a more open-ended, student-driven curriculum. Little by little. With our vacation homework, we gave students a chance to read as authentically as possible and allow them the opportunity to interact with their reading in a way that suit them.

Inspired by an article I read a few month ago titled “Encouraging Summer Reading with Authentic Experiences” by Matt Renwick, I put together a homework packet of my own. Students were given two tasks over their four week vacation: read and interact with their reading.

Reading Task

For the reading task, I drew attention to students’ reading. So often do students get hung up on what reading is supposed to look like. They often psych themselves out with the idea that to read, they need a book assigned to them, that this book has to be read page by page, chapter by chapter, that they will be tested on their reading. They often forget that reading is a major part of their lives, one with far more opportunities than limitations.

When I presented this revelation to my students, they were stunned. “That’s not reading, Mr. Hesler.”
With the wealth of information the internet provides, reading takes countless forms. Students aren’t limited by paper-bound books as we once were. At their fingertips, their greatest interests and deepest passions are accessible. For many of my six grade girls, this often means K-pop: the newest juiciest gossip about the K-Pop sensation Big Bang (I might be dating myself here). For many of the boys in my class that have found themselves engrossed in Magic the Gathering, why not dive in and read strategies they might not have come up with on their own?

When I presented this revelation to my students, they were stunned. “That’s not reading, Mr. Hesler.” And it hit me. We as teachers had missed something. We’d failed to expose students to a wealth of knowledge and information simply by modeling what reading often is in the classroom. From the perspective of a young student in South Korea, English reading is all textbooks, novels, and workbooks. Reading is a stuffy article published in 2011 about the dangers of global warming. No wonder it isn’t fun.

And so, I aimed to make reading a little more fun. Instead of reading logs and worksheets, students had an opportunity to read anything they wanted. We brainstormed a long list of what reading in fact is: text-heavy role-playing games, celebrity gossip, and strategy guides. We also brainstormed where and how reading could happen. Students had options. They could read with a friend, read on the toilet, or exchange books with a friend or family member.

Engaging the reading

As a final component of the grade 6 summer homework, I hoped to give students a little agency. We have used a number of tools over the year in class. We use a classroom twitter account, we’ve experimented with augmented reality and Aurasma to make interactive book reports, we’ve used SoundCloud and YouTube to engage a broader audience and dabble with a variety of multimedia. Students regularly blog to KidBlog.org for their writing or in-class projects.

In revisiting these tools, I made a number of suggestions to students. Students would choose two after reading an article, book, or piece online and respond in any number of ways that suit their tastes. We had at least one tweet go up, numerous kidblog posts, and a handful of youtube videos get posted last week (I’ll share a few next week after I’ve had a moment to sort through them!)

Reflection

Not surprisingly, I saw a upward tick in student motivation. While I certainly found this summer homework more valuable than previous iterations, I did not expect students to express a similar sentiment so unanimously.  Despite offering vacation homework passes for students who had earned sufficient ClassCraft credit, I found a large number of students opt out of the homework pass. Furthermore, vacation homework so often relegated to the depths of how-can-I-finish-this-quickly-so-I-can-go-hang-out-with-friends had piqued student interest, even a couple giggles and guffaws at the idea of reading on the (GASP) toilet (where I do most of my reading, by the way).

Feel free to take a gander at my summer homework below.

Summer HW

Download it here!