Sunday, August 02, 2009

Back to School? How About Never Leaving?

Google News reports over 9,000 "back to school" stories over the last week. Retailers have an obvious interest in keeping this phrase at the forefront of our cultural consciousness, and media outlets are all too happy to have a retail phenomena to report on, so no matter how tired we get of hearing this phrase every year at this time, it seems a good bet that it will continue to haunt generation after generation of schoolchildren. But I wonder if students should be so loath to embrace the concept. In fact, I wonder if this phrase (and the marketing push that it symbolizes) has such power of inertia, that it can by itself ward off the year-round school movement. If "back to school" is indeed an unassailable annual ritual, we need to have an "away from school" to precede it. Of course, it was economic consideration that originally led to the concept of a summer vacation, and though the economic landscape of this country has changed, I wonder if it hasn't morphed into an equally powerful influence on education. (Additionally, it should be pointed out that various tourism lobbies have sought, often successfully, to not only preserve the status quo, but extend the length of the back end of summer vacation).

But despite the challenges posed by commerce and tradition, there are those who continue to advocate that we need to rethink the school calendar, that children will learn better if they don't have a large gap in the middle of the year, that too much time is spent every fall re-adjusting and reviewing, that too much regression slows students educational advancement. Of course, these are valid points and there is a fair amount of research that substantiates such claims.

Meanwhile though, there continues to be another strong and persistent theme in education reform, which may be summarized as a backlash against standards-based curricula. These voices argue that too much time is spent "teaching to the test," that students' individual educational needs aren't being met, that an emphasis on "skills and drills" are supplanting the ability of teachers to find creative and meaningful connections between the world and the classroom.

At first glance, these controversies seem to be mostly unrelated. But I believe that a new educational initiative just might be able to make everybody happy. Is there a way that students would actually want education to be a year-round endeavor? Call me naive, but I think when students look forward to summer break, they are looking forward to escaping from institutionalization, not from learning. What if students could be challenged with a summer curriculum that is not about standards, skills, and tests, but about individual pursuit of knowledge and personal growth?

Here is what I propose. Students be given the opportunity to negotiate a summer-long course of study with a "mentor." Mentors could possibly be recruited by school districts, and include not only teachers, but retired teachers, professionals in an appropriate field, or perhaps even older students or aspiring teachers. Students would be asked what they want to learn about, and a series of research questions would be finalized. There would be an emphasis on hands-on experience in order to answer the questions, but some reading would also be required. Perhaps some students could work collectively and cooperatively. Maybe informal discussions could be scheduled, but the groups of students and mentors would meet outside of the rigid structure of the classroom.

I could foresee that for some older students, summer employment would be folded into the course. (And perhaps businesses, which could benefit from the arrangement, could help with funding). Family vacations could easily be incorporated into the project. And in the end, the "how I spent my summer vacation" essay would be rendered much more meaningful, as the student would (hopefully enthusiastically) set about to not only describe their relevant activities, but to answer their original research questions.

Of crucial importance to the workability of this proposal, the retailers would still get to have "back to school" sales. Though hopefully students will no longer assume that "school" necessarily refers to a building.


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