Why Do We Give Students Summer Assignments? Seriously, WHY?

Most of my neighbors have hated me from time to time. Specifically in the summer. My most recent neighbor to mock me is a great guy who plays in a punk band and who loves saying things like:

Neighbor

“Must be nice not doing anything today.” As we we pass each other in the front yard.

Now, for those of you who are teachers you know how busy our unpaid summers are. Whether it’s running edcampHOME, #CAedchat, going to a Google conference, or helping your wife by building furniture and setting up her kindergarten class, we are busy.

Summer Busy

But people don’t think we are busy, because we aren’t going to the place where you go to learn.

Teachers aren’t the only ones who get shade thrown their way during the summer. Students do too. By who? By teachers, administrators, and school districts. This is a dangerous mindset. For whatever reason far too many schools assign summer assignments to their students. In this post I’m going to:

  • point out why summer reading assignments don’t make sense
  • provide a few alternatives that will achieve the same objective without punishing students or teachers
  • allow you the chance to prove me wrong

Summer Assignments:WHY?

TONS of school mandate summer assignments, and not just in English. Schools, parents, and teachers justify them for the following reasons.

  • They keep kids busy in the summer
  • They keep kids’ learning from disappearing, or slipping in the summer
  • They provide kids an enrichment opportunity
  • They give kids a head-start on difficult curriculum
  • They discourage the “wrong kind of kid” from taking an honors/AP class or serve as a measurement of their dedication to the class

I gave a summer reading test on the third day of school this year. Later in the day one of my honors students walked up to me as I left my room. She was in tears. She was speechless. It took well over a minute for me to get her to talk. When she finally did- she told me in a quiet whisper, “I’m so sorry I failed that test, I don’t want you to think I’m a disappointment.”

Let that sink in a bit.

ISSUE #1:

We gave her a long book to read. She has no interactions with her teachers. We gave her no feedback or checks for understanding and then we dropped a big grade on her head at the beginning of school when everyone is nervous. Is that really what we want to happen in our school during the first week?

Are we really expecting students to tackle difficult material without their teachers? Do we really want them learning without us learning with them?

WHY EVEN HAVE SCHOOLS OR TEACHERS? (Yes I just yelled)

We have students, ALL the time, drop out of honors at the end of summer or in the first week of school because they didn’t do their summer work. Who wants to start a class with a big F or D in the gradebook?

Well David, if they aren’t willing to work hard they shouldn’t be in honors or AP classes?

But they DID work hard. They couldn’t get in the class to begin with without good grades and good test scores!

But David, the summer reading shows their dedication and serves as a prerequisite to the course?

Do they do this in college? The prerequisite, the dedication was shown LAST YEAR when they took a certain course-load and earned the right grades!

But David, I read X number of books every summer, they shouldn’t complain about reading a book or two.

Not all of your classmates did that, and summers are a little more scheduled than they used to be. Trust me.

Now this isn’t even my biggest pet peeve with summer assignments.

ISSUE #2

The worst hypocrisy of summer assignments is this. If summer assignments are good for honors and AP students than why aren’t ALL students doing them?

But David, honors and ESPECIALLY AP students need to work in the summer because they need to learn such challenging material. (apparently without their teachers to help them with this work.)

Well, isn’t reading challenging for students in the “reading program?” Why aren’t they doing summer work? Isn’t speaking, reading, writing, challenging for ELD/LEP students? Why aren’t THEY doing summer work? Heck doesn’t a CP course challenge the students in that course otherwise they would be in an honors course? Why aren’t THEY doing summer work?

I’m not a big fan of the school where I went to high school but at least THEY are consistent in killing summer for ALL their students. They give summer assignments to everyone in Social Studies and English. Love the seven page-long explanation of the Honors Biology assignment.

ISSUE #3

Everyone needs a break in the summer. Our minds hurt. Nothing hurts your mind like learning or teaching new material. Your mind needs some down time. Why are we taking away the students down time. You might say, “Well David they’ll only do the work the last two weeks of summer.”

That’s even worse. So now it’s going to hang over their heads all summer and then they will rush to do what they have to do at the very end?

PS- ever seen a teacher look at a stack of 185 summer assigned essays or dialectical journals that they have to start grading on the first week of school. It’s not pretty.

ISSUE #4

Students ARE already busy learning in the summer. They play sports. They play video games. They travel. They read. They draw and paint. They attend camps. They play music. They socialize. They discover new local places. They date. They dream. They exercise. They sleep. They visit with family. They work at jobs. Whew.

Family

Some Alternative to the typical Summer Assignments

Idea #1

What if teachers on the campus created a Google Slide. One for each teacher. On the Google Slide was a list of ideas for students to learn about their world during the summer. Here’s an example:

 

Even if every teacher just had four ideas on a slide, students and their parents would have a ton of ideas and these ideas would help students and parents get to know the teachers better. Heck you could ask every staff member at your school to contribute including the district office. Can you imagine the conversations that would take place in the hallways the following school year?

Idea #2

Just have students keep a learning scrapbook. This learning scrapbook could have pictures, drawings, tweets, FB posts, logs of experiences, ANYTHING. Then the following school year have teachers in each subject ask students to take something from their learning log and apply it to something they are learning in class. Here is an example of what you could do.

Learning Log

Idea #3

A question log. Just have students keep track of questions all summer. They could post them on social media with a hashtag, put them under pictures in Instagram, or use them in class when they return. Students could prioritize their questions and do something with those essential questions. Students could ask the questions online via a Google form and then see if a staff member could answer the question(s). If students are asking questions during the summer. They are exercising their minds.

 Thai4

Idea #4

Trust parents that they know what’s best for their children and family and give THEM the choice of what to do with their precious summer vacation. There aren’t that many in one’s lifetime. Savor them. Give them back to the kids, as a wonderful gift from your staff.

I’m not the only one to question summer assignments. Even the New York Times weighed in on “The Crush of Summer Homework.”

One of my former FVHS students just wrote this brilliant blog post describing what her sister went through in preparing for her 9th grade summer reading. Yes she graduated last year… yes she is still writing on her blog. It’s a gold mine.

So am I way off base? Let me know by writing a comment below, write your own blog post response, or Tweet to me. Like This:

Sam

18 responses to “Why Do We Give Students Summer Assignments? Seriously, WHY?

  1. Beginning my second year as a k-5 tech integration specialist, I noticed my students had NO SUMMER SLIDE. In fact many of them learned more over the summer and were excited to share that with me as soon as they saw me.

  2. I live on a small island and there is nothing to do (besides swimming, etc. but Bahamian middle schoolers don’t realize how great it is). I don’t need to assign summer reading because they are constantly coming by my house, asking me to open the school so they can get more books. I love that reading is their best option and I learn a lot about them by their summer choices.

  3. Even though the teachers are the ones that come up with the summer assignments, the parents aren’t much different, making the child do a lot more. My mom made me complete the summer assignments in a certain amount of time just because of all my other activities. I was already busy most the summer, so it was more like I didn’t have much of a break. A breakdown of my schedule:
    Monday – 9-11 music, 11-3 Prep Classes, 5-7 Sports
    Tuesday – 11-3 Prep Classes, 5-7 Sports
    Wednesday – 5-7 Sports
    Thursday – same as Tuesday
    Friday, Saturday, Sunday – homework, practice, some break
    And two weeks before school I had band camp.
    The problem nowadays is that parents believe that the harder their kids can work, then the better it will make them a student. The normal teenager is allowed to have a real summer break, but some honors students like myself have to be stuck in a tiring summer where sometimes they think going back to school might even be better (but it really isn’t). Is it right for students to have a busy summer, or should it really be relaxing? In order for one to be successful, must one have to be tired? Is one able to still look forward to breaks if this is all that’s going to happen?

  4. This is a really thoughtful and engaging post!! Thank You. It fired me up to write a litte and I don’t really like to write. My comments below aren’t necessary directed at you, just my thoughts for others to read.

    You know what I’ve never done? I’ve never given homework over the summer. You know what I never would have thought would happen? Me standing in line at Costco running into a former student who barely got a C in my class, telling me she’s majoring in physics and wants to be a physics teacher because she learned to see the world differently in my class. Seriously? I never would have expected this!!! Never! And I don’t like saying never. But since I’m saying it, never!

    So assuming she has the right teacher, which I am not entirely sure she does, something most have gone right in my class even though I was totally unaware of it. I’m not sure what I did, if anything to foster this, but I really try to focus on the first week of school, because I know if I can get that right, it will cover a multitude of errors and setbacks. Wi-Fi doesn’t work, no text books for a week, can’t log into Canvas, all our laptops need to be updated to work. All NO problem if I build community and capacity in the first 5 days of school. It starts with a genuine smile and a handshake (which freaks some students out) and hopefully ends when they know I care about them more than I care about how good they do in my class or how many physics problems they get correct. Once we have that going for us, even complex circuit problems that students would never even dream of attempting, become something I have a hard time getting some of them to stop doing.

    I do have to give a test the first week or so of school. It’s a mandated lab safety test. The test is boring, mundane and mind numbing but necessary. I’m honest with the students about this and say here is the mandated safety test that I don’t like giving you but you all need to pass. We go over the safety guidelines and then I put it online and the students take it as many times as they need to until they get a 100% Some of them have to take it 3 times because there are some really tricky questions in there. I apologize and tell them they can outsmart the test and beat the system. They always do. If the point of a test is to learn, why shouldn’t they be able to take it again? Especially the first week of school when they’ve was NO instruction on the summer reading test. Sometimes we do things because that’s the way they have always been done. Sometimes we ‘have to’ for whatever reason. If you are in a situation like this, my advice is to be totally transparent with your students. I used to do a lot of “test-prep” because I wanted my students CST scores to look good. So we spent about 2-3 weeks before the CST gaming the system. My student teacher and I made a game out of the review questions that involved wagering points, the greedy doughboy and tower building. There was always a really dumb factoid question on transistors the students needed to know just a few buzzwords to get right. I was honest told them all this mattered for was the test and I need you guys to get it right for me. They did, and we went on our way and tried to have fun inspite of it.

    If you’re reading this don’t drain the fun out of learning! Everyone will tell you to start designing your lessons with the outcome/standard. I say the first thing you should think of is how can I make this fun, creative and meaningful for my students? The slide idea the David put up in this post is a beautiful example of that. What standard was that for? Start with something that matters then bring a standard into it and ask how does this demonstrate our help us to apply this standard. Standards, grades, tests, they don’t motivate teachers or students to become lifelong learners and people who make a difference. So let’s refuse to make a big fuss about them! We give them too much power. Focus on building the qualities that truly make a difference and a difference will be made.

  5. Pingback: Summer Homework: Had Me a Blast | Life as a Fish out of Water·

  6. I’m kind of torn. I feel like some classes are so overwhelming that you cannot fit the entire curriculum in the school year. That’s the College Board’s fault. For example, your student said the AP Bio homework was actually necessary. I teach a year long class that gets one semester credit so I have plenty of time. However, I’ve read some great books/articles that I would love my students to read as kind of an intro or interest spark to Psych. I don’t feel right testing students after a summer assignment on something that was not facilitated by a teacher. At least something complicated.

    I don’t think it should be a weeder assignment. Like you said, the classes they had before provided the weeding process. (Usually)

    As far as summer being an opportunity for freedom and no cares? It’s 2 1/2 months. I think it’s way too long and that it’s fine to expect that students can spend one week doing summer work, but I like the idea that it’s treated more as an opportunity for learning rather than a strict assignment with guidelines and a test when they get back. I would LOVE it if we had a community service requirement every year and way more than the 10 hours our students need to complete their senior year. What a great way to learn and give back!

    I’d also like to be more collaborative on campus regarding tests AND summer reading. What if we could do some cross curricular stuff? Or what if we scheduled our testing to minimize student stress. Some of my students have 4 tests on the same day.

    And I would LOVE to trust parents but sometimes they don’t do what’s in the best interest of their kid’s academic and/or emotional needs.

    So getting rid of summer homework as policy? I’m not such a fan, as it appears the curriculum in some classes is overwhelming even for teachers.

  7. Good points about the “Why?”.

    However, I have some issues with your issues.
    Issue #1: Students can read or review or learn things without the direct involvement of teachers. This is a good thing and something that all lifelong learners can do. I have my AP ES class interact on discussion boards on my website – it’s amazing to see how much students can teach each other! Also, most of my work can be finished in a couple days – it’s intended not to be burdensome.
    Issue #2: Gina answered this pretty thoroughly.
    Issue #3: My summer work is due about 3 weeks after school ends precisely so that students don’t have it hanging over their heads all summer – kids need a break! This also prevents me having to grade it in a rush the first week of school. I then give the work back a week before school begins so they can see what they need more help mastering before our first test.
    Issue #4: “Students ARE already busy learning in the summer.” I didn’t give them summer work because I thought their brains stopped learning in the summer. Obviously, I write my summer work to help them learn a few, particular things that they probably would not otherwise encounter (like contemplating adding insects to their diet!).

    The Ideas sound like lots of fun – I might just one of those next summer instead – thanks for the ideas!

    • Kurt. Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Would you mind linking to a description of your summer work/assignment? Do all the students in your school do this summer enrichment or just the AP students?

  8. What’s the point of a “vacation” if you have to work during it? Stupid. Just chill out. There will be plenty of education, and stress, come September.

  9. I’m going into 8th grade this year and the entire district decided to give every student from elementary to high school summer homework. It just started this year, which means I am used to having normal, care-free summers. This year however, students have to read a book suggested for third graders on amazon. (Yes THIRD graders,) and do a certain amount of math and reading projects from a list. Some of the required projects make the students post on a certain website. It is less than a week before school starts, and I still haven’t found that website. A friend of mine has, but is unable to send me the link due to the individual accounts we have to use to sign in. In fact, the school website is set up very poorly, and it is extremely difficult to even find the homework in the first place. Who wants to go to school and on the first day only to explain why they couldn’t even FIND their homework? There is no way the teachers will believe that. Where is the vacation in summer vacation?

  10. This is definitely food for thought. I teach high school English at a small international school in Korea, and I’ve pushed a summer reading assignment (even after our former admin left and it was no longer required) because for many of my students, it’s the only interaction with English they’ll have all summer long. Plus, my kids aren’t working and most of their friends are in school (Korean summer vacation is late July/August and only 3 weeks). I have them choose from a list of 8-10 books, and they have a journal/response assignment. Some of my kids (with or without the encouragement of their parents) will order every book on the list, which I think is cool. For the rest, though, I don’t know if the assignment is really very effective. I’m leaving this school this year, so it’s moot for next summer, but I’ll have to chew on this for the future.

  11. I am a former summer work assignment teacher. I am happy for report that I am fully recovered, proud to say. 🙂 I really like all of your alternative assignments. They easily integrate into the lives of students, are fun, and are authentic/meaningful. Thank you for posting.

  12. Great post.

    Not only are you expressing reasons against summer required reading, but multiple alternatives which privide deep learning on things that childrent may enjoy more.

    Im going to use this post to begin conversations in our district.

    Thank You

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