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The Thrill Of Summer School Culture

“Do they have schools that do this all the time?”

“Do what?” I asked my summer school student for clarification.

“Have just one long class instead of a bunch of different ones.”

As I thought about his question, possible answers and complicating factors raced through my head: teachers’ contracts, graduation requirements, the length of the day, space and facilities. I didn’t share these considerations. Instead I just said, “Probably,” and was sure to ask, “Why?”

He explained that he liked having more time in class, he liked that he didn’t feel rushed, and because of the smaller class size he felt he was able to focus more. I had only met the student two days before, but we had already spent over 10 hours together due to our intensive summer school schedule. As it turned out, we liked summer school for the same reason: longer, smaller classes.

But one of his reasons didn’t sit right with me: He said he didn’t feel rushed. I certainly felt rushed. We had just under 40 hours in two weeks to prepare for the Living Environment Regents exam. I had to condense and prioritize a curriculum I loved. I had to figure out exactly what my students knew and didn’t know, and how they liked to learn. My job was definitely a rush job.

I know I can take it as a compliment that my student didn’t sense my stress, but I wish I had been able to convey a greater sense of urgency and individual ownership over their success on the exams. For while I have strong opinions about the validity and use of high-stakes testing, I have an even stronger desire to keep that opinion outside of my classroom. It is important for my students to do well on the Regents exams. My students need these exams to graduate, and for many entering the SUNY and CUNY system, their results may be used to determine placement in their post-secondary programs.

With only 17 students, a large classroom (with air conditioning), and four hours a day, summer school feels very different than the regular school year. The smaller number of students allows me not only to spend more time with each of them during class, but also to think of them more individually during planning and spend more time looking at their assessments and giving feedback. It’s easier for me to be the teacher I aspire to be in this setting, and so I look to tweak my practices and try new techniques that I want to bring to full scale during the academic school year.

One thing I’ve learned is that its really important to be clear and upfront with my students about why and how we’re learning, but to also be succinct.

I’m workshopping a few catchphrases that I’ve borrowed and tweaked along the way. “The person doing the doing is doing the learning,” to emphasize the importance of actively engaging in whatever activity or learning is going on. “The Regents isn’t a test of what you’ve learned, its a test of what you remember,” to help students understand the importance of repetition and practice. And, perhaps most importantly, “Let’s be kind.” I’m learning to speak more about kindness because I think it has a more shared definition than other words I could use like respect or good.

Each of these phrases needs to be aligned to instructional activities that promote engagement, ensure retention, and develop a positive classroom culture (and I’m working on those too), but it starts with getting students on board. If I’m not selling it, they’re not going to buy it.

I certainly have work to do in my own classroom and school towards building a culture of excellence and determination, and having a language to speak with students is an important step. But before September, I still have 17 students, 16 hours, and one Living Environment Regents exam.

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