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What Did You Do This Summer?

Thoughts on a Classroom Cliché

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As classes resume across the nation for the bright-eyed 1st grader and the drowsy high school senior alike, one of the more revealing questions a teacher can ask a student is one that seems so clichéd: So, what have you done over the summer?

Children will talk about it, write about it, draw it, and perhaps in the classrooms of some really creative teachers, act it out. It is such a textbook, ice-breaker activity.

I always debate whether to go there. Shouldn’t we discuss what the kids read over the summer or dive right into the curriculum? My gut usually tells me no one is ready for that on the first day.

The fact is, I’m intrigued by the students’ responses. Children’s out-of-school experiences vary so widely. In the comfortable suburb where I work, students can ride (their own) horses, attend expensive summer camps, or vacation in Europe. Some kids stay local, where they are too overscheduled, jumping from one two-week camp to the next. But I have also had students who claimed they “did nothing,” and when I press them, I find they aren’t lying. They hang around the house, watch television, and play video games. More than a few students report being bored.

This astonishes me. I wonder how eight weeks of vacation can be boring. Aren’t the kids getting outside? Don’t they ride their bikes until it’s dark? Don’t they lie on someone’s driveway watching for shooting stars? Aren’t they flipping over rocks on the banks of some brook to search for salamanders?

I wonder how eight weeks of vacation can be boring. Aren’t the kids getting outside? Don’t they ride their bikes until it’s dark?

Alas, not every student grew up in the neighborhood I did, where we played hide-and-seek until our parents called out search parties to come get us. But the summer-vacation discussions, as trite as they may seem, invariably bring me back to my own childhood, when summer days were primarily spent discovering and exploring. They were never boring. And they rarely involved video games, even though technologically, Nintendo was a giant leap forward from Atari.

I also did not attend many camps or play on organized sports teams in the summer. In fact, there was no structure to my summers at all beyond the regular family vacation and a general time for lunch and dinner. I played outside all day, just about every day. We despised the rain. We played baseball in the street using a metal bat and tennis ball, which in retrospect was probably not a good idea, considering the number of times the ball dented someone’s aluminum siding. We rode without permission to the center of town on our bikes—without helmets, and sometimes with a friend on the handlebars. In junior high, a bunch of us filmed a seven-minute horror movie loosely based on “Friday the 13th.” I was clobbered over the head with a tree limb and dropped into some tall weeds.

Our summers were marked by grass stains. We built ramps out of plywood and cinder blocks to ride our bikes off. We reluctantly went home for food and drank water from outdoor spigots to avoid going inside. If it did rain, we played hours of Uno or Monopoly or traded baseball cards.

More than 20 years have passed since those days, and I’m refreshed to hear when kids say they still play ball in the cul-de-sac, spend hours in the woods, and swim until their skin is pruned. When I pose the summer-vacation question, I’m hopeful children get to have generous blocks of unstructured time all their own and can figure out productive, creative, and active ways to spend it. This is especially a concern with childhood-obesity rates reaching ridiculous levels and the fact that there is now even a condition known as “nature-deficit disorder.”

I will listen with great interest when students talk with each other about their summer vacations this year. I will privately wish better things for the kids who sat cooped up inside every day. And I will likely smile when a kid describes how he built a tree fort or crawled through the pipe of a storm drain and found the river into which it empties. He will surely have something to write about.

Vol. 27

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