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Making Summer Count

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The calendar for the U.S. education system is based on our agrarian past. For three months in June, July, and August, families were busy tending crops and bringing in the harvest. Although farmers now comprise only 2 percent to 3 percent of our population, almost all of our public and private schools remain fixed on the agrarian calendar, with its summer vacation. What do our students do with this three-month breather?

Not enough. Each fall, teachers spend almost the first month of school reviewing skills and materials students have forgotten over the long break.

So how can students get the most out of their long summers? Advanced planning is the answer. But students themselves, mired in the gray winter slush of unending homework, feel more than a little lucky to have three months of relative ease just down the road. Planning ahead to make wise use of summer vacation is the last thing on their list.

Although teenagers and their parents will ultimately determine how productive the summer months turn out to be, schools and teachers can offer a few well-timed suggestions to help make the break as worthwhile as possible. Who knows? A good set of tips and a little student follow-through may just make the fall easier for teachers and have a subtle impact on students' maturity and eagerness to learn.

What's needed? As a starting place, schools may want to publish a timely bulletin listing meaningful summer options and their benefits. Such a list should include key addresses and phone numbers that students or parents can use to obtain further information. It could be sent home with student report cards just before spring break--the time students and parents should start thinking about summer plans.

What specifically can schools recommend? I'd suggest four broad areas of focus: reading, jobs, challenges, and community service.

1. Reading. Secondary school English departments often assign summer reading, but schools should also encourage students to read for themselves in areas of their own personal interest. Through such reading, students can develop real expertise in a particular subject area--and, as we know, expertise breeds confidence. Students may want to focus, for example, on a particular genre (science fiction, mystery, or biography) or a particular subject (military history, biology, or technology). Or they may choose to read everything by a favorite author (Mildred Taylor, Laura Ingalls Wilder, C.S. Lewis, or Michael Crichton, to name but a few).

Summer reading has additional benefits. It can help students build vocabulary and improve comprehension. For high school juniors and seniors, it can give them something to offer up when college-admissions interviewers look over the top of their glasses and say, "Well, outside of your courses and required reading, what is the most exciting book you've read on your own this past year?"

What should students read? School administrators could ask teachers in each discipline to distribute an age-appropriate reading list of their favorite titles in that given subject. Science teachers might come up with books like Marie Curie: A Life and Lost Moon; math teachers might suggest Flatland and The Man Who Knew Infinity; history teachers, The Killer Angels, Aztec, and The Source; PE teachers, A Sense of Where You Are and Brian Piccolo: A Short Season; and arts teachers, Lust for Life and Favorite Intermissions. Foreign language teachers might recommend historical novels in English about countries where the particular language is spoken, biographies of famous people from those countries, or, for more advanced students, shorter classics in the target language. The possibilities, of course, are endless.

2. Jobs. Summer work can reap greater rewards than money. It can give young people a sense of responsibility and accomplishment, improve their interpersonal skills, and instill self-confidence. What's more, colleges and universities, as well as future employers, expect high school students to have taken summer jobs. They are frequently a focus of college and job interviews. A particular summer job might tell an interviewer something about a young applicant's curiosity, initiative, interests, or sense of responsibility and commitment.

3. Challenges. Immersing young people in challenging or rigorous physical or mental activities can stretch them in ways that schools can't--or don't. The summer break affords the perfect opportunity for such activities, whether they be artistic, athletic, or intellectual. And the rewards often last far beyond summer's end.

Schools might suggest that students consider: a course with the National Outdoor Leadership School or Outward Bound; soccer, music, or drama camp; tennis lessons; or an overseas exchange program, such as American Field Service or Youth for Understanding. Schools could also steer students toward a summer class--at a high school or college in this country or abroad--in an area of interest, such as photography, ceramics, creative writing, archaeology, or foreign policy.

One considerable drawback to such summer options is that most cost money, but financial aid is often available.

4. Community Service. For many young people, the high school years are a time of self-centeredness. Community service can open new vistas--onto the world and into the self. It can acquaint youngsters with people whose problems are greater than their own, foster a sense of caring and pride in helping others, and lead to new friendships. It can also broaden perspectives on issues such as pollution and aging.

What can students do? Here are just a few of the many possibilities: volunteer in a hospital or library; build houses with Habitat for Humanity or a similar local organization; read to the blind; or offer time and companionship to someone in a nursing home.

Ten to 12 weeks is a long vacation. Yes, students need a break from the rigors of academics, but they should be encouraged to use this valuable period for other endeavors, as well. It can be a vital time of discovery and growth. And teachers benefit, too. After a summer of such experiences, youngsters just may return to class in the fall with increased confidence, greater awareness of themselves and others, and a newfound eagerness to learn.

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