By guest blogger Madeline Will
“If you’ve got big dreams and I know you all do,” Obama told students this week, “if you want to go to college, want to get a good job, want to make the most of your potential—then summer can’t just be a vacation. This is really a time to try and get ahead.”
The first lady celebrated Summer Learning Day at the U.S. Department of Education, alongside more than 200 students and education leaders. This is the 11th annual Summer Learning Day, an event spearheaded by the National Summer Learning Association, and it features hundreds of events across the country, from Florida and New Hampshire to California.
In her June 20 speech, Obama encouraged students to use summer as a chance to develop new skills, catch up in school, and build a network of mentors.
“No matter what you do, every single one of you should read, read, read,” she urged. “Reading might be the most important thing you can do for the future, and you can never do enough of it.”
Obama’s speech fits in with her Reach Higher initiative to encourage more young people to pursue higher education. (The first lady wrote about the new initiative in the latest issue of Education Week.)
Obama warned that students who aren’t reading or learning in the summer can lose ground—up to three months of knowledge—when school starts back in the fall, which she said could make a difference for years to come.
This isn’t the first time the first lady has brought up summer learning loss. Back in 2010, Obama drew attention to the issue at an event for the launch of the “Let’s Read, Let’s Move” initiative.
She hasn’t explicitly focused on the issue since, but Sarah Pitcock, the CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, told me the message of Let’s Move—the first lady’s campaign against childhood obesity—is very much in line with the summer learning movement.
Pitcock said summer learning loss has become much more widely-known in the last decade, and Obama’s attention to the matter will only help increase public understanding.
“She is so well-respected and well-regarded, and for her to use her voice in this issue demonstrates its importance,” Pitcock said.
The event brought together groups of students from across the country who are participating in summer-learning programs, as well as after-school initiatives and other opportunities to learn beyond the school day. Booths set up at the Education Department headquarters in downtown Washington displayed projects and examples of what participating students have been learning.
Students from the group Global Kids, for example, showcased an educational game they developed that focuses on baseball legend Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in the major league. Other topics featured by young people included financial literacy and biology.
After Obama’s speech, I spoke with several students who said the first lady’s advice inspired and encouraged them.
Rhece Denmon-Nixon, a 12-year-old participant of the After-School All-Stars program, delivered a presentation to Obama personally about nutrition and portion control.
“She was different than I thought—I didn’t know she’d be that nice,” Rhece said afterwards. “She said I would go places in life.”
Photo: First lady Michelle Obama speaks with Rhece Denmon-Nixon, a participant in the After-School All-Stars program, on June 20 at the 11th Annual Summer Learning Day at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington. -Charles Dharapak/AP
A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.