The midpoint of summer will soon be upon us. At this juncture, the final days of last school year represent increasingly distant memories. The change of pace afforded by the break from classes has likely taken hold and restored some energy. Yet, as I write, close to seven weeks of summer break still remain.
Now, I embrace summer’s more leisurely pace as much as anyone. Yet, as my career in school leadership has evolved I have increasingly found myself wondering whether summer break represents too much of a good thing. In this day and age, it puzzles me that a school like Parish would take an 85 day hiatus from pursuing its mission to prepare young people for the complex global society that awaits them.
Of course, most schools like Parish do stay somewhat engaged in the business of education during the summer months. Through ParishVirtual, our blended education program, close to 30% of our US students take for credit courses in subjects like religion, health, and history. They come to campus during the summer for 7-10 face-to-face engagements but otherwise complete their 6-8 hours of weekly coursework on their own schedule.
Our EXTEND summer program welcomes close to 500 young people to campus each week for a variety of courses, some academic, others not, but all offering students the opportunity to build skills, self-awareness, and confidence.
And through ParishAbroad, our global travel program, our students have journeyed to places like Peru, Spain, and Mexico to experience a new culture, hone leadership skills, study a foreign language, and/or engage in service activities.
Increasingly, though, I’ve wondered how Parish might play a larger role enriching the lives of students in those 85 days when they are “on summer break.” Is this something our families even desire? If so, what type of programming might engage students? What new expenses would it introduce to us as a school? What would it cost our families? How sustainable would it be for teachers and students with finite stores of energy, campus facilities which absorb added wear and tear, and administrators who need planning time to launch the new school year?
Beyond these questions, there is the reality that for a student population like Parish’s summer is anything but languid. Students attend camps or special programs – my middle son just returned from a two week backpacking trip in the Tetons with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), for example – pick up valuable work experience (as my eldest is), or broaden their global and cultural competency through travel with their families.
Clearly school as we offer it and students experience it for 9 months will not compete in the summer. I don’t believe our teachers, students, or families want 85 more days of “school as usual” in June and July. But it seems there might be a middle ground. While I do not have any immediate answers, an audiobook I am listening to this summer has provided a useful stimulant to further thinking.
In I Love Learning, I Hate School: An Anthropology of College, author and anthropologist Susan Blum offers a commentary on the state of higher education, a system she believes needs “radical transformation.” A decade of research – including 300 student interviews and another 200 surveys (many done at Notre Dame where she is a professor) – has brought Blum to a conclusion: Our system of compulsory education – replete with its adult-curated and delivered curriculum and incentivized by grades and competition rather than student interest or engagement – has made schooling transactional. The learner does it because she has to while her more relevant, connected, and engaging learning occurs elsewhere.
Blum presents a framework befitting her identity as an anthropologist and informing to ruminations on what role, if any, school might play during the summer. Blum characterizes higher education as “Learning in the cage.” This term, which could aptly extend to educational institutions below the collegiate level, describes learning environments where students sit still in chairs; comply with the predominate expectation that they listen quietly; and complete the “schoolwork” prescribed to them. Schoolwork is just that – “work” to be tolerated until learning which occurs more naturally and engagingly can begin, often away from school.
“Learning in the wild,” on the other hand, Blum characterizes as “learning by doing, learning through play, observation, imitation, trial and error, guided participation, and apprenticeships, in which young people or novices are assigned to an expert to learn a craft or a trade.” When I think of what kids do during the summer, I think “learning in the wild.” If school is ever going to penetrate the mindset of “summer break,” we best consider Blum’s paradigm.
At Parish, we want our whole program to be more “learning in the wild” than “learning in a cage.” We are presently trying to reimagine school at Parish to infuse it with learning experiences which reflect the voices and choices of students, which engage them in meaningful, authentic work, and which focus more on building powerful habits of mind than warehousing endless volumes of content. Maybe once we complete the design of our reimagined model to reflect these outcomes, students would find the notion of being disconnected from us for 85 days as bewildering as I do today!