Educators offer strategies to keep learning on track
By Chris Muise
For most kids, summer break is the ultimate highlight of the year. It’s the time of year where they can set aside their books, get away from their desks, and have fun being a kid for two months straight.
Problem is, according to Nova Scotian educators, that long a break from the classroom can stifle a student’s progress early into the next school year. Many of them will have forgotten things they learned before the break, meaning time needs to be spent reviewing foundational curriculum before the student can progress forward.
You may have heard this phenomenon referred to as “Summer Slump.” But, with a little forewarning and planning, parents can mitigate its ill effects.
Hannah Horne-Robinson is the executive director of Sylvan Learning Centre’s HRM chapter, and she says the Summer Slump is no myth. She sees it rear its head every fall.
“We can give a test on June 30, and give it again on September first, same exact test, and see lower scores,” Horne-Robinson says. “Teachers see that. That’s why September is usually a review month.”
Horne-Robinson says Sylvan regularly sees an influx of tutoring sessions around mid-October, about the time the results of the first tests of the year come home, fuelled by parents shocked their children are struggling at something they seemed to have mastered in June.
As the guidance counsellor for Georges P. Vanier Junior High in Fall River, Ron Nugent also notices the struggle to launch at the beginning of the new school year among his students.
“September, October, when the kids come back to school, that’s when I’m probably the busiest. I get a lot of calls from parents,” Nugent says. “When [the students] come back in September, you really see the stagnancy in their thinking and their problem solving. That’s something you see every year.”
Nugent says it often falls on the teachers to gauge if and how much review is needed at the start of a new school year.
“They’re ready to go with the new curriculum, but they’ll throw out a little refresher sheet, or some sort of refresher from the previous grade just to see where the (students) are at,” Nugent says. “And often times, they have to re-teach the previous year’s curriculum, do a quick snapshot of it all.”
It’s not just multiplication tables and critical reading skills that can slip, even classroom etiquette like sitting quietly, paying attention, and respecting the teacher can lapse, causing further interruptions in the learning process.
Lalia Kerr, a teacher at Three Mile Plains Elementary, has reason to believe that losing the discipline of the classroom structure for two months, and coming back to a brand-new classroom and a brand-new teacher, has more impact on the summer slump phenomenon than does actual loss of knowledge on the kids’ part.
“What they might lose are gains they’ve made that aren’t actually gains at all. They’re simply little tricks we’ve taught them to do,” says Kerr, a teaching veteran of 29 years. “Then they get a new teacher, and they no longer have that bag of tricks being fed to them.”
Where Kerr teaches, the teachers teach two grade levels at a time, a teaching style called looping. Kerr teaches first and second grade together, meaning every year she’s seeing familiar faces return to her class. That familiarity helps cut through the effects of the Summer Slump, in her experience.
“I come in and I know my kids; the kids come in, they know me. Now, half my class doesn’t, but they follow the lead of the older kids,” says Kerr, who pushed for looping classrooms at her school. “That two-year business has made a huge difference. It has made a difference in bullying, it’s made a difference in behaviour, it’s made a difference in anxiety. It’s made a difference in all of those mental health areas, as well as in the academic.”
Besides finding a looped classroom for your child, you might be asking, what can be done about the slump? There are some in the education profession who would like to see the way kids take breaks from school change.
The current two-month summer break model evolved from an agrarian culture, where kids were often needed to help on family farms during the planting season. That model is outdated, according to educators like Horne-Robinson and Nugent.
“I absolutely hate the two-month summer break. I think it’s way too long, and I think it does produce a gap in our education,” Nugent says. “It takes kids out of their element. It also takes teachers out of their element. As much as teachers need a break, and the kids need the break too, two months is too long.”
“Personally, I do like the European model, where they have shorter vacations throughout the year,” Horne-Robinson says. “That way, you’re always looking forward to something exciting, you’re not going too long between any individual break.”
However, with parents’ work schedules, summer camps, and travel industries so tied to the two-month summer model, it’s unlikely any other style of break will take hold anytime soon. But according to educators, there are things parents can do to stymie the slump.
“What they need more than anything is practice. That’s something that parents can easily do during the summer,” says Kerr, who likens summer studies to training in any sport during the off-season. “That’s consolidating those strategies and that learning. It’s practice. That’s the magic.”
“Keep those skills sharp. If everybody was on the same page, with regards to keeping their kids academically sharp throughout the summer months… the teachers could start the new curriculum,” says Nugent, who makes sure his own eighth-grade son completes weekly math sheets over the break. “I’m not suggesting they do schoolwork every day, because they need a break from the regiment of school, but I am suggesting they do a weekly journal, a weekly reading, look at some of the different types of math that are in the real world.”
That strategy has worked out so far for Christine Poirier, mother of two.
“That’s when I tend to get the most books from the library, for the kids,” Poirier says. “It’s an opportunity to get books that are more in-tune with their specific interests, so they’re more apt to read them themselves over the summer. That’s how I keep them reading over the summer.”
Horne-Robinson says summer is not just for keeping current. It’s also an important time for kids who are struggling below their grade level to catch up and start the new year on even footing with their peers. But she knows not all kids are eager to spend their free time doing school work, especially those who have difficulty with the material. That friction can make it hard for parents to ensure their children are keeping current with their study skills.
“That’s where we often come in,” says Horne-Robinson, who adds that Sylvan offers a summer maintenance program, and can also offer more robust tutoring for kids who need to catch up.
But learning needn’t stop at the class room or the kitchen table. One of the advantages of summer break is the multitude of experiential learning opportunities that present themselves over the break. Summer camps and day camp programs of every shape and size exist to cater to a child’s interests.
“Do a mixture of different activities with your summer break time,” Horne-Robinson says. “Take a camp that’s more academic, like Mini University at Dal, or the Shad Valley Camp for high school students. Take art-based camps, take sports-based camps.”
Encouraging activities that kids enjoy that have educational value is also a good way to keep them invested.
“He plays these Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh games, and it kind of keeps him sharp, because there’s a lot of adding and subtracting with that,” says Rey Goguen, about his 10-year-old son Aden. “Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh are games he wants to play, it’s not something I push on him at all.”
“Playing cards just helps you stay focused,” Aden adds. “Then next year, you don’t forget all the information. You don’t forget how to calculate. Then you’re ahead of the game.”
Even everyday life offers chances to disguise skill maintenance as something fun or easy.
“Learning doesn’t necessarily just happen in the classroom,” says Kerr, suggesting nature offers lots of learning opportunities. “Let’s explore bubbles and air today; let’s fly a kite.”
“There’s a lot of, like, can you sneak things in all the time, that a lot of parents do,” Horne-Robinson says. “I have to do my grocery list and you’re going to write it.”
With a myriad of different strategies to defeating the Summer Slump ahead of September at your disposal, try some out and keep whatever sticks. But Horne-Robinson urges that, at the very least, always have your kids doing something. Don’t let them spend their entire summers on screens, like a bump on a log.
“Don’t stop learning. No matter what it is, don’t stop,” she says. “It doesn’t always have to be hard work. But learn things.”
Three steps to defeating summer slump
By Hannah Horne-Robinson
1. “The first is take a good, hard look at that end-of-year report card. Where is your student? Are they ending at grade level, where they should be, and just need to maintain? Or are they ending not at grade level and need to spend some time boosting that?”
2. “Have a range of activities, some free time where they’re doing their own thing playing outside, some time where it’s structured so they’re still having that routine. Don’t [let them] spend the whole summer inside playing video games. Do different activities. Learn other things they can connect to their academic life.”
3. “What activities can you do at home? You can get books out, you can read the newspaper together, you can do the crossword puzzle together, especially if it’s a fun, relationship-building experience with your child. You don’t need money to do a lot of those activities.”
Halifax Regional Municipality Summer Camps: halifax.ca/recreation/programs-activities/summer-camps
Halifax Public Libraries Reading Supports: halifaxpubliclibraries.ca/services/learning/child-read-support.html
Nova Scotia Tourism Fun Family Road Trip: novascotia.com/explore/road-trips/family-fun
Discovery Centre: thediscoverycentre.ca
Sylvan Learning Centres Halifax/Dartmouth/Bedford: locations.sylvanlearning.com/ca/halifax-ns
Summer Math Skills Sharpeners: summerskills.com/summerskillsbooks/math_books
Summer Reading Guides: readingrockets.org/books/summer