When I was in high school, summer vacation was a blur of glorious, heat-drenched, poolside nothingness. Coming from a family of modest means, we didn’t get sent to camp or leave town for some cool boardwalk. We swam at the public pool until we were waterlogged, hung out with friends watching dumb TV shows, loitered at the mall or used our allowance at a matinee or the video arcade. Lucky ones among us might have secured a cool job or even fallen in love but, mostly, we did a whole lot of nothing and it was great. But, eventually, September was right around the corner and then even the most despondent of us would have to admit to a little happy anticipation over back-to-school. Summer nothingness was over, time for new classes, new teachers, new clothes, seeing all your friends every day and the excitement of a new grade. We felt ready to go back.
Now I have a highschooler, as well as a soon-to-be-highschooler. And, summer isn’t like this anymore… especially if you are in AP or Honors classes.
Today’s topic is the summer work required of Honors and AP students. I am proud that my sophomore son is taking Honors English and AP History classes this year. Last year, he truly enjoyed the challenge of their less linear, more creative approach and the way, as he put it, they (the teachers) don’t talk to you like you’re stupid. But, if you are an Honors or AP student, for each class, you will have some pretty heavy summer assignments to complete by the first day of school. That’s the dealio… go ahead and Google “AP honors summer homework” and you will see pages and pages of these assignments from every corner of America. Do it. See it for yourself. But, before you do, really take a moment to remember your own teenaged summer vacations.
I figured I should have a handle on what he’s been asked to do, so I reviewed the assignments for his two classes. The collective page count for just the reading is 1,560 pages. One thousand, five hundred and sixty pages. In the summer. If you read every single day, you would need to read 20 pages a day–which is not a lot except for the fact that, let’s face it, teenagers really aren’t going to read on weekends, and don’t really feel like reading at their mountain or beach vacations. They don’t read at camp where the days are full of camp activities, and they don’t read during summer parties and events with family and friends. They don’t read while they work out or play sports, during volunteer work, at a job, or in the middle of their favorite recreation. With the days needed to do the writing assignments and the extra research required for them, it becomes clear. This is a lot of pages to read! And, as the low budget info-mercials say… But, wait, there’s more!
The writing assignments. While appropriate for the reading, I feel they are oppressive for summer vacation. The History writing pieces include, for one, an author study, primary and secondary sources, parenthetical citations and MLA works cited page and, for the other, an outline for an oral presentation with specific instruction that they are not allowed to collaborate at all, even in preparation, with another History student. In English, they are to identify various literary allusions in Beowolf, including Biblical. My son has never had any Biblical studies classes and asked me if he should just start reading the Bible and try to figure out where the allusions are. I hardly knew how to answer him, if only for the fact that, when it’s 97 degrees and I hear things like parenthetical citations and MLA works cited page, I tend to glaze over a little bit.
But, Catcher In The Rye, that quintessential teenaged novel, was on the list! He eagerly knocked it out in less than a week, laughing out loud, quoting text to me after he knew that I’d also read it, making comparisons to contemporary, cynical types like David Sedaris and Jon Stewart. Perhaps there is some connection to enthusiasm over reading and learning and texts that are interesting to kids? Hmmm.
Much to-do was made about the over 1,000 parents who attended “Race To Nowhere” at our school and joined in on the post-film discussion with concerns that our kids, many of them “smart” already, are having their childhoods stolen from them by way of all this academic stress. But right now, I’m also really upset that I have become the summer Homework Police and Taskmaster, as well as the on-site mentor/tutor. At the very moment that every adolescent psychologist would agree I should be cultivating a trusting and effective relationship with my teenager, I have to nag him to do his work and keep reminding him of the dire consequences of not completing it. It has changed the whole tenor of our house. I find it even more ironic that the kids who get the most summer work are often the kids who, throughout the school year, demonstrate the most academic competency. I guess it’s the booby prize of academic achievement.
So, the argument goes like this: if they are capable of honors classes, they should be capable of managing the summer work and, if they aren’t, they shouldn’t be in the classes. I understand the need for that argument but disagree wholeheartedly. I think days without the rigor of the early morning school schedule to sleep in late, spend time with friends and family, to travel, to volunteer for the needed community service hours, to go to the gym, to help your mom with yardwork, go to the pool, take bike rides, to watch movies together to sit around and stare at your yard or to play video games, look at Facebook, to fall in love or (gasp) to do just plain old NOTHING… well, I think there is value in all of this, too.
If we were all honest and realistic about the ways that teens really behave and what we can and should expect that they be motivated to do, we would handle this differently, but we are often neither honest nor realistic. To me, this whole summer homework business just goes with the jumbled up mess of our current education system and our often misguided interpretation of how these 21st Century Kids learn.
So, why don’t you put them in school all year? Give them thousands of pages to read and papers to write. Stretch their brains and urge them to stretch their capabilities. But stop making this happen in my home, on my family time. Because, I would rather be cultivating a relationship with my children that study after study shows is more important than any other relationship they’ll have and that I feel should be happening in a summer full of FUN, friendship, sleeping in late and lazing at the beach reading something that they are interested in reading before it’s time to return to the academic year! They’re kids. They have a whole lifetime to spend summers worrying about what is and isn’t getting done. There is plenty of data on why summer work is so wrong headed, but I particularly like this quote from Gloria Pipkin that I found on the NEA (National Education Association) web site:
“Of course we want our students to read over the summer, but I’ve yet to be convinced that the typical summer reading assignment does much to extend love of reading or increase literary competence. There may be a handful of students who can’t wait to tackle our scintillating assignments on their summer vacation, but for the most part, summer reading assignments are regarded as a plague and a pox, even by avid readers, who much prefer choosing their own books.”
I found a school in nearby Montclair, NJ that eliminated the summer homework program. Take a moment to read this short article and be sure to scroll down to the four reader’s comments which tell the story beautifully.
I’d love for you to comment here on this blog with your thoughts. Whether you are a teacher, an administrator or a parent, I’d like to know… what do you think about summer homework?
TRY THIS WEEK: Really remember the sights, sounds, tastes, smells and feelings of your teenaged summer vacation.