Monday #50: Summer Bummer


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.

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About Dar Hosta James

I am an artist living in New Jersey. I write and illustrate children's books, paint, draw, blog, coach, teach and speak about creativity.
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12 Responses to Monday #50: Summer Bummer

  1. Jamie Perkins says:

    Excellent blog. You hit the nail on the head with the the comment about summer work being the booby prize for academic achievement. These are the kids who demonstrate mastery during the school year; why can’t they have some downtime? (That paper is overkill, by the way. Oh my word…paranthetical citations and MLA works cited? I have a Secondary Ed English degree and that makes me want to say, “Yuck!”)

  2. Aimee Wieland says:

    Aimee Wilkens Wieland I agree totally. What got me about your post was the biblical part. How ethnocentric. Whatever happened to, “Read these books and be ready to talk about them in September?” I read 1984 and Brave New World for summer reading, both of which left a lasting impresion on me. I think every child should read over the summer, not just the brightest few, but requiring hours of work? Inappropriate. Even worse are the parents that WANT this for their child. I see it in my 2nd grade parents.

    I’m sure this isn’t the popular opinion, but maybe, just maybe, you need to back off and stop nagging. Allow your son to monitor his own learning. How else will he learn the “OH CRAP” feeling we’ve all felt when work due isn’t finished and learn to self-monitor? Then you can focus on your relationship and not on being the task master.

    I’m glad there are some parents out there who still say less is more…because it is.

    • Dar Hosta says:

      Thanks, Aimee. For the record…. While admittedly a secular individual, I am all in favor of religious STUDY at school, having been a religious studies minor, myself, in college. I take issue, however, with assigning students a task that they may not be academically prepared for. Asking for Biblical allusions isn’t objectionable to me… it just assumes that all of the kids being asked to do this come with a knowledge base to do so. Perhaps I should have stated this in my column…. I do not want this to become a conversation about religion. I think all reasonable and intelligent people can agree that studying the world’s religions is extremely worthwhile and can be enormously interesting. But, assignments given outside the classroom for independent summer work cannot possibly occur on a level playing field for the kids given the fact that neither students nor teachers know each other. The students have no idea what their audience (the teacher) prefers and the assigning teacher is also in the dark about his/her student’s backgrounds and knowledge base at this point.

      • Aimee Wieland says:

        For the record…I agree. If as student is assigned something it should build upon prior knowledge. Assuming kids all have biblical prior knowledge is not appropriate, thus my ethnocentric comment.

  3. Pam Swallow says:

    The amount of summer work that you describe doesn’t leave much time for another summer activity that I feel is valuable for high school students — summer work experience. I learned a great deal from the various summer jobs I had throughout high school. My children benefited in innumerable ways from their summer work experiences, as well. What a shame if those opportunities are lost because of such a heavy academic summer workload.

  4. Your blog post raises lots of issues in my mind. For one thing, I’m kind of glad Zack’s honors English class required him to read Grapes of Wrath this summer because he’s enjoying it. And truth be told, he doesn’t usually enjoy books too much during the school year because they are constantly interrupted to take notes and reflect (all important, but analysis, in my opinion, does sometimes get in the way of a good story). Yes, he’ll have to write a three page paper but it doesn’t seem as crazy as the Beowulf assignment. And if he has other assignments for honors history or science classes, well we don’t know about them yet. (Getting back to Beowulf, why would they even need the darn class if they already understood all the literary/biblical illusions in Beowulf? We learned about them and discussed them in honors English CLASS, guided by the teacher and other students, in COLLEGE!!!). Now putting all this aside, my other thought is the assumption that kids should do this work instead of lolling their days away is really quite elitist. Our kids are lucky that we are home to hound them or ignore them as we wish. If you work full time outside the home, your kids may be in summer camp to avoid leaving them home all day. And given college costs and reductions in aid (don’t even get me started on that one), kids may need to be working full time summer jobs to save for tuition (assuming they can find a job…). That kid (as opposed to our kids) now has homework at night after a long hot day at camp or at work. It’s not just interfering with their fun lazy days. OK, I’ve got more but I’ve got to get back to work. Tuition bills looming…

    • Dar Hosta says:

      There are few things that this English major enjoys more than watching her kids read with personal enjoyment. And, my son would agree that note-taking and analysis often interrupts the enjoyment of reading. Today, by pure coincidence, I noticed yesterday’s column by Virgian Heffernan, which made it to the #3 spot of “most emailed,” in which she derides the traditional term paper or report as the measure of academic comprehension. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/07/education-needs-a-digital-age-upgrade/?src=me&ref=general

      My concern about homework of any kind, at any time of the year, has always been in regard to its meaningfulness. Furthermore, requiring the students who exhibit the most mastery during the school year to participate in compulsory year-round school, and cloak it with “collegiate readiness,” seems to me like the very case the Race To Nowhere filmmakers were making. Simply put, our children actually are not in college right now.

      Incidentally, I worked part-time all my high school summers in between the lolling around. I also received full Pell Grants for all my years at MU, a time, of course, when the cost of an entire undergraduate degree was almost less than the current price of a single year of higher learning. Still, my student loans were only paid off within the last decade. My, how times have changed.

      • Anonymous says:

        I noticed my Freudian typo: biblical allusions–not illusions…though who am I to say theat they are not both accurate…
        And, yes, I agree with you about meaningful homework. I remember when we took Jesse, then in second grade, to California for the 50th anniversary celebration of a very close aunt and uncle of mine–the sister of my father who died when I was four. He was going to miss several days of school. The teacher gave him pages upon pages upon pages of worksheets (40 if I recall). Second grade!!! I gave him 2 sheets for each concept and threw out the rest!
        As for aid, my friend’s son just found out (a few days ago, and a week before he was leaving) that he cannot go back for his senior year at a Florida state college because all aid — including work study– was cut to give the limited aid $ they have to incoming freshman. We are creating a society where only the very wealthy will be educated. The story in yesterday’s NYTimes about high school students going on worldwide adventures so they could have something meaningful to write in a college essay made my blood boil. I don’t begrudge them the adventure…just the motivation…off topic, but what the hell.
        And yes, Mizzou was a bargain for me, too, even coming from out of state.

  5. Cathie Pesa says:

    “Sometimes… let’s just blow bubbles, for no good reason,
    let’s just blow bubbles- laugh a little, watch them disappear,
    Smile and touch the rainbow colors- watch them float in the air.
    No reason why- no goals- no structure.
    Sometimes…. let’s just blow bubbles…”

    I think we forget that every minute does not have to be structured and organized. It wasn’t when we were children. We knew how to make a stick int a magic wand, because we had the time to do that. These days, parents feel compelled to fill every second of the lives of their children with meaningful structured activities. Or the opposite- they sit in front of a television. Either way- bad news.

  6. Cathie Pesa says:

    Sorry for typos- when I get on a roll- haha

  7. michelle bogomolny says:

    As a teacher’s child, I nearly always jump to the defense of the teacher, when faced with complaints or questions from my own kids regarding their schooling …… BUT PLEASE count me in as being incensed by the tenor of the teaching community’s attitude toward even high level students who work all year long to not only please their teachers & parents, but to keep up with all of the requirements one now needs to apply to college. I don’t have the sort of kids who come home and complain about homework, however I now have kids who question the teacher’s intentions in assigning meaningful homework, especially including summer assignments. Of course, this could be my fault, because prior to high school, both of my children attended a Montessori-style school which sought to engaged kids as fully as possible, in order to foster a love of learning. Complaints are also registered at home when teachers seem to care not about actual learning or when the teacher appears to not respect engaged learners.

    It has been the case since my own school days that there exist some teachers who seem to relish the power that they can wield over their students. In what situation is acceptable to pay AP high school students extra credit points for not utilizing bathroom privileges, while simultaneously refusing to explain high level math concepts more than once. In what situation is it acceptable for an incoming freshman to spend summer time reading three works, answering 180 questions which took a solid 2 weeks to answer (full-time, 10-hours each day for 14 solid days), only to find out that the teacher was not to actually read the answers and gave equal credit to those who took the assignment completely seriously to those who actually picked and chose which questions to bother answering!

    The high school establishment is in the process of putting kids through the ringer, and blames involved parents who don’t mind taking their kids to ballet and cello lessons for overscheduling, while the school fights for its status in test scoring and who-gets-into-which college.

    The summer assignment problem seems to be laid on extraordinarily thick in Honors/AP classes, where the kids have most likely spent a stressful year reaching for their highest performance in school, in extracurricular activities which are also important to developing life skills and passions, and in their community, through service or religious organizations. Which also reminds me that there exist several double edged swords regarding the now-required community service, which by developmental psych’ theories, is not even an expected station of human capacity or need until well after the development of one’s individuality and identity. And yet, now high schools require community service. Once the child has demonstrated her/himself to be a well rounded citizen, they may be nominated to be a member of an organization such as NHS, which will reward them by INCREASING the community service demands. I have heard of kids who are active in their church community who are not being allowed to count these sorts of religious education service activities in their community for NHS: Students can volunteer in a soup kitchen, nursing home, or collect towels and sheets for the homeless shelter, only to turn around and add on tutoring elementary school children, because the school does not feel that the initial activities are good enough to “count”.

    The longer that I have been a high school parent, the more I have noticed that the various academic departments are blind to the assignments being given by other departments. There is simply no way for a parent to even plan how much a chlld will need to do each summer, because as the wind blows, instructors and summer requirements to enter the class each autumn vary from year to year.

    While it is admirable for a teacher to desire material from a student to see what sort of skills with which he/she is starting the year, as well as to set the classroom tone that late August (didn’t it used to be like 3 weeks later when I was young?) is indeed for school and not the beach, I have heard the school administration attempt to blame the students and parents for over-scheduling the children in summer activities which the family and the student have a right to choose when school is out! As a parent, I feel that during Spring, Winter, and Summer holiday from school, I ought to be able to have some time with my children without the burden of reinforcing their academics, unless I myself decide that this is a good idea to visit an aquarium, the symphony, museum, a glacier, ancient ruins, all of which I now abbreviate because the school is worried that my kids will forget how to read in as little as 10 weeks.

    The content of the reading requirements ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. From Dickens, Shakespeare, or Dostoyevsky to something less noble but lighter and of the student’s choosing. Ok, fine. But my incoming high school senior, was required to read Prince of Tides this summer for AP Senior English, and in spite of being deeply & maturely read for her age and into multiple stage,cinematic and television-based human, suspense, and crime selections, was quite rattled by the depth and detail of family dysfunction outlined in this book of questionable literary value.

    Has anyone noticed yet that AP exams, SAT/ACT’s, and final exams all seem to coincide exactly with each other in pairs? This seems to be another way that the high school and college establishment have set up a situational vice that is the opposite of user friendly. As parents, we are left with the challenge of attempting to guide our motivated students through this maze in a way that facilitates the motivated student at his/her highest level without burning out at the age of 17! Somehow, in spite of what this system illustrates, we have to allow our children to remain human, accept the impossibility of doing everything perfectly all of the time, 24/7/365, and to pursue an stimulating and balanced life.

  8. Pingback: Monday #42: Open Up | Dar Hosta's 52 Mondays Blog

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