We Survived Summer School

My students and I all suffered this school year, as did millions of others. Returning to the physical classroom bolstered our spirits. We are more optimistic about school year 2021–2022 now.

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One of the students in the morning English class wrote, “I was mortified at the thought that I had to attend summer school. I always assumed that the kids who attended summer school were either not very bright or just lazy. Then, I arrived for the first day and saw some of the smartest kids I knew, and they were also taking summer classes.”

As her journey through summer school continued, she realized how much online learning and working in the evenings had dulled her enthusiasm about school. Additionally, she took responsibility for what happened and asked herself an important question: “How does someone fail a class that has always come easy to her?” That reflection ended up being the topic of the essay, which was part three of the final exam. In three weeks, she had her issues figured out and had a plan for the upcoming year.

This student was not alone. Several students showed personal growth during the short time we were together. I am so proud of them.

How We Began, and How We Ended

When they started the session, almost everyone wanted to point a finger at online learning as the reason they did not pass English. Granted, “learning through a screen,” as one student put it, was difficult. Each class was presented in a hybrid fashion, with students online for the experience and students in the classroom. Teaching and learning that way did not get any easier as time went by. After the first couple of weeks, the online students’ enthusiasm waned, and the ennui was palpable, even “through a screen.”

From Thanksgiving until February, we were all online, and that made things worse.

By the end of the session, students were more thoughtful about their performance. They acknowledged their motivation had disappeared during the school year. They had felt depressed and disconnected. Most of all: school did not matter to them. However, they were less inclined to point the finger at online learning and more inclined to thoughtfully process how they lost their sense of agency and self-advocacy.

How We Navigated the Middle

Teaching and Learning for Mastery

The students learned about agency and self-advocacy the first day of class. We read an article about teaching for mastery, instead of test scores. This article resonated strongly with the students. The article, sourced from a service called CommonLit, was a transcript of a TED talk by Sal Khan.

After reading the transcript, we talked about what teaching for mastery meant to us. For one thing, we all agreed it meant not leaving any student behind. Instead, all students should move onto the next, more complex topic with confidence. Most of us also had a story or two about being left behind, feeling abandoned and nervous, while our classmates plowed through the next concept. We all knew there were gaps in our knowledge in one subject or another, holding us back from being successful.

Yes, that includes me. I told my story about failing Geometry in ninth grade. I traced the gap in my knowledge back to fifth grade. Each year, something would fall through the cracks, so to speak, until finally I encountered a subject that mystified and terrified me. I gave up. The students told me their stories too, about feeling lost and confused.

“You have to be your biggest fan and your strongest advocate.”

That is when I drove home the point about being one’s strongest advocate for one’s education, and for building agency, that drive and will to be successful. To illustrate that point, I told another story about “conquering” College Algebra in my 30s. Although I dropped the course the first semester, I spent that semester studying on my own and returned to try again a few months later. There had been a breakthrough: I realized I was capable of doing well in the class with the right support. I was determined to do well. Because I had an excellent teacher and supportive software, I passed that class with an A.

Combining Inspirational Messages with Standards-Aligned Instruction

The articles we read served two purposes. First, the information in them helped the students to restore or build their confidence. As I planned the summer session, I knew students would struggle unless we faced learning issues and made connections to their experiences. Second, each of the articles addressed standards related to informational texts. They could practice finding the main idea and supporting evidence using texts relevant to them and their situation.

After reading the article about teaching for mastery, we read other articles about learning, including reading stamina and decision-making. The article about teaching for mastery stuck with them throughout the course, however. Many students wrote about learning for mastery, or finding the drive and determination to stick with something confusing until they figured it out.

I hope that determination drives them in the Fall to find their voice, ask for help, and stick with the challenging content and concepts.

Diagnostics and Data Drove Instruction

While the first couple of lessons were based on a hunch, the students demonstrated where they were academically with a diagnostic drawn from retired items on the state test called the Keystone Exam. We evaluated their performance by having each student complete a Google form by checking the item numbers from the diagnostic that they answered incorrectly. Then, I shared the class results with them.

It turned out that many students struggled with finding the main idea, citing evidence from the text, finding bias and propaganda, determining facts versus opinions, distinguishing essential from nonessential information, and determining how point of view functioned within an article. Some also struggled with text organization and components, like headings and graphics and their function.

Although I could not touch on all these issues during the three-week session, I did supplement the workbook I created with exercises for finding the main idea, citing evidence from the text, essential versus nonessential information, and fact versus opinion. My best guesses regarding their needs were correct, for the most part.

Other Concepts Every English Speaker Needs

We also worked on writing skills: sentence structure, commas, and semicolons and colons, among other things. At the end of each class, the students wrote an exit slip recapping what they learned that day. One student wrote, “Today we worked on stuff that we all should have nailed in eighth grade, but we didn’t. So it was good to work on it, and I learned a lot.” Two other students mentioned they were amazed by how much they had forgotten and enjoyed the refresher. One student wrote, “I have a lot to learn about semicolons.” Don’t we all?

We also completed two drafts of a final essay while reviewing the structure for essays, thesis statements/focus statements, paragraphs, and transitions. In my opinion, you cannot practice writing enough. Even as I wrote this post, I felt a bit rusty because I have not created a post in a while.

The Final

Each day was productive, in our opinion. I say “our” because I monitored the exit slips and assigned an essay for the final that addressed this topic:

What I knew about English before I came to summer school, what I learned while in summer school, and what I want to learn more about English in the future.

The exit slips showed me their progress. Their essays demonstrated reflection and growth. Again, I was proud of them.

The essay was part four of the final grade, which included a binder evaluation, two text sets, and the essay. I evaluated the student binder to ensure the student had participated in class by completing the assignments while the students worked on the first text set.

Each text set included two informational texts that prepared them for the fictional text they would read. Multiple choice questions followed each text. The students could make two attempts, and to encourage them to take the first attempt seriously, I averaged the grade. Normally, I would use the highest grade, but have found students will choose random answers during the first attempt to finish quickly.

The good news is everyone passed, and I could see improvement and growth in their essays. This school year, they should be more successful, especially since we are returning to in-person instruction.

We survived summer school. Now, we have a chance to thrive and grow.

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