As students close their textbooks for the last time each school year and trade early mornings racing the bell for lazy ones sleeping in, the same threat hangs over most all of them.
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Losing some of the knowledge base and skills they developed over the academic year — often referred to as the summer slide — can set students back as they climb a grade higher.
Add a few months of remote learning into their school calendar thanks to the coronavirus, and some teachers across Colorado worry that this summer’s slide could send some students tumbling even further.
Lori Kester, a language arts teacher at Centennial School, a Pre-K-12 school in San Luis, anticipates that the summer slide will be “particularly bad this year.”
“It feels like summer has been really long,” she said.
Kester is already making plans to back up in her curriculum in the fall and cover some of the themes students would otherwise have been learning this quarter. Extensive review will play a central role as students start their next academic year, though teachers often open the school year by reviewing material to get students back on track.
Christina Medina, who teaches first through third grade at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval in Denver, acknowledges that distance learning has limited her ability to support and instruct her students.
“We didn’t get the kids as far along as we could have if we could have been in person,” Medina said. She added that summer will challenge students’ retention more than it has in previous years.
Even as Medina encourages students to continue learning and applying their skills over the summer, she recognizes that teachers will have to approach education in the fall differently than they have in the past. Part of that will involve redefining what it means to be in a specific grade, she said, “in order to be able to support children where we left off.”
In the meantime, teachers point to all kinds of ways that kids can build upon their education throughout summer months, with daily reading resounding as a top priority across grades.
“Make reading fun” for young learners
Christina Gillette Randle, a first grade teacher at Soaring Eagles Elementary School in Colorado Springs, expects some gaps in learning with students having missed out on the teaching and curriculum they would have experienced in a normal fourth quarter.
Where students are at academically will vary from district to district, she said. Her own district, Harrison School District 2, focused the remainder of this school year on reviewing skills rather than springing new concepts on families from a distance.
Gillette Randle, who also teaches remotely through Rocky Mountain Public Media’s “Colorado Classroom – Read With Me at Home” program, emphasizes the importance of keeping young minds in books, which will help their vocabulary comprehension. She recommends 20 minutes of reading every day.
She tells parents to “make reading fun” and to avoid using it as a chore or a punishment. She also advises parents to model reading and show their children how much reading is part of the real world, suggesting families read signs while on a drive and keep a couple books in the car to help limit how much children are on devices.
Kids can also take their reading one step further by acting out their favorite books, creating costumes with whatever they can find in their house, she said.
With her own children, Gillette Randle will often ask them how many syllables are in signs along the route of their drive. Her family is also big into counting, to keep her kids’ math skills intact. While on a hike, the teacher suggests families count how many bugs they see and challenge older children with multiplication problems based on the number of bugs they spot.
It factors into helping students understand that skills carry beyond the classroom, she said.
Along those lines, Medina prods families to find practical ways at home to incorporate learning, such as reading a recipe and following through with making it, using math throughout the process. She also suggests families construct a schedule for children with a routine each day, one that includes reading and time to spend outside where they can use their imagination and explore nature.
Both Medina and Gillette Randle hold young students’ social emotional health as high as their academic development, particularly throughout the pandemic. Medina urges caregivers to keep an eye on children’s emotional behavior and reactions.
Gillette Randle offers the idea of having children journal at night and write down a positive detail of the day.
Play 20, or more, questions
For all the hurdles online learning has created, Kester has found one bright spot: Students are looking forward to school starting again in light of how difficult learning at home has been.
“I think there will be a renewed enthusiasm and excitement next fall that’s greater than what we usually experience because there’s been so much time away,” Kester said.
Kester said reading is a critical summer task for middle schoolers as it helps improve concentration and sharpens the mind. She recommends that students center their reading on topics they studied in class.
To further bridge their school experience with the real world, Kester suggests middle school students devise a list of all the interesting things they learned about during the school year and brainstorm activities related to each with help from parents.
She also points to summer as a time for students to branch out with their creativity, experimenting with art, music and dance in ways they haven’t before.
Parents can further help their children throughout summer by constantly asking them questions, Kester said, including asking them why things are the way they are and probing them on everything they know about a topic. Listen and validate what they say, show approval of their efforts to learn, stress how much the world needs their ideas and also offer personal insight and perspective, she said.
The teacher added that the coronavirus can be a good source of conversations and lessons around science as students can explain their understanding of viruses or talk through the job of a doctor.
“They cannot be completely dependent on school to motivate them,” she said. “Schools provide structure and resources, but the fire to keep learning has to come from within each kid and the best person to kindle that fire is their parent or guardian that they see every day.”
Becoming “lifelong learners”
Michelle Tillotson, who teaches English, college literature and composition, and yearbook at Custer County High School, said the importance of summer reading extends into high school years. Reading is essential to every single subject area and tops academic priorities for students in the summer, she noted.
What’s key is giving students the power to pick what they read.
“Let them read what they want to read,” Tillotson said. “Give your kids choice in what they’re reading. They’re going to be a lot more interested in reading if it’s something that they want to read.”
She said that those students who see their parents reading tend to become readers themselves, and she encourages parents to talk to their kids about what they’re reading.
Another helpful outlet for summer learning is a notebook, she said, so that students can write about how they’re spending their summer or how they’re feeling.
Beyond reading and writing, Tillotson raises the importance of committing time to preparing for the SAT, largely through a mobile application available through Khan Academy. The app features a question of the day, allowing students to constantly review what they know and understand where they went wrong on any questions they answer incorrectly.
The teacher is adamant that students should stay engaged over the summer.
“What you put into reading and SAT prep is going to have a positive impact on how you do in the fall,” she said.
Sharon Schott, who teaches special education and language arts at Cañon City High School, believes that students must continue actively learning through the summer this year to help make up for the challenges of remote classes.
She cited a variety of projects that can hone students’ skills, from building products to gardening, photography, animal care or cooking. Those kinds of projects include reading and math, and students can expand upon what they learn by writing a summary about what they took away, what new things they were exposed to, questions they had that were answered and anything they would do differently to make the project better.
She also encourages high school students to begin exploring career paths by interviewing professionals over the phone and writing what they learned from their conversations. Another option: students can pinpoint a problem they want to solve, whether it’s related to their community or their learning experience, and think through solutions.
She encourages students to step up and be “lifelong learners,” which could lead them in a direction they never anticipated.
“You may discover some things that you never knew before that really spark your interest,” Schott said. “And that opens up all kinds of new doors to explore.”