I had to write about an article published yesterday by Jason Koebler in USA News Education which encourages both teachers and parents to keep students busy over their winter break in scholarly pursuits. The article had some great ideas that I would like to share with you. While the article concentrated on high school students, it could certainly be adapted to fit the needs of younger students as well.
You’ve all seen it: that after-Christmas-my-friends-are-with-their-families-there’s-nothing-good-on-TV-there’s-nothing-to-do doldrums. And you’ve had to put up with the whining that accompanies the boredom. But there is a practical suggestion to combat the boredom.
Research pertaining to summer vacations has shown that students lose up to two months of math and reading knowledge over summer break. Yvette Jackson, CEO of the National Urban Alliance, a nonprofit whose focus is on improving student engagement in low-income schools, says that even though winter break is much shorter, teachers should give their students a fun project to work on during the break that will help keep them interested in what is being studied at school.
For example, Jackson says if a class is studying the Constitution, rather than the teacher giving the students a list of comprehension questions to be answered by the time they return to school, have them actually dive into the Constitution to discover how the document impacts their own lives.
She explained, “Allow students to explore what ideas are connected to the Constitution: freedom, liberty, allowing them to do things they enjoy; all of those are straight out of the Constitution.”
Jackson acknowledges that some students will not be happy about doing school work over the break, even if it is a “fun project,” but she explains that the more open-ended the assignments are the more useful they will be to kids. “When students are engaged in studying one of their areas of interest, they’re apt to do involved, deep reading and work in an independent fashion.”
I feel compelled to interject the following experiences I have had when I have endeavored to have my students do some type of project or skill sharpening over a break. First, I have been alarmed by the number of negative responses I have received from parents who feel that their child’s vacation should be free from any academic pursuits. Some letters have been quite angry.
Additionally, even though students knew that they were working for a reward and that it would not affect their grade, very few of them legitimately completed the assignment which was sent home. The other shocker was that many parents signed off on the project, which meant that they were verifying that their child had truly completed the activity, even though I discovered later that their child had not done the work at all!
For these reasons, I very rarely send assignments of any nature home over winter or spring break. It simply isn’t worth it. But that is why I love the second part of this article.
Jackson suggests that if teens come home without an assignment, it would be a good time for parents to take charge and take advantage of the extra free time to go to local places which might be of interest to their child. Her recommendations include museums, zoos, and factories. I would also add bakeries, newspaper facilities, auto repair shops, historical societies, cemeteries, your local college, etc. Be creative and pick a place that reflects your child’s interests.
For best results, she recommends connecting the visit with what your child is learning in school. “Talk with your child about places you can go that will allow them to reflect on what they’re learning,” she says. “This allows a lot of great conversations about their interests, and [helps them learn] what opportunities can be had in college and beyond.”
What do you do if money is tight or your working schedule makes it difficult to physically go to local places? Jackson recommends using the computer to go on electronic field trips. Good resources for virtual field trips include the National Park Foundation, Ball State University, and the Smithsonian Institution. All of these sites offer virtual field trips which provide students with a close-up view of many popular destinations all over the United States and the world.
However your family “travels,” be it physically or virtually, Jackson says to be sure to talk about the trip while your child is experiencing it. “The experience means nothing for a child unless there’s something that goes along with it that can help the child analyze what they’ve been looking at,” Jackson says. “If you’re going to a museum, it’s a great chance to talk about what it all means.”
Another admirable suggestion is to use the break, especially a Christmas break, as an opportunity to teach your child the importance and the joy of giving back to their community through some type of community service, which for some schools is a requirement for graduation anyway.
Jackson recommends food pantries and soup kitchens for volunteer work, and if those already have a full work force, the United Way and VolunteerMatch have broad databases of places which are looking for holiday help.
A recent United Way holiday publication notes, “The holidays are a time of year when we come together as a community. We make the extra effort to look for the things that bring us together and unite us.”
I hope that this information has given you some practical solutions for the winter break doldrums. We’d love to hear from those of you who engage in some extracurricular activities with your child this holiday season.