26 June 2006

Teaching summer school

Many of the teachers at my school look at summer school as sort of a school for the damned, as a purgatory in which teachers bide their time until the "real" summer begins. I happen to like summer school, and in some ways, I enjoy it more than the regular school year.

The rural high school at which I teach offers only remedial courses in summer school, geared toward getting failing students credits they need to graduate. Since summer school is outside of our regular teaching contract, normal contractual niceties like class size don't apply. At the beginning of the summer, it is not uncommon to have 55 students in a single class, crammed into classrooms designed for a bit over half that number. Because students frequently drop out, we aren't allowed to check out textbooks, and making copies is discouraged because when a student drops a class, we end up with extra copies, wasting copy funding.

To make the job even more entertaining, all classes are mixed-level. In one reading class, I have students ranging in grade from rising 9th graders to seniors who didn't quite fulfill their graduation requirements. Within this grade range, I have ESL students, special education students, and just plain lazy students.

Teaching two 2.5 hour class periods per day under these conditions requires creativity, at least if you want to actually try to educate the students and hold their attention. If you don't care about either goal, you can do what another one of our other summer school teachers does. A retired PE teacher in his early 70s, he gives his students a newspaper every single day. For the first 45 minutes of class, the students read the newspaper; for the second 45 minutes, they write summaries of articles in the paper. It doesn't matter that this man teaches science one period and composition the next--this activity remains unchanged.

Despite the challenges, there are benefits to summer school. Because the five weeks of summer school count for an entire semester of class, students are allowed only three absences (regardless of excuse.) On the fourth absence, they are dropped without exception. With regards to discipline, it's up to each teacher to decide how to enforce this in his or her classroom, but if a student earns an office referral, they are immediately dropped from the class. Although this may sound unfair, out of 110 or so students that I begin each summer with, I only ever have to drop 2-4 due to discipline issues--the rest know that they need to make up the class or face reclassification (retention), and those who stick it out buckle down and do their work.

Also, because summer school is relatively free of the frequent classroom distractions that plague the school year (discipline issues, phone calls from the office, athletic events, early dismissals, school assemblies, the inevitable fire drill) students are able to focus more fully on learning the subject matter. I have more time to grade, more time for group work, and more time to work one-on-one with students who need extra attention.

While all of these are perks, the main reason I enjoy summer school is because I enjoy the curriculum, or rather, lack thereof. While I have the latitude to choose most of my content and pacing with my honors classes during the regular school year, the college-prep and remedial classes have more strictures, with the remedial English classes being a completely scripted "open-the-box-and-teach" program. I recognize that these programs have their place, but I find them confining because I have to move on in the material, whether or not the students have the skills to continue.

However, during the summer, I am free to choose my course content and pacing, and it gives me more time to tie everything together and make sure students grasp it. During the school year, students have vocabulary assignments and spelling assignments and reading assignments and writing assignments, and if two of the four components are integrated, it's considered a successful lesson. There just isn't time in a single, 45-minute class period to try to incorporate all four aspects and teach them to understanding, or, dare I even say the word, mastery! With the length of the average summer school class period, we have time to integrate and cover all of the major content strands and still have time left over for review and discussion.

When we teachers discuss our summer plans in the faculty lounge and I reveal that I am sticking around for five extra weeks, I get a number of askance looks, as well as the question, "why are you teaching summer school?" Sometimes I’ll even get my favorite question, "Do you *have* to?" as if I was there for the same reason that the students were--because I'd somehow failed as a teacher.

To these queries, I have a variety of stock responses, ranging from the snarky, "well, I flunked English this year..." to the puzzled, "well, what else is there to do?" I'll spin a story about some exotic place I'd like to travel, sermonize on the impossibility of two teachers in California being able to afford housing without some sort of salary supplementation, or leave people wondering when I say, "my house doesn't have air conditioning, but my classroom does, so I'd rather hang out there and at least get paid for it."

Why do I really do it? Yes, the money is nice. Yes, I would like to travel. Yes, the condo my husband and I own has us mortgaged to the hilt. Yes, I am easily bored, and it gives me something to do with my time besides stay home and become a couch potato. And yes, it is nice to have an air-conditioned room to sit in when it’s 105F outside.

But what really keeps me coming back, summer after summer? My real reason, my secret reason, is that I actually enjoy it. I enjoy connecting with students who are normally turned off to reading, and helping them find enjoyment in literature. I enjoy not having to herd them like cattle, marching through the literature book page by page, relentlessly driving them on to the next lesson, the next box on the curriculum map, the next item on the list of state standards we are expected to cover in ten short months.

I wouldn't quite call it heaven, but it's definitely not purgatory. Besides, it's air-conditioned.

25 June 2006

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