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A Summer School Survival Guide

Jordan Catapano

The sun is shining, the grass is growing, and the local pool fills up with excited families eager to take advantage of the season. While you may be able to get outdoors more than you would during the school year, some of your summer may inevitably be experienced from the inside of a classroom. As you gaze through the glass panes at the world beyond, you'll need to make sure that you are making the most of your summer school class time for your students.

But don't worry. Surviving summer school is easy – just be willing to embrace the unique opportunities it offers.

Summer school classes have a uniquely designed structure and pace to them that serve as a welcome respite from the traditional school year. So get ready to shift into this new territory and take advantage of these survival guide tips to make the most of your time in the summer school classroom.

Embrace the Pace of Summer School

The pace of a typical summer school class is very different from the rest of the school year. First, most summer school classes condense a semester down into just three weeks. This means that one day in a summer school class covers roughly what would be a week's worth during the school year. That's a lot to get through each day!

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But secondly, summer school class periods run much longer than school year classes. Instead of having less than an hour together, you and your students will likely spend between four and five hours together at a stretch.

So while the overall semester is shorter, the day-to-day time together is longer. Embrace this structure! This balance may help you organize your lessons in a way that enables instruction, guidance, and application in a continuous stretch rather than spanned out over multiple days. This enables you to introduce new concepts, and give students customized feedback as they engage in the content right then and there with you.

You can also take time to focus on your students beyond just content delivery: Build in opportunities for get-to-know-you and team-building activities, story sharing, and one-on-one conferences.

Take Advantage of Outdoors

Why not? As long as taking your class outdoors is OK with your administration, plan on spending time in the sunshine with your students. Find a comfortable outdoor setting where your students can read, discuss, listen, and engage with relatively little distraction. Allow them to enjoy the perks of the outdoors -- sunshine, shade, breeze, trees, grass, air -- while avoiding detriments like traffic, mud, and bugs.

Research confirms that being outdoors serves as a benefit to learning. Not only can a positive outdoor environment amplify learning at the time, but one study even concludes, "It would seem that lessons in nature boost subsequent classroom engagement, and boost it a great deal."

Structure your time outdoors to take advantage of nature's perks, and you may find boosted retention for both the content covered while outdoors and for the time in the classroom following.

Know Your Audience

Not all summer school courses host identical students. Some students take summer school classes to get ahead and earn required or optional credits to gain an advantage the following school year. Other students take summer school because they failed to earn passing credit for a class during the regular school year. It's important you know who your students are and why they're in summer school, and structure your class accordingly.

You can even help students get to know themselves, too. Ask them reflective and goal-setting questions such as:

  • "Why are you here?"
  • "What do you hope to get out of this class?"
  • "What does being successful mean to you?"
  • "How can you best take advantage of our time?"
  • "What helps you learn?"
  • "What are your interests and goals?"

Flex Your Creativity

Because of summer's unique pace and timing, it may be a prime opportunity to test out some new ideas. Your school year may be full of preset agendas and crunched time that allow little chance for you to fully flesh out an interesting approach to content. But summer is an ideal venue for you to experiment with a creative approach.

You don't want to spend each long day of summer school with the exact same approach and structure. This will grow boring for both you and your students. Ask yourself, "What can I do to make this more creative, engaging, or applicable?" Try out your ideas with your students and see how they go! If it's an absolute bomb, there's no need to try recreating it for the school year. If it's a hit, then you've struck gold and are ready to adapt your creative approach to the school year. Don't forget to ask your students for feedback, too.

Be Open About Tips and Expectations

If you're going to be spending such quality time dedicated to this one group of students, then make sure that you have upfront conversations about how they can be successful in your course. Remember that the pace and structure are different for your students, too, and they will benefit from hearing direct advice about what it takes to get what they came for.

Since you'll likely be covering a great deal of content each day, how can your students best retain and apply that content? When will they be expected to demonstrate their understanding? What notetaking strategies, organization methods, and studying techniques are likely to ensure students keep up with the content?

Ease Up on Homework

While you now may be covering a week's worth of content in one school day, there's no reason to assign a week's worth of homework in one evening. It's just not feasible for your students to complete or for you to assess. It's summer, and it's OK to ease up on the accelerator in this regard.

Homework is typically utilized to give students opportunities to practice and demonstrate their understanding. With the elongated class periods, you should try to find ways to build practice and feedback into your class time together. This doesn't mean that you should avoid assigning homework altogether, but remain mindful of your students, your goals, and your curriculum when considering what work, if any, you are sending students home with.

Have Something to Look Forward to

Perhaps most importantly, remember that summertime can be a time for YOU as much as for your students. We know how the school year goes, with all day, every day devoted to maximizing learning, grading, assessing, planning. Summer should be a time that you focus on yourself, your own goals, and your own well-being.

So while you're working on making the most of your summer course, have something totally outside of your profession that you look forward to doing. Carve out time to focus on it; let it recharge you. Maybe it's a vacation, a personal project, dedicated time with loved ones, time outdoors, exercise, or a new course of study. Even though you're teaching a summer school class, you are also blessed with an unusual degree of time to dedicate toward something other than your profession. Take advantage!

Use these and other summer school tips to help make summer school the most enjoyable, productive time it can be for both you and your students. Although it may be difficult to capture students' attention when they are gazing out the window at the sunshine (and, hey, it may be difficult to capture your own attention), summer school provides a welcome deviation from the drudgery of the school year. When done right, it can be one of the most rewarding seasons of learning.


Jordan Catapano taught English for 12 years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an assistant principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s instructional development committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish.