We Can Do a Lot Better With Summer Work Packets

It’s high time for schools to rethink that old mainstay — the summer work packet.

We all want to stave off learning loss during the summer and give students a jumpstart on the next school year, so we send them home with summer math assignments, books to read and other work to complete. There are clear advantages to summer work packets, but there are enough disadvantages to warrant taking a hard look at these assignments.

A few points we should keep in mind:

Weigh the good with the bad

Summer packets get sent home with the best of intentions. Schools have a vested interest in keeping students’ learning current, and the next school year will only be made better when students return in September better prepared. Providing an early peek into the next year’s work should reduce anxiety, help teachers cover more class content and (in theory) produce more successful students.

Yet for many students and their families, the summer packet has become an unnecessary burden. Schools today are setting higher standards and creating higher academic expectations. It’s turning into a lot of work, and many students (and their families) want a break from school when the summer comes. That’s why a lot of families see the summer packet as a burden that gets in the way of students enjoying their summer.

If you want to make the most of summer packets, you need to find the right middle ground for your community.

Adapt to your community’s specific needs

Schools, even from neighboring towns or districts, have distinct summer expectations. When considering a work packet to support student learning, be sure you fully understand what the community needs.

This is best done in partnership with your administration and colleagues with the input of parents and students. Some families, especially two-worker households who get childcare from an outside provider, may struggle with summer work assignments. Other families may want to set summer work aside so they can get a break from school.

Regardless of the needs, make sure you fully understand them and plan accordingly.

Encourage exploration

Summer packets should be more than “drill and kill” worksheets and simple assignments. It’s much better to make them a gateway to exploration and learning. If you decide to go with a packet, offer copious student choice in books to read, topics to explore and what the final product should look like. Summer’s opportunities to have long, languid days give students lots of time to let their minds wander.

We get a lot of complaints that students’ days are overly scheduled and managed. We can use the summer to set them free from the point-by-point demands of their classwork.

Think beyond the packet

Today’s technology allows students to be incredibly sophisticated recorders and creators of visual, audio and artistic content.

As opposed to a work packet, set students up to create and submit a summer work product. This can encompass many disciplines and allow students to move across different domains. Products can include a local history project or the exploration of a specific topic. Use social media, website creation, podcasts and video to capture the information.

Find what works best in the summer

The key for the summer isn’t necessarily to cram more content into students’ brains. Rather we should be creating opportunities to engage parts of their learning that might not be available during the regular school year. The most important thing is to foster the idea that exploration and growth are necessary to becoming the best possible students.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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