Summer “Learning”

Summer “Learning”

My son (let’s call him T) does not like school. He is a pretty good student overall, he does his homework without prompting from me, he behaves in class for the most part, he excels in some areas (math) and struggles in others (reading) but, with the exception of recess, he has never been interested in school. He, like all of us, is a learner at his core, he just doesn’t like the way “learning” goes down at school.

During T’s first couple of summers in elementary school, I did what I thought parents were supposed to do to make sure their kids didn’t have “learning loss” over the summer – I purchased summer bridge books. I had him work on the bridge book for about 30 minutes every day in addition to reading 30 minutes every day. He hated those daily 60 minutes. He thought the bridge books were boring and he is dyslexic so reading is really tough. Last summer, the summer before 5th grade, I decided to forgo the bridge books and, without telling him, let T take control of his learning. (Amazingly, he never even questioned the lack of bridge books.) T ended up working on two projects last summer; developing a working pair of human wings and building and sailing a homemade boat.

T tackled the wings first; I tried not to interfere. He started with some research on YouTube (it’s fairly amazing what you can find when you Google human wings). He drew out some plans, made his list of supplies and asked for me to take him to the local hardware store. At the hardware store, he sought the advice of an employee about what materials were the most lightweight but durable and therefore excellent wing material. The employee also gave him some unsolicited advice; “Be careful where you take off from, I don’t want to see you on the nightly news.”. He purchased his supplies using his allowance money, went home and started building. T created about 6 different versions of his wings, testing and tweaking as he went. Ultimately, he only made it a couple of inches off of the ground but he didn’t care, he was thrilled by his success. My only contribution throughout his project was to tell him that he couldn’t jump off of anything higher than 12 inches as he attempted to take flight. As it turned out, I didn’t even need to enforce this rule because he decided a running start down a steep hill would be a better method to achieve lift off. Based on my observations from the side, T dabbled in economics, design thinking, physics, geometry, communications and effective research just to name a few but if you ask him, he’ll just say it was really fun to make human wings and try to fly.

Human Wings “In-Development”

About 3 weeks into the human wing endeavor, T decided to change gears and focus on making a working sailboat. Once again, I stood back and watched my 10 year old direct his own learning. Over the course of the next 4 weeks, he designed, built and successfully launched his boat in not 1, but 2 different Colorado lakes. From the side, I watched him dabble in budgeting, discount shopping, characteristic properties, weather and construction just to name a few, but again, if you ask him, he’ll just say it was awesome to be able to sail his own boat for an afternoon.

Sailboat Trial #1

This summer, T has decided to create an online store and sell some mini crossbows and arrows that he has designed and successfully tested. He continues to tweak his designs and he is currently 1 week into the website design process. I have no doubt that soon I will be able to list off a slew of things this project allowed him to dabble in and again, I’m sure if you ask him, he’ll say it is super fun to be the owner of a store and sell stuff that he made for money. 

As I’ve watched my son over the last 2 summers, I’ve realized that something important is often missing in our schools and classrooms (including my own 7th grade science classroom); the opportunity for kids to discover, develop and follow their own passions and interests. Why is it always the teacher and/or the curriculum that dictates what will be learned and how it will be learned? It seems like we have this entirely backwards. Although he would never call what he is doing learning, T loves “learning” over the summer because he is in charge, he is deciding where he wants to go and he is figuring out how to get there. What would happen if we consciously began to create opportunities in our schools for this type of learning to take place? Where would our students go if we focused on becoming their learning coaches rather than their teachers? What would our students walk away with by the end of every year if they were in charge of their own learning path? I want my own children and my students to love to learn all of the time, not just during the summer break from school. Maybe passion based learning is a great place to start.

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