Embracing the Summer Slide

The summer slide is so much more than just “not reading”. Slip and Slide 4 copyright 2010 by Jeffrey Smith licensed under CC by-ND 2.0

When students come back in a few weeks, I won’t be so worried about how much they “lost” over the summer in terms of numerical ranges.  I’ll be more concerned about what they have gained in laughter and angst, identities they have tried on and discarded like last year’s trendy shoes.

Chlorine-scented bathing suits bake on the clothesline. Warm air masses linger through trees. Time to ignore the morning alarm clock.  I’ve waded through a few books, mostly Young Adult fiction in anticipation of film versions to be released.  cucumber flowers by Tori MazurA few education-related books are in progress on my Kindle, but I find myself putting reading aside in favor of a few hours in my cucumber garden.  Or bicycle rides on the rural roads of my small town.

Reading has taken a backseat this summer.

Even the  “Back to School” issue of Reading Today magazine from the International Reading Association can’t nudge me from the hazy days of summer.  I’m not ready to get my head back in the game, although the cover stirs thoughts about what will be waiting for me in late August.  New experiences, new faces and the realities of the summer slide. Not the kind at the waterpark that beckons my bottom to slip furiously down the slope towards a pool of refreshing, bacteria-killing, chemical-laced water.

The “Summer Slide” that comes to mind is the one into which some students across the K-12 landscape descend as they avoid reading books for two months, only to return to school at a level lower than when they left us in June. As an elementary school teacher, this reading level was gauged as a letter. In middle school last year, we utilized a numeric system called a Lexile which was measured by a computer-adaptive assessment.

America After 3PM report graphic from Educator Innovator licensed under CC by-SA 4.0

Schools and community organizations often work to prevent as much of the slide as possible.  Summer academies, reading incentives, bookmobiles and other programs seek to slow the reversal, generally accepted as a by-product of the recess also known as summer vacation. According to a report by America After 3PM, set to be released this fall, more parents are signing their children up for summer activities to negate many forms of the slide.  It’s encouraging that parents acknowledge the dip in progress and are seeking ways to combat it with us.  On paper (or spreadsheet), the data seems to back up the “learning loss”.

Data tends to be a driving force in my classroom and so many others in our uber-accountability environment. As an English-as-a-Second Language educator, I have data for English proficiency levels.  We assess English learners annually with a test called ACCESS and these levels help us determine what kind of support students need to gain enough English proficiency to be successful in content areas.  Students for whom English is not their first language often lose language skills, particularly academic English, in addition to any reading level regression.

When the year begins, we have last year’s benchmark data, common assessment data, end-of-the-year summative data. Then there is the aforementioned Lexile data. We’ll administer another assessment to see just how much they gained or lost over the summer and use that to inform our decisions.  Sometimes I feel buried under this invisible file cabinet of data, which is one reason I relish the summer break that frees me from the pressure that has mounted all year long.  The summer break offers a reprieve from data, and academia in general since this is the first summer I am free of graduate school and required reading of journal article after journal article.  Some students will complete their summer reading lists.  For the majority of my students that did not willingly open a book during the school year, summer reading is not even on the radar!

But the summer slide is so much more complicated than just “not reading”.

It’s as if all of the factors that influence learning during the year never got the memo that kids were supposed to be on break.  Food insecurity, financial instability, familial turbulence, and social-emotional challenges of being a pre-teen don’t take the summer off.  Instead of worrying about the reading my students have or have not done during June and July, I now worry about these other aspects of their lives that may “show up” in their beginning-of-the-year reading levels.

I know we’re under microscopes with value-added measures trying to encapsulate our effectiveness as teachers.  The numbers are now a percentage of our evaluation.  Yay, more data!

We all want our students to grow and show that they’ve spent a worthwhile year with us.  I spent four years teaching English learners in elementary school and often felt a self-imposed imperative to “catch them up” to their native-English speaking peers.  But something changed after spending part of a year in high school and three semesters in middle school.

I’ve developed an appreciation for the student being so much more than their numbers and what their files say.

I don’t think I intentionally overlooked this during my years in elementary schools, but now it seems so less concrete. Secondary students have priorities that can shift daily, and they certainly didn’t always match the goals I had in mind for them.  When they come back in a few weeks, I won’t be so worried about how much they “lost” over the summer in terms of numerical ranges.  

I’ll be more concerned about what they have gained in laughter and angst, identities they have tried on and discarded like last year’s trendy shoes.

Slip and Slide 4 copyright 2010 by Jeffrey Smith licensed under CC by-ND 2.0

I am hoping they have experienced new places and added to that crucial background knowledge they’ll need to draw upon to make relevant connections to math, science and history.

I want them to have gone to the air-conditioned respite of movie theatres and filled their heads with language, narrative structures and character development.  I want to see that they have gained self-confidence in something they tried that they never thought they could conquer.

Will there be a summer slide? For many, undoubtedly.  Like my students, I’ve put some of my own reading aside for the summer. But I haven’t unlearned how to make sense of text or visual information.  Our students haven’t either; they just may be out of the habit.

Rather than focus on how much ground we have to regain and fixate on numbers, I will be looking for growth in habits and behaviors.  I want to see (and listen to) how much they mature in ownership of their learning, academic conversations, and the transfer of skills and strategic thinking across apps on their devices. There will be a slide of some sort because if learning is genuine, it will be a moving target.  So as I turn the page to the Table of Contents, I see the President’s Message entitled “PD Plans and Summer Vacation”. When school begins, I plan to release myself from the pressure-cooker.  My decisions will be student-driven rather than data-driven.


Image Attributions:

America After 3PM report graphic from Educator Innovator licensed under CC by-SA 4.0

Slip and Slide 4 copyright 2010 by Jeffrey Smith licensed under CC by-ND 2.0


  • ReneeMoore

    Change What’s Driving Us!

    While I enjoyed the entire post, it was the last statement that really struck the high note for me:  “My decisions will be student-driven rather than data-driven.” 

    That’s radical talk in today’s education reform climate—and exactly what needs to be said. So much attention is focused on the data we can now gather, many have lost focus on the human beings that data represents and on the most important things about them that cannot be described or understood through what we typically think of as assessment data. 

    I hope you document your decision-making process this school year as you are guided by students’ humanity and not just their data.

    • misstori

      KRS-One lyric

      Renee, you reminded me of a lyric by KRS-One that I have on a postcard near my desk every year:

      Before you’re a color, first you’re human

      Teaching humanity is what we’re doing”



  • ArielSacks

    Getting Away from the Deficit Model

    Tori, your post and Renee’s comment remind me how I’ve often felt that the data-driven instructional movement so often seems to highlight deficits in students… Your take on “the summer slide” is refreshing because you point out that there’s more than just a dip in numbers going on there. There are some important gains as well. I think of how it is to see my 8th grade students come back from a summer–how much bigger they are, how much more maturely they speak to me when they see me. There is pride there, and it comes from the experience they gain as human beings over the summer, and the excitement that comes with bringing their new identities back to school for the next year.    

    • misstori

      People come back

      Ariel, aren’t we fortunate to be there for part of those transformations?  What a gift! 

  • KellyHanson

    Summer Reading

    Reading this really made me think about myself. As I get ready to go back to work on Monday, I think back to my summer goal to read 5 books, some fun and some professional. I have read 3 (all of which have been fun) and I think that I can relate to our kids. OUr kids work hard throughout the school year and we expect that they continue working on their skills over the summer. We want them to read and we offer them programs like summer school, summer readng, ect. for them to keep working on their skills; but then I think am I improving my skills? I said I would read over summer and now fall short of my goal. I agree that our studnets should be working over the summer to build their skills, but at what expense. They need a break and a time to be kids as much as we need our summer to relax and get ready for the upsoming year.

    • misstori

      Reading at Home

      Kelly, I have shelves of books that I keep intending to open.  I have gotten to page 4 in many of them.  The idea of the break to relax and get ready is exactly how I feel this year.  When I first wrote this, I was thinking that I have let my personal summer reading list slide because I have too much freedom from structure.  And just maybe, that’s one more thing that affects our some of our students and their “not reading”.  

      Then I ran across Wendi Pillar’s blog post about feedback from her students at the end of the year and I read (ha!) that her students’ least liked activities including…drumroll…reading at home and reading in class.  <gasp>  

      So now I’m wondering…doesn’t it make sense that children won’t practice something they don’t like?  

      Especially, as Olaf from Disney’s Frozen would sing, “in summer”…