In just two short days the final bell will ring on the 2021-22 school year. In my world, that means nearly 3000 kids ages 3-15 will be released to their playdates and summer camps, classes and family vacations, reading lists and favorite shows. And most indelibly…to their imaginations.
Sometimes we think school is the chief purview of learning, that we educators have all the answers, that it’s up to us to find the best ways to teach. While that may be true to some extent, after all a teacher’s skill is magic, let us not forget the unique opportunity the “summer vacation” provides to stretch our children’s minds in different ways, ways that are no less necessary and impactful than the nine months of the year they spend under our careful stewardship.
A couple weeks ago, I “took the day off” and gave the Superintendent reins to two third graders in our district, Aaron and Felix, who served as “Superintendent for the Day.” This annual tradition in my district helps raise money for our education foundation, which auctions off the privilege each year.
Felix and Aaron made radio checks, visited each campus, “supervised” recess, popped into their classroom as the “boss,” toured our maintenance shop and brand new electric school buses, and took meetings with local dignitaries like a School Board member and local police. It’s amazing to see their faces light up when the police officers arrive in their patrol cars and motorcycles or when we visit their astonished classmates who say, “WOW, you have all the power today,”
As part of the experience, the students get to help write the SupsOn Blog for the month. This year, we chose the power of summer vacation to spark curiosity, fun, and learning. We started with a crowd favorite among third graders--the Phineas and Ferb theme song. For those who are unfamiliar with the crazy antics of these two cartoon heroes, let me fill you in. Phineas and Ferb take on the most exciting adventure in a young kids life: how to have the BEST summer ever! So with Aaron and Felix my unwitting moles into the minds of local third graders, I devised a plan to discover some top secret tips for families wanting to support their child to have a wonderful, adventurous, fun summer fill of (dare I say) LEARNING.
We began with the theme song, which begins…
“There's a hundred and four days of summer vacation
'Til school comes along just to end it
So the annual problem for our generation
Is finding a good way to spend it.”
Throughout the morning we talked about what makes the kids tick, what they love to do and what they’d change about school if they could. Felix loves animals and has near encyclopedic knowledge of some of his favorites. Aaron, while quieter, has strong opinions about his favorite cuisine and travel. So when I asked them what their favorite ways to spend summer would be, their answers were thoughtful and uninhibited.
Phineus and Ferb list some of their favorite ideas as,
“Building a rocket; fighting a mummy; climbing up the Eiffel Tower; discovering something that doesn't exist; giving a monkey a shower; surfing tidal waves; creating nanobots; locating Frankenstein's brain; finding a dodo bird; painting a continent; or…driving our sister insane.”
So, as any good investigator would do, I started by asking which of these adventures Aaron and Felix would choose.
Aaron would surf tidal waves because he likes fast water. Belying his apparent reserved demeanor, Aaron has a courageous appetite for risk taking that will surely serve him well in education, career, and life. Felix wants to find a dodo bird because, while he knows they’re extinct, his research leads him to believe that if he looks for prints, leftover food, and scat he might just make a new discovery. His affinity for knowledge-seeking will likewise propel him through his life’s journey.
Felix, who longs to fish and catch a shark, would never swim in a pool that might harbor dead mosquitos! And Aaron, a fan of local restaurants, really wants to get out of his hometown to St. Louis for some of his favorite bar-be-que. And in a sentiment that kids can universally understand, both boys hope to spend at least some of their time driving their siblings insane; after all, they do it to them so it’s only fair.
I find that when we take time to relate to kids on their terms, proposing questions without constraints on how we expect them to answer, we learn the most about them. A big, wide open 104 days of summer offers this opportunity. I could write a whole other blog on the power of summer sleep away camp (in fact I did; read it here). I stand by my recommendation that if you have the chance, find ways for your children to spend time with other kids, away from home, exploring new activities. But even if that’s not possible, don’t underestimate the power and beauty of the summer to inspire curiosity and adventure in our kids.
I don’t know if Aaron and Felix, or any kids, will complete their summer bucket lists of “climbing the Eiffel tower or giving a monkey a shower.” However, the uninterrupted time to even contemplate these possibilities will stretch their brains and help build qualities like curiosity, perseverance, and innovation that we spend years developing in school. Even if the farthest journey your child takes this summer is to the local library to check out a book on dodo birds or tidal waves, they will have entered a new world of their choosing, free to explore at their pace, following their interests.
So let’s hear it for summer. After three school years upended by the pandemic, after the ever changing adjustments to new normals and uncomfortable precautions that kids the world over have tolerated with such aplomb, let’s make summer 2022 one of relative freedom, exploration, and imagination that kids' brains crave.
Thanks Aaron and Felix for being our inspiration!
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.