As a teacher, I used to look forward to summer vacation. As a principal, summer is precious work time. While I have a few weeks of vacation that I take here and there, I work for most of the summer. There’s a lot to do: supervising summer school, planning for the following year, hiring teachers.
There’s also a magic to summer school. While long-term planning for the year is intense, things also slow down. I have a tiny staff of 5 teachers and 3 support staff, and I get to work closely with them in a way that would be impossible during the school year with a much larger staff of 40 people.
The best part about summer school: some of the boys who struggled the most during the school year have transformed into fantastic students. In a recent post, I wrote about the gender achievement gap in my school in which girls are almost doubling the graduation rate of the boys. Since seeing those numbers, I’ve been far more attentive to our boys, particularly our Latino boys, learning what makes them tick, how we can nurture their brilliance. When we have prospective teachers do demonstration lessons, we make sure the class is “stacked” with boys to see how the teacher engages them.
Robert* is a student who came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic. He started at a different New York City high school in 9th grade before he was transferred to our school. This past year in the 10th grade, he struggled: he started to cut his afternoon classes and would ignore directions from teachers.
In summer school, however, he transformed: he is the first student to arrive. He smiles at his teachers. In class, he explains the classwork to his classmates and participates in discussions.
The other day, he came early to school and sat in the office where I was writing emails. He had no particular request or reason to be in the office, he just seemed happy to be early and to be present.
I asked Robert what the difference was between summer school and the regular school year, and why he was so engaged over the summer. He shrugged.
I probed further. “Do you think it’s that you have fewer classes? Or the teachers you’re working with?”
He shrugged again.
“What are you experiencing now as a student that’s different from the regular school year?”
Another shrug. Maybe I needed to revise my questions. Robert also probably isn’t used to reflecting—articulating his own thinking, his own feelings, his own experience. In fact, reflection may be something that comes more naturally to our girls than our boys. Yet we demand that our boys reflect without really teaching them how to do it.
It was time for Robert to go to class.
“In my experience,” I told him, “this is the real you.”
“Yeah,” he said, smiling, and walked to Algebra class.
There are several Roberts in summer school who are making impressive turn-arounds. They’re engaged, curious, focused. I keep wondering what the difference is—is it simply that there are fewer students and fewer distractions? Most students are only taking 2 classes in summer school. Were some of the boys overwhelmed by the demands of 6 academic classes during the regular school year?
Or are we, the staff, different during summer school? Are we more relaxed, less distracted, able to give more attention to our highest-needs students?
Despite his challenges, I had seen many moments of Robert’s intelligence and maturity during the school year, but never consistently. Who Robert is now is truly who he is. Like many of our boys, he probably felt a pressure to show bravado and independence in the form of being disrespectful or disobeying rules. Maybe being the “new kid” made him feel even more of a pressure to fit in.
This year, our work won’t be about changing who our boys are. Our work will be about creating an atmosphere where it’s safe for the boys to be the great people they already are.
*The names and identifying features of students have been changed.
Photo credit: Julie Nariman