Woodard: Summer: Higher Learning 101

By Tosha Woodard

Minding My Bs and Qs

Navigating a child’s education is not a perfect science with nuanced paths vying to be precisely trekked. As our family has adjusted, rewritten, and redrawn our blueprint, and in fielding many questions from outside observers, I often credit the constant of summer engagement in having helped fuel the curiosity, enthusiasm and motivation of our children.

Taking a conscientious approach in choosing a “right fit” regiment has driven the success of summer adventure and provided an invaluable enrichment. In looking back at an extensive list of the kids’ involvements over the past 20 years, I am often surprised to now pinpoint the specific programs and summers when machine learning became as thrilling as math or when a moot court win became an added incentive to explore law school or when a program abroad gave one the confidence to engage in community service.

Seeking out good-fit, quality programs has also become somewhat of an obsession; I’ve learned along the way that not all programs are created equal. But before you deem me a Tiger Mom (I’m not.) about to impose an impossible list of to-dos, I ask that you consider the very real advantages of summer participation—with the added understanding that, to gain access, summer planning season is underway. For such a condensed window, the goal is that you work smarter not harder. Warming to the idea of a robust, challenge-filled summer could change your child’s life.

Summer programs—whether online, residential or day—carry social, academic, and affective impacts. For two and a half months, students may avail themselves of specialized curricula and intriguing schedules with minimal risks. Earning a spot in a well-suited program (or creating your own) has the potential to be a lifelong asset for your child. Available are extensive collections for all types of learners, talents, and deficits including research opportunities, advanced coursework, study abroad, language immersion, social justice initiatives, service projects, and advancement in music and the arts. Quirky to typical students from around the world converge on campuses lured by labs, inquiry-based learning, career experimentation, athletics, and seemingly everything in between. And for families disproportionally impacted by a lack of teachers in the classroom who resemble our children; fewer gifted recommendations; fewer magnet school acceptances; and receiving higher disciplinary referrals—summer freedom serves as an invaluable tool of empowerment affording opportunities to show leadership, be challenged, and connect learning to daily life.

Residential summer programs tend to provide a more holistic focus with daily schedules that go beyond academics. (My rule of thumb has been to explore programs once the child is 10 or older.)  Though it is understandably difficult to send a child away on his or her own, particularly the first time, be reassured by reputable programs with reliable screening processes and appropriate staff/student ratios. Also, pay attention to the yield of a competitive program vs. a “pay to play.”  What is the mission of the program and how have past students qualified their experience? Request references to learn more of the experiences of past students.  And, be included: Don’t sit-out of the process when tuition poses constraints; instead explore financial aid and scholarship availability. Everyone benefits when there is reciprocal learning from students of all backgrounds.

Developing the confidence to keep the process child-centered also stands to be a transformative tool.  I speak from experience. I’m certainly guilty of choosing a program I loved hoping that my child would love it just as much. And after sending that child away for two grueling weeks and learning instead that he hated math and—who knew—circles, too, his conscientious input was a gross omission. I’ve since come full circle (No pun intended.) and, though I am still very much involved in the process, generally from December through March my role is now as passive advisor rather than co-applicant.

And the most valuable lesson that experience has taught is to hold a program as accountable for its promised structure as for its cultural competence (I will explore cultural competence more in my next article.).  This is one of the most essential pieces of the puzzle for my family, though initially, a missing one.  I recall when having a son attend Northwestern’s Center for Talent Development reading disconnected remarks from an instructor and, later, a program assistant and just how much those remarks clouded the experience. I had such deep regret. So even in these shorter stints, familiarity with those interacting with your student is paramount.   Initiate conversations with not only the instructors but also the program managers; ask open-ended questions; and lend your voice at the start to help others better know your student.

As students unwind, negotiate sleepovers, reconnect with family, and spend hours—occasionally—doing things entirely thoughtless, engagement can’t be understated. Enrich their summer by helping to advance the natural curiosity of your student, positioning him or her to be a problem solver and compassionate contributor to their everyday and well into the future. If a carefully structured external program doesn’t work for you, consider creating your own in-house. The goal: A journey that affords a child the tools and freedom to navigate confidently and with curiosity and authenticity. Don’t hesitate to send an email to BsandQsColumn@gmail.com with your summer plans. Homework: Seek to perfect preparedness in an imperfect system.

For a list of awe-inspiring programs and some of my personal favorites, follow Minding My Bs and Qs on Twitter: @BsandQs.

[Tosha Woodardis mom to five square pegs in round holes, educator’s wife, law grad, courageous conversationalist and impassioned advocate in pursuit of social justice and the next challenge—of purpose.]

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