• Halcyon Days
    August 03,2013
     

    It’s barely August, and back to school ads have been running for weeks. But the mad rush to September isn’t as distressing as the reform campaign to eliminate summer recess altogether.

    My problem isn’t that somebody’s wishing my vacation away. It’s worth noting that lots of teachers work off-season jobs, while others get to indulge in curriculum development and stimulating graduate courses like Brain Compatible Teaching Strategies. But whether I spend July and August on a ladder or in a hammock, and whether I like it, is irrelevant.

    Giving me time off is a necessary byproduct of something that’s very relevant and important — giving kids time off.

    I’m not saying students shouldn’t work hard. We’d be a lot better off if more kids had chores, and gym classes reinstituted old-fashioned calisthenics ordeals. That’s because part of our achievement problem is that many students, even those with good intentions, rarely experience real exertion. They honestly think they’re working hard because they’re turning all the pages. They don’t know what real sweat and study feel like.

    I also don’t think summer should be a time out from using your mind. Fortunately, books and ideas are available outside of school. Kids and adults can read and talk in the backyard and at the kitchen table. On the other hand, the rigors of daily classroom instruction do take their toll, and from that kids can use a break.

    Some teachers testify that we, too, need “time to relax, recharge our batteries.” It’s true that teaching is a taxing occupation. It’s a full day contending simultaneously with dozens of demanding kids who, even when they’re well-behaved, don’t take turns with their demands. That’s when things don’t get more combative, which they often do. When my students leave at 3, as much as I enjoy them, the sudden quiet that comes with standing down is remarkable.

    On the other hand, I’ve done a few other things in my life to earn a living. Teachers aren’t the only workers who need and look forward to relaxing. I’ve worked an assembly line, and I’ve watched waitresses battle the lunch rush, and I recognize that other occupations, like being a police officer, involve even more stress than mine. All those workers survive without the summer to recharge.

    Opponents of summer recess mount flawed arguments, too. They argue that our present school calendar dates from when most Americans were farmers. They claim that schools released kids to be home in the fields during summers. Except spring and fall are busy farm times, too. Besides, our current two-month summer recess became an institution not because of farmers but at the insistence of a growing urban middle class that demanded a summer vacation. In any case, the critics have it backwards. Schools never gave children back to their families for a part of the year. Families sent their children to school for a part of the year. The fact that kids spend 10 months away from home already sounds outrageous.

    Vacation critics contend that there’s more to teach than there used to be, and that’s why schools need more time in session. Listen. United States history didn’t suddenly get that much longer. Nobody ever made it through the whole book in any subject. There’s always been too much information.

    If we’re serious about providing more time for learning, we don’t have to cancel summer. According to the National Education Commission on Time and Learning, American students spend only 41 percent of the school day on academics. We don’t need to lengthen the school year.

    We just need to better use the time we already have.

    We’d have more time for learning if we spent less time tolerating disruptive students. We’d have more time for teaching if we didn’t waste so much administering the burgeoning battery of redundant, unreliable tests mandated by No Child Left Behind. We’d have more time for academics if we stopped heaping tasks on schools that once belonged at home. A Nation at Risk warned about the “educational cost” of these additional nonacademic burdens.

    The solution isn’t to confiscate more time from home. The answer is to return those responsibilities back where they and our children belong. Then we’ll all be able to better do our jobs.

    Preserving summer vacation ought to be everybody’s cause. “Family values” supporters should see it as an opportunity for children to be with their families. Those concerned with nurturing the “whole child” should realize that summer vacation at home is the best time and place to be a whole child.

    Ogden Nash wrote a poem years ago about the halcyon days of summer. “Halcyon” means a peaceful, golden time. Mr. Nash was talking about those pleasant summer days with nothing to do and “no work to shirk.”

    Opponents of summer vacation contend that in the 21st century we can’t afford that kind of childhood anymore. I don’t accept that. But if the way we’ve allowed things to change has endangered our halcyon summers, the last thing we ought to be doing is taking further steps to ensure that our children never have them.



    Peter Berger teaches English at Weathersfield School.

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