Avoiding the Summer Setback in Academic Skills

By A. G. Moore

summer

We all feel it, the summer lassitude that settles in sometime in June and doesn’t lift until trees start losing their leaves. Autumnal shedding reminds us that time is passing and we have to hustle in order to catch up.

 

For kids, the casual days of summer present an opportunity for adventure–and the risk of diminished academic skills.This is especially true for lower income children.

 

In general, children lose about two months  (according to standardized tests) in math performance and about the same in reading over the summer months. The result, however, is not consistent across income levels. Children from middle and upper income homes do not on average experience this decline in reading scores. On the contrary, in many cases there is actually a bump in those scores. In seeking a reason for the disparity between middle and lower class outcomes, one study suggests that the answer lies in access to books.

 

This study is described in an article published by The Institute for Educational Sciences (a US government organization).  According to the study: “…family socioeconomic status has been linked to the access children have to books in their homes and neighborhoods”. In order to reach this conclusion researchers divided a cohort of lower income students into two groups. In one group, students were allowed to self-select books for summer reading. The second group served as control; these students were not given access to books.

 

The results, as interpreted by the study’s sponsors, showed that access to books had a “significant effect”.  The effect was more pronounced in students from the lowest income group.

 

Of course, this is one study; its conclusions may be accepted or rejected. However, most people will probably not be surprised by the authors’ analysis. It’s pretty much accepted by parents and educators that the more kids read the better their skills are likely to be. Increased access to books, particularly ‘self-selected’ books, certainly increases the chance that reading will take place.

 

While most parents may be in agreement with the basic principle that more reading makes better readers, encouraging a reading regime in the lazy summer months can be a challenge. What the study and others like it show is that rising to this challenge is worth the effort.

 

Kids take the summer off; parents can’t. Parents don’t get a vacation from their job, not until a child is grown and parental responsibility has been fulfilled.

 

The American Library Association claims that 95% of all public libraries have a summer reading program for kids. Interested parents can check local libraries to see if one of these programs is near them.

 

Besides engaging in a reading program, parents may find that summer is a good time to offer so-called ‘enrichment’ material that the crowded school curriculum increasingly neglects.  The flexible summer months may be seen as an occasion to round out a child’s academic experience with informal exposure to ideas and subjects that otherwise might not be covered.

 

A summer break from school need not be paid for with a ‘setback’ in skills.  Children learn in many ways. What they learn–academically, socially or culturally–depends largely on environment.  With access to the right environment, including books, children may not only maintain skills but may experience a ‘bounce’–in academic skills and in their general store of knowledge.

 

In that case, when summer is done and leaves turn orange, time’s passage may be regarded not with regret but with anticipation.

Commonsense Approach to Creative Writing

manual trait 1 smash
The Image is taken from “Teacher’s Manual The Artist Inside”. This is one of the sample pictures offered to prompt creative thinking about personal traits . Students are encouraged to look beyond age, gender and race. They are asked to describe what the action in the picture suggests to them. Teachers are invited to copy sample pictures and hand these copies out as part of their lessons.

The following essay is copied from  Rhythm Prism’s writing development book,Teacher’s Manual The Artist Inside

There is a national debate about Common Core and standardized testing. However, when it comes to writing, the discussion is almost irrelevant. Whatever position may be taken on the value of Common Core and standardized testing, the goal of every writing program everywhere is the same: to develop in students the ability to express themselves logically, clearly and effectively.

The Artist Inside writing development book and the accompanying Teacher’s Manual are designed to achieve this universally acknowledged goal.

Those who wish to advance a classic writing development program will find their tradition richly respected in The Artist Inside system. Those who wish to follow guidelines of the Common Core curriculum will find those standards seamlessly incorporated into the system. The ‘gimmick’ of The Artist Inside writing development system is simply this: it is engaging.

Students are invited to use their imagination. They are guided in that use with the introduction of specific tools. Teachers are offered modalities that facilitate student use.

The goal of all language–spoken, written, signed–is to convey information. Writing may require more discipline than speech but, like speech, it becomes more fluent with practice. This is what The Artist Inside system promotes.

The first challenge in any writing program is to get students writing. Extend an invitation, not a challenge. Offer guidance, not rigid structure. With this approach, the skill will evolve, as all language does in the proper environment.

Growing the Brain

In a previous blog I described a study that suggested creative activity encourages brain growth. Yesterday Nature Magazine published the results of another study that looked at brain development. This one linked income level to infant brain size.

Carried out by two researchers, Kimberly Noble from Columbia University and Elizabeth Sowell from LA’s Children’s Hospital, the study showed that infants from lower income families suffer a reduction in brain size. The implications of this study are that income disparity may have life-long, potentially irreversible consequences for children. These consequences go beyond the obvious disadvantage of diminished opportunity.  Even if at some point opportunity is equalized, children from low income homes may never be able to optimally exploit it.

Most of us are familiar with the nature/nurture debate.  Essentially, this discussion weighs the influence of environmental factors such as parenting, neighborhood and schooling against inherited traits. The Nobel/Sowell study, if it holds up, invalidates the debate. According to the study, nature is not a fixed element that can be juxtaposed against environment; it is a function of environment.

The observed effect of income level on brain size is so marked that even within lower income groups, variations of a few thousand dollars result in brain size disparity. If confirmed, the results of the Nobel/Sowell study ought to have a profound effect on the political dialogue that centers on economic equity.

Of thirty-three OECD countries,Chile, Mexico, Turkey, the United States and Israel were the five with the greatest income inequality.  That inequality may translate into millions of lifetimes of relative disadvantage.  Expand the focus of the results globally and a vast population, much of the world in fact, suffers that relative disadvantage.

It is true that we all want our children to maximize the potential with which nature has endowed them. But what if that potential is not fixed by nature? What if potential is at least partly a man-made artifact, a consequence of political and economic policies that perpetuate income inequality?

The authors of the Children’s Hospital/Columbia study are careful to explain that they don’t know exactly which factors influence brain size in infants.  The researchers guess the factors might be the usual suspects: nutrition, exposure to toxins, poor social stimulation. They suggest that tinkering with manageable factors during gestation and afterwards might have a beneficial influence.

However, it seems to me that the researchers pull back from the obvious remedy: close the income gap. This prescription, though obvious, is one that many people will find ideologically unpalatable.  Whenever wealth distribution is discussed there’s inevitably talk about freedom and choice. Which begs the question, what choice is given to an infant who lies in a crib with a destiny diminished by low income? What freedom does that infant have to forge a successful future?

Of course, there’s a larger issue than the individual tragedy of lost potential.  There’s the societal cost.  Children with less potential become adults who are less able. That is not in anyone’s interest, no matter their income level.

brain development
Credit for this image goes to Van Essen Lab(Washington University in St. Louis), in collaboration with Terrie Inder, Jeff Neil, Jason Hill, and others. http://brainvis.wustl.edu/wiki/index.php/Main_Page The image illustrates human cortical development through gestation and into adulthood.