An Enrichment Post: Summer School

For over ten years – almost the entire duration of time I led the Evergreen Garden Club at one of our district’s four elementary schools, I wanted to be involved in providing an enriching summer school experience on Monarchs or other seasonal horticultural topics. After all, our growing season in Wisconsin is short and what better time to involve children in nature and gardening, as well as the lessons it can provide, than during the summer?

So I asked, several times over many years, about how I could be either hired to be a summer school teacher or be utilized by the teachers who were teaching summer school.  I asked teachers. I let the principals I worked with during the school year know of my interest. I asked the summer school principal – who, at the time was part of district administration. And, I asked two different superintendents. I was available. I was passionate about the subject matter. I had a substitute teaching permit – which allows teaching up to three weeks at a time in Wisconsin.  My requests never went anywhere. Mind you, I am generalizing a bit here.  I cannot say with one hundred percent accuracy that I asked each person I worked with each year.  As with any system, our district has had a fair amount of staff and administration changes.  So, although my desire to be involved in summer school was usually met with enthusiasm and optimism to bring the idea to reality, the year passed and, more often than not, the person I spoke to changed positions and the request, along with my interest, was forgotten.

I am sure that some of this occurred because summer school is often seen as a time for remediation. Summer school provides a chance to catch those students up who had fallen behind or did not fare so well during the school year.  But, it can also be a time for low stakes enrichment. Studies show that when there is a more relaxed learning environment, and less focus on “teaching to the test,” students’ might actually absorb more content. Plus, it demonstrates, in a very real way, that learning can be fun. In addition, a garden based summer school would provide a chance for students to participate in experiential, place based learning that some might find fit their learning styles better than a traditional classroom.  And, let’s face it – our kids all need more exposure to nature.

In 2014, I went a step further and wrote a piece curriculum specifically tailored to a camp and/or summer school setting, called Monarch Education for the Environment. The following spring a local university, Winona State, asked me to teach it for their College for Kids Camp. After a period of initial excitement, the class was cancelled due to the lack of registrants! I guess nature could not compete with the attractiveness of technology based courses like Lego Mindstorms or Robotics. I was disappointed and felt sad at what potential students had missed out on.  The course has never been taught. However, nature remains an exciting teacher.

But, I persisted. When hired for a new Garden Club Advisor position in a different school district this fall, I let the hiring principal know of my interest in offering a summer school enrichment opportunity.  She took it under advisement. Spring came and garden activities at this new school became all-consuming. I thought about the summer school option but did not bring it up again. After all, repeatedly bringing it up in the past had never made an impact.

All that changed a few days ago. I was contacted by the lead summer school teacher at the school in which I am now based. She wanted to schedule some lessons to be provided by me during their summer school session in July!  So, after a few back and forth emails, we hatched a plan. The younger students will get a lesson on plant parts we eat, complete with samples to try. And, the older kids (3rd – 5th grade) will receive a lesson on monarchs, mimicry, and the butterfly habitat found right in our own school yard! I am excited. What took over ten years of asking to participate in summer school took less than one year in a different district! This amazes me. I realized that perhaps, I was asking the wrong people at the wrong time. In any case, I will finally be able to teach some summer school lessons for enrichment! For that, I am very grateful!

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