American students continue to fall behind their counterparts in the rest of the industrialized world in mathematics and science, according to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Our high school reading and writing scores produce similar downward trending data. What can we do? How do we produce the best minds during a child’s elementary and secondary school years? That is the new window that parents, educators, and policymakers should be looking through to create a 21st century-based school model.
A quarter of a century ago, the influential national report A Nation at Risk argued that lengthening the school day would expand a student’s knowledge base, improving their achievement scores. The contemporary financial climate may preclude extending the school day, but we can extend a child’s learning throughout the calendar year.
University of California neuroanatomist Dr. Marian Diamond, a pioneer in brain-based learning, has shown that neural pathways that represent specific knowledge or skills begin to diminish — they are pruned away — after only four days of nonuse. Should we be surprised by the massive amount of reteaching necessary in September following nearly three months of academic neglect?
Whether kids’ summertimes will be spent at home, in a summer school setting, community center, or library, there are a number of strategies parents, educators, and the local community can employ throughout the summer season so that September will not be a cognitive wasteland, where educators spend their time playing catch-up to reacquaint students with an academic setting.
In School: Prepare Students for Fall
Students should spend the last week of the school year with a teacher from the next grade level. Teachers would introduce the books students will have in the coming year, along with some of the key concepts and skills they will learn.
Student-teacher relationships could be initiated, particularly since this teacher may be the one whose classroom they will be sitting in come fall. Student learning would get a head start on the teaching and learning standards for the next year. Information would be sent home to parents, describing precisely how they can prepare their child over the summer months for greater success in the subsequent school year. Not only can students sharpen and maintain the skills learned from the previous year, which may serve as the building blocks for new learning, but the anticipatory pre-learning experience prepares the brain for making new pathways for learning by creating new neural connections.
In the Libraries and School Districts: Open Your Doors
Districts and local libraries should collaborate to provide weekly refresher and skill maintenance classes in reading, writing, mathematics, and science; the usually predictable “summer drop-off” in skills proficiency could be substantially reduced if not completely eliminated. Brain connections that support academic skills become “hardwired” with repeated usage. With videos and virtual reality, when children walk past the wide library doors, even wider doors to boundless knowledge open as if by magic! They can take journeys back in time, travel inside the human body, go anywhere around our world, beneath the oceans and beyond our skies. “Dittos don’t build dendrites,” says educator Susan Kovalik, one of the leaders in the brain-based learning movement — active involvement does.
Today’s well equipped libraries can generate the most memorable of all summer experiences when we shift our preoccupation away from the three “R”s and toward the nearly infinite number of print and electronic media products and resources available, which provide limitless opportunities for learning. They will expand cognitive development, if the materials offer the four “I”s of learning:
- Informative (“Knowledge is Power”)
- Interpersonal (Face to Face)
- Inspirational (and Affirming)
For Parents and Teachers: Encourage Helpfulness with the Helping Hand
Parents should find a highly visible location where they can post a giant poster of a handprint. (See Chart 1: A Helping Hand Aids the Growing Mind.) When one child helps another one learn, encourage the second child to write the name of their helper on the handprint along with a short sentence on how and/or why his efforts were helpful and worth public acknowledgment.
- Students will actively pursue more opportunities to help one another, because human beings are first and foremost highly social beings.
- Children will immediately look for their names on the handprint and read about their supportive contributions.
- The self-esteem of less popular and/or frequently isolated students blossoms when they are sought out by their peers.
- Bullying decreases, because it has been devalued.
- Children begin to appreciate that teaching and helping are everyone’s responsibility, and not the exclusive property of a parent or teacher.
This “Helping Hand” strategy has deployed by a Tennessee teacher in her junior high school science classroom. She reported an almost instantaneous increase in cooperation, involvement, patience, compassion, and learning demonstrated by her students, which rejuvenated her passion for teaching enough to withdraw her request for an early retirement.
Rather than playing referee for the summer, parents should post a Helping Hand chart in a prominent place in the home, reminding children that supporting one another is a vital family value.
For Parents: Boost Vocabulary
According to linguistics experts, the average child understands about 8,000 vocabulary words when they enter kindergarten, although many students begin school well below this figure. But students should exit high school with a working knowledge of more than 87,000 words. That’s 79,000 words in the balance! Students must learn 6,076 words per year, which translates into 34 words every one of the 178 days of the school year. (See Chart 2: Vocabulary Development.)
If we take advantage of the eight-and-a-half-week summer vacation as prime time for further vocabulary development, we can reduce this Herculean task by 30 percent.
Cultivating a robust vocabulary is a prominent key to academic success in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. The brain establishes vast networks of dendrites, the branch-like extensions connecting neurons in the brain that interconnect our competencies in listening, speaking, writing, drawing, and reading. Have kids:
- Talk about what they’ve read
- Write about what they’ve listened to
- Draw pictures of what they read
- Listen to others describe what they have read
- Read aloud what they have written
Providing these multiple exposures to meaningful vocabulary and firsthand formal uses of language builds dendrites and synapses that support what was learned but also serve as pathways for new, related learning. Dendrites are the neurophysiological access routes by which cognitive connections are later made.
Word-immersion activities benefit all children, particularly those who, unsurprisingly, are at the lower end of the achievement continuum. One of the best ways to teach “phonics” and phonemic awareness is to present students with a wealth of rich and regular opportunities to write new words before, during, and after those words are read. When students practice writing the words slowly and reading them slowly, they began to reinforce the connections between the sounds produced by the letters and syllables. Writing activities cultivate a better understanding of both spelling and phonics.