Category Archives: summer school

Summer School: Day 4

One of our state’s academic standards for 6th-grade science expects students to be able to create a list of instructions that someone else can follow in carrying out a procedure. Because this 14-day summer school session is a multi-disciplinary unit including language arts, math, science and social studies, I try to relate every lesson to the novel Number the Stars.

“You’re one of the Danish Resistance fighters,” I told my students yesterday. “You need to blow up a bridge. In ten steps, write instructions that someone else can follow for blowing up that bridge in case you get killed before you can do it.”

“Why do we want to blow up a bridge?” one student asked.

“Because the Germans are using it to move men and military equipment, and you don’t want to make things easy for the enemy. I’ll give you the last step on your list: It’s to blow up the bridge. You’re responsible for the first nine steps. Oh, and use dynamite as your explosive. Any other questions?”

“How do you spell dynamite?”

I wrote the word on the board and the kids began to scribble their instructions. One of the steps on several of the students’ lists was “Test the dynamite.” Arrgh!

For a first attempt at writing instructions, however, I didn’t want to be too critical. No use discouraging them. I want them to write, write, write!

Today, they continued working at mastering the standard. On a handout, I had written:

[The German invaders rationed food in Denmark.] Annemarie went to the kitchen and opened the door to the cupboard where the potatoes were kept. Every night, now, it seemed, they had potatoes for dinner. And very little else. (Number the Stars, p.22)


Create a list of instructions that Annemarie can follow to prepare a tasty dish of potatoes for the Johansens’ evening meal.

The students’ instructions for preparing potatoes were somewhat more explicit than their instructions for blowing up a bridge, although I did worry a bit about the student who wrote that after putting the potatoes on the stove to cook, I should walk away and come back in a while when the potatoes were done. Um, how long is “a while”? And won’t the potatoes be overdone—or even burned to a crisp—if I leave them sizzling in a greasy skillet while I go play video games? (Video games? During World War II?)

They’ll try writing more instructions next week—perhaps for gutting a fish (Annemarie’s Uncle Henrik is a fisherman); or how to draw a Star of David (a symbol that figures prominently in the story); or even how to make applesauce (a treat that Annemarie’s mother makes at the farm).

Most of my students don’t know how to think. Writing lists of step-by-step instructions is one way to get them to practice the art of thinking.

Summer School: Day 3

This day ended in tears—not mine, but J-Boy’s.

All the students were settled on the buses, ready for the ride home, and the drivers had started their engines when the announcement came blaring over the intercom: “J-Boy, report to the office, please. J-Boy, report to the office immediately.”

I located J-Boy on one of the buses and escorted him to the office.

“What’s going on?” he said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe you don’t have to ride the bus this afternoon. Maybe somebody’s here to pick you up.”

The secretary told J-Boy to go into the counselor’s office and told me to tell the bus driver to wait a few minutes. “There’s a custody battle going on,” she said, “and the deputy is here.”

I ran back out to the bus and told J-Boy’s driver that he’d have to wait a few minutes, while the rest of the buses pulled away from the curb. Then I returned to the office.

J-Boy was sobbing. “But I want to go with my dad!” he wailed.

The sheriff’s deputy tried to reassure J-Boy that everything would be all right, but his words sounded hollow to this kid whose parents, once deeply in love, now hate each other.

I left the building with J-Boy’s sobs still ringing in my ears. The principal said he was going to call child protective services. It sounded as if J-Boy wouldn’t be going to either parent’s home tonight.

My students may do stupid things, but none of them can equal the stupidity of parents who hate each other, and who use their children as pawns in the brutal game of avenging real or imagined wrongs.

Summer School: Day 2

Unlike the Declaration of Independence, which states “all men are created equal,” all summer school days are not created equal. Yesterday was a “high” for me, today a low, with kids coming to class without pencils, kids falling asleep, and kids’ brains refusing to engage in anything even remotely resembling cogitation.

A grueling day.

Tomorrow? Who knows?

And that’s what makes teaching an adventure: We never know what’s coming next!

Summer School: Day 1

As the long Memorial Day weekend drew to a close and the first day of summer school drew near, I began to wonder why I had volunteered for the job. Hadn’t I just last week completed 10 grueling months of teaching? Why would I want to add another three weeks (minus a day) to my school year? Yeah, there’s the issue of money, but how much money is working three more weeks worth? Certainly not what they’re paying me!

So it was with a less-than-enthusiastic attitude that I stepped into the school building this morning. I was counting the minutes until the day would end and I would be free to do whatever I wanted to do.

However, something happened between 8 a.m. and the departure of the students at 1:30 p.m. During the teaching of the math portion of our multidisciplinary unit (based on Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars), I got thoroughly excited. Math is not my favorite subject and many of the students at our school struggle with mathematical concepts. But I wrote, and helped the students work through, four word problems involving ratios and proportions. Here’s one example:

Even though one of Annemarie’s shoes came untied as she sped along the street called Ǿsterbrogade, she still ran faster than her friend Ellen. In half a minute, Annemarie ran 200 meters. Ellen ran the same distance in three-quarters of a minute.
a. How many meters per second did Annemarie run?
b. How many meters per second did Ellen run?

What a thrill it was to watch “the lights go on” in at least four of the 19 students as they began to understand how to set up ratios and proportions to solve problems. Of course, there were a couple of students who dozed or looked at me with glazed eyes during the lesson, but they couldn’t take away the joy I felt at having reached the others.

After the school-day ended, I dashed off this short but jubilant e-mail to a dear friend, also a teacher:

Just finished my first day of summer school. I’m tired, but while I was “on,” I was thoroughly engaged and enjoyed working with the students. Before today, I was wondering what kind of masochist I was to be teaching summer school. Now that the first day is over, I’m ready to go back. I do believe I “belong” in the classroom!

Belonging in the classroom. Belonging to a community. Belonging to a family. Belonging to someone special. A sense of belonging is hard to beat. It’s what gives life meaning, and I’m ready to go back into the classroom tomorrow.

It’s where I belong.

Six-Word Saturday: Preparing


Holiday weekend—preparing for summer school.

For more Six-Word Saturday participants, click here.

A Matter of Safety

“You know that student you asked me about this morning?” Ms. J said, as she stuck her head through my door after the last bell Thursday. “Her family has experienced a terrible tragedy. Her father was killed.”

“Oh, that’s horrible!” I said. “Killed. As in murdered?”

“Yes,” Ms. J said.

I couldn’t imagine who would do such a thing, but Ms. J had no more information. The only thing I knew for certain was that 12-year-old N-Girl had been plunged into grief and that somehow she would have to come to terms with her father’s sudden and unexpected death.

Late this afternoon, I learned from the school counselor that an arrest had been made: N-Girl’s older (by one year) brother had been charged with his father’s murder.

I teach in a school in a low-income area. Alcoholism, drug abuse and gang activity are rampant. Many of my students know the painful facts about domestic violence—not by reading statistics, but by watching their drunken father beat their mother and then turn on his children. Murder is not uncommon. Last year one of my students was both relieved and horrified when the body of her older sister, who had been missing for two years, was finally discovered. The sister was a homicide victim.

I think I now understand why so many of my students have signed up for summer school, even though they are not failing and are in no danger of being retained. They may not do well in school, they may even profess to dislike school, but they know they can count on their teachers to provide a consistent daily routine in contrast to the chaos of their unpredictable home lives. For these kids, school is the safest place in the community—and they want as much of it as they can get.

The academic year ends Tuesday, and I’m sure N-Girl won’t be with us for the last-day-of school festivities. But I won’t be surprised if she shows up for summer school the day after Memorial Day.

It’s a matter of safety.