At a certain point in each semester, my days become brighter and lighter. I find that I suddenly have an extraordinary amount of time on my hands — time to watch Netflix, do my long-neglected hobbies, and maybe even get around to taking care of myself. Yes, I’m talking about the first real days of break, when every final is over, every paper is finished and every group project is well and truly over. And that incredible feeling is exactly what I want no school-aged student to ever feel again. That’s right: I’m a monster.
Well, not really. See, the reason that summer break always felt so good throughout my primary school years is that the school year was too busy and stressful — that’s what I want to change. Though America’s absurd, workaholic culture is to blame for its increasingly-stressed out kids, there’s at least one simple thing we can do to help. Instead of working kids like mules nine months of the year and then giving them a breather before we beat them down again, we should redistribute school work across the entire year.
To balance the school year, we should give kids an extra day off each week, restricting structured school to only four days a week. On that extra day, schools should be open for students who want to study in the library, go to office hours with their teachers, paint or anything else. And if a student doesn’t want to go in and would rather play with friends, work (if they’re older) or do something else, then that is up to them and their families.
Of course, adding an extra day off requires subtracting free time from elsewhere, since we don’t want to actually teach kids less. (With that model, we’d get far too many students who turn out like my co-columnist.) I propose that we take this extra time from summer break.
In return for a month less of summer break, kids get to learn at a slower pace and retain that knowledge better — and stay on top of their mental health. Rather than cramming during the school year and forgetting a substantial portion of what they learned over the summer, they can soak up new knowledge at a far more sustainable and helpful pace.
While it seems counterintuitive, slowing down the pace of learning will help students learn more. Right now, most kids barely have the time to complete their homework in addition to everything else they do. When they receive less homework per week — but not per school year, remember — students will be able to spend more time learning each week’s concepts. Even better, they’ll be less stressed out: stress makes learning and retaining knowledge so much more difficult. Moreover, students will be able to let difficult concepts marinate instead of rushing on to the next unit for lack of time.
In fact, we should shorten summer break even further by taking most of what’s left after killing hump day and spreading it out throughout the year in one- and two-week chunks. These intermediate breaks will give kids time to be kids regardless of the season and slow down the pace of learning even further. The remaining, three-week-long summer vacation will give kids a ton of time during the summer to relax between grades, soak up the sun and do summer activities. And the multitude of breaks throughout the year will give them time to destress with fall, winter and spring activities — why should summer be the only fun season?
In the end, students would have about the same number of days off each year. However, instead of starving our kids of time during the school year and boring them to death during the summer, we can make sure that they’re never overworked at all. An added benefit is that we’d also stop overburdening teachers, who suffer from the same burnout cycle as students. By giving students Wednesdays to relax, work and play, we would also give teachers Wednesdays to grade, help curious students and work on their curricula.
Finally, my plan for year-round school hinges on the school building itself staying open seven days a week, all year round. Over these new, additional breaks, school should be a place where students feel comfortable hanging out and taking part in other activities. Right now, we treat breaks as an opportunity to close our schools’ doors and send everyone home.
During breaks, weekends and newly-freed Wednesdays, schools should stay wide open. School libraries should lend out books and provide students with a quiet place to work, and school kitchens should cook good, nutritious food for the community. Community groups should use classrooms to meet and sports teams should use gyms to practice. In addition to keeping students in school for more weeks a year, we can make schools into a resource for students, families and community members that far surpasses our traditional model of education.
It’s up to us to re-envision our schools and make them into a better place for our students and their communities. Our current model reminds me of a ham-handed joke I remember from my own middle school days. It goes like this: Why did the man hit himself on the head with a hammer 50 times? Because it felt good when he stopped.
We shouldn’t be in the business of making our kids’ lives miserable because it’ll feel good when they aren’t miserable anymore. Instead, we should give our kids a better deal, one in which they can learn, grow and live free of stress. Year-round school is just the first step towards this new vision.