Keeping Kids Engaged with Resources from ReadWriteThink.org and Other Summer Learning Sites
by Lorna Collier
The last bell rings, the last child skips out of the building, and then it's here: summer vacation. For the next nine to ten weeks, students in most school districts in the U.S. are out of class—and for too many, on their way to losing weeks, if not months of accumulated learning from the school year.
Studies show that children can lose a significant amount of academic progress over the summer—a setback that’s even more serious for struggling and low-achieving learners.
Enter summer learning programs. When a balanced calendar (year-round schooling) is not an option, programs that marry lively activities with academics can help to keep children on track.
One such program is offered through Verizon Thinkfinity—a free educational website that provides standards-based lesson plans, learning activities for use both in and out of the classrooms, educational games, and downloadable educational tools for teachers, parents, and after-school and summer-learning instructors.
Thinkfinity’s primary site—www.thinkfinity.org—is the home base where visitors can search for resources on nine discipline-specific websites produced by 11 content partners (see left menu for sample resources from Thinkfinity's partners).
New summer programming is coming to Thinkfinity via these partner web sites, with an emphasis on content that is topical and relevant, says Al Browne, Verizon Foundation vice president, education and technology.
Through Thinkfinity.org visitors also can connect to the Thinkfinity Community (community.thinkfinity.org), an online community for educators, administrators and parents to discuss ideas, share thoughts and provide insight.
“Summer learning loss is one of those silent destroyers,” says Browne. “When competing with warm weather and outdoor activities, parents need easy access to educational resources that will keep their child excited about learning. We want to take what's in the news and bring it together with solid lesson plans, to make learning more fun. Our summer programming will reflect this . . . and will give teachers and parents more tools to reduce the trajectory of summer learning loss.”
ReadWriteThink.org, sponsored by NCTE and the International Reading Association (IRA), is one such Thinkfinity content partner; it specializes in producing instructional materials in English language arts and reading.
“ReadWriteThink.org's resources for out-of-school learning, including summer and after-school activities, are consolidated in one section of the site where parents and providers will find activities, printouts, podcasts, interactive games, tools and tips,” says Lisa Storm Fink, project manager for ReadWriteThink at NCTE. “Each resource has been reviewed by at least two consultants in out-of-school literacy to ensure the materials reflect best practice and will work in out-of-school settings.”
Thinkfinity’s summer resources are intended for children and families from all backgrounds; those who don’t have computers at home can access the free Thinkfinity materials through public libraries and community programs. Families of children or teens who have the advantage of home access—who have “an iTouch in their right pocket and a netbook in their backpack,” as Browne puts it—may find that they can “leverage” technology so that their kids are spending more of their home time engaged in learning activities as well. These activities could include:
* recording personal podcasts (http://www.readwritethink.org/parent-afterschool-resources/tips-howtos/record-podcasts-30118.html )
* combining musical sounds from a variety of locations in the Arab world, using an online mixing board (http://www.artsedge.kennedy-center.org/arabworld/ )
* reading about the Plains Indians, and playing an interactive matching game about the many uses they found for the buffalo
But whether students are accessing activities from home, library, school, or community center, they’ll be both challenged and entertained, and if Al Browne’s prediction is accurate, they’ll want to return to the site again and again.
Browne says, "Our summer program activities are going to provide what we hope is the impetus for engaging, anytime, anyplace use of learning resources."
Communities Adapt Resources to Their Needs
One sure way to make summer learning relevant is to explore issues of race, ethnicity and culture.
The National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights and advocacy organization, has been piloting Thinkfinity after-school programming at community sites in Washington, DC; and Chicago. La Raza is adapting Thinkfinity program materials for the needs of students in these areas. Kimberly Gaines is an afterschool teacher who works with Latino and African-American teens at the CentroNía community organization in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, DC. She also will be teaching summer learning activities at CentroNía.
"We put together an implementation plan as it would relate to those different cultures that we serve," says Gaines. "We made them more culturally friendly; we tweaked them a little bit . . . We created our own unique module."
CentroNía drew resources largely from ReadWriteThink and ArtsEdge, another content provider, says Gaines. One recent lesson plan used with CentroNía's after-schoolers incorporated mask-making with the poetry of African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, tying together language arts, art, and cultural awareness activities into a cohesive unit. Children learned Dunbar's "We Wear the Mask" poem, studied poetic vocabulary, and wrote their own poems. Groups of 13-14 year olds and 10-12 year olds wrote about "how they feel, how their mask made them feel," says Gaines. (This lesson is titled “Behind the Masks: Exploring Culture Through Art and Poetry and is available from the ReadWriteThink.org site at http://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/lesson-plans/behind-masks-exploring-culture-395.html .)
This summer, Gaines says she will be teaching photography “as it pertains to migration." Activities likely will include children researching pictures of their neighborhood in the past and comparing these photos to how it looks today. Children will be asked to talk about "stories of their parents and how they migrated to that area," and will cover terms such as "immigrant" and "migrant." Gaines likes the Thinkfinity program for the flexibility and personal connections it allows.
During the school year, Gaines says, most teachers have to follow prescribed curricula and focus on helping students pass specific tests; they may not be able to spend as much time as they’d like relating content to the world outside the classroom.
“The Thinkfinity program helps us branch out: 'This activity relates to your language arts; did you learn it in English class?' ‘Oh, yeah!’” The Thinkfinity program “allows children to grow in a different direction,” says Gaines. “I think it's vital."
During the summer, CentroNía will offer several classes and workshops. Once or twice a week, the center will hold Thinkfinity Club sessions, says Gaines.
Another La Raza pilot site is the Association House in Chicago. It began offering after-school programs last fall. Out-of-school instructor Daniel Cross says the site plans two four-week modules this summer, one involving sports and another using music. Out of an eight-hour summer day, the site will incorporate about two hours per week in Thinkfinity programming.
"We haven't planned our activities yet," says Cross, but knows—based on the other, school-year modules his group has done—that the programming will have both an arts and an academic component.
"We will try to figure out what the kids want to learn about, then embed that with reading, math, writing and computer research."
The program has about 30 enrollees from the Humboldt Park area in Chicago, which is about half African-American and half Latino. Cross says the Association House tries to incorporate "proximal youth culture" to appeal to the children—such as hip-hop dancing and graffiti art.
"I've used the most resources from ReadWriteThink," says Cross. For example, he also did a mask unit similar to that run by Gaines; as part of the lesson plan, he downloaded a graphic organizer from the ReadWriteThink site (http://www.readwritethink.org/files/resources/lesson_images/lesson395/organizer5.pdf )
Cross believes that to be successful, the programming can’t simply replicate the classroom. "We're trying to do something that's not-quite-school, not-quite-free time,” he says. Students don’t take tests and sweat out grades; instead, Cross assesses learning by doing a “Jeopardy” style game that incorporates literacy skills.
Karen Hewlett, Vice President of Youth Development for the Boys and Girls Club of Camarillo, California, reports that Thinkfinity activities are incorporated into the club’s daily routine, both during the school session and during their summer program. She says the fact that activities are aligned with state standards has “helped students gain a greater knowledge of what they are expected to know and do in school,” and has also been valuable “to reinforce basic skills.”
She says that when parents come to the club at the end of the day, “they’re in a hurry to get their kids and go about their evenings. But they’re happy, since most of the kids have completed homework, reading, and computer activities.”
The National Urban League is another nonprofit organization piloting Thinkfinity programs. Darlene Marlin, senior director of education and youth development, says the league customizes Thinkfinity content to make it easier to use for nontraditional teachers, instructors, after-school providers or summer enrichment counselors working with middle-schoolers and high-schoolers at Urban League-sponsored sites.
The league wanted to be sure that the lessons provided "out-of-school time" along with "learning opportunities that support academic achievement," says Marlin. "It's giving kids opportunities to learn but not in the traditional sense—it's more of the way in which 21st century learning skills are now enforcing a different, more innovative way of teaching."
The league is supporting affiliates nationwide to help pilot and develop youth instruction that integrates Thinkfinity, says Marlin. Five sites will pilot the program, with about 150 children at each location. An additional dozen sites will integrate Thinkfinity into a single program, while 27 more will promote the Thinkfinity program to parents through a brochure and on the urban league website.
Last year, Thinkfinity (including its content partner sites) received more than 24 million unique visitors, says Al Browne. Of these, about 2.7 million visited the primary Thinkfinity site, while the rest visited Thinkfinity’s partners, such as ReadWriteThink.org, sponsored by NCTE and IRA, which is visited by about 1.5 million users each month.
The Thinkfinity Vision
Since its debut in March 2007, Verizon Thinkfinity has been a go-to source for teachers seeking world-class resources to inspire and enlighten their students. With tens of thousands of lesson plans and resources created by 11 of the nation’s leading educational organizations, Verizon Thinkfinity’s goal has been to provide a continuous stream of free, updated resources for every teacher in reach of the Internet.
This spring, Verizon Thinkfinity launched a major expansion: an update of the website with the goal of making it a complete one-stop shop for every teacher, parent, and afterschool practioner interested in the issue of education.
So far, the Verizon Foundation relaunched the site as Thinkfinity, and has since then invested $40 million in the project, says Browne.
The root vision for Verizon Thinkfinity, says Browne, is "to give teachers the kinds of resources that will help them be more effective in the classroom; to support students and parents in order to have better academic outcomes." Better-educated students will be better employees and therefore better customers, leading to a stronger, more innovative economy, says Browne.
A 2010 relaunch gave the ReadWriteThink.org website a new look and new content, plus new popular features such as enhanced searching, a print-out gallery, and a “how-to” section, says Fink.
"The resources have been grouped by grade level/age. Wherever possible, connections to this content are highlighted in the classroom resources area of the site as well, so that educators can find ideas to send home for families to use with their children.
"Parents or others working with students can search the ReadWriteThink site by keyword, grade level, theme (arts, careers, and more), learning objective, and activity type. Parents can search across the site or restrict their focus to resources within the parent/out-of-school section."
Browne says ReadWriteThink has "taken the lead: it was the first partner to rebuild its website in a very 21st century, robust way; it makes it easy to help educators and students solve challenges and be more innovative."
ReadWriteThink has, says Browne, "really showcased how language arts, reading and learning is not a static thing but applies to multidisciplinary subject areas. . . . In a 21st century literacy environment, how do we help teachers use our lessons to collaborate, innovate, and help students think critically?"
Summer learning also is an important feature in keeping children from slipping behind academically.
“Research shows kids lose a lot over the summer,” says Fink. “Therefore, the first four weeks of school [in the fall] has to be a lot of review. This way, if kids keep reading, writing and learning all summer long, hopefully it will help eliminate this summer loss."
Lorna Collier is a freelance writer and author based in northern Illinois.