“Woohoo! It’s vacation!” There’s no mistaking the joy of many students as they rush toward their summer vacation. They flood out the school doors with smiles, anticipating the chance to rest from the daily rigor and structure of the school day.
Teachers would like to think we send our students off for a happy vacation of fun, sleeping late and socializing with friends. Sadly, however, that’s not always the case.
Several years ago, as I was wrapping up the last day before winter break, I saw one of my students crying. She shared with me that vacations weren’t the joyful event I assumed would be welcomed by every student. She saw the impending vacation as a weeklong sentence of isolation from her friends and peers.
Her revelation led me to an eye-opening exploration of what vacation means to many of my students, especially those who are economically disadvantaged. If a weeklong vacation seemed like a sentence of isolation, how might a summer break affect a student?
What does vacation mean to some of our students?
In rural areas, vacations may separate friends by miles and miles, with no hope of getting together for even a few hours of socializing. Although we take for granted that most students have Internet access and the availability of social media to stay connected to their friends, there are still many families who remain in an Internet void. Instagram, Snapchat and other favored social media are out of reach for several of our students.
Two years ago, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that about 17 percent of the children in Maine live in poverty. The difficulties of poverty can mean that many of our students are going to have to bear hardships during a vacation that are eased when they are in school.
Often school provides a haven for the basics of human comfort that are lacking in their homes. Lights and running water, and dependable utilities in school are intermittent in some of our students’ homes.
Many students rely on the free breakfasts and lunches they receive in school to relieve their hunger pangs. A summer away from a reliable source of nutritious meals forces those students into days or weeks of gnawing hunger over summer break.
In this age of electronic toys, television and online entertainment, our students have become passive participants in activities meant to be entertaining. If an adult doesn’t intervene, some children don’t even know what to do: They haven’t learned how to play by themselves. Vacation can represent unending boredom because they don’t know how to actively self-entertain.
Students’ homes do not have the idyllic pleasures that are portrayed in the media and discussed at school. A table full of traditional foods and joyful conversation with family on a holiday like July 4 is a myth for many children. The summer barbeque may be an activity only seen in ads. The reality may be a meal scrabbled together from food cupboard donations. Divorce, alcoholism and abusive environments may strain family relationships.
Schools offer an ordered, peaceful and more predictable environment for an untold number of children.
So how do we help those students who are being sent off to a vacation of deprivation, in any of its various forms?
— First, don’t act like the situation doesn’t exist. It is better to acknowledge that some students have it hard outside of school. Talk with students about the realities that exist for some of their peers. Just recognizing their stressful situations may validate the feelings of struggling students and lend them the needed inner strength to help them survive the vacation.
— We can also work to empower our students to have an impact on the things that they can control. Encourage those locked away from Internet connections to reach out to their friends with a phone call. (Yes, Johnny, people still actually call one another and talk on phones.)
Help them brainstorm practical options on how to pass the time while they’re on vacation. Print out a calendar of special events (especially free ones) that are scheduled in the area during the summer, so they can plan to attend a few. Give students a printed reminder of the local food cupboard’s free meal times or hours for the free summer-lunch programs that are available in some schools.
— Make sure students have a few good books from the classroom or school library to take home over the summer. Remind students that the stress-reducing exercises used in class (like Brain Gym activities) can help relax them at home. Make a list for students to take home that reminds them of local venues, like the YMCA or town library, that welcome children over vacation.
— Take some time to teach students good old-fashioned games that could be played with siblings or by themselves. Consider teaching students how to build a fort or make giant bubbles. Do they know how to play kickball, hospital tag, or jump rope games? Maybe it’s time to teach them simple and fun activities before sending the students off to vacation. (When is the last time you tried Double Dutch?)
Sometimes all it takes is a pack of cards to provide a bit of fun. Play card games with your students until they know the rules, then spring for some cards to send home as vacation gifts. Ideas for kid-friendly activities can be found at websites such as:
It is hard to change a difficult home environment, but we can supply students with several ways to entertain themselves in positive ways while they’re at home. When they are released with the wave of joyous peers at the beginning of a vacation, students with challenges at home might be able to look forward to at least a few fun distractions to make their “vacation” more bearable.
It’s time to be proactive. Summer vacation is just weeks away.
Dyan McCarthy-Clark was the 2014 Piscataquis County Teacher of the Year. She is an eighth grade social studies teacher at SeDoMoCha Middle School in Dover-Foxcroft.