3 Summer School Best Practices to Re-Engage Reluctant Learners in a Post-Pandemic World


By: Meg Bowen


Why students don’t attend summer school

The students who need to be here the most aren’t coming!

I have often heard administrators and teachers share this lament during summer school. While student attendance issues may be due to logistical problems related to transportation, shared custody arrangements, or childcare, it’s hard to deny that for many students the idea of summer school is simply not appealing.

There are a number of reasons for students’ lack of enthusiasm for summer school beyond their natural desire to want a break from the structure of school.

Most students invited to summer learning programs have not been particularly successful academically during the school year and may find school to be frustrating or even stifling.

Now, after months of remote learning, students and teachers report that student motivation and morale are even lower than they were prior to the pandemic (EdWeek Research Center, 2021).

Our challenge, then, is to re-engage reluctant learners and transform summer school into an engaging and meaningful learning experience filled with opportunities to discuss ideas with peers and enjoy a sense of community.

But how do we plan for a summer school like this, where our students want to be?


What are the most important factors of effective summer school programs?

Two girls sit at a table reading a book together and smiling. Representative of an engaging and rigorous summer school program.

According to an extensive research report of summer school best practices commissioned by the Wallace Foundation, one of the key components of high-quality summer school is Engaging and Rigorous Programming.

The report recommends expanding the summer school curriculum beyond remediation with innovative instruction that focuses on acceleration and enriching student learning experiences.

It cites two reasons for why this practice improves summer programs:

      1. Providing access to interesting and engaging enrichment opportunities can promote attendance in voluntary programs. Maintaining attendance is critical for summer school success.
      2. Experts advise that instructional methods and experiences of summer school should feel different and accelerate students forward in their learning (McCombs et al., 2011, p. 33).


As a Director of Elementary Curriculum for one of the nation’s largest school districts, I experienced these research findings in practice.

I saw that students who found themselves digging into the same textbooks and workbooks they struggled with during the school year were more likely to emotionally shut down before the first week of summer school came to an end.

Likewise, I saw that teachers who adhered to the same instructional routines and strategies students experienced during the year were more likely to encounter “been there, done that” student reactions that snowballed into heads down on desks and groans at familiar directions.

Knowing that one of the most important factors in an effective summer school program is the novelty of the curriculum materials and instructional approaches that student experience, I now ensure that LSI’s Applied Research Center infuses the following three best practices in our teacher professional development.


3 summer school best practices

Re-engaging reluctant learners means re-thinking traditional approaches to summer learning programs – but the changes don’t have to be major. These three best practices will get you started on planning for an engaging summer school program immediately.

Three summer school best practices to RE-ENGAGE reluctant learners in a post-pandemic world: 1. Enhancements like expert text sets, 2. Shift to student-driven engagement, 3. Facilitate active learning with student resources. - @MegKBowen Click To Tweet


1.  Expert text sets and other low-cost, high-quality curriculum enhancements

An open laptop is propped against a stack of four books. Representative of expert text set and other curriculum enhancements for summer school.

While you may not have the budget to purchase a completely new curriculum for summer school, there are plenty of ways to supplement your existing materials in ways that students will find exciting and engaging.


    • EXPERT SETS: Subscriptions to online resources such as Reading A-Z can provide an almost limitless library of texts on every topic in multiple languages as well as “expert sets” designed to build background knowledge and vocabulary.
    • ALTERNATIVES AND CHOICES: Providing alternative text formats such as comic books and graphic novels is another huge crowd-pleaser. In The Book Whisperer (2009), Donalyn Miller describes how providing 6th graders with choice coupled with guidance transformed reluctant readers into voracious bibliophiles.
    • RELEVANT TEXTS: As noted by Learning for Justice (n.d), it is vital for students to have opportunities to study texts that “…reflect their own identities, experiences and motivations (mirrors) and also provide insight into the identities, experiences and motivations of others (windows).” When students feel school is relevant to their own lives and they are understood by others, they are much more likely to want to be there.
    • INTERACTIVE TECH TOOLS: Consider all the tech tools teachers have become proficient with during distance learning. Mentimeter, Peardeck, Jamboard, and similar applications skyrocketed in popularity during the pandemic for a very good reason – they engage students and make learning fun. While students (and teachers) may feel “Zoomed out” after a year filled with virtual learning, using interactive tools to bring students together in new ways still feels fresh and exciting.


2.  Student-driven engagement vs. teacher-driven engagement: New instructional approach, new result

Even if you’re fortunate enough to have brand new curriculum materials for summer school, if teachers use the same instructional approaches that weren’t effective with these students during the school year, the outcome may not be very different.

Students love to talk to each other! Teachers can capitalize on this by providing a challenging and authentic problem to tackle, a framework for collaboration, and the resources students need to create a solution.  

As education expert Michael Toth, author of The Power of Student Teams, has noted:

“Most educators aim for teacher-driven engagement. But the truth is, student-driven engagement can be much more effective. These methods focus on creating challenging learning tasks and giving students the roles, responsibilities, and collaborative structures to engage in these tasks with their peers. Engagement comes from peer interactions and the challenge of the tasks, rather than primarily from interactions with the teacher” (2021).

You can find detailed explanations of how to create student-driven engagement in Mr. Toth’s article on student engagement, but in short, these strategies include:

    • Reserve more time for collaborative active learning
    • Give students real roles and responsibilities
    • Create structures for student ownership
    • Monitor students’ level of engagement and make adjustments
    • Increase the rigor of academic tasks


Students may come to summer school feeling frustrated, stifled, or unenthusiastic. Create a STUDENT-DRIVEN engagement experience: challenging and authentic tasks, peer collaboration, and resources for academic self-reliance. - @MegKBowen Click To Tweet


3.  Student resources to facilitate active learning over passive learning

(Pictured: Example of student learning supports from the Academic Teaming Resource Pack)

As noted in the article above (Toth, 2021), the distinction between passive and active learning is an important one.

Imagine sitting in a classroom in July listening to a teacher explain how and why each state named its capital and then being asked to create a chart highlighting those reasons. How engaged do you think you would feel?

Contrast that with being in a classroom where instead of listening to a lengthy explanation from the teacher, you instead actively investigated an open-ended question (such as, “What factors do you think a city needs in order to become a capital?”). In this classroom you would work with peers and the teacher would provide the time and resources for you to figure out those factors on your own. You and your peers would use texts and online resources to back up your reasoning and present your findings in whatever format your team decides will best convey your point.

Which classroom would you want to be in?

As teaming expert Deana Senn explained in the article, How to Include Resources as an Integral Part of Learning, one of the keys to success when students are working in interdependent collaborative teams is ensuring they have the right resources to accomplish their task while hitting the sweet spot of productive struggle (2021).

Teachers often have to break some familiar habits to stop themselves from “rescuing” students from productive struggle and unintentionally encouraging learned helplessness. Teaming and the practical tips provided by Ms. Senn ensure students are doing the majority of the work rather than the teacher.

Here few examples of resources for active learning (from Ms. Senn’s article), which she notes must be consistently available to students without the teacher needing to grant access:

    • Notes/worked problems
    • Anchor charts
    • Textbook pages (identified on the board)
    • Manipulatives
    • Supports such as multiplication tables, formula sheets
    • Vocabulary notebook, eDictionary or hard copy dictionary
    • Secondary source such as a YouTube lesson


Bored no more!

With the right resources, innovative instructional practices and an emphasis on active learning, the familiar refrain, “I’m bored,” will become a distant memory.

These best practices can help you make your summer school program a place students are eager to be –even if they don’t brag about it on social media or tell all their friends. They are, after all, still kids.





EdWeek Research Center. (2021). Data snapshot: What teacher and student morale looks like right now. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/data-snapshot-what-teacher-and-student-morale-looks-like-right-now/2021/01

Learning for Justice (n.d.). Window or mirror? https://www.learningforjustice.org/classroom-resources/teaching-strategies/close-and-critical-reading/window-or-mirror

McCombs, J.S., Augustine, C.H., Schwartz, H.L., Bodilly, S.J., McCinnis, B., Lichter, D.S., Cross, A.B. (2011). Making summer count: How summer programs can boost children’s learning. RAND corporation. https://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/Documents/Making-Summer-Count-How-Summer-Programs-Can-Boost-Childrens-Learning.pdf

Miller, D. (2009). The book whisperer: Awakening the inner reader in every child. Jossey-Bass.

Senn, D. (2021, April 20). How to include resources as an integral part of learning. LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-include-resources-integral-part-learning-deana-senn-she-her-/

Toth, M.D. (2021, March 17). Why student engagement is important in a post-COVID world – and 5 strategies to improve it. Learning Sciences International. https://www.learningsciences.com/blog/why-is-student-engagement-important/



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