How Our Summer Program Uses Deeper Learning to Reach Struggling Students

Cristian watched with excitement across the picnic table as Chef Bruce formed blue balls of cornmeal and pressed them between two stainless steel paddles. “I know how to do that!” he exclaimed with excitement. “He’s making tortillas. My Mom does that.” Cristian, a fourth grader originally from Mexico, speaks Spanish at home but struggles with his lessons at school.

Cristian and his classmates were spending a hot July day at an urban farm to work on improving their literacy and numeracy skills while learning about the Mayan culture. Cristian was one of 850 third through sixth graders taking part in an innovative summer program designed for learners like him called the Backpack League, hosted by my district, Jefferson County Public Schools, or JCPS for short, in Louisville, Ky.

Modeled after a successful summer learning program in Boston, the Backpack League kicked-off its inaugural year as a pop-up school created to exist for one month. The experience sent students on field trips and classrooms hosted visitors from around the city including the Louisville City FC soccer team and members of a guinea pig rescue organization.

A New Adventure

Teachers were asked to focus on a topic or subject that they would like to include during the regular school year but maybe couldn’t because of time constraints

During the school year, I teach social studies to high school English learners, but I jumped at the chance to experience this innovative new summer program and to explore how the needs of these elementary students compared to those I traditionally serve. My partner-teacher Renee Wilson and I designed the “Mayan Adventure” project, combining Mayan math, art and culture with lessons focusing on numeracy and literacy. A highlight of our adventure was partnering with the Food Literacy Project and a local restaurant, the Mayan Café, who helped arrange for students to visit an urban farm to learn about corn, beans, and squash—all staple foods of the Mayan people—and to make corn tortillas with a Mayan chef.

To plan the Backpack League, educators were invited to propose two or four-week adventures (or learning units) and to commit to teaching from early July to August. Teachers were encouraged to push themselves, and to design adventures that allowed them to test-drive ideas for projects, or new research-based teaching strategies. Teachers were asked to focus on a topic or subject that they would like to include during the regular school year but maybe couldn’t because of time constraints. Proposals included programs on forensic science, geo-caching, storytelling, animals and ecosystems, art, music, community building and examining hunger and poverty in our community. But the adventures were much richer than a one or two word description could do justice to.

Students make tortillas with the help of a Mayan chef as part of the Backpack League summer program. (Image: JCPS)

Teacher Rachel Schwager and her partner from the Urban Design adventure offered an architecture-inspired program that let kids “use math to design projects in a real-world setting,” as she puts it. Students went through the full engineering process while learning skills like resilience, collaboration and the design revision process. Another adventure, co-planned by teacher Connie McKinley-Galdos, focused on the six core principles of Muhmmad Ali, a Louisville legend.

We leaned on research-based practices for implementing deeper learning as a path to equity

Skills for Life

Carmen Coleman, the district’s chief academic officer envisioned the Backpack League as a space to promote learning for both students and educators during the summer. In particular, my district, JCPS, wanted to boost reading and math for students who were at least one year below the norm for their grade level, and give teachers an opportunity to try new approaches, such as project-based learning. Even though these students were behind their peers in some subject areas, we wanted them to be able to participate in meaningful ways. So we leaned on research-based practices for implementing deeper learning as a path to equity by creating authentic lessons designed to immerse students in standards and skills they would find relevant.

The Backpack League was intentionally designed to compliment our Backpack of Success Skills initiative, which guides students to add evidence of learning to a “virtual backpack” or digital portfolio that stays with them from K-12. Students’ digital backpacks focus on a handful of what we call “Graduate Profile Success Skills:” becoming productive collaborators, emerging innovators, globally competent citizens, prepared and resilient learners, and effective communicators. As students complete parts of the summer program, they add material to their backpack that demonstrates learning in various skills.

Space was limited for the first year of the Backpack League initiative, so students were selected to participate from elementary schools whose math and reading scores need improvement. Students selected their adventures in advance from among dozens of choices. At the end of the summer, they wrote exit reflections as part of data collection for the project.

One sixth grade student, Erick, painted landscapes in his adventure and discovered that, “I like art a lot more after this [adventure].” A student named Isabella, wrote that she “learned a lot more about my favorite animals.” An important takeaway of the project for Payton, a sixth grader—and hopefully for other students—was the connection between the Backpack League and their digital portfolios. “I’ve learned what the five [Backpack of Success Skill] folders mean through this project,” she wrote. “This adventure is making me a globally competent citizen.”

JCPS is already hard at work making plans for next summer. Coleman, reflecting on the busy summer, echoed the thoughts of many of the educators who participated: “We believe these kinds of authentic learning experiences with high interest for students will lead to improved achievement.”

It’s a hunch we intend to explore more fully as the year progresses. Since the summer just ended, it’s still too early to tell whether the program improved academic performance for those who participated. But JCPS is gathering data—including attendance, behavior and academic achievement—on students and will continue to follow their progress throughout the school year.

As for Cristian, he is looking forward to signing-up for a new adventure next summer. In his wrap-up reflection, Cristian said he wants his next adventure to be “a little bit more fun” by including more field trips, especially a visit to a museum, and he wants to dance more. I believe that any teacher who reads Cristian’s feedback will be excited about his interest in learning over the summer, and will do their best to incorporate his voice and ideas for learning into designing an even better adventure next year. Maybe that teacher will be me.

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