In many classrooms across the country this fall, students will be asked to respond to the age-old prompt, “What did you do on your summer vacation?” Though often used as a well-meaning way for teachers to build community and to better get to know their students, such a question can surface deep classist assumptions that can easily make kids uncomfortable or embarrassed.
Even young students can sense that this classic query has more and less “appropriate” answers that fit the narrative of an archetypal carefree summer spent outside, at camp, or on vacation. “We became homeless” or “I had to work extra shifts” are not typical responses to what is intended to be a breezy, fun way to start the school year.
While teachers rightly spend time at the beginning of the school year trying to get to know their students and build community, it is important they do everything in their power not to alienate anyone in the process. “How did you spend your summer?” could be a rich conversation-starter in some classes, but could also inadvertently stigmatize kids in others.
It may seem like an innocuous question, but its exact wording is important. “Where did you go during summer vacation?” for example, implies that kids took some kind of trip away from home. A student who has to respond “nowhere” is immediately put on the spot. Even those children who did go somewhere may feel like their trip to a nearby town was far less impressive than someone’s trip to another country.
And even if a teacher knows for a fact that every single student went on vacation, it is important to model language that avoids making class-based assumptions – that “everyone” goes on vacation, for example, or that summer is synonymous with a restful retreat. Teachers themselves must also be careful if and how they share about their own summer experiences.
Using their professional judgment, some teachers may decide to avoid the question and focus on other topics (“What are you most excited about this school year?”) or rephrase the question (“What is something you learned this summer?”) to build bridges across class difference.
Another option is to tackle the subject of class differences head on, a strategy that works best for teachers who already have rapport with their students and are skilled at facilitating explicit discussions about social class and classism. After students share what they did over the summer, the teacher can help turn their attention to a critical conversation about what differences they noticed, why those differences exist, and how they want to address them as a community. Regardless of which option teachers choose, thoughtful reflection about their decision that considers their teaching philosophy, pedagogic strengths, and classroom context is essential.
In addition to thinking about the best way to address the “break” from school, it is worth considering the very concept of “summer” itself and the class issues built into debates about whether or not kids should have three months off of school. The education historian Kenneth Gold has written about how summer break was not solely a vestige of early agrarian society as is commonly believed, but came about as a result of late 19th century policymakers believing that students needed a mental and physical break from school and that teachers could use the time for professional development.
Meanwhile, others suggested that urban youth (less likely to be working after the passage of child labor laws) would be delinquent during the summer and fall behind academically in their months away from school. Even today, low-income urban youth are the primary targets for extended school years and summer remediation. While this may have some positive consequences for these kids and no doubt is helpful to those parents who have no time off of work, summer for affluent students tends to be time for enrichment or adventure while summer for low-income students is for correction or surveillance.
How kids spend their summers, how kids should spend their summers, and even if there should be a summer are all questions steeped in social class – and are all worth thinking about before asking: “What did you do on your summer vacation?”