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June 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 9

Architects of Summer

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Summon the joys of summers past and welcome renewal, reflection, and fresh possibilities.

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Although I don't recall school being particularly stressful when I was a child (no high-stakes anything back then), I can readily call up the delicious feeling of summer. It was a spacious time—an opportunity to do nearly anything. As kids, we reinvented ourselves daily. I remember fireflies and kites and sandwiches on the beach and books and pick-up sticks and popsicles from the corner store. I remember sitting in the grass and climbing trees and going to summer camp. The memory that most engages my senses, however, comes from a ritual my friends and I had that consumed many summer afternoons and evenings. I have no idea how it began, but it was a part of many summers.
We got shoe boxes from our parents and made a string-drawn trolley-like thing from them. We cut out windows in curious shapes and coated the insides with crayon to "fireproof" them. We decorated the outsides elaborately in accord with our current favorite colors and dreams and covered the little windows with cellophane to get the effect of stained glass. Inside the shoe boxes, we mounted stubs of worn candles that had to be carefully secured so there was no chance of a tip-induced fire. The shoe-box lids had to be vented just so—not so much air that the little flames would be fanned or extinguished. The task was time-consuming, tedious, and wholly rewarding.
After supper, we gathered on the corner, readied our shoe-box trollies for a parade, and walked around the block several times with the seriousness and dignity our work suggested. Sometimes we sang as we walked. Sometimes we moved silently, awed by the scent of melting wax, the sound of cardboard rubbing against sidewalk, and the small glow we had created. Parents and neighbors gathered on porches and front steps to watch, grateful to be still as the day's heat lingered into darkness.
I can summon the sounds, sights, and smells of those evening parades in a way that evokes a kind of joy and unencumbered tranquility that we should wish for all kids. Life was just right. We were just right in it. And the day that would await us when we woke the next morning promised more of the same.
I like to go back to that summer place in my mind for many reasons. Certainly one reason is that my memories remind me of the power of the season of life that poets present as a time of intensity, renewal, and possibility. My friends and I were architects of summer, and through that architecture, we built memories. We designed, constructed, and auditioned lives.
Adulthood is a different season of life, one anchored in and fashioned by responsibility. We adults can't really return to summer in the way we once knew it, but we can still be architects of the summers that come to us compliments of the calendar. We can do things to summon possibility, to find renewal. And I can think of few professions whose members are more in need of being architects of their own renewal than teachers.
Teachers differ as individuals, of course, so different things will reenergize each of us. In general, however, I think we'd benefit from designing a four-part summer tune-up for ourselves. I know these four practices renew me, and I invite others to sample them as well.

Take Time Away

I need time off from the pressures and worries of being an educator. I'm a certifiable education addict. I love what I do and feel both challenged and useful when I am "in gear" as an educator. Nonetheless, my work consumes me and saps my mental and physical energy. That's the nature of shouldering responsibility for the development of human beings—and the weight is intensified because teachers now work in a time that evokes images of Alice's rabbit hole, Sisyphus's boulder, and a hamster wheel. It's exhausting to invest robustly in teaching well. It's more exhausting to do battle with prevailing forces that judge teachers by our proficiency at activities that align only tangentially, if at all, with real teaching.
So I need time to turn off my teacher brain, guilt complex, and to-do list. I need to give my head and my heart some summer. For me, that doesn't so much mean I need a two-week vacation away from the house so much as it means I need time every day to focus on something that feels a little like a shoe-box parade. I need to create something or be transported by something that someone else created. I need to dig in the dirt; make a long, lazy dinner for friends; or watch a movie that makes me laugh like a kid.
This "away time" rarely comes to adults unsolicited or as abundantly as it did in childhood. But I'm saner, more nearly whole, when I build it into my life than when I let a summer pass me by without it. It's not as easy to let go of my baggage as it was when that baggage was little more than a knapsack, but I can and should make "away time" happen for myself. If I can't or won't design in such time, there's really something to worry about.

Learn Something Different

Merlin advised Arthur that when you're very sad, the only real antidote is to learn something. Merlin was a wise soul, but I think he needed to tweak his advice: We benefit from learning something new at almost any point in our lives, particularly at any point of intensity. Learning helps us discover possibilities in ourselves. It reenlists our creativity. As a colleague of mine says, it keeps us from confusing our rut with the horizon.
One summer during my teenage years, my mother—also a teacher—took up watercolor painting. Because I was an adolescent, I attributed this aberration to the unaccountable habits of adults. It was a long time before I realized how the painting lessons helped her see the world in finer detail, let her share her sense of beauty with others, opened the way for new friendships, and even helped her develop a deeper appreciation for learning and teaching.
During one lesson, the teacher used one of my mother's paintings to talk with the class about effective shading. My professionally accomplished mother seemed baffled—almost as though she'd discovered a third leg that had gone unnoticed for her whole life—when she said, "I had no idea I could paint at all, and certainly not that I could paint in a way that was worth someone's notice." Another time, she said, "That teacher has a way of looking for the good in what we do. I guess that's at the root of any effective teaching."
Learning something different—fixing an engine, making a soufflé, growing an orchid, taking up golf, volunteering at an animal shelter, learning to square dance, tackling the banjo—serves at least two purposes. First, it relates to the "time away from teaching" principle, offering our minds new work. Second, it inevitably connects us back to the familiar, creating analogies, reinforcing fruitful practices, and enabling us to escape counterproductive ones. Engaging in something different is at the core of creative thinking because learning something new nearly always helps us refashion the old in promising ways.

Push the Boundaries of Your Practice

Even as teachers need a summer escape, it's useful to design a summer season that accounts for the reality that there is little time during the school year to study teaching and learning (the phrase, "changing the tires while the bus is moving" comes to mind).
Summer passes quickly, and I don't want to face a new school year feeling as though all I can do is dust off last year's practice. I want to know I can do something better this time around, that I have a plan for addressing some aspect of my teaching that rubs against my grain. I want to understand something about the art or science of teaching more fully than I did when the calendar released me to summer.
So maybe I'll read a book that challenges my sense of what quality teaching looks like and raises my aspirations. Maybe I'll seek guidance on how to work more effectively with students who don't read well enough to flourish—or how to provide meaningful challenge to my advanced learners. Maybe I'll make a plan for how to minimize tension with kids who invite tension wherever they go. Or just make a few notes on what the content I teach really means—why it's worth my students' time and how it might help them understand the world they live in.
I'd need several lifetimes of summers to learn everything that could help me serve my students, myself, and my profession well. But there's much to commend in using a little of every summer to better my prospects—and those of my students.

Recalibrate Your Compass

I was startled and shaken a couple of years ago when an excellent undergraduate who was about to get a diploma and a teaching credential said to me, "Until I took this class, I never thought about teaching as an ethical profession." I realized in a flash that my colleagues and I can become so focused on helping prospective teachers understand developmental psychology or curriculum or classroom management that we largely let slide the more abstract topic of the ethics of teaching. In the next flash, I realized how easy it is to be a teacher—even to make the requisite 1,000 decisions a day—with virtually no sense that nearly every one of those decisions has some bearing on the welfare of a young human being.
Stephen Covey used to ask people in his audience to stand, close their eyes, and point north with their right hands. At some point, he would then ask that they all keep pointing north and open their eyes. The audience response was inevitably a loud burst of laughter. People would be pointing straight up, down to the floor, and at every conceivable angle. Covey followed up with a profound admonition. We all have an internal compass, but if we don't know where our "north" is, we'll be adrift in whatever we do, with no star to guide us. We will remain ethically disoriented.
Summer is a good time to ponder questions that shouldn't go unanswered. What obligation do teachers have to their students? In what aspects of teaching should teachers spend their primary energies? How is curriculum design an ethical endeavor? How would we guide, direct, or manage our schools and classrooms if our decisions were rooted in ethics? What are the implications of deciding that some kids are smart and some are not—and how should we decide who gets access to the highest-quality curriculum? What would ethical grading practices—or testing practices—look like?
One way of understanding the evolution of ethical development is to think of a continuum along which we humans grow in ethical sophistication as we age. Early on, we do things because we're told to do them by authority figures. Later, we may make choices based not on what others tell us to do, but rather on what's in our own self-interest. Still later, we may desire to be accepted by a group, and so we conform to group norms; further on, we come to accept that it's wiser to make decisions that serve everyone well, even if they don't lead to a favorable outcome for ourselves. And perhaps, at some point, we choose to do what's right simply because it's right.
There are no single right answers to ethics-focused questions, nor any absolute way of knowing what is right in every situation. Nonetheless, we wander in the dark without a star to give us direction if we have no sense of our personal north—the underlying purpose for our work and what we consider most important in teaching and serving students. We must continually calibrate where north is for us by asking questions like, Why did I become a teacher? What made teaching seem like a good way to spend my professional life? Where do I function on the continuum of ethical decision making—and why?
I'm a wise steward of summer if I use it to reflect on the decisions I must continually make as a teacher and to consider how my personal ethics might inform such decisions. I'm more likely to return to my students—and my work—with a steady internal compass if I know where north is.

Principles for Savoring Summer

Architects typically use three principles in thinking about architectural design—durability, utility, and beauty. Architects work in a variety of ways and express themselves in accordance with their own sensibilities—there's no formula for worthy architecture. But cultivating an ever deepening understanding of and sensibility about those three principles leads to increasingly richer, more elegant designs.
Educators who seek to be architects of summer would do well to consider these three principles: (1) I teach better when I grow as a learner myself, (2) I continue to grow as a person and a professional when I study my profession, and (3) I make wiser decisions when I have an ethical north star. Living by these three principles requires a fourth: (4) I must make time to live by these principles. Teaching will not make the time for me.
It's fun to picture in my head being a child again this summer, meeting my old friends on the corner where we lived and making shoe-box trolleys to pull around the block in a show of twilight magic. In the absence of that possibility, I'll be pleased with myself if I am the architect of a summer in which there's time for me, time for learning something new, time for expanding my understanding of the work I do, and time for thinking about what I want my work to stand for.
The time may come in snippets rather than generous chunks. It will be fleeting—not like long childhood summers. But I'm a teacher, and I can do a lot with a little time if I'm on my game.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia's School of Education and Human Development, where she served as Chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy and Co-Director of the University's Institutes on Academic Diversity. She spent 21 years in public education, teaching students in high school, preschool, and middle school and administering programs for struggling and advanced learners. She was Virginia's Teacher of the Year in 1974. In 2022, Tomlinson was ranked #12 in the Education Week Edu-Scholar Public Presence Rankings of the 200 "university-based academics who are contributing most substantially to public debates about schools and schooling," and as the #4 voice in Curriculum & Instruction.

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