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Kids Who Take Vacations in the Middle of the School Year

As teachers, we're trained to give a major side-eye to parents who choose to pull their kids out of school for a family vacation.  Learning time is near-sacred, we tell their parents. Some things--illness, injury, family emergency--can't be helped. But vacations? They're optional--and planned. And should happen at times when school is not in session. Period.

My daughter's (all-girls Catholic) high school set aside a week in February as "ski week"--that's what they called it, without a trace of embarrassment. And notes went out in January reminding parents that girls were expected to BE IN SCHOOL unless there was no school that day, because the schedule had been designed to incorporate assigned breaks.  Administrators also designated one or two Fridays per month as a "professional learning" days for teachers--and that calendar tweak came with iron-clad instructions to take those only Fridays off for long-weekend family gigs. Because school time was sacred.

Or not.

All of this may seem downright hilarious to those public school educators whose students don't ever go on ski or any other vacations--the teachers who send food backpacks home with kids over weekends, and worry about academic backsliding and far worse during the weeks of summer and holiday breaks. For many children, school is the safest and most structured place they go, and attendance is their best shot at learning conventional things: reading, writing, math, and the principle exports of Uruguay. Or whatever their teacher (or, lately, the Common Core) deems Most Important.

However. Kids are always learning. You can't really regulate that, as hard as some schools try.

Kids are learning at ski resorts and on family vacations to national parks or the local campground. They're also learning when they veg for a week in front of the TV as their more fortunate classmates are hitting the slopes. Life is pretty much non-stop learning; the only questions are around the--buzzword alert!--value added by that learning. Hard to measure that.

Over at Politichicks, Leslie Deinhammer paints a rosy picture of the enriching family vacation, where little Tyler watches whales, calculates nautical miles and does some cross-generational bonding on the cruise ship (while presumably also learning how to be nice to Eastern European servers and avoid the casino when going to the pool for a healthy swim). Deinhammer includes the usual caveats: check in with the teacher to pick up a packet of work, and discuss trading off regular tests and assignments for a (yup, you guessed it) special report. She ends by pointing out that parents' busy schedules override school calendars--don't let those annoying teachers reproach you! You all deserve a vacation.

Deinhammer's over-the-top scenario made the word "entitlement" float before my eyeballs, but honestly? The Tylers of the world can afford to miss school, in the long run. Now, this makes teachers grind their teeth in frustration--because if Tyler misses some key tested concept, it's not going to occur to Mommy that it may have been covered while he was cavorting under the palm trees. It's going to be the teacher's responsibility to catch and remedy all his learning gaps, as well as reading his clever report about the Seychelles, a place that she can only dream of visiting.

Worth pointing out: all of this is made worse by weeks of state-mandated testing.

Still--let's make sure that we're going after the right culprits here: omnipresent standardization and test-based measurement and score competition. It's our collective belief that our own assignments, grades and delivery of content represent real, important learning, making a week off from school feel dangerous.  It's our expectation that one hard-working teacher can genuinely monitor 30 (or 150) students and juggle their mastery of a panel of required skills and concepts, using almighty data.

Even though a child may indeed be reveling in and absorbing the wonders of a rich travel experience, or a deeply rewarding family visit, back home in the classroom, they're...behind.

Several years ago, one of my 8th graders had the opportunity to go to Egypt with his father, who worked for an energy company. He would miss the last three months of a school year, returning in the fall. He was old enough to stay alone during the day, and his father shared some planned excursions in the Middle East--but he would not be attending school. They asked for his assignments in advance, so he could complete the 8th grade, by June.

Most of us provided tools for self-guided learning: packets, workbooks and, naturally, reports. The boy was a good student--this would be a memorable half-year, a chance to experience things his classmates could only read about. It's ironic, but the person who objected most strongly to this family's decision was his social studies teacher, well-known for his one chapter-a-week lesson planning.

The teacher's protests and dire warnings seemed to center on three things: The boy's grade (currently an A) might go down. Gathering up all the worksheets and tests would take the teacher a long time, and he was really busy. What if the boy merely copied the test answers out of the book (rather than reading the chapter, answering the questions at the end, copying the vocabulary words out of the glossary--then taking the test)? In other words--he might "cheat." And then his grade wouldn't be "real."

Yes--the family made the decision that a B or C in social studies wasn't the end of the world, but a father-son adventure this exciting shouldn't be missed.

Perhaps our real goal shouldn't be controlling family's vacation plans or trying to make a case for the things we traditionally do in schools.  It should be asking why some families "deserve" a vacation on their own terms, and get to make choices about their children's experiences--and some families never get those choices at all.

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