Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Last Chance: Urge your Students to Stay Connected this Summer

The Baptists got it right on one thing: summer is the time for “backsliding.” It has been explained to me that the origin of the ubiquitous southern Protestant phenomena of “Vacation Bible School” was the recognition that in summer, young people had more free time, and thus more time to be the handmaidens of the devil. The regular school structure was absent and “Vacation Bible School” was an effort to fill that void and keep kids on the straight and narrow.

A few years ago the most distinguished educational researcher in the employee of the US Department of Education, Clifford Adelman, published in his volume “Toolbox Revisited” some compelling data about the impact of having participated in any summer school whereby credits were accumulated, and probability of degree completion. What he found was that any participation in summer school enhanced the probability of degree completion, especially for minority students.

This all points to the value of staying connected. There is no doubt that for many students, summer is a disruption of “satisfactory academic progress”. They “go back home” in their heads, if not literally. And they fall back into pre college habits of mind and practice. And then it takes a lot of catch up time in the fall to get back in the groove.

So as you are winding down the year, I urge you to invite your students to rethink their stereotypes about summer school. It is not for dummies as they may have learned in high school. It is for the fast burners. Urge their consideration for summer school to “maintain the momentum”, get an especially hard course out of the way, experiment with something new, etc.

In addition to enrolling in credit courses, there are other ways to “stay connected” during the summer:
1. Many colleges hire students for summer employment-not glamorous work, but often comes with room and board and maybe time to do a summer school course too, and earn some extra money.
2. Internships, coop, practica, all connected to the major
3. Study abroad
4. Volunteer experience connected to the major
5. ROTC summer camp

And this is not a complete list by any means. This is to urge you then in one of your final classes to invite students to stay connected during the summer. It may eliminate one more opportunity for us to loose them, and them to loose us. The latter is the more serious of the two.

-John Gardner

Monday, May 3, 2010

Forget the Official Commencement: Your “Farewell Address” Is the One That Will Matter

I love commencement season. For 13 years I had a job as Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs for the University of South Carolina’s five “Regional Campuses” that required my presence at five different graduation ceremonies. I became a connoisseur of the genre. Seriously, I came to look forward to those commencement addresses and I heard some doozies, truly memorable.

I have also given a number of them myself. And I am convinced this is an exercise wasted on the young, but not the parents. In one speech I gave, about 15 years ago I threw out the challenge that if anyone in the audience could remember my name after more than 10 years and contact me, I would give them a substantial amount of money. I haven’t heard from a soul. And I crafted some pretty good speeches if I don’t say so myself.

What set me to thinking about this was that I, like most Americans, follow the schedule of our President, no matter whom or where he is, with considerable influence. Last weekend, for example, he was in Asheville, North Carolina, about 35 miles from where I live in Brevard. My wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I flew into the Asheville airport last Saturday evening and there right by our gate on the tarmac was Air Force One “The United States of America.” What a thrill. And this weekend, President Obama went to the University of Michigan to deliver the commencement address (and then on to the annual Washington correspondents’ dinner and then to Louisiana to observe the oil spill disaster. But it is his trip to Ann Arbor that has set me off on this tear about commencements.

Each commencement season I am so thankful to The New York Times for printing the texts or at least excerpts from so many commencement addresses. I urge my readers to be on the alert for these.

OK, finally, to my point: I urge you to give the real commencement speech that matters to your students. They are going to forget the real one, if they even go. Participation in such ceremonies is going to the way of so many other traditions, south. Besides, the students won’t know the speaker anyway. But they do know you. And they care what you think. And they have come to trust you. You are the one with real influence. I urge you to convert your last class from a final exam (do that some other time—it is important too, of course), but, instead, YOU be the real commencement speaker. You will never have another chance with these particular students and neither will they.

-John Gardner