I can proudly say that I have been in education for over thirty years. I was a classroom teacher for much of that time, but also spent many years as a private tutor in my community. At first, the big draw for acquiring my services was because I was a bilingual educator. In my local school district, there were large Spanish immersion and dual language programs. Many parents felt inadequate to support their children’s education as they did not speak Spanish so they would ask me to spend an hour or two a week helping with homework. These opportunities then led to summers working with children to maintain their Spanish skills while they were out of school. Word of my services spread, and I was soon working with Kindergarteners through sixth graders who were struggling with math, reading and other academic issues in Spanish or English. Fast forward to more recent times, and I was bombarded with calls to help children who were not thriving due to virtual learning situations. Parents wanted me to come to their homes and provide in-person instruction because online learning was not working for their child.
What I didn’t think about was that these experiences were a form of extended or expanded learning, a current hot topic in the world of education. As concerns rise regarding unfinished learning, learning loss, achievement gaps, learning gaps, or whatever term you choose from the list, increased focus has been placed on how to get students back on track. Extended or expanded learning time refers to “any educational program or strategy intended to increase the amount of time students are learning” and can come in many forms in addition to tutoring: lengthening the school year, week, or day; increasing instructional time during a school day, school break, or before- and after-school programs; and online learning options. As I thought about this, I realized over my vast career I have been involved in several of these scenarios.
For many years, I was a summer school instructor. In numerous states, summer school is offered for the most at-risk students. Of course, for teachers, it is an opportunity to supplement income, but for the students it is a chance to add more instructional time to their school year. Many schools may also offer learning programs during winter sessions or other school breaks to maximize learning time during the school year for those who have fallen behind or struggle to meet expected learning standards within the regular school calendar year.
My other experience as a provider of extended learning was as a full-day Kindergarten teacher. I had taught half-day Kindergarten for a few years, but then moved to another part of the country where they provided a full-day program. I never considered this expanded learning at the time but imagine how much more could be taught during a six-hour day versus a three-hour day. We now see many states or districts across the U.S. expanding half-day Kindergarten to full-day or even making optional Kindergarten mandatory as a means of providing additional instructional time.
Research says we need certain criteria for any kind of expanded learning opportunity to make a difference. This includes factors such as high-quality instructors, small class sizes, a sufficient amount of time, and alignment with curriculum. Research also says the most effective programs occur during the school year and during the school day.
There are some other best practices that make expanded learning valuable. First, teachers in these programs need to be intentional. Any lesson, game, or activity they provide must be planned and purposeful. Getting to know students and differentiating for them as much as possible is key. For example, if a student adores horses, play vocabulary games or create writing activities around this area of interest. If a child is obsessed with Legos but hates to read, create written instructions to make secret Lego creations. By reading the written directions, the child reveals the creation without even realizing he or she was actually reading in the process.
Second, a teacher must continually assess where children are at to plan for where they need to go and discern how to get them there. Often assessment is informal, but even by just observing and listening the teacher can gather the necessary information to ensure instruction will be effective. If a young learner struggles with identifying alphabet letters, play games using the child’s name as this will have the most meaning for him or her. Once consistent mastery of the letters in the first name is evident, activities can be introduced using the letters in his or her last name.
Third, make learning fun. No matter the age level of the students, look for games and activities that make the content engaging, hands-on, and meaningful. Incorporate movement to get children actively involved; hopping syllables in a word or tossing a bean bag to brainstorm antonyms are just two examples. Children will not only learn the necessary concepts and skills, but will have a pleasant, memorable time doing it.
Therefore, as we look for ways to fill gaps for students and make up for lost time, we see there are many options to offer students who need extra learning time. However, we must heed the research about what works best to make the most of these opportunities. Finally, let us not forget to be intentional, use our assessment information wisely, and make learning enjoyable if we want extended learning to be a worthwhile endeavor.
Jennifer’s education background is diverse. She taught PreK–6
for 22 years, served on district and regional instructional committees. She holds Texas
Teaching Certificates in Elementary Self Contained, Early Childhood, & Bilingual/ESL, plus
Minnesota Elementary Education. Jennifer has served for 7 years as a professional learning
specialist, and is in demand as a presenter to regional, state, and local conferences.
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