What can we learn from summer unschooling?

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to think and talk about innovative school change.

It’s difficult to see the start of this school year with a heart that’s anything but desperately worried for students, for teachers and for families. We want this school year to be fruitful in terms of learning, but we’re also shocked and dismayed by the physical danger school communities face in re-opening.

It’s difficult to think and talk about innovative school change, but at the same time, right now it’s pretty hard not to think about school.


When schools let out for the summer, it was a relief.

We saw continued creativity from schools around Vermont in celebrating their graduates. We saw educators around the state have a chance to breathe and cry and relax.

Summer’s a weird time for students. In theory, school’s over, so you can do your own thing. But in reality, school’s over, and that can have a huge impact on the structure and support school brings. Freedom only goes so far when you’re under 18.

But sometimes it goes just far enough.

This summer we saw students making their own way through, and were impressed by their tenacity, flexibility and creativity. We saw students pursue learning in ways that made us wonder: what could we learn from students who pursued their own learning outside of school this summer?

Turns out: quite a bit.

Summer interrupts schooling.

For students, schedules and locations become completely different. There could be freedom to launch a yard work business, such as the one by the Warren VT-based Fretz brothers. Some students work at a family or local business, running cash registers, preparing food, balancing books, raising livestock or changing the world.

Other students see a need in the world and craft a project to address it.

After losing her summer internships, student Lia Rubel, of Barre VT, leaned in on a Yale University project that turns unwanted, aged-out tech devices into lifelines to healthcare for elderly Vermonters. Rubel sourced devices and raised funds and coordinated with others in the national network. Vermont is a better place because of her work.

Students in Winooski VT, formed a group called the Winooski Students for Anti-Racism. En masse, they showed up their school board’s July meeting. Over Zoom, one by one, they spoke of their experiences with racism, and the need for urgent change. They looked at the world and stepped forward to make it a better place.

In the summer, community organizations, too, step up their game, opening additional service pathways for students. The Vermont Youth Conservation Corps (VYCC), for instance, this past summer increased food deliveries around Washington County to alleviate food insecurity this summer. Young adults perform various tasks around the VYCC’s food stand and farms.

Students stay busy in summer, is what.

They stay involved and curious and relaxed and hard-working and loud and energetic. They keep going.

And when pandemic things happen, students stay flexible. They double down.

In Essex, VT, brothers Nathan and Henry Wu had been touring Vermont, performing classical music on cello and violin at libraries around the state. When the pandemic hit, they didn’t want to lose the opportunity to share their passion and proficiency. They’d worked on the library tour for two full years: learning how to communicate and organize events (transferable skill), figuring out a manageable schedule (reflection), determining what to say about the pieces they learned (transferable skill).

And of course, practicing. (Proficiency.)

So, working with the VT Department of Libraries, the Wu brothers put together a Facebook Livestream event for their senior showcase. They taught themselves live-streaming technology. They wrote and published a program to accompany the music. And they had to figure out a comments policy, and learn what Facebook stats mean.

Now, imagine what the Wu brothers’ PLPs look like.

And that’s what we’re asking of ourselves right now, and you too. (Caveat: only if you have the capacity. If you just need to go lie down in the dandelions for a few months and come back? We’ll still be here asking.)

How can a fundamental interruption to the way we have practiced schooling be tied to the way we see students pursuing learning outside the classroom and the school day?

Unlock & encourage Flexible Pathways

When students need to attend school remotely, we naturally ask: what are they doing with the rest of their time? What are they reading, watching, making and learning about? Act 77’s Flexible Pathways mandate creates a way for students who spend their time away from school and screen to “legitimize” self-directed inquiries.

Valid learning experiences can look like:

  • volunteering at the library and developing a new summer reading program
  • teaching Sunday School
  • teaching garlic braiding classes at your family’s farm and producing a video tutorial on it for the farm website
  • building a YouTube channel of PSA remixes you send to local radio stations
  • becoming a published author
  • using a photography drone to map out the species of trees at a planned town development site

Valid learning experiences can look like putting surplus tech devices in the hands of seniors. They can look like developing a series of classical music concerts at local libraries.

And flexible pathways create ways for us to formally recognize those.

They make space for students with big ideas they want to try.

Support PLPs

One of the best parts of working on our blog, our videos, and our podcasts, are hearing stories from students. It’s hard to find an adult who doesn’t enjoy hearing from students — especially when learning is working.

And PLPs are those stories made real.

PLPs with this kind of evidence also can signal to the viewer the expansive skill sets students have mastered. The breadth of skills they can bring to the table. How could we expand the audience for student PLPs? If we think of the PLP as a living, breathing story in motion, what chapters would you want to read? What kinds of stories will captivate students and their families, and make them turn the pages outside of a student-led conference?

Implement robust Proficiency-Based Assessments

A wise old owl (named Susan Hennessey) once told us:

“Systems don’t change until credit systems change.”

We have the power right now to change the way we look at giving credit for learning. Whether it’s via micro-credentials or enhanced transcripts, proficiency-based assessments make it possible for us to design ways of both providing guidance on and pushing students toward skills-based self-directed learning.

And now: a word about equity.

None of this works unless it works for everyone. That’s it. That’s the tweet.

We know that even with Vermont’s progressive Act 77 legislation, we need to keep working on equalizing access to these opportunities for every student. It’s difficult to pursue self-directed learning when you’re struggling with trauma. When you’re crushed by racism. When you’re helping your family put food on the table. Fighting for equity must be part of every conversation on innovative school change.

And right now the best answer we can come up with is to keep fighting.

Put them all together and you get–

You get busy, capable, engaged students pursuing learning outside the classroom and the school day. Students who can show you an array of skills, detailed and accredited. Students who have documented stories to share to back up experience and skills both.

Basically: if we eliminated all the constraints, how could we imagine summer learning opportunities as a blueprint for student engagement?

What are some other keys you’re seeing to unlocking the potential of a disrupted school system during this time?

Audrey Homan

Audrey Homan is a Vermont-based digital media producer, and producer of The 21st Century Classroom podcast. She's worked in non-profit communications for more than a decade, and in her spare time writes tiny video games and mucks about with augmented reality and arduinos, ably assisted by five dogs. Interviewing students and yelling in PHP are the best parts of her job.

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