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A New Approach to
Summer Homework

Do you remember watching the television show Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? It was hosted by comedian Jeff Foxworthy and ran for three seasons between the spring of 2007 and the fall of 2009. Jeff told me after the first season that it was an absolute “hoot” to interact with both the adults and the kids on that show. Interestingly, the show is being revived with a new format and time.

If the show accomplished nothing else, it reminded us of how much we’ve forgotten about our world in school. Much of what we learned in childhood has… well, evaporated. For some contestants, it was a reminder of just how difficult life and school was back in the day. Sometimes we forget that.

I’d like to talk about another memory that may have gotten skewed in our minds: summer time. Do you remember your summers as a kid? It’s likely you remember highlights: that skiing trip at the lake; the Disney World vacation; pick up baseball games with your buddies; and maybe the sleepovers with your BFFs.

students summer

Today’s culture is a little different than mine was growing up. It encourages kids to veg out watching Netflix or playing games on their Xbox. Due to the overwhelming information streaming in on social media, students have been conditioned to need the stimulation that comes from the “ping” of a text message, a tweet, an Instagram like, or a Snapchat video. It leaves little time for stuff that matters.

Summer Homework from Italy

So one teacher from Italy decided to switch up the “normal” summer homework he gives to students between June and September. Instead, he gave them a little advice. Most students are given schoolwork over the summer holiday just to keep their minds sharp. But Cesare Cata, a secondary school teacher in the Le Marche region of Italy, offered a list of assignments that looked different. Very different. Rather than bury themselves in math problems, his list included:

  • At least once, go and watch the sunrise.
  • Wander beside the sea thinking of things you love in life.
  • Dance shamelessly when the mood strikes, because summer is a dance, and it is foolish not to take part.

Wow. What kid wouldn’t love an assignment like this?

I think, however, Mr. Cata recognizes a deeper benefit than mere fun. These kinds of experiences involve reflection. They nudge students to stop and ponder what matters; what motivates them; to interpret and make sense of their lives. To actually stop the noise and think. Mr. Cata also knows that what he recommends has deeper value for his students.

  • When you watch the sunrise, it means you’ve got to get up early that day and not sleep the day away.
  • When you walk by the sea and think about what you love in life, it stimulates you to think about future plans and dreams.
  • When you dance shamelessly, it forces you to take a risk at looking foolish and out of place. This is something teens don’t usually invite.

How About You?

As you think about your students (or your own kids) this summer, why not think of assignments that don’t feel like “homework” but feel more like what you’d do on vacation? Assignments that can benefit them as they mature.

  1. Do your young people need quiet time for reflection?
    What if you paid them to turn off their phones, to hunt down the quietest spot they can find, and write down five wishes they have for their future.
  2. Do your young people need to learn to focus on others?
    What if you purchased a huge bag of candy bars and challenged them to visit the cancer ward at the local children’s hospital to give the candy away?
  3. Do your young people need to better navigate boredom?
    What if you ask them to watch a cable news channel and choose three crises covered on a program? Then, ask them to list steps they’d take to solve them.

You may consider some of these items above to be cheesy or cliché, but you get the idea. What if you got creative as you direct your students this summer and helped them build some skills on reflection and solitude along the way? What if you surprised them by doing this in an engaging fashion? What if you made it feel like fun?

Mr. Cata’s assignments were posted online and have since gone viral. Adults have responded positively, saying things like, “I wish I’d had a teacher like you who encouraged reflection and introspection.” The list seems to have struck a chord with many parents, who say they have shared it with their children. “Homework for life, not just for a season,” one Facebook user says, while another declares, “With a teacher like you, I would go back to school tomorrow!”

What kinds of assignments would you add to this out-of-the-box list?


I hope to see you at the 2015 National Leadership Forum. Here are the highlights of our forum last June.

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A New Approach to <br> Summer Homework