3 Ways for Teachers to Refuel During Summer Break

For most of us who teach, summertime means we have a rich opportunity to refuel our teaching engines so that, when school begins again in a couple of months, our minds and hearts will be in great shape for building the best learning culture for our students. Here are the three best ways to accomplish this:

1. Spend more time outdoors.

Artistic knowledge begins with the senses and works through the details collected by them until expression in story, poetry, painting, song, and other creative forms makes this knowledge accessible and meaningful. Especially if you teach any of the arts, including imaginative literature, spending time outdoors with uninterrupted attention to the natural world around you will deepen your connection to that world and will sharpen your ability to grasp what is real in the works of art you study with your students.

Go fishing for the elusive bass in a local lake, but do more than that: study your opponent—know where he swims and when you can find him—then seek him out. Even easier, catalogue the variety of birds that inhabit your yard, nearby parks, or some distant wilderness that takes you well beyond your familiar surroundings and into the wider world. Try investing significant time in a garden, cultivating flowers and vegetables and paying close attention to their development, colors and smells. In our high-tech world, we would all do well to reconnect with dirt—musty to our sense of smell, cool to our touch—and with the very pulse of things natural and growing. Such attunement is a habit that will help you guide your students to better experience our world and coach them in how to allow the details of that world to work on them through the arts.

2. Visit historical sites.

History is part of who we are, central to how we think of ourselves and interpret our existence. The stories of those who came before us shape our ability to understand the condition we share, the limits and possibilities of human action, and our hope in the face of challenges.

Find a battlefield to visit, or do a little research into homes of historical figures great and small: Mark Twain’s home in Hartford, Connecticut; Ulysses S. Grant’s cabin in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he finished his memoirs and spent his final days; Ghost Ranch, Georgia O’Keeffe’s New Mexican home; Mesa Verde, Colorado, the mysterious cliff dwellings of native peoples for over a thousand years; or the Tenement Museum in lower Manhattan, where you can hear the intimate stories of generations of immigrant families forging a new beginning in America.

These are all stones in the foundation of America. A greater familiarity with the profoundly human stories that form our national memory will invigorate the way you guide your students into the heritage that is theirs too.

3. Read, watch and listen.

To teach is to lead the learning culture established for your students. By refueling your love of reading good books, watching classic films, listening to great music, and letting all these arts work on you, you will strengthen your love of learning and make it all the more infectious as the school year starts.

Read, read, and read some more. Reading is singularly the most important way we learn about and delight in human experience. A good summer reading plan should include a collection of short stories, perhaps by Flannery O’Connor or William Trevor. Every classic short story is remarkably satisfying, despite its modest length. Short stories are convenient as well: each one can be read in the time between dips in the ocean, during the length of the ride to the art museum, or while you wait as the kids’ day camp finishes.

Watch some classic films too. At its best, film bears images and stories that draw us into the broader world. I recommend that you select a handful of classics from the Criterion Collection, the American Film Institute’s top 100 list or TCM’s own list of best films. Try these favorites of mine: City Lights (silent), Jean de Florette (French), The Third Man (film noir), The Thin Red Line (drama), and Bringing Up Baby (comedy).  

Finally, listen to good music. I recommend you pick one composer or performer and listen to a handful of works. Set a goal to finish the summer with a greater familiarity with Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, for example, or Beethoven’s piano works, Cecilia Bartoli’s vocal performances, any major jazz genre like Cool or Dixie, or a bluegrass style like Doc Watson’s flat picking on the guitar or Earl Scruggs’ fingerpicking on the banjo. Enjoy any of them, but dig in further by listening with a new level of attention to every important detail.

This summer, take a deeper drink of the world around you: the living things, the things of the past that still feed our life today, and the works of art that help us know our place in the world. Come this fall, you will teach better. That is good for you, and it is great for your students.

Andrew J. Zwerneman serves as president of Cana Academy.