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It’s Not a Vacation for Everyone

by Dyan McCarthy-Clark, Piscataquis Teacher of the Year 8th Grade Social Studies, SeDoMoCha Middle School

"Woo Hoo! It's vacation!"

This is the time of year where it seems as if we have a vacation every time we turn around. It’s a time for teachers and students alike to rejuvenate. Teachers often take stock of the progress being made and adjust the course of instruction to address the varied needs of their students…and take some time to relax. Students get a chance to rest from the rigor and structure of the school day.

Teachers would like to think that we send our students off for a vacation of fun, sleeping late and socializing with friends. Sadly, however, that's not always the case.

Several years ago, as I was wrapping up the last day before winter break, I saw one of my students crying. She shared with me that vacations weren't the joyful event that I assumed would be welcomed by every student. She saw the impending vacation as a weeklong sentence of isolation from her friends and peers. Her revelation led me to an eye-opening exploration of what vacation means to many of my students, especially for those who are economically disadvantaged.

What does vacation mean to some of our students? In rural areas, vacations may separate friends by miles and miles, with no hope of getting together for even a few hours of socializing. Although we take for granted that most students have internet access and the availability of social media to stay connected to their friends, there are still many families who remain in an internet void. Instagram, Snapchat and other favored social media are out of reach for several of our students.

The difficulties of poverty can also mean that many of our students are going to have to bear hardships that are eased when they are in school. Often school provides a haven for the basics of human comfort that are lacking in their homes. Some students endure consistently cold homes during the winter. My heart stopped when one of my students shared that his pet rat had frozen to death in his bedroom the night before because his bedroom temperature had fallen to a treacherously low temperature. We can forget that a heated school is a welcomed respite from a frigid home. Lights and running water, constants in school, are intermittent in some of our students' homes.

In this age of electronic toys, television and online entertainment, our students have become passive participants in activities meant to be entertaining. If an adult doesn't intervene, some children don't know what to do; they haven't learned how to play by themselves. Vacation can represent a week of boredom because they don't know what to do.

Around the holidays, some students' homes do not have the idyllic traditions that are portrayed in the media and discussed at school. A table full of traditional foods and joyful conversation with family is a myth for many children. The reality may be a meal scrabbled together from food cupboard donations. Divorce, alcoholism and abusive environments may strain family relationships. Schools offer an ordered, peaceful and more predictable environment for an untold number of children.

So how do we help students who are being sent off to a week of deprivation, in any of its various forms? First, don't act like the situation doesn’t exist. It is better to acknowledge that some students have it hard outside of school. Talk with students about the realities that exist for some of their peers. Just recognizing their stressful situation may validate their struggle and lend them needed strength.

We can also work to empower our students to have an impact on the things that they can control. Encourage those locked away from internet connections to reach out to their friends with a phone call. (Yes, Johnny, people still actually call one another and talk on phones.) Help them brainstorm practical options on how to pass the time while they're on vacation. Many of my middle schoolers scoff at the idea of making a snowman until they are introduced to the "twisted" snowmen made by Calvin in the "Calvin and Hobbes" cartoons. Suddenly making snowmen takes on a whole new meaning.

Make sure students have a few good books from the classroom or school library to take home for the week. Remind students that the stress-reducing exercises used in class (like Brain Gym® activities) can help relax them at home. Make a list for students to take home that reminds them of local venues like the YMCA or town library that welcome students. Take some time to teach students good old-fashioned games that could be played with siblings or by themselves. Sometimes all it takes is a pack of cards to provide a bit of fun. Ideas can be found at websites like:

It is hard to change a difficult home environment, but we can supply students several ways to entertain themselves in positive ways while they're at home. When they are released with the wave of joyous peers at the beginning of a vacation, students with challenges at home might be able to look forward to at least a few fun distractions to make their "vacation" more bearable.

"Mrs. M-C" teaches 6-8th graders at SeDoMoCha Middle School in Dover-Foxcroft. She has held this position since 1987 with the exception of serving one year as a K-5 Assistant Principal in the district. Dyan started her teaching career in 1977 as an Industrial Arts teacher in Walpole, MA. She earned a Bachelor of Science from the University of Maine Portland-Gorham (now USM) and a Master's in Education Administration from the University of Maine. She has served as an Adjunct Professor at Husson University working with pre-service teachers.

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