The back-to-school question some believe we should ditch

By Kelly-Leigh Cooper
BBC News

Image source, Getty Images

"What did you do on your summer break?"

It's a back-to-school assignment a lot of people would have written at some point during their education.

But as many schools in the UK and North America return for a new academic year this week, some people on social media have been debating whether the common writing task, and others like it, are problematic.

It came after a US-based writer posted an anecdote on Friday - earmarked as a "public service announcement" to teachers - about a friend's child who had returned to school after unexpectedly losing a parent over the summer.

She said the grieving child had completed the assigned task "in horrifying detail" about their tragic loss.

The original tweet, which has now been shared hundreds of times, was met with a wave of people sharing their own experiences.

Some who lost parents during childhood agreed that they found similar assignments, like making family-trees, upsetting. They shared "horror stories" of being questioned in school about personal loss or family difficulties.

Others defended the writing task or pointed out that grief isn't the only circumstance in which students can feel alienated by the question.

'So much shame'

Tiffany Grayson, who was raised by a single mother in Harbor Springs in Michigan, was one of many who pointed out that tasks like the "summer question" risk embarrassing students whose families have financial struggles, too.

"This whole thread made me relive so much shame I had about these assignments," the 34-year-old posted. "When classmates were like 'Went to Europe!' and I was like 'only had the electricity cut off once'…"

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
A common complaint was that the question highlights economic disparity between students

Some in the replies said they believed concepts like sleep-away summer camp, popular in the US, only existed in Hollywood movies and television shows until their peers shared their summer stories.

Ms Grayson told the BBC reading the conversation brought her "instantly back" to feeling like "a nauseous little kid" who dreaded going back to school for this very reason.

"Especially as I got old enough to work and contribute - I couldn't even fathom the luxury of resting throughout the break," she said. "And even I'm lucky. Looking back I know kids had it even rougher than me.

"I can't imagine the agony of having a serious illness, incarceration or death in my close family and having to face excited classmates talking about beach trips."

'Get more creative'

A number of teachers also joined in the social media debate by sharing their own experiences - positive and negative - about assigning writing tasks that dredge up personal issues.

"Get more creative with your prompts, y'all," Kayla Meyers, based in Texas, urged fellow educators on the Twitter thread.

Image source, Kayla Meyers
Image caption,
Kayla (pictured) said she was "shocked" by how many students are still given the task

"My first year was really a lot of trial and error," the writing teacher, 27, told the BBC. "I honestly made a lot of mistakes that some of the people in the thread were bringing up."

She recalled asking young students to write an autobiography only to get inundated with questions and concerns about personal issues they felt awkward discussing in class.

"I was just overwhelmed with embarrassment over it," she said. "I couldn't believe with all my academic and sensitivity training I'd made such a faux pas."

Now working in an online school with students from an incredibly diverse range of financial, religious and family backgrounds, Kayla says she only assigns broad and inclusive writing prompts.

"They allow students to talk about their own personal experience, while still giving them the opportunity to avoid doing so," she said.

'Give students a voice'

Canadian Nate Van Kampen, 39, lost his mother while still at high-school. Now a teacher himself in Hamilton, Ontario, he was one of those on the social media thread who pushed back against some of the criticism, insisting he found speaking in school about his personal loss "so therapeutic".

Image source, Nate Van Kampen
Image caption,
The father-of-three says he provides different options for his students that allow expression

"Of course you have to be careful about the kind of assignments you assign," he told the BBC. "But I think it's important to give students a voice if they want to speak to a negative experience - especially if you have a supportive school community or classroom."

Age and context were crucial factors to bear in mind, he said, adding that teachers should be mindful of allowing for "opt outs" or work-arounds to anyone who may find tasks difficult or challenging.

Jen Alexander, a former special needs teacher and current school counsellor, agrees. She has written a book about trauma sensitivity in the classroom and travels around the US teaching others about the subject.

Ms Alexander says educators need to adjust their mindsets to pre-empt the multitude of situations a child could be going through while keeping in mind broader issues, like racial marginalisation.

"It's about being ready, whether we know their stories or not, to offer options to students," she told the BBC. "So maybe instead of making a Father's Day or Mother's Day card, they can make a card for someone who matters to them."

Image source, Jen Alexander
Image caption,
Jen Alexander says some assignments and mandatory reading can act as triggers

Jillian Warring Bird, a high-school language teacher in Toronto, said she gets around any awkwardness by allowing her students creative freedom.

"I tell all my classes: 'I'll ask personal questions to help prompt you to communicate in the target language. I don't care if what you say is true,'" she posted. "'You can lie in this class, as long as you lie in French/Spanish.'"

Other people suggested alternative tasks that are less invasive such as: What are you looking forward to about the school year?

"I always asked, 'What is your favourite thing about the summer?' instead," another user suggested. "It reached across the economic inequality in my class and said a lot about the kids instead of opportunities."

Another said they assigned the less-traditional "What was the most boring thing you did this summer?" task instead.

"It made them all laugh and equalised it a bit," they said.