A colleague recently mused about how much homework to assign his students over the winter holiday break. The only sensible reply, which I blurted loudly, was “GOOD GOD, MAN: NONE!”
I’ll do a bit of exam grading and planning over the break, but that’s my job; it’s why I get the big bucks and the red pens. I certainly hope that my students have a genuinely refreshing break from their schoolwork, and I think that time should be off-limits to school assignments. I hope students spend quality time with their families, get enough sleep, goof around, and relax. Of course there’s time for some useful and engaging stuff, too. One could easily sleep and loaf away two weeks in a glorious festival of sloth, and I wouldn’t judge anyone for napping lazily down that path. But abject sloth gets old surprisingly fast.
If I could go beyond the quick post-exam exhortation to “have a good vacation!” though, I’d say to my students that I recommend at least considering the following:
- Be yourself: Be your un-evaluated, non-graded, un-ranked self. Do what you enjoy without worrying about whether it fits into your long-range scheme to impress some college admissions officer. Volunteer because it makes you feel good, try something new just for fun, or delve obsessively into a project for no reason other than your own fascination with it. Watch a documentary about marmots. The school calendar gives you broad, lazy, swathes of time full of possibility and open to serendipity. You won’t necessarily have this later on, or if you do it will come at a cost. You’ll feel compelled to make the most of your limited vacation time by hyper-curating experiences and then worrying whether you’ve made the right choices or whether it was worth the expense. Now’s the time to ramble down unnamed paths and see what you bump into.
- Don’t study. Really. You need to put away the schoolwork in order to come back to it in January with enthusiasm and perspective. One thing you can do though is to think and talk in an informal way, in your own words, about what you’ve been learning. Talk with your parents and aunts and uncles about what you’re up to in history class and what you’re reading in English class. You’ll be surprised at the responses you get and the enjoyable conversations that ensue. Speak Spanish or French as much as you can, just for fun, with anyone who’ll join you. Think about what topics grabbed your attention so far this year, and why. Follow an interest for a while and see if it turns into a passion.
- Read for pleasure. Most students tell me that they rarely read for fun because they don’t have time. Vacation is a perfect time to lose yourself in some great reading. Here is a list of books that I particularly think many of my students would enjoy. It’s not an academic reading list, and the choices are mostly not “literary;” it’s just an eclectic collection of books that I have personally enjoyed, many of them when I was a teenager. I think anything on the list would make easy, fun, but also enriching reading for a student on vacation. If you want an extrinsic reason to read more, here’s one: reading makes you a better writer, and regardless of what you plan to study or do for a living, the ability to write well will be invaluable.
- Get outdoors. Grab some friends or family and go for a hike or just wander in the woods for an hour looking at stuff and poking things. Being outside is healthy, it’s fun, and it makes you feel good. Enjoying the outdoors doesn’t have to be a massive expedition fraught with expensive “gear” obsessions, nor should it be a competition to find the most exotic destination so as to win some future conversational victory or score the perfect Instagram image. Throw on some sneakers, grab a sweatshirt, and have a day full of adventure that’s special because it’s yours.
- Cultivate a healthy relationship with your devices. I’m not going to say “unplug” for a huge amount of time because that would be the height of hypocrisy. But we all need to try to be more intentional about when we’re on our devices and when we need to put them away. The holidays are a good time to practice good digital habits. When you’re having a conversation with someone, be fully present. Try not to use screens in the evening before bedtime—it will mess with your sleep pattern. Consider installing f.lux, which adjusts your display to adapt to the time of day, so your screen doesn’t emit light in the evening that makes you stay awake. In short, be deliberate and thoughtful about your digital habits, and make sure those habits aren’t diminishing other experiences.
- Listen to the Savage Lovecast. I think our school has a strong and sensible sex-ed program, so I’m not proposing this as criticism or remediation, just an adjunct, something that would benefit any young person striving, sometimes awkwardly and uncertainly, toward adulthood. Sex-advice columnist Dan Savage is, to use his own term: “sex-positive,” meaning that he understands sexuality to be an essential part of human life, and believes that attempts to sanction, censor, and discourage open discourse about sex and sexuality leads to shame, repression, and general unhappiness. Much of his advice is simply about how to have healthy relationships and to cultivate respect, empathy, and decency toward others. His advice about sex is sensible, matter-of-fact, and always, always nonjudgemental. Time with Dan is time well spent.
Whatever you do, have fun, relax, and let’s all come back to school in January rested and ready to thrive.