The Summer Connections program is a five-week daily summer learning program on Thompson Island that blends academics and enrichment activities for Boston Public Schools students. Students are led through exciting activities designed to help them grow as scholars, leaders, and scientific-thinkers. They spend the morning becoming experts in different ecosystems and organisms in the classroom and afternoons exploring these concepts through hands-on field activities on the island.

Key Takeaways

  • Talking openly about each students’ strengths before delving deeper into their feelings makes them more comfortable with opening up when they are struggling.

  • Students are more likely to persevere through something when a challenge feels important to them personally.

  • Peer mentorship from older students allows students to see their potential in a way that feels tangible and real.

How does your program build upon learned skills over time and across projects and activities?

We have a very carefully constructed model in Summer Connections, that becomes amplified as they age during the school year. But in the summer specifically, the 5 weeks of the program are themed, so each week has the theme of an Outward Bound pillar. These are tracked against different group development models, and build into a gradual release of responsibility to the students. So, for instance, the first week is craftsmanship, which we align with the stage of group development called “forming.” And the gradual release of responsibility is taught in training. So, let’s start things out with a level of excellence. Let’s figure out our system, do things really well, as we’re trying to figure out who we are in relation to the program, and that will give us a good foundation moving forward. And then they track like that over time, starting to own and influence more of their structures and culture as they build skills and group identity. 


The really important part for how they build skills across projects and activities is that foundation. So they have a week to understand the island, the Outward Bound culture, and begin to design their smaller group’s norms and expectations. We use the “Training, Main, Final” model. So, for the first week and a half, the instructors are very hands-on. They are directly intervening in conflict resolution, they are driving the culture and making sure it’s staying positive and productive. Then, for the next week and a half, the students are in Main, so they’re taking a bit more responsibility for their projects, for the culture, and their instructors are going to step back. And for the last week and a half of the program, they’re in Final, so the idea is that they should be, as appropriate, self-sufficient, and have built up enough skills either within themselves or amongst their team, that they can be successful.


And so, their responsibility of their own group, and the way it functions, correlates to the difficulty of challenges that we give them. On Thompson Island we have low and high ropes climbing courses. In the beginning of the summer, they’re doing the ones that are really team-oriented, a little bit easier to figure out. And as the summer progresses, they start doing ones that are more physically demanding, that require more skill acquisition. And it all culminates to our Alpine Tower, which is our 50+ foot high-ropes climbing element. It looks like a bunch of telephone poles started playing twister. Even just walking up to it, it’s quite a formidable and impressive structure to behold. We’re very careful to build up their understanding of both the technical skills, the climbing and how to support each other appropriately, and how to face challenges that are in front of them so that they can really tackle that in the end

What do you find to be the most effective way to encourage a student not to give up when they are faced with a challenge or set-back?

I think the most important thing is making sure that it matters to them. Making sure that, through conversation or whatever works, they understand why the challenge that they’re being faced with is important. Why it’s relevant to them outside of that day, outside of this program. How it transfers back into their broader life and broader community. And then building on that so they feel like they have ownership over the process of actually being successful, instead of just having someone who’s taller and older than them dictating what they have to do, and telling them that is success.


We’re also building up the peer mentorship both in this program and in partnership with some of our other youth programs. I think there’s something really special about the connection that a peer can have when they’re coaching someone. It’s a different type of motivation for a friend to tell you that you can do it, than for a teacher to tell you. They can both be effective at different times, but peer mentorship with other students in the program, and also with our Green Ambassadors program (our work/job program for BPS high schoolers) is really valuable. Several times throughout the summer, we have the Green Ambassadors teenagers come and work with the Summer Connections middle schoolers, and having students that grew up in the same city, who often live in the same neighborhood, and allowing the students to process and have conversations with students who have had similar experiences, who look like them, adds to their level of perseverance, and can often help them see why it matters down the road. You know, teachers can say, “When you’re older, you’ll appreciate it.” But when someone’s 3 or 4 years older and can tell you it’s important, I think it feels more concrete and relatable.

What advice do you have for programs that look different from yours but are still trying to build perseverance in students?

I think the ratios are key. I think it’s really hard for educators to build the rapport necessary to help students persevere through challenges if they don’t know their students intimately. If they don’t know what makes them tick, what makes them happy, what makes them scared. I think that lots of opportunities for building that rapport are lost in transitions. Any time that you are near students is an opportunity for you to engage with them, to build rapport with them, and that all pays off tenfold later when they’re stressed or really need to talk about something — they’re not going to do that with an adult who they don’t trust. So it’s really about making the most out of walking from one spot to the other, or choosing to eat lunch with the students instead of sitting at a table with just teachers. It pays off. And as educators, I find that a lot of people, particularly with middle schoolers, are hesitant to talk about feelings, and hesitant to talk about things that feel a little bit less neat, a little bit controversial. Because instructors might not know where it’s going to end, or where students are going to go with it. And if you think about the space that we have with students particularly over the summer, this might be one of the only structured places they have to process these things they might be thinking about or struggling with. And so, it would be a missed opportunity to assume that they aren’t ready to talk about those things or that they can’t know what they need. It’s definitely a process, but I don’t think educators should be scared of talking to students about what they think is important, or what they have questions about. And again, that only builds trust and rapport so that when things get hard, they know that their educators are not going to judge them, or hold them, or be punitive if they have failure instead of success. They’re going to trust that it’s someone who’s investing in them and who really wants the best for them, which can be an important supporting factor to push someone to persevere.