As summer days stretch into summer nights, one way to ensure students are prepared for the next school year is by exploring a foreign land. Research has shown that the summer months are critical for student academic growth. Summer vacations with extended learning for children and teenagers are correlated with academic success. Rich travel experiences equate to exposure to different languages, cultures, foods, and people. These experiences–termed cultural and social capital–act as a savings account that students continue to draw from during their academic careers.

Cultural and social capital are linked to higher academic achievement. Cultural capital equals non-financial assets like skills, talents, tastes, clothing, material belongs, and credentials that advance social standing. Consider a student who visits Costa Rica with his parents during the summer. The family may take day trips to the Volcan Arenal volcano and the Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio, learn to order casado or arroz con camarones, and see a Spanish performance at the Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica. At the volcano, the student learns about the history of the country’s most active volcano and eruptions. In the park, the student closely observes rainforest life and biodiversity. Sleepy, slow moving sloths, brightly-colored toucans, iguanas, and monkeys populate the park while an educated guide with a telescope points out various animals and plants and provides background of each. The student learns quickly that a dish of rice and beans is called gallo pinto and picks up sayings that allow interactions with locals.

At the Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica, the student watches a performance of Sueno de una noche de verano–an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In a week, a student could feasibly experience Costa Rica from a cultural, linguistic, and social perspective, each interaction a deposit into the bank of cultural capital. Cultural capital is not the only capital students accrue while traveling; during visits to foreign lands, ripe and ample opportunities to build social capital are available as well. Social capital is the collection of networks and relationships; the stronger, more diverse the network, the more social capital one has. In the U.S., social capital can be easily identified in organizations like Jack and Jill or Greek-lettered organizations. As students engage in network-broadening interactions, they benefit.

Traveling is an easy way to naturally broaden students’ networks. When students leave their neighborhoods, they meet other young people who speak a different language, eat different foods, engage in different sports activities, and have different family structures. These relationships build a sense of cultural and personal awareness which they bring back to the classroom.

Capital pays off in the classroom. In biology, the student carries the experiences of the Costa Rican rainforest. The student interacts more easily in Spanish, because of the authentic opportunities to speak the language with Costa Ricans. When reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream in English, the student visualizes scenes from the theater, improving comprehension. Throughout the school year, parents and students maintain healthy and positive relationships with summer families by connecting through Facebook.

These relationships could blossom into student exchange opportunities, thus broadening cultural networks. Prior to embarking on adventure, parents can build high interest while promoting activities that directly impact the classroom. With adult support, students–even as young as kindergarten–should engage in a webquest about the country, searching for interesting facts, words, phrases, art, and culture. Students should help plan the traveling experience by working with parents to determine “must sees” and “must dos” based off of their research. Students should identify one aspect of the culture they find most compelling and engage in extended research around that one idea.

ExposureFor example, a student interested in food can cook a variety of recipes of the country before the visit and read interesting articles about the country’s foods and diet. During the visit, the student could sample two or three recipes in the native land.

Traveling and exposure should include your little–and not-so-little–ones. The summer months are meant for continued learning, and traveling can ensure that learning takes place. Social and cultural capital deposits in your child’s school bank can be withdrawn in the classroom and benefits pay off for years to come.

Miah Daughtery, Ed.D has been an educator for fifteen years, primarily reading and English for all grades 6-12. She is currently the Coordinator of K-12 Literacy for the Tennessee Department of Education. When she’s not thinking about issues around equity, access, and literacy, she is most likely baking phenomenal chocolate chip cookies, brunching, wine-tasting, or traveling. Follow her on Twitter at DST6N01 for information on all things literacy.

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