Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Staples Commercial or... It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like School

Like it or not, summer is over and school is here.  I always think of an old Staples commercial where you hear the song, "It's Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas" playing while Dad clicks his heels up as he merrily shops with his kids for school supplies.

Whether this is a happy, sad or anxious time of year for you and your child, here are some suggestions to help effectively deal with the summer/school transition:  

1) Keep your child smiling.  This may mean funky erasers, decorated notebooks, dividers, school bags or pencil holders.  It may involve stickers or painting a smiley face in your child's homework pad or  lunch bag. 

2) Keep your child organized.  When organized, your child can more efficiently tackle school's cognitive and social issues.  Organization is a skill.  For some of us it comes naturally, for others it must be painstakingly learned. 

For your young child: model executive skills and set up their workspace and book bags, giving them some decision making power (color of notebook, pens, pen/pencil holders, folders, etc.) you can both live with. 

For your older child:  Brainstorm on materials needed given the subject requirements, the space available (in the desk, locker, book bag, at home), and the budget available.  Consider weight and durability of materials along with prioritizing needs and likes.  Tweak and compromise suggestions.  By working together, you are teaching your child to recognize and weigh multiple aspects of a problem, you are teaching problem solving skills, budgeting and math skills and by involving them you are providing greater 'executive' experience.

3) Set up Routines keeping in mind what you can and cannot control. 

Set up calendars so you and your child can keep track of what is happening that day / week.  Set up homework and play schedules.  This will help them develop a more effective and efficient sense of time.

Note that play/down time are as important as homework time.  Some kids can sit for hours doing productive work (and have 'play' time before and/or after their homework time).  Others have shorter spans of attention and 'productive' homework time.  For these kids schedule many mini homework breaks (which can include snack time, dinner, a short game, sms'ing and/or television time).

4) Establish bedtimes and sleep routines making sure your child gets a good night's sleep.  Set up 'going to sleep routines'- especially for the kids who resist going to sleep and/or who have trouble slowing down.  Routines can include quiet music, quiet reading, washing up, reading aloud, bed tuck ins and saying prayers and/or thinking about wishes for what tomorrow may bring.

5) Set up play dates (especially for children beginning new schools).  Ask the school for a list of kids near you or a list of other new kids entering your child's class.  Set up play and/or homework dates with them.  Help ease the 'feeling alone' jitters. 

6) Review what your child did in school that day.  This will help with memory and keep up the classroom excitement.  Watch related movies together about those topics or go visit local historical and cultural sites that relate to the topic. 

7) Preview what the next day will bring [before (not at) bedtime - no need to get them anxious before going to sleep].  Maybe during dinner talk about what your child may be doing the next day. You may want to do this again at breakfast.  Get her mind and imagination going, get  him thinking about what he will or might be learning.  This will also gives your child more time to think about how he or she might contribute to class discussion or writing assignments and provides additional memory paths.

In short, keep school and learning alive and exciting.  Empower your child to take command and assume growing responsibility for his and her space and domains. 

I would love to hear what you are doing to help with your child's school transitions.  We can all learn from each other. 

In the meantime, may this be a happy, productive 2010-2011 academic year!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

No Holding Back

When our kids were young, we moved around a lot, living on three continents before they entered grade school.  One incident was brought to mind recently when I was chatting with a friend about her preschool child.  She asked me whether I recommended she teach her child reading skills, or should she wait a year until her child enters kindergarten.

This brought to mind an incident my daughter had when she was in kindergarten  at The American School in Vienna, Austria.  My husband and I constantly exposed our kids to books (reading aloud frequently), played word games, sang songs, and our kids  just soaked it up.  So, by the time our daughter was in kindergarten, she was beginning to read on her own.  She had a large lexicon of sight words (words she could recognize and 'read' just because they were so familiar), and she was beginning to sound words out as she read as well.

She loved her kindergarten teacher, and the teacher loved her.  So I was shocked when one day, her teacher came over to me and asked me to stop teaching my daughter to read because the other children weren't ready, and the school could not handle a student who was so ahead of her peers. For one, I wasn't actually teaching my daughter, I was exposing and enriching her world.  She was just absorbing it all and moving forward.  Second, I don't believe in holding back. 

Granted, this was Austria and not the U.S., with its own distinct culture and educational practices, but I was shocked nevertheless.   Which brings me to responding to my friend's question.

It is a parent's role to enrich their child's skills and affinities.  This should be done through play, reading, singing, and exploring the world around them.  Parents should not hover and the only time they should "drill" their kids is when helping them study for tests/quizzes in school or when homeschooling.  And even then, the most effective homeschooling is when integrating text books with the real-life experiences and activities.

When it comes to prereaders, it is a parent's role to expose their children to words, to different types of literature and prose, to rhymes and songs and to give them opportunities to use and incorporate language. Here are some things you can do:

Stop!1) When going for walks, point out words on signs.  Words like "STOP" "STREET" and "EXIT" should become sight words and they will begin to recognize them in movie theaters, on road signs when driving, and when reading together with you.

2) When driving or waiting on line play word games.  You can try to think of as many words as you can for the word "stop" or "blue".  You can even make up nonsense words - laugh and have some fun. Play 'Mad Lib" games but with young children you can define 'nouns' as names of things, 'verbs' as action words, etc.

3) When reading aloud
  • Depart the text.  Talk about some neat rhymes, talk about funny sounding words.  If you come to words in bubbles, shout them out (bringing attention to them).  If your child is really familiar with the story, act out the dialogue.
  •  Read a lot of different types of books.  Expose your child to different styles of writing, different types of books, magazines and different formats of printed entertainment.
4) Sing.  Sing ABC songs, rhyming songs.  Play rhyming games.

In short: surround them with words and language and encourage them to use the words and language around them.

But, to stop a child from learning and growing?  Never.  I am a teacher and would never hold back a child because it is easier to keep a class of uniform learners.  Is there even such a thing?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Final Flings and Chasing Summer

Soon we will be knee deep into August.  Some of you may have kids beginning school, others may be contemplating one last vacation or summer fling before sending the kids off to school.  Summer's heat though, is making it difficult to think of school or the rush for school supplies.  So I thought I would talk about enjoying August just a bit longer, while enriching your kids' skills and intellect and having fun whether you leave your neighborhood or not.

Here are some suggestions:

1. Visit a sculpture garden or park, and/or create your own!  Collect old boxes, plastic drink cartons, old furniture, old sheets and towels, empty paper towel rolls, glue and rope.  Have your kids and their friends create 'sculptures' in the back yard.  Then, have the artists give a tour.  If you want them to practice writing skills, have them write up a promotion advertising their park and their art.  Then, go visit sculpture gardens near you.  You may want to talk about how long you think it may have taken to make the sculptures.  Talk about the materials selected and used by the artists.  Talk about how the sculptures were placed in the garden to enhance the view or landscaping.

2. Go Apple or berry picking.    Then come home and bake or make jam with the fruit you picked.  As an incentive or reinforcement, (especially if your kids are young) read Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey.

3.  Go on a Safari.  Hunt for bugs, or bears, for the most fragrant flower or elusive bird, or for a dreaded pirate.  Your hunt can be real or virtual!  Either way, it can be lots of fun.  And, there are some really cute books about kids going on hunts which you can read aloud as well.  You can even go on book hunt at the local library or bookstore about kids going on hunts.

One book I love reading with younger kids is We're Going On a Bear Hunt Retold by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury.  What is so nice about this book is that there is a distinctive pattern in the story that makes it fun to read and chant together.  As the family goes on the hunt they go over tall grass, cross a river, slop in mud, navigate a forest and survive a snow storm, making really cool sounds as they overcome each obstacle. Not only can you find and make your own (real or virtual) obstacles, creating your own sound effects can be loads of fun.  The other thing I like about this book is that it deals a lot with sequences and patterns and pointing out these patterns and making your own is a wonderful way to build these skills in your kids' repertoire.

IF there are a lot of flies and insects on your hunt, you may want to read a vivid picture book for kids of all ages:  Diary of a Young Fly by Doreen Cronin, pictures by Harry Bliss.  This is truly a wonderful book whose illustrations and fun facts will enable numerous fascinating text-departures.  I just loved it!

3. Go Kite Flying.  You may even want to make the kites and have a contest - have your kids design and experiment with aerodynamic designs.  To supplement this activity, there are some wonderful stories about kite flying kids.

One is a picture book by Jane Yolen, The Emperor and the Kite illustrated by Ed Young and winner of the Caldecott award.  The story is about the Emperor's smallest daughter who is not thought of very much by her family (if at all) and spends her days playing with a kite made from paper and sticks.  The Emperor is captured and imprisoned and it is this daughter and her kite who save the day.

Another favorite read aloud book of mine is for older kids, a wonderfully engaging chapter book, called Dragonwings by Laurence Yep.  It is a Newberry honor book and the first of a trilogy about a Chinese immigrant boy who is brought to San Francisco at the turn of the century (1909) to join his father, Windrider. This is excellent historical fiction that deals with the great earth quake, Chinese immigrants and the railroad, bigotry, segregation and aeronautics (Windrider is a master kite maker who builds an airplane).

4. Visit Historical Sites in your area. I live on the East Coast and there are so many colonial homes and sites.  If you have any of these landmarks in your area, go visit them.  Then when you come home, imagine what your home would be like if you lived in that era.  Maybe make some home made ice cream as they would have in Colonial times, or try preparing a Colonial dinner.  Be creative!

These are just a handful of suggestions.  I'd love to hear your ideas!  I will be sharing more about taking advantage of your 'neck of the woods' in future blog entries.  In the meantime, enjoy these final summer flings!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Time to Mourn

Dear Friends,

This week our dear friend Louis Felder was one of eight murdered at work in Manchester Connecticut.  Maybe you heard about it on the news, internet or twitter.  In one second a deranged individual violently halted not only his life and the life of eight innocent victims, but the lives of their families and communities.

Louis's loss will be tragically felt by his father, brother, sister, wife and three kids and he will be sorely missed by his community and friends.

My time and focus this week is with the loving family he leaves behind, and our grieving community.

I will return to my themed entries next week.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Words to the "Why's"

Based on your comments to me, I want to take what your wrote, expand upon it, and validate the WHY's of departing the text.  I want to discuss what's in it for you and your children (other than instilling a love of reading - reason enough).

As I touched upon in "Goodnight Sweet Gems,"  when you depart from the text you are building and enriching language skills, creativity and problem solving skills, attention, memory, sequencing skills, and you are building relationships on various levels.  I explain in greater detail below.  And, while I include suggestions, future articles will go into much greater detail:

1. Language.  When you depart the text you are providing your child with opportunities to practice communicating. And, when your kids ask questions, they are exercising language skills just in formulating the questions. 

In a comment to the previous blog entry, "Atxteacher" shared:
"...I have [to] remind myself that it's not about getting the book read, it's about the whole experience. You see, he asks questions constantly throughout the reading. "What is this mouse doing?" ... The text on the page isn't about the mouse or the cat! But a good book with rich illustrations has a much deeper and extensive story, sometimes with secondary stories told in the illustrations... "- Atxteacher
  •  When your kids ask questions, they are exercising language skills just in formulating the questions as well as the responses. 
  • When your child asks questions about the pictures, you might want to first have your child answer the questions.  Then expand on his or her ideas and use of language.  Depart as far and as much as they will let you.  
  • A note on expanding their language: It is important to develop their ideas and sentences so they are richer, more complex, and of greater detail.  Enrich the vocabulary.  Make the sentences and grammar more complex.  And if your child makes a mistake with a word or grammar, you don't have to "correct" it directly, just repeat the sentence or thought more accurately.  The more comfortable your child is using diverse language and sentence structure in his or her speech, the easier reading and writing will be (more on this in future blogs).

2. Problem Solving and Creativity.  When you discuss how a character is facing a problem, how someone may feel, or what might happen next, you are brainstorming and modeling how to solve problems.  By asking what the you think will happen in what you are about to read just by looking at the title or illustration, you are fostering creativity and modeling problem solving as well.  As Adrian (who home schools her kids and blogs at  http://promisepen.webs.com) noted:
"I read to my boys all of the time. Currently, we are reading about the Monster Squad. We depart from the text often in an effort to let imaginations create what we think the result will be. This is fun leading up to the end of the chapter!!"
Charity also expands on this:
... one of our favorite things to do was make up our own stories for the pictures. The kids loved doing that (some more than others) and now I have budding writers living with me...
  • To figure out what happens next or what a title might mean, your child has to factor in various events and possible conclusions - skills we use all the time to figure out what we do next, which computer to buy, etc. 
  • You can build creativity and problem solving by asking questions related to the reading but that requires your child to find the answer on his or her own.  For example, in Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, ask your child where Max and the Wild Things live and what their houses like? (But ask this only if they have NOT seen the movie - or even before they see it and then compare the movie's houses to the ones your child imagined.)
  • Music is another wonderful creative opportunity for departure as Talia pointed out in her comment to my last blog entry.  There are often opportunities to stop reading and make up your own songs.  (We made our own rumpus song for the Wild Things.)  The point Talia makes is that there are so many opportunities to depart - it is up to you and your child to find them.  And, that is the fun of all of this - finding common points of departure.  She noted in her comment:
"...As someone who is musically inclined, I don't remember the plot of Abiyoyo anymore, but still remember the entire song. For this reason, I remember the book fondly."

3. Attention.  When you depart the text, you are extending the amount of time your child sits with you and attends to a book. The more you depart and extend your reading time, the easier it will be for him or her to attend to reading and to conversations for longer and longer periods of time. (I will be discussing this a lot more as well.)

    4. Memory.  When you depart the text you will be tapping:
    • past experiences, 
    • stored vocabulary, 
    • linking new ideas and concepts thus expanding memory and creating more extensive memory paths.  
    Another way you are tapping memory is that after departing, you have to return to the story.  To practice memory skills, you may want to ask you child, "Now where were we?"  This will help him or her with memory strategies, with language (retelling the story) and with sequencing.

    5. Sequencing.  Sequencing is in everything we do, we just don't always think about it (and I will talk a lot more about in future blogs).  Schedules (involve sequences of time), tying a shoe, math problems, science experiments, following directions, remembering dates, telling a joke - all involve types of sequences.
    • So when retelling the story, you are helping reinforce your child's sequencing skills.  
    • You can also do this when you read chapter books.  Before ending a read aloud session ask your child what she thinks will happen next (also helps with language, problem solving and creativity), and before reading at the next session ask him to recap what was just read.

    6. Building Relationships.  Departing the texts builds relationships on various levels.
    • From a cognitive or thinking perspective, it builds relationships between events or things that the author may or may not have intended, but that is meaningful to you and your child.  It basically helps your child learn.
    • Departing the text also helps build personal relationships between you and your child.  As I mentioned above part of the fun of reading is finding common points of departure to take with your child.  I remember my mother reading aloud to me and talking about the books - even when I was in high school.  She thought I might be too old, but I begged her to read and I still thank her for it. 

    I hope the content above was informative and validating - please let me know.  And to those hesitating on the fringe, there is always room for more voices!