Tuesday, July 8, 2014

How do I keep my kids learning over summer break?

I often have parents ask what they can do to ensure their children are still learning over summer vacation. It's true that students sometimes experience minor losses over summer break, at least as far as testing is concerned. However, summer shouldn't be about drilling new skills or introducing concepts children aren't ready for. Summer is a great time to use your children's natural curiosity and thirst for knowledge to help keep them on their toes for the coming school year. Here are a few things you can do with your children to make the summer as useful as possible.

1. Have a routine.
First and foremost, have some kind of set schedule that you can at least vaguely stick to. It doesn't have to be super structured like a school day, but knowing Monday is Park Day, Tuesday is Library Day, and so on can help kids immensely. It keeps them feeling secure because they know what to expect. It gets you out of the house for at least a little while so you don't have to yell "STOP TATTLING ON YOUR SISTER!" for four hours straight from your living room. Hopefully it wears them out and they sleep better, too.

2. Hit up the library!
It's free, y'all. Go there. Enjoy storytime. Check out books about whatever they want. Grab a book for yourself. The library is one of the best things a child can experience. Get them their own card and let them experience the joy of checking out their own books. Clear off a shelf on your bookshelf or buy a dollar store crate and keep your library books in them so you don't have to hunt all over the house for them. And if you go once a week for your routine, you won't have to worry about forgetting a due date since you'll be back there next week anyway.

3. Make them write.
Remember when the beginning of school would roll around and your hand would cramp up the first day because you weren't used to writing in so long? Help your kids avoid that ride on the struggle bus. For older kids, have them keep a journal and write in it daily. They can write what they did. They can write what they like. They can write "I DON'T KNOW WHAT TO WRITE!" enough times to fill a page, just have them putting pencil to paper at least once a day. For the younger crowd who aren't as adept with writing yet, try having them write individual words or sentences. They can help you write the grocery list (I know it will take longer, but it will be worth it), write down their favorite animal they saw at the zoo, anything to keep their writing skills growing.

4. Have some type of group activity.
It could be camp, the aforementioned storytime at the library, an organized playdate, sports, anything. Just make up some excuse for your kids to interact with other kids. Kids are not naturally polite. Social manners are a skill just like reading and writing. They need practice waiting their turn, not interrupting, sharing, and everything else that's vital to a group learning environment.

5. Give in to their random curiosity.
You want to learn about lemurs? Let's find a book at the library! You want to know how car engines work? Let's watch a YouTube video together! You want to read all the Chronicles of Narnia? Knock yourself out! Summer is a great time to let kids run wild with their imaginations and interests. Try not to force a given curriculum on them over summer break. Instead let them learn something because they want to. They'll have plenty of time to fit into assigned curriculum. Summer is a time when they can pick anything they want to learn about. They can develop a love of learning, the actual skill of learning, that will last them their whole life.

Above all, try not to stress out. They might forget a few letter sounds or their pencil grip might slip a little, but most of the first two weeks of school is geared toward fixing those minor skill losses. And if you have to sideline the routine because of a doctor appointment or you never quite set that playdate, don't sweat it. The fact that you're taking initiative at all is a huge advantage for your child.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

It's Summer! What are you going to do?

Okay, it's not quite time for my summer break, but I'm close (TWO DAYS)! A lot of parents wonder what teachers do over summer break.

My summer break this year will be just less than two months thanks to a full week after students get out where teachers will attend meetings. In that time, I have some teacher-y things to do before the new school year starts. I have a requirement to get 24 hours of Professional Development (PD) according to the Kentucky Department of Education. Six of the hours are provided by the school right before students return. The rest is up to me to find on my own, though some PDs are strongly recommend either by the school or the district. I generally get more than 24 hours just because there are interesting sessions I want to attend. We used to get paid for additional hours, but that's generally not the case anymore unless your specific school is footing the bill, at least in my district.

My school offers a 12 hour retreat, broken up over two days, that will make up the bulk of my required hours. The other six hours will be an English PD about integrating science and social studies readings into the English/Language Arts classroom.

This summer I'm also adding in coaching as my coworker who used to coach track and cross country is moving schools. Back in April I ran my very first (AND LAST) full marathon and earned the label of "runner" despite never running track or cross country. Ever. I stepped into the role and will be leading morning running practice for my student athletes.

Since I'm a coach now, I'm taking extra PD hours for CPR training and a course called Fundamentals of Coaching that helps with how to not injure your student athletes and what to do if they end up injured anyway.

In the past, I've taught summer school and an extra program for incoming freshmen called Summer Bridge. This is my first year in four years that I won't be doing either of those things. Instead, I'm taking a vacation with my family to the beach and enrolling my own kids in summer school. I caught a little grief for choosing swim lessons over teaching opportunities, but at some point I have to put my own children first. They love swim lessons and I just shelled out some serious cash to join a local pool. I have wonderful plans to go there every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday for swim lessons and enjoy glorious naps for my nearly two year old when we return. We'll see how that works out. I'd like to get a few zoo visits in as well.

I try to cram all the fun stay at home mom activities that I can into the summer. I always attempt the same for winter break, but it's always too cold and dreary. In the summer, it's always so hot and melty, but I can usually fit some fun things in before high noon hits.

The summers always feel short and rushed. I have the added bonus of needing to complete and upload 12 weeks worth of activities and curriculum before the summer is over. This will slip away from me and I'll forget until the first week of August, but it will be a dark storm cloud threatening my summer. Before I know it, it will be time to welcome my new batch of freshmen and make way for my brand new challenge of now teaching sophomores as well. This summer hasn't started and I've already planned most of it away.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Set Them Up For Success

Every kid is different. If my contributions have a common theme, it would be just that. Every single kid is different and one size does not fit all. It's with that in mind that we had to reevaluate how we were motivating our son in Pre-Kindergarten.

My son's teacher has a system that works really well. Students move up and down a ladder based on their behavior. They start neutral green and can move up with good behavior and down with bad behavior. Students who are green or better receive a stamp at the end of the day to let their parents know. Students who receive a stamp every day that week visit the treasure box on Friday.

The problem for us was that five days in a row was a lot for our son. His teacher and I were both frustrated by his behavior. He wasn't intentionally being bad, he just wanted to play. He would be good on Monday and Tuesday, but if he didn't get a stamp Wednesday, he didn't seem to care about Thursday or Friday.

At our house we devised a color chart that he colored in with his behavior color. Instead of focusing on five consecutive days, we focused on five days, period. If he was good Monday and Tuesday, but then didn't do so hot Wednesday, he still cared about filling in good boxes for Thursday and Friday. He could earn things like a book, an iPad App, a toy from the dollar bin at Target, and so on.

We also had a bad decisions bar that filled up with five no stamp days. After five no stamp days, he lost a privilege that he had to earn back. The bars helped him see his overall behavior and give him a more achievable goal to reach.

There are kids in my son's class who are completely capable of five consecutive good days in a row and maybe next year, my son would be one of those kids. He's just not this year and rather than fret about him being "that" kid in class and wondering why other kids were able to meet the goals set by the teacher, we made our own goals.

If your child is struggling with behavior in the classroom and the teacher's system isn't a good fit for them, making a complementary system to help encourage good behavior and discourage bad decisions is great. What we did might not work for you and it may take some time to get it just right. We'd tried giving and taking away privileges on a day by day basis before trying the chart, but it didn't work for us and we moved on to something that did. Helping your child be successful is about finding ways to facilitate success rather than react to negative behavior. The ultimate goal is to remove these incentives once the behavior becomes habit. It's a lot easier to start with baby steps and work your way up than to expect giant leaps that your child can't or won't take. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Metacognition and Common Core Math

I'm sure you've seen it by now. There's some picture floating around Facebook about "Common Core" math with the "Old Fashion Way" and the "New Way" to do math. In case you haven't seen it, here it is:


Yes, lots of people are losing their minds over this. And you know, it might look confusing at first, but it doesn't take much to figure out that this is a way to introduce metacognition to students to help them with their mental math. You do this in your head and you don't even realize that you do it. This blog post is the best explanation I've seen of how you do it all the time. When you go to the store and buy things, you don't bust out a calculator or get a pencil and paper to do it the "Old Fashion Way" carrying your ones and such. You make the numbers easier to manage in your brain.

Who taught you to do that? Did you learn to do it on your own? I mean, maybe you did. Maybe a parent told you. I know I learned it at school. If no one ever taught you to do that and you never figured it out on your own, people doing mental math must look like freaking wizards. Which is exactly what a lot of students who into high school math without learning mental math see their math teachers.

Math isn't the only place where students need mental exercises. We do it in English and Language Arts as well. How do you make inferences? When did you learn how to make them? Someone taught you or you picked it up naturally. Some students make it to high school completely at a loss of how to make inferences without being walked through it.

Yes, there are "easier" ways to do math using pencil and paper. However, the purpose of assignments in school is not to find the right answer. The point is to teach students how to find the right answer. If the purpose was finding the right answer and nothing else, you never would have had to show your work back in algebra. But you had to show your work so your teacher could see if you made a mistake along the way so they could help you fix it. Learning mental math is the same way. And practice makes perfect, so get used to seeing it for awhile.

I'd also like to point out that the example being passed around was likely made up by someone who doesn't actually teach this method. The first thing someone teaching this would say would be to cancel the twos in the ones position.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

What's with all the professional development?

With the abundance of snow days in my district this year, it has been brought up by multiple parents across social media that professional development days should be used as make up snow days. A common thread is most of these assertions is that teachers don't need all this time without students.

But do they? Disregarding the weather issues going on in my state, the professional development days do serve a vital purpose in the education of your children. Professional development can be used in a variety of ways. It can be a time to take continuing education type courses in all types of subjects, meet with fellow teachers to analyze current student learning, and even catch up on planning and grading for classes we're teaching.

The majority of a teacher's work week is spent in direct contact with students, teaching and conferencing with their classes. Most teachers get a planning period, but that time isn't generally enough to get copies, plan lessons, and grade all the student work. It's true that we can always take work home, but most of us are parents as well and have a limited amount of time to spend with our own children as it is. That time also doesn't allow us time to grow and learn from fellow educators the way professional development courses can.

The majority of professional development can be taken care of during the summer, but the best teachers are those who continue to grow, learn, and change throughout the year, not just during the summer.

Professional development opportunities should not take precedence over student learning. Using too many substitute days to attend courses isn't good for students, especially if those days all happen directly before end of course testing. It can be frustrating and inconvenient when professional development days create havoc in a parents' life by making them have to take a day off work. Ultimately, the professional development days help students in the long run. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

How do I get the whole story?

Kids remember the darndest things. Or they remember things in really odd and unflattering ways. This happens to parents all the time. It happens to teachers as well. 

At some point, your child is going to come home with a really strange, possibly shocking story involving their teacher. It's going be easy to jump to conclusions. For example, my son came home and told me that his teacher told him he needs to brush his teeth in the morning because his breath smells bad.

I immediately jumped to conclusions and thought she'd singled out my son and made him feel bad. He was already brushing his teeth in the morning. I started trying to figure out how his fantastic Pre-K teacher would think that's okay to tell my son. I got a little irrational while talking about it with my husband demanding to know how she'd even know since he's in the afternoon class. I went through his normal lunch trying to figure out what would make his breath smell so bad.

At after school pick up the next day, I waited a bit to talk to his teacher only find out they sang a song all about why you should brush your teeth, including how it makes your breath smell good. I got irrational over nothing.

When these instances happen, it's important to keep a cool head and ask calmly what happened. Oftentimes kids have these weird filters that make no sense to adults. Sometimes starting out with "You know, Johnny said the craziest thing..." instead of an accusatory tone can keep help you get the whole story without the teacher getting defensive. You'd be surprised what kind of things students spout off about their parents. Keeping an open mind and remembering there's probably a perfectly good explanation can save a lot of stress and embarrassment for all parties.

There are "bad" teachers out there who may speak or act in a manner you don't find appropriate. If that is the case, discuss that situation with the teacher in question. If the behavior doesn't change, involve administrators as needed, but always try to discuss the issue with the teacher first. 

What are some crazy stories your kids have come home with? What really happened?

Friday, December 6, 2013

What are your thoughts on homework?

As a parent and educator, I believe homework is vital and serves an important role. However, and this is a big however, there can be too much, which defeats the purpose in the first place.

My son is four and attends Pre-K at a local Catholic school. He has homework once or twice a week and overall, it has been a positive experience for us. You're probably thinking I'm crazy for appreciating homework at the Pre-K level, but there are some advantages to it. First, it reinforces the idea that learning happens at home as well as at school. It helps students practice skills they've already learned. If done correctly, kids have fun while practicing school concepts at home. Importantly for our family, it gives us a guideline of what is age appropriate "work" to do. I teach high school, but that doesn't mean I understand the ins and outs of what's appropriate for a four year old to be able to master.

Homework can be done wrong. Homework done the wrong way is what creates headaches and nightmares for parents, as well as students. Homework is not the time to learn new material. Homework is for additional practice and nothing more. At the younger grades, homework should be more about creating good habits than overloading students with too much work. We get maybe 10 minutes total of homework a week and it's only 10 minutes because my son gets distracted or spends time talking to me instead of writing what he's supposed to write. We don't push too hard and he doesn't resist. It's a good set up for now.

Even if a student isn't being asked to learn something new at home, lengthy homework, especially at the younger grades, can really damage a student's confidence and love of learning. After being at school for several hours, another hour of homework is unreasonable for anyone, but especially young children.

As a teacher, I use homework as a time to practice skills we're learning that need more practice. I'm not in the habit of making busy work. When students do busy work, I have busy work to grade, as well as the expectation that I make more busy work. Who has time for that? No one. Not my students and certainly not me.

When it comes to doing age appropriate work, I have no idea what four year olds are capable of. Yes, I know my son best, but I also see the epic Facebook-crafting that makes me think my child should be composing symphonies. Instead of beating myself up that my child is not the next brilliant genius, I'm having fun watching him grow and increase his skills. It's also important to remember that not every parent knows what to do to help their children become lifelong learners. Without assigned homework, some students may never do any reading or writing at home at all.

If homework is creating headaches and drama in your household, it's time to talk to the teacher and discuss more reasonable expectations. If your kindergartener is stuck at the table for an hour every day, that is not appropriate. Even though the teacher is the educator, you ultimately do know your child the best and you know when they are exhausted and frustrated. If things don't change after talking to the teacher, it's time to talk to a school counselor or administrator and talk about how you can ensure your child is successful.
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