Monday, May 11, 2015

What's the Deal with Summer Reading?

The school year is still underway for much of the country, but most schools and teachers are beginning to plan for next year. For a lot of students, that means it's time to think about summer reading. With the looming worry of summer work, some parents want to know what's the deal with summer reading? Is it beneficial? Do we even have to do it?

Overall, summer reading is a benefit to most students. Over summer, many students experience a learning loss as they don't use skills they were previously practicing daily. For students who are already struggling with reading, these losses can set students back even further. By encouraging students to continue reading over the summer, basic reading skills like inferencing can be practiced at home.

It's important for summer reading assignments to be age appropriate and as stress-free as possible for both parents and kids. If the assigned program is beginning to make your child say things like "I hate reading" it might be time to take a step back. Summer reading should involve a lot of choice for students at every age. The goal is to keep students reading and interested in reading. If your child only wants to read informational books, let them. Summer reading can help build a love of reading in your child.

As students get older, they should be assigned to read less books. The idea in the younger grades is that you are reading with your child. As kids get older, they should read more independently and read longer texts. Asking for a small project over summer is fine, but if it's taking more than a few days to complete, again it might be time to take a step back.

Be open and honest with your child's teacher when you return from summer. If you didn't read the number of books you were supposed to, don't lie about it. Talk to the teacher and explain that your child was struggling and beginning to dislike reading, so you took a step back. Openly lying doesn't alert your child's teacher to information that could possibly help your child during the school year. Also, if your child knows that you lied to their teacher, that can undermine the teacher.

Try not to stress about summer reading. It is only meant to benefit your child and shouldn't be seen as a major assessment of your child's skills or your parenting. Remember to utilize the library as often as possible and let your child lead the way in their reading interests. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

What do teachers REALLY want?

Teacher Appreciation Week is just around the corner. Yes, I get a whole week. Be jealous. In addition to this, the end of the school year is fast approaching. Unless you were buried in Snowmageddon at some point this summer, in which case you have a few months to go. Whatever the reason, the desire to give a gift to your child's teacher make suddenly strike you. But what on earth should you give them?

First, please know that this is not expected and you don't need to spend an exorbitant amount of money on your child's teacher. I know money is tight and things get hectic. It's very rare for me to get a gift from my students considering the population that I serve. Honestly, a nice email or phone call from a parent would mean the world to me and other teachers if you don't have the cash for a gift. With that said, if you want to give a gift, here are some ideas.

The Practical

Pens/Pencils - Your kids might be well stocked, but not every kid is. I spend a lot of money every year on writing utensils for my students and very rarely get them back. While decorated pencils are cute, they often clog up the pencil sharpener, so plain pencils are best. In the younger grades, crayons and markers are also appreciated.

Paper - Whatever paper is used for your child's grade, from tablet to college rule, is beneficial. Like writing utensils, I spend a freakish amount of money every year on looseleaf for my students. Think in the hundreds. Yes, really.

Stickers - Kids love stickers. Even my 16 year old sophomores go nuts for stickers. Every teacher can find a use for stickers.

Classroom Library Books - I have a few hundred classroom library books, most of which I bought myself. Even in younger grades, teachers are in need of new and interesting books for students.

Post Its - I can never have enough. I like fun ones, but basic yellow is fine, too. Basically every size is used.

The Personal

Mugs - I can never have enough mugs. Seriously. Most teachers drink some kind of hot beverage, be it tea or coffee. I'm also taking them home on accident or stuck with a dirty mug. Travel and regular mugs are appreciated.

Notepads - I send notes to parents and students. Yes, even in this digital age. If you have the time and inclination to get a nice notepad, personalized or not, for your child's teacher, it will definitely be used.

Water bottle/Cup - I drink freakish amounts of water. Those cute plastic cups with straws and tops are a big trend amount teachers right now. Most teachers spend a lot of time talking and keeping your throat well hydrated is very important.

Hand Sanitizer - I go through buckets of this. I love your little angels, but they have a lot of germs.

The Gift Card Route

Store Closest to School - See what store is closest to your school and choose a card from there. I never shop of Meijer normally, but it's right down the street from school. A gift card there would work the best because it's literally minutes from school for me. See what's close to your school.

Organize It - If you have the time and inclination, see if you can organize a card from any parents that want to chip in. Maybe you were going to give $10 and another was going to give $25 and a third wanted to give $20, but the three of you combined can get an easy to use single card instead of three separate cards.

Restaurant - If you find out what restaurant your child's teacher enjoys the most, this is a nice, thoughtful gift. If you're not sure on their favorite restaurant, go back to a store card. Store cards can be used on personal purchases or classroom purchases. A restaurant card won't work for every teacher. I don't have the time to go out with my own kids and busy teaching and coaching schedule, so a store card would work better for me.

The Food

Individual Snacks - Things like granola bars are a huge hit. They're portable and have a decent shelf life. Individual snacks are great for teachers because we often get 20 minute lunches and sometimes don't even get to eat during then. A quick snack during class change is great for us.

Candy! - I freaking love candy. Remember smaller is better. I've gone through a huge 1lb bag of chocolate before. I have no self control, so a smaller package is better.

Hot Beverages - Find out how your child's teacher gets their caffeine or hot pick me up. Maybe they like tea or coffee. Maybe they have a Keurig or a traditional coffee pot. Whatever way they take their hot beverage, they always need more.

Homemade - I'm always down for your homemade Chocolate Zucchini Bread or whatever. Bring it on! Just remember dietary restrictions and let us know if it's been around peanuts or whatever.

Whatever you decide on, you can't go wrong by showing your child's teacher that you thought of them. I'm always grateful no matter what gift I get!

Monday, March 9, 2015

What's the deal with these #$&%ing fundraisers?

How many fundraisers have you gotten this year? Five? Ten? Did you lose count? I lost count a while ago. So what's the deal with these fundraisers? Aren't schools well funded enough on their own?

Eh, the short answer is not exactly. The long answer is that budgets are really tight and earmarked months in advance. But fundraisers? That's just money growing on trees for schools. As long as the random teacher fills out what they might use as a fundraiser at the beginning of the year, a process very similar to throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks, they can continually come back to the fundraisers when they need things.

There's been a crack down in my state this year on fundraising, but again, as long as you put a possible description of what you might do on a list at the beginning of the year, you're usually good to go ahead with whatever fundraiser you have.

The gimmicky ones, like selling wrapping paper and magazine subscriptions are an easy go to for schools. The prizes are already included for overachieving families who go above and beyond the call of fundraising. Sure, schools get less of a cut because there's a middle man in the process, but it's much less work than organizing incentives for your individual school. The prizes get talked up big by teachers who get the kids all excited and then you've got a kindergartener complaining that they just neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed that cheap SpongeBob shirt. Sure you can buy them one at the store, but the cheap one at school is the one that everyone else is getting and they have to have it.

Fundraisers are an easy bandaid over the shortfalls in budgeting at schools across the nation. Schools that can afford to do so nickle and dime their parents through these fundraisers as a means to pay for programs that hopefully lure in the parents that have the disposable income to be nickle and dimed. My school does not do many fundraisers like these. Our school is 100% free lunch. Mom and Dad aren't going to be purchasing the minimum rolls of wrapping paper to just hit the small goal per student. We don't even bother anymore. Most fundraisers end up entirely funded by the teaching staff at the school, like when our band sells Amish food (don't ask, it's just delicious and there's no calorie info so I assume there's zero calories and oh God I ate a whole pound of fudge).

Money that my school uses on basic things like pencils and paper, at schools that can afford fundraisers is then used to fancy things that make the school look better. It's a way around that whole "free" education thing. Because when buy $50 worth of delivered groceries just so your kid can get a cheap prize and won't complain about how all the other kids, you can bet all the other parents are doing so, too. I've had multiple parents comment that they'd rather write a blanket check at the beginning of the year than have to call grandma and grandpa hocking cheap candles one more time, but there's the problem. You can't just write a check and be done with it because public school is meant to be free.

I wish I could tell you it was okay to just not do the fundraising. I've got a kindergartener at a school that can afford to nickle and time parents and boy have they. My son comes home super excited about some random toy he might get and I'm sucked into buying a subscription to National Geographic or something random just to try to hit the quota. Do what works for your family, but I know the sting of that peer pressure all too well. I may or may not have bought half a dozen scented candles myself. Mostly may. At the end of the day, I just can't stand the thought of my kid being the only one who didn't get the minimum prize because I didn't want to play the fundraising game.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

What do I do with my kid's reading level?

Reading levels are a huge issue. There's all kinds of ways to assign a level to reading from Lexile to grade level. Most of them are an attempt to make an objective measure of a wildly ranging ability. Many parents are interested in finding their children's reading level then want to find the "2nd grade books" or similar at the library to give their kids books that are on their level.

The first thing I'll tell you is to try not to focus on the reading level. Within reason, of course. Don't go out and buy Crime and Punishment for your kindergartener. When your child brings you a book at the store or the library, don't discourage them by telling them it's the wrong level. For fun, at home reading shouldn't be forced into fitting a certain level.

If the book is "too easy" it might just be on a topic your child enjoys. Just because it's a breeze for them to read doesn't mean that they aren't benefiting just from the act of reading for enjoyment. If the book is "too hard" this is a great time for you and your child to work together to read the book.

Reading levels can tell you a lot, but they can't tell you how much your child enjoys reading. Never be discouraged by a "low" reading level score. Maybe your child was having an off day or they were otherwise distracted during the test. Pay attention to what your child can tell you about the book they are reading for fun rather than what an arbitrary test says they might be able to tell you.

If you are worried about your child's reading, the best thing you can do is expose your child to as many books as possible. As a parent, modeling your own reading is a great way to encourage your child to read. Reading aloud to your child, even after they are able to read on their own, is also beneficial. Try to keep it as fun as possible and not a chore. It may take some time to figure out the best books that work for your child which is why the library is an excellent resource for readers of all levels.

Monday, December 8, 2014

What to Send to the School Food Drive

It's that time of year again. Your child's school has either already started or is about to start collecting food. How can you make this a good experience to help your child appreciate the spirit of giving? How can you not be running around at the last second throwing together a bag of canned green beans and canned pineapple? Here are some things that most shelters and food banks need so you can help out the most.

1. Formula - A lot of people tend to forget that babies need to eat, too. It doesn't need to be a fancy name brand, but if you remember to pick up soy or one of the other special versions, that won't hurt either.

2. Baby food (NOT glass jars) - Speaking of babies eating, they eventually need more than just formula. While you might have been a master of Baby Led Weaning, baby food is a necessity for many families. Plastic containers are better and aren't likely to shatter in your kid's backpack when they take it to school.

3. Canned meat - Things like canned chicken can be really helpful. Eating protein can help people feel fuller longer and not everyone is a vegetarian.

4. Spices - It gets old eating food without spices. Even when you're down on your luck, you deserve a little deliciousness in your life.

5. Juice - People need to drink something and juice can provide some helpful nutrients. Also, there are kids with them sometimes and they deserve a treat drink every now and again.

6. Shelf stable milk - Milk is a HUGE part of my children's diet. If we are ever down on our luck and in need of help, this is the number one thing we'd need as a beverage. I know most families are the same as us.

7. Cereal - Cereals are a quick and easy breakfast. Add in some shelf stable milk and you can help a family have a balanced breakfast.

8. Snacks - Popcorn, granola bars, anything shelf stable that is good to munch on. People get hungry in between meals. Having a little something to snack on is important.

Remember there are two main reasons schools do these drives. First, to help the community. Without these drives, many food banks and shelters would be without the resources to help everyone. Some are STILL without the resources to help everyone even with the help of the schools. Second, it's to help teach your children about compassion and to give to those who are going through a bad time.

If your school does not have a drive, see what you can do to start one. If you're looking to do something different, I would highly recommend a coat drive. In some schools, you'll find kids waiting for the bus in nothing but a pair of school pants, t-shirt, and sweatshirt in freezing temperatures. They're not being foolish, they just don't have a coat. Our entire district has done a coat drive for the last couple years and it has been very successful. Helping out whenever you can is a great lesson to teach your children.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

What'd You Do Today?

We've all had that conversation with our kids. You excitedly pick your child up from the carpool line and the first question you ask is "What do you do at school today?" The answer most often is "Nothing."

Why do they do that? You've been gone from them all day and you just want to hear what they did all day. But they just finished a long day at school and they're ready to not be in school mode. Pushing and saying "C'mon, you had to have done something! What'd you do today?" is only going to produce an irritated "NOTHING!" in reply.

Instead of launching into questions at pick up, it's a good idea to give your child a little bit to decompress. When you get home from work, the last thing you want to talk about is work. Your kid is the same way.

Wait until dinner time or when you have a quiet moment to ask, but don't just ask what they did today. If you asked me what I did today, I'd stare blankly and try to figure out which part you want me to tell you. Help them out by focusing on one thing. My go to is "What was your favorite part of school today?" Sometimes this doesn't work and my son just tells me he liked recess the best. You can also focus on one part of the day, such as asking about what book was read in class or what they did in science.

Getting kids to open up can be difficult at first, but it's an important habit to start with your child.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Price of Standardized Testing

Standardized testing has become a growing tradition in public schools across the nation. In 2001, President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act. A major objective of this act is that by the 2013-2014 school year (last school year), all students across the entire country would be proficient or higher. The idea of "proficient" was set individually by each state with a myriad of standards covering reading, writing, and math over all 50 states. States strove to reach the unattainable goal of proficiency as the deadline swiftly approached.

With the goal of "proficiency" there was no incentive to teach to higher levels as being above grade level carried no benefit for schools or districts. Students who were performing below proficiency, even with a host of issues influencing their performance such as placement in Exceptional Childhood Education programs (what you remember from your school years as Special Needs), identification as an English Language Learner, gross differences in socio-economic status, and other obstacles, were targeted to reach proficiency at all costs while their proficient or higher peers were left with squandered potential. Children who were incapable of reaching proficiency were shortchanged by being taught the test and those who were beyond capable were short changed by never being challenged at an appropriate level.

In 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This Act then funded an education initiative designed to encourage "innovation" and education reform in struggling states. This initiative was called Race to the Top. With the deadline for nationwide proficiency four school years away, states were encouraged to overhaul their education programs and curriculum. Points were awarded for accepting and implementing the newly created Common Core standards, turning around "persistently low achieving"schools, and other education policies. The reward was desperately needed funding to the tune of millions of dollars that could be awarded to states from federal funding. In an effort to win the money, my own state instituted an education audit that cost taxpayers thousands while teachers interviewed to keep their own jobs before dozens of teachers per school were displaced and rehired at other schools in the district. An elaborate game of shuffling the deck left schools gutted and teachers disheartened and burnt out. In 2010, Waiting for Superman came out demonizing the public school system and public school teachers alike. A profession that already sees half of new teachers quit by their fifth year became a target for politicians and talking heads. Would you want to be a teacher?

As the new standards were accepted by more and more states, a secret war went on to create the perfect test for accountability. There is no one great test for accountability yet. Instead there is a virtual smorgasbord of testing that happens throughout the year thanks to a combination of accountability and the goal of College and Career Readiness. Students take End of Course assessments (called EOCs) in all core content areas, math, English, science, social studies, starting in sophomore and ending in senior year, the PLAN, the ACT, On Demand Writing testing, COMPASS for the unlucky seniors who didn't hit benchmark on the ACT, KYOTE for the unlucky seniors who couldn't pass the COMPASS either, and on and one. The game of standardized testing is a billion dollar a year industry. There are so many tests and so many varieties with schools hoping to achieve points to show how good they are.

The price of standardized testing as it currently stands is too much. The goal of accountability is fine on its own, but the implementation has been a mess that does little to help our students who need it most, turned those who would be excellent teachers away from the profession, and cost the taxpayers billions.
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