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.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Friend Problems and Approaching the Teacher

It happens. People stop being friends all the time. For kids, this can become an ongoing issue as they deal with the inability to escape their new Not Friend during the school day and the fact that children are inherently less socially developed than adults. Most of the time, adults don't handle this transition well, so it's inevitable that children navigating this social dilemma will have their own problems.

The best idea is to speak with the teacher before it becomes a classroom issue. If there already are problems going on in the classroom, contact the teacher as soon as possible. Try to use whatever mode of communication the teacher prefers, be it email, phone call, or a note in your child's folder. It's important to try to remain objective when you contact the teacher. It's hard to not be upset when your child is hurt, so planning ahead what you want to say is probably the best idea.

Oftentimes students have group work or work in partners and teachers can assign these groupings. Making a teacher aware of social issues isn't just to blame the other child, it really is important so a teacher doesn't unknowingly pair your child with their former best friend and current archenemy. While teachers can pick up on friendship cues, sometimes the dynamics change so quickly, it's hard to keep track.

At home, talk to your child and encourage them to make the teacher aware of things that make them upset or uncomfortable. This is a good time to go over the difference between tattling and actually needing an adult.

Remind your child that not everyone will want to be their friend and that's okay. They won't want to be everyone else's friend, either. Remind them of the other friends they have and the opportunities to have to make new friends.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

It's About That Time Again! School's Back!

Parents are rejoicing across the nation as the new school year approaches. Some of our southern friends are already back in session! Somehow summer always seems so long until you're staring at the calendar wondering how the first day of school approached so quickly. What can you do to help your children begin the new year well?

First, try to get them waking up a little earlier. This isn't a problem with my children who seem to think 5AM is an appropriate time to start the day, but if you have older kids who have started the magical sleeping in, see if you can give them at least a few days adjustment before the harsh reality of getting ready for school is upon them. It might help you get back in the swing, too. Some schools start early and parents might have gotten used to sleeping in a little later as well.

If this year is your child's first year of school or their first year in a new building, try to get them there before the first day. Some schools have Meet The Teacher days or orientation. However, if you're like me, these actually conflict with your work schedule. If that's the case, call up to school some time when you are free and see if you can at least get your child into some common areas like the cafeteria or the main entrance at least. Sometimes it helps that the building isn't some great unknown. If you can't swing that, some pictures from the school website are better than nothing.

Try to call school before orientation or the first day to ask about fees that you might not know existed. While everyone is guaranteed a public education, it's not actually free. Some school related fees can run in the hundred and parents can be surprised by this reality. Do you qualify for fee waiver or free/reduced lunch? Now is a good time to find out if you haven't already. If you don't know, ask. It's better to be told no than to qualify and never get the assistance. School related expenses can be much more costly than people realize.

Don't forget the practice some simple school related activities. Don't bog your child down with "Now it's HOMEWORK TIME!" but try to integrate some reading or writing into your day. Most students experience at least a little Summer Slide. Getting them back in the swing of school related skills can help your child avoid playing catch up for the first few weeks. It can also save them from the horrible hand pain of the first day of school that I've discussed before.

Brace yourself! The school year is almost here!

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. 
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