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.

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.
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