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Excuses, excuses

OK, so I’ve been missing in action since October 24th.  I think I have some  pretty good excuses though.

Excuse # 1. We adopted two new puppies.  Yes, we were suckers and adopted the brother and sister because I didn’t have the heart to leave just one.  I know the other would have been adopted pretty quickly, but their cute little faces and furry bodies threw reason out the window.  Two puppies create a lot of extra work:

– There are the 4 am bathroom visits outside which my wonderful husband has taken over (I figure I’m due after all the middle of the night feedings he couldn’t accommodate because he didn’t have the right stuff).

– It takes me way longer to get dressed for work when there are two puppies licking my freshly showered toes.

– School work is often put to the side for a nice cuddle with a furry monster, a game of tug-o-war, or  watching them wrestle with a giant pillow or there hide & attack games.

– Even though my husband is the one who gets out of bed at 4 am, I still wake up and it takes a while to fall back to sleep. My late night blog writing sessions have been replaced by conking out by 9:30.

Excuse # 2:  I am a Kindergarten teacher and it was late October which means I had the horribly nasty cold I get every year complete with no voice.  Of course my hoarseness made it really fun and easy to explain what a “gravelly voice” meant as I read one of our Core stories, “The Jumping Mouse.”

Excuse # 3: On October 22nd, I learned how to crochet and now I’m hooked (ha ha ha).  A friend of mine is undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer and I wanted to learn how to make a hat for her.  So here is what I made for my friend:

And now that I finished the scarf and the hat, I have started a blanket for my nephew-to-be.  I have until January, but I had no idea how long it would take me to finish a blanket so I started early.

Excuse # 4: I am an over-achieving Kindergarten teacher with two active boys of my own who have lots of homework, music lessons, and other after school activities.

Excuse # 5:  I didn’t have anything to say.  Nothing was compelling me to write.

So after three weeks of not having anything to write, I just started to write. And voila (and no I don’t know how to add the accent over the a nor which way it would go)! I wrote something.  Sure it’s one of the silliest posts I ever wrote full of lame excuses. But I wrote something, and that is truly the purpose of my blog – to write.

Happy writing everyone!

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There was a New York Times article a few weekends back about redshirting Kindergarteners

For those of you who might not have heard the term before, redshirting comes from college athletics.  Athletes can extend their eligibility by not playing their freshman year.  Since college athletes can compete for four seasons, by redshirting their freshman year they can still play for four years spending five years total at the school.  Some athletes will be redshirted to gain size and strength while others will do it because the current team is so strong they would have sat on the bench all season anyway.

Redshirting is also used to describe children whose parents delayed their start in Kindergarten.  Parents may choose to do this for a variety of reasons.  Their child’s birthday is close to the cut-off date and they don’t want their child to be the youngest in the class.  Their child is not socially ready for school. Their child is not academically ready for school. Some parents make the decision to wait because they themselves were late bloomers in middle school and want to avoid that same scenario for their own children.

States and school districts have specific cut-off dates for the start of Kindergarten.  The majority of states require that students are 5 or turn 5 within the first month of Kindergarten. For example, in quite a number of states students have to be 5 by September 1st in order to be enrolled in Kindergarten. If school begins around Labor Day then almost all children are 5 by the time school starts.

There are a few hold-out states, like Connecticut, which allow students to turn 5 up through December 31st – which means that some students are only 4 during one-third of the school year. Apparently the State Board of Education in Connecticut has been trying to change the date, but I could not find an article confirming this.

Here in Colorado our cut-off date is October 1st.  Considering school begins in mid-August I actually think the cut-off date is too late.  I didn’t always feel that way.

My older son’s birthday is in November.  He was an extremely social and verbal toddler. The fall he was turning 3 I was extremely frustrated because I couldn’t enroll him in a preschool program. I thought he was ready and I was more than ready for him to be in a preschool program.  We eventually were able to find a program for 2 1/2 year olds and it was fine.

As I look back, I can’t believe I wanted to push him ahead.  One of the older boys in his class (but not the oldest), he has a maturity about him that is just right. Academically he does well and he has a good, solid group of friends. I honestly can’t imagine him as a 7th grader right now.  He is just where he should be.

In my own Kindergarten class, during the first few days of school I can always tell who are my youngest students without looking at birth dates. Always. No matter what the cut-off date is, there will always be children who are the youngest in the class. It’s a fact of life.

My initial reaction when I began reading the New York Times article was defensive.  I am an experienced teacher and the more I read about the developmental nature of acquiring literacy the more I feel that waiting is always best. I couldn’t remember a parent who regretted redshirting their child. But I have watched children struggle because they weren’t ready for Kindergarten and would have benefited from waiting.

As I read and reread the article I began to understand and even agree with the scientists. Children who are young but academically ready often benefit from being with older children. I thought of some of my youngest students over the past few years who did well academically.  I couldn’t imagine having them wait a year for school. Plus, these children showed so much growth socially and emotionally over the year that being in school truly was the best option.

And then the memory hit me like a ton of bricks.  A few years ago my younger son was in preschool with another boy who was already five.  His mom wanted him to be the oldest rather than youngest. However, the child was exceptionally bright.  When he went to Kindergarten he was so far ahead of the rest of his class that he spent most of the day in first grade for instruction.  At the end of the school year it was decided to skip him to second grade.  Technically, he was old enough to be in second grade since his birthday was before the cut-off date. Here was the perfect example of how redshirting can be detrimental to children.  Fortunately the school and the parents worked together and the child was moved to the appropriate grade level.

The key part to that story was that the child was exceptionally bright. And rereading the article I saw that was the crux of their argument.  Holding children back who are academically ready can have negative effects.

So what about the children who are not academically ready?  I had to carefully reread the article to find the answer. There was one sentence about how delaying entry to Kindergarten can be beneficial for children who are academically behind. This has always been my opinion as well. A year of preschool would be much better for a child who is not ready for the challenges of learning to read and write.

The article goes on to explain that disadvantaged youth are better off in school than not. I wholeheartedly agree with this. If a child is not ready for Kindergarten and the parents cannot afford a preschool program, it is much better for the child to be in school.

So when people ask me my opinion on redshirting Kindergarteners, I will say it depends on the child.

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A fish out of water

Water is my element. I love the ocean. I love to swim. Water feeds my soul in a way that no other element of nature does. I take long showers (I know, not environmentally correct but psychologically necessary). When I was at my saddest I spent hours swimming and playing in the water with my boys. Living 2,000 miles away from the ocean, we bought a house that is walking distance from a small lake.

A klutz on land, I always feel graceful in the water. When I am in shape I am a strong swimmer and even out of shape I can beat my marathon running husband across the pool. In the water I can dive, flip, float, tread water, and body surf. I can swim the crawl stroke, backstroke, and breaststroke (butterfly always alluded me – again I’m not the most coordinated individual). On land I have sprained ankles, stubbed toes, and broken toes just while walking (note the plurals). I’ve stumbled, tripped, slipped, fallen up the stairs as well as down the stairs, and collapsed to the ground for seemingly no reason. Cobblestones are a minefield for me. I really do not think I can walk and chew gum at the same time.

I am a fish out of water.

Occasionally I have a student in my class who seems like a fish out of water as well.

The school where I teach is a “Back to Basics” school which means we teach with whole class instruction, use a reading program that is strong on phonics, our math program emphasizes memorizing math facts, and science, history, and geography are an important part of our day.  Many people do not agree with our philosophy, but many kids thrive in it.

Over the years I’ve watched children struggle in my class due to possible learning disabilities. I’ve seen children struggle because they do not have support at home. But the saddest to watch is a child struggling because the environment is not a good fit for them.

Colorado has school choice which I think is great. I teach in a charter school and so every one of our students was enrolled by parents who chose us.  They chose our curriculum, our standards, our learning environment. Parents want to enroll their children in our school because it fits their definition of a good school.

In fact, I chose the school for my own two boys. The curriculum and learning environment are perfect for my children. They love to learn, especially science and history. They are flourishing in a ways I never imagined. They are a joy to watch.

We are a great school (in my opinion), but our philosophy and learning environment are not suitable for everyone. There are students who need a more hands-on approach to learning. Students who need to move around more. Students who need more flexibility and independence in their learning.

Sure some students who need a different learning style or require more movement and hands-on activities may learn to adapt, but others flounder. They do not develop a love of learning. On the contrary, they begin to feel bad about themselves and hate school. It is heart-breaking to watch.

Having the ability to choose your child’s school is a gift, but one that needs some careful thought and research. It’s important to remember that the school is for the child not the parent. Sure that Montessori school might have been the ideal school for you as a child, but if your daughter is not self-motivated then it might not be the best option.

Here’s another water analogy to ponder. What happens to the beautiful salt water fish when it’s placed in fresh water?

Exactly.

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There are lots of websites on the internet that provide information about school choice and the variety of options.

For those of you who would like more informations, GreatSchools.org might be a good place to start.

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Too soon to tell

While other moms complained that their babies would only wear an outfit once or twice before the child outgrew it, I kept quiet.  My son always wore a size or two smaller than his age. So at 6 months old he was still wearing 0-3 months sized clothes. He wasn’t premature, but he was small.  By the time he was a toddler the pediatrician recommended we bring our son to a specialist to test for growth hormone deficiency.  He was so small and seemed to grow so slowly that we had concerns.  Turned out he didn’t have growth hormone deficiency – just vertically challenged parents!

At every doctor appointment my son’s growth was charted. We’d see that he wasn’t even on the curve. Our kind pediatrician would say – “He’s on his own path and making progress.  As long as he makes progress everything is fine.”

Sometimes I meet with parents of students who are struggling with beginning literacy skills – rhyming, letter names, letter sounds, etc.  Inevitably they ask the question for which they don’t really want to know the answer, “Does my child have a learning disability?”  To these anxious parents I answer honestly – “It’s too soon to tell.”  Because it is too soon to tell – we don’t have enough information yet.   I explain to the parents that learning to read and write is a developmental process that varies by individual student.

Ask yourself this question – how old are children when they learn to walk?  Did you think of an exact age?  No, you probably thought of a range of possibilities.   Some children learn to walk at nine months while other children are not independent walkers until fifteen to eighteen months.  In a room full of ten month old children you may have a few crawlers, a few cruisers (walking while holding on to furniture), a few tentative walkers, and some runners.  Of course there may be some more variations in between!  It’s all very developmental and individual. So is the acquisition of literacy. Some children are reading by age three while others do not become fluent readers until age 7 or 8.  There is a range of possibilities.

It’s important to keep in mind the developmental nature of literacy acquisition despite the pressure to have students reading when they enter first grade.  Even though our little ones won’t take their first state sponsored assessment until third grade, the effect of high stakes testing has changed Kindergarten.

During my student teaching fifteen years ago, my mentor teacher encouraged me to spend time in the Kindergarten classroom.The decorations were so cheerful an brightly colored.  There was a huge, multicolored carpet with a rocking chair for story-time.  One corner of the room had a few small tables with tiny chairs. The rest of the classroom was taken up by the housekeeping center, the dress-up center, a huge bookshelf of blocks with a building area, a puzzles place, a painting easel, and lots of age-appropriate games.

My Kindergarten classroom looks more like a first grade classroom.  Half of our classroom is set up with tables and chairs for seat work.   There is a huge carpet with a rocking chair for group work.  I have a few puzzles and games, but only when inclement weather forces us to stay inside for recess do we have the opportunity to use them.  Our focus is on academics.

On the one hand, I feel strongly that we should have high expectations in our classrooms and that students can rise to the challenges we present.  The last three years teaching Kindergarten have shown me how far some children can fly.   But I also see students who have trouble taking off.  This doesn’t mean they have learning disabilities, it just means they’re not ready – they don’t have the building blocks in place to learn how to read yet.  Just like the child who begins to walk at 15 months – he walked when he was ready.

I always feel bad that I cannot completely alleviate a parent’s anxieties regarding learning disabilities.  Students in Kindergarten are just beginning to learn, oftentimes there isn’t enough data to know whether or not there is a disability.  Like my son’s pediatrician, I just keep monitoring their progress on their personal growth charts.

So what can parents do to help their children form the building blocks for reading readiness? For starters, parents can nurture good oral language development , which I addressed in my post last weekend. Reading to and with your child every day is fundamental to preparing your child for literacy acquisition. Jim Trelease, author of the Read Aloud Handbook, cites that children need to hear 1000 books read to them before they are ready to learn how to read. With those two areas covered, your child will be well on their way.

At the age of three, my child finally joined the ranks of all the other children his age as his height landed him ON the growth chart.  Of course, he’s still one of the shortest kids in his grade, but so were his parents.

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Frozen yogurt can make the day brighter

It says fall on the calendar, but the thermometer has reached well over 80 the last few days. The swamp cooler has been working overtime to keep my classroom cool. Warm classrooms are not conducive to learning so I truly appreciate even the trickle of cool air coming from the vents. Dismissal is miserable – standing outside in the hot sun with no shade. And this morning the doctor couldn’t do anything to help my sore toe. By the end of the day I was tired and cranky.

On the way home the boys and I stopped at Smart Cow Yogurt Bar for a cool treat on a hot day. This is a new place that opened recently by our house.  We’ve been meaning to try it for a while, but haven’t – no particular reason. We went today though because Smart Cow was having a fundraiser for our school.  20% of  today’s total sales will go to our school. We had to go – it’s our school!

I’m not a review blogger. Typically I write about books and my boys and teaching. But I started this blog as a writing experiment and so I want to write about Smart Cow because it’s pretty nifty and it made me happy.

We had a great time tasting different flavors  – there were these nifty little tasting cups so you can try different flavors. We went up and down the block of self-serve machines trying Watermelon Sorbet, Tahitian Vanilla, Thin Mint Cookie, Triple Chocolate, and White Chocolate Mousse sharing with each other. Mom, you have GOT to try this one! Each pair of flavors could be mixed together creating different combinations of flavors – some more appealing than others.

Then there are loads of different fun toppings including cereals, nuts, candy galore, and fresh fruit.

And very large cups to fill.

I decided to go with the Tahitian Vanilla which was more a vehicle for the toppings than a favorite flavor.  I wasn’t so sure about putting Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Heath Bar on top of Watermelon (that’s just me).  The boys and I went a little crazy with the sweet toppings and I was OK with that because it was a special treat. Plus it supported the school. And I got the fat-free no sugar added vanilla!!  And did I say how tired and cranky I was at the end of the day?

I felt much better eating the yummy yogurt topped with Heath Bar crumbles, crushed Reese’s Peanut Butter cups, marshmallows, sprinkles, and Oreo cookies.  Just a little of each – just to taste. Again, pretty tired and cranky.

The boys devoured their extremely chocolatey concoctions, every last drop. They asked if they could have seconds and my initial response was No.  They’d had more than enough sweets to last a week. Then someone said, But you could take some home with you.

Oh. I had really enjoyed the Watermelon Sorbet. The Watermelon truly made my mouth happy.  Yes, happy. And it is yogurt. OK boys, you can get some more but no toppings this time and we’re getting lids to save this for tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that and the day after that – they filled those cups to the top!

And gosh, wouldn’t that Watermelon taste really yummy with the Tahitian Vanilla…

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This weekend we went to the store and I got the most awesomest costume for Halloween.  I’m going to be WolverineFrom Marvel Comics for Halloween this year!  I have a costume that has real wolverine claws and a mask and my dad was in the United States Wolverine Corps.  Wolverine is my favorite super hero.  I really like super heroes!  I have a Wolverine book and a Batman book.  Do you know I have a red cape with a lightning bolt on it?

If you give this little guy an inch he’ll go on and on and on. When he’s not rhapsodizing about super heroes, he’ll tell you more than you’ll ever want to know about sharks – all different kinds of sharks!  I enjoy every minute of his chatter.  He’s using age-appropriate grammar and a rich vocabulary.  OK, so some of his details are a little off.  Like how his dad was in the United States MARINE Corps, but you’ve got to love his enthusiasm and his pride in his dad.

In my opinion, one of the biggest predictors of success in Kindergarten is a child’s oral language skills.  So while those chatty kids might drive parents crazy, those are the students who are easiest to teach.  Sure, it takes time for students to learn when it is OK to talk in school and when it is not OK, but eventually they figure it out. And just so I don’t have a complete rebellion on my hands I allow opportunities for sharing about our days, responding to a story, or quietly chatting with neighbors.

It’s the quiet kids that always concern me. The ones who never raise their hands. The ones who never have anything to say even when called upon to share.

Sure, some children are painfully shy. And I completely feel their pain because I was super shy as a kid. Eventually, my shy students will come out of their shells long enough to answer a question or share a story – even if it means whispering to me or a friend to share for them.

But my concern for quiet kids does not include those who are shy, it is for those who never have anything to say. The chronic shoulder-shrugger “I don’t know” responders. The child who pulls an item out of a basket and can’t think of the word fish – and is a native English speaker. The child who says tiger for a picture of a tabby cat or house for a picture of a window. The child who has nothing to share about her weekend even after all the other children have shared about riding bikes, playing wii, or going to grandma’s house. These are the children who worry me the most.

Puritans thought that children should be seen and not heard. Fortunately this belief is no longer widespread for studies have shown that children who have more extensive vocabularies will perform better in school. Children with rich and extensive vocabularies have the words to express themselves and better overall comprehension. Dr. Louisa Moats found that linguistically poor children enter first grade with 5,000 words in their vocabulary while linguistically rich students enter first grade with 20,000 words.  That’s a huge gap to fill.

In the book Building Oral Language Skills in PreK-K, the author Cindy Middendorf cites research that shows, “Not all children who struggle with early reading skills have poor oral language, yet nearly all children who have poor oral language will struggle with early reading skills.”  This was repeated for me again at a literacy conference when the speaker mentioned that 70% of struggling third grade readers have poor oral language. I structure my Kindergarten schedule to do all I can to encourage oral language and vocabulary development.

But parents have their children for five years before they enter my classroom. So how does one raise their child to be a wolverine loving shark fanatic instead of a shoulder shrugging I don’t know-er?

Talk to your child from the day he/she is born. Have conversations with your child even before they can answer back. Use real words not baby talk. Talk about your day, where you are going, what you are doing. As your child begins to learn words and speak coherently then the fun really starts.

Read to your child. Read to your child. Read to your child. I cannot say this too many times. Read to your child from the day he/she is born! The earlier you start with books the better.  Baby books are full of fun vocabulary and pictures. You may not be reading a story but you are engaging your child in language development.

Once your child is ready to sit for an entire picture book, a gloriously rich world of literature is available for enjoying.  Picture books tell beautiful stories and often use more advanced language than you would think. One of my favorite lines is from Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type by Doreen Cronin

Duck was a neutral party, so he brought the ultimatum to the cows.

I was reading this book to my son when he was two!  Now, I’m not saying he understood every word but he understood the general idea of the story and was exposed to some pretty fantastic words!

Reread the same books to your child (if they aren’t already demanding you to do so). Children love familiarity and predictability. Children learn through repetition, gaining something new each time they hear the same story. If you really get tired of reading the same book over and over then try introducing another text with the same characters. The characters in books become your child’s friends and it is fun for them to hear another story about familiar friends.

Let your child speak. Once a child has some words then encourage them to use those word and don’t let them get away with pointing and gesturing. Before my younger son was verbal he would gesture to his mouth when he wanted his binky (pacifier). When he was two and specifically requesting the motorcycle binky, I knew it was time for him to give up the binky!

And remember children should be seen and heard!

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Conferences and cookies

A friend started a chat session with me on Facebook tonight.  She wanted to know if  week 3 was too soon for a conference with her child’s teacher. Am I helicoptering, she asked.

 

At first I misread her question. I thought the teacher had requested a conference, but no. My friend just wants to see how things are going and get to know her daughter’s teachers.

How wonderful is that. She wants to know her daughter’s teachers.

After all, children spend the better part of six hours a day with their teachers.  Wouldn’t it be good to know them a little better? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a good working relationship with your child’s teachers?

I explained to her that she has two ways to accomplish her goal.

1. Volunteer in the classroom.  Being in the classroom is a great way to see what your child is doing in school – how the day flows, the songs they sing, the work they do, who their friends are, etc. Knowing what they do also helps you ask more specific questions about your child’s day – Oh what was the silly message today? Being in the classroom also gives you a better understanding of the teacher’s personality, teaching style, and how they interact with the children. Plus, volunteering helps the teacher!

2. Contact the teacher and ask for a conference, but explain why you are asking for one. Teachers can jump to the defensive when asked for a conference so early in the year.  There is a reason we have the term helicopter parent. But if my friend explained, I just want to get to know you a little better and see how things are going – well, that’s a whole other ball of wax, a pleasant one too.

I told my friend – it’s not helicoptering, it’s building a relationship with your child’s teachers.

When parents and teachers work together amazing things can happen.  We all need to be on the same side because theoretically we are on the same side. We all want what is best for these children – whether we’re the parent or the teacher.

One last thing, I told her – bring cookies!

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For more on Parent-Teacher relationships, here’s a great article on CNN.com by Ron Clark.

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