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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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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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Chicken?

Chicken??

Driving home from school on Friday I had the following conversation with my Middle School son:

Me: How was your spelling test?

MS son: Good. I knew all my words, but I think I got a few points off.

Me: Why? You knew all your words.

MS son: Well, I couldn’t think of any more words that began with poly.

Me: Oh, what did you write?

MS son: I knew polygon and polytheism. Then I couldn’t think of anymore so I wrote Pollyanna and Polly Pocket.

Oi Vey!

As a teacher I hear funny answers all the time. Just the other day we were reading a book about jobs people do and the cover picture was an astronaut. I asked my Kindergarteners what the astronauts do. Have dinner? was their response. Yes, I’m sure the astronauts have dinner at some point while they are in space.

Sometimes it’s hard not to laugh.

When I ask, What rhymes with cat? and the student answers, Bumblebee.  It’s hard not to laugh.

It often amazes me how many students come to Kindergarten not knowing how to rhyme.

When I ask, What sound does mule begin with? and the student answers, Chicken.  It’s hard not to laugh.

I’ve actually gotten this response two years in a row. What makes it even funnier is that I tell the children the picture is a rooster before asking any questions.

When I ask, Which picture begins with /b/? and the student answers, Gwassbopper. It’s hard not to laugh.

OK, little kid speak is just so cute!

When I ask, Which picture begins with /b/? and the student answers, Brollerskates. It’s hard not to laugh.

I have to admit after brollerskates I did have a chuckle. Somehow I got through the rest of the testing, sent the student back to class, and went next door for a big hearty laugh.

Sometimes though, after few more interactions like these, it becomes very hard not to cry.

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Reading picture books every day is a great perk of my job as a Kindergarten teacher. OK to be honest, I would probably read picture books even if I wasn’t teaching.

The illustrations in picture books can be beautiful, poignant, or perfect in their simplicity. The stories can make me laugh. They can make me cry. Very often I find meaningful life lessons in picture books.

Yesterday I read Pete the Cat I Love My White Shoes by Erick Litwin and James Dean to my class. This was a new book for me – recommended by another teacher friend.  Once we were done reading it, I couldn’t believe I had never met Pete before!

You see, Pete the Cat loves his white shoes so much that he sings about them – I love my white shoes. I love my white shoes. I love my white shoes. But as he is walking around he steps into different strawberries, blueberries, and mud turning his shoes different colors. Does Pete get upset? Does Pete cry? No! Not even close. Pete’s a cool cat and when his shoes turn a different color he loves them just as much as before. His responses include awesome, everything is cool, and groovy.  He sings about how much he loves his new [insert color] shoes.

The moral of Pete’s story is: No matter what you step in, keep walking along and singing your song….because it’s all good.

We had a phenomenal time singing along and saying cool things with Pete – because it’s all good!

I think we  should all approach with the ease and equanimity of Pete the Cat. That’s my life lesson for today!

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For a little fun click on the TV to watch a video of the author performing a live reading of his awesome book!

Eric Litwin reading Pete the Cat I Love My White Shoes

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My older son has his first day of middle school tomorrow. It’s a pretty momentous occasion in my book. He has a schedule and different teachers for every subject. Communication between parents and teachers won’t be as prevalent as it was in elementary school (no more Monday Letters or Folders). I’m excited for him, a little bit nervous, and a tiny bit scared. Everyone talks about how horrible middle school was. All those crazy hormones flying around. Children wanting more independence and parents unsure how much to allow. Mean girls. Bullies. Terrible teachers. It’s amazing any of us ever made it to high school!

And don’t get me started on the horrors brought about by misuse of  cell phones and social media – ugh.

Anyway, I personally enjoyed middle school. Yes, I know I’m a geek. But I loved reading actual books in English class, performing science experiments, and more challenging math classes. I also enjoyed going to electives. Well, not  gym – I always hated gym. In Middle School we also had art, Home Economics, and Industrial Arts. I remember going to music as well – chorus and orchestra – but not everyone participated in those.

I loved Home Economics (Home Ec.) and Industrial Arts (I.A.). These were so very different from art. In art they made me draw and I cannot draw at all. In fact I am so bad that every year I have to teach my Kindergarteners that it is not polite to laugh at my drawings.

In I.A. we manipulated wood through a jigsaw to make a bread board.  We heated and twisted iron to form a plant hanger.
And we melted and cut different colored plastic into things like a napkin holder and a pie server. Almost 30 years later the plant hanger holds a plant outside my parents’ house and the napkin holder still holds napkins in their kitchen. Occasionally the pie server is brought out, but I made the point so sharp my parents considered it to be more of lethal weapon than serving utensil.

In Home Ec. I learned to sew and cook – things my working mom didn’t have time to teach me. And while my mother could sew fairly well, I was probably better off not learning how to cook from her. The favorite Home Ec. recipe was monkey bread. I can smell the cinnamon wafting down the hall even as I type. Everyone who had Home Ec was popular on monkey bread day. Who knew that small balls of dough dipped in butter and rolled in cinnamon sugar could get the cute boy from math class to notice you? Even if it was only for a bite of monkey bread – when you’re 12 who cares!

I’m sure there were mean girls and bullies galore, but for the most part I was able to avoid them. I don’t know how. Probably because I was so shy and quiet back then most kids didn’t even realize I was there. I never aspired to be part of The Clique and therefore never suffered from ridicule and rejection when they didn’t want me. When I looked at who the cool girls were – they weren’t people I wanted as friends. I know this is the 42 year old me projecting back on 12 year old me, but it’s true. I had one or two friends and that was all I needed.

So on this eve of Middle School I have many hopes for my son:

I hope he maintains his strong sense of self, his courage, and his compassion.

I hope he finds a trusted group of friends.

I hope he keeps his wits about him.

I hope he laughs every day.

I hope he uses his sense of humor for good not evil.

I hope he enjoys the academic challenges and independence.

I hope he loves learning for learning’s sake.

I hope he finds that which brings him joy in life.

I hope he is never bullied or is a bully.

More importantly

I hope he stands up for those who are bullied.

Finally, I hope he finds the monkey bread of middle school.

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