Don’t Discourage Young Rereaders

Two years ago when I was writing for another site, I took a break from writing about trying to conceive as a single mom by choice to write a couple back-to-school posts wearing my teacher hat instead. As I was preparing to reread the summer reading book I’m in charge of this year for at least the fourth time, I decided maybe it was time to add a post for parents of older kids. So here is this year’s back-to-school bit of advice.

Tell me your child doesn’t read enough—of anything—and I will hear your concerns, offer suggestions, and sympathize with your strong desire to raise a reader. Kids need to read; it helps build vocabulary, strengthens empathy, and is ultimately the best way to become a more fluent and sophisticated writer. If your child doesn’t read, I’m concerned.

But tell me your child reads, but only the same series, genre, or even one particular book over and over again, and you’re likely to get a guilty grin. Because I was that kid. Heck, I am that adult. When I find something I like, I stick with it—for a long time, longer than any relationship I’ve ever had with non-fictional character. I’ve reread some of my favorite books or series more than a dozen times. I often binge read a series or genre for months at a time. (This was the summer of Southern mysteries with a touch of romance.)

I won’t make apologies for my reading habits, nor will I let anyone tell me they are less valid or valuable than other reading. And I won’t tell a parent they ought to discourage such reading in their children. Rereading is reading. And all reading is valuable.

You never read the same book twice.

Yes the words on the page may be the same, but you will never have the exact same experience reading a book no matter how many times you read it, because you aren’t the same person from day to day, or year to year. Rereading is especially prevalent in tweens and teens, which makes perfect sense; they’re at a stage of development where everything about and around them is changing constantly from their friends, to their bodies, to their sense of self. What speaks to them in a book one month will not necessarily be the same as what speaks to them the next. Even as adults this is true. Does anyone honestly think he’d have the same reactions and opinions about something he read before major life events like marriage, children, or losing a parent, as he would after those experiences?

The craft is hidden in the details.

I’d also argue one can learn more about writing and craft from rereading something multiple times or reading multiple works by the same author than one could from never doing so. The first time you read a book you’re caught up in the plot and characters. A skilled author won’t hit readers over the head with their craft. Things like voice, symbolism, and tidbits of character’s backstory that become crucial three books later in a series are often overlooked during the first read when readers are rushing to the resolution. But reread that same book or series and suddenly you find yourself yelling at the characters, “You idiot! If you had paid attention to that you could have saved yourself a lot of trouble!” Or for the first time you see and are awed by the way an author always takes the time to describe certain things and you realize it was another layer to developing mood or character. And if you’re thinking that kids aren’t capable of recognizing such things, you’re not giving them, especially those of them who read regularly (yes, even those who reread), nearly enough credit.

So by all means encourage your children to read and read widely. Model such reading for them. Discuss what you’ve read and what they’ve read. Try to find non-fiction articles about the authors or topics of their favorite genre. But please do not discount or discourage their reading simply because “they always read the same thing.” There are plenty of parents who would love to have that problem. And plenty of English teachers and writers who reread quite often themselves and find value—and enjoyment!— in each rereading.

 

Previous Back-to-School posts:
Making the Most of At-home Read Alouds
5 Tips for Reducing Back-to-School Stress
How Your Child Can Benefit from Having a New Teacher
Making the Most of Parent Night

 

Photo credit: © Budyanskaya1979 | Dreamstime

Unplugged (part 1)

As I sit here on my laptop with my smartphone on one side of me and the video baby monitor on the other, I am the picture of ‘plugged in.’ But last weekend for 48 hours I partially unplugged as a means of reflecting on how and why I use technology and whether it’s helping or hindering.

The school district I teach in was one of many this year that showed students, parents, and community members the new documentary, Screenagers. While I never got to see it myself (we were in conferences when it was shown), our school community has been engaged in conversations for years about the amount of technology students use in and out of the classroom and whether it is to their benefit or not. What wasn’t talked much about was the amount of technology the adults were using.

So when it was announced that the students would be challenged to participate in an “Unplugged” weekend, I was intrigued. I wondered how many kids would partake even with the bribe of a Chipotle lunch. I was also interested in whether they were old enough to really self-reflect and learn from such an experience. I hoped they were. I even decided to help with that self-reflection (and add to the bribery) by offering an extra credit writing assignment with topics for them to consider.

But middle schoolers are savvy and while most kept their reactions to such a proposal to silent eye rolls, a few came right out and asked the adults when they’d be giving up their phones. They wanted us to put up or shut up, or more accurately to turn off or shut up.

They had a point.

Adults could argue that our brains are fully developed and that we’re mature enough to use technology responsibly. We probably use apps that we deem necessary (because Candycrush is saving the world), write more emails than texts (all work-related I’m sure), watch more educational television (there’s something to be learned from Grey’s Anatomy marathons, right?), and partake in less online bullying (um, have you seen the mom-shaming online or read the president’s Twitter feed?).

But does it matter how we use technology, if the technology we use becomes all-consuming? Are we as adults any less guilty of overdoing screen time and under-appreciating the real-life moments happening right in front of us?

I wasn’t sure we are. Actually I was pretty convinced I was as guilty as many of my students of being addicted to certain aspects of technology. And as an adult who knows better, I suppose one could argue I was twice as bad. My guilty tech-pleasures are watching the local television news (even during meals), and using my phone for Facebook, my online Single Mother’s by Choice forums, and Pinterest, with occasional dabbling on Instagram and Twitter. The older my little guy gets, though, the more guilt and the less pleasure I have when I catch myself checking my phone or looking over his head to see the news when I should be enjoying time with him.

So last weekend I joined the over sixty kids at my school in the “Unplugged Challenge.” While as a single mom who was doing some highway traveling at night with the baby, I didn’t feel comfortable actually handing over my phone as many of them agreed to, for 48 hours I did turn off all social media apps and pledged not to watch television when my guy was awake. So just after noon on Friday I went dark.

Okay, that’s a little dramatic, but dramatic was exactly what I expected. But not exactly what I experienced. For those revelations, check out part two.

Oh, and for any fellow educators or parents of teens out there who are interested, here are the discussion questions I provided my students to help them reflect:

  • How do you normally use social media/technology throughout your day/weekend? How did giving it up change your daily activities?
  • What was the hardest thing to give up? Why?
  • Were there positives of putting your phone down? Explain.
  • What aspects of having a smart phone/technology felt necessary before this experiment? Did giving up some/all change your mind about anything?
  • What time of day did you miss your technology the most? What did you do instead? Explain.
  • Was this a worthwhile experiment? Would you recommend other kids and adults try it?
  • Will you try to make any changes to your use of technology as a result of your experience?

Photo credit: Nathaphat Chanphirom | Dreamstime.com

How Your Child Can Benefit from Having a New Teacher

Originally posted September 27, 2015 on Merely Mothers (now Evie & Sarah)

Being the inquisitive writer I am, I often listen in on fellow shoppers’ conversations as I wait in the check out line or pass people in an aisle. (Okay, I’m just nosy. Go with it.) As school was starting this year, and I was making my annual pilgrimage through Target for supplies and a few new accessories, I couldn’t help overhear a conversation between two mothers comparing the upcoming year’s teachers. While one mother seemed pleased to have a teacher both had heard about, the other was obviously somewhat distressed about her child being in the classroom of a new teacher.

I thought back to my first year of teaching, how inexperienced I was, how nervous, how young, and I could totally understand this mother’s fear of the unknown. After all, parents entrust a year of their child’s education and school experience to their child’s teacher or teachers. But then I thought back to not only my first years, but also to the first years of the teachers I’ve mentored over the last decade. It occurred to me that second mom didn’t know how lucky she was to have her child in a new teacher’s classroom.

No one’s first year of teaching is perfect. But no year of teaching is ever perfect. And newer teachers have an awful lot of advantages that more experienced teachers might not. Here are just a few to ease your mind.

Knowledge of the Most Up-to-date Research and Trends in Education

If your child is lucky enough to be in the classroom of someone fresh out of college or grad school, you can be assured that teacher is probably the most up-to-date in the building on recent research about childhood development, best practices for 21st Century teaching, and how to incorporate the ever-growing technology our children will need in their futures into their learning. While almost all teachers are required to take classes to keep their certification, few who are in the middle or end of their careers take the number of classes required of students in teacher preparation programs. New teachers are full of new ideas, new strategies, and new research.

High Stakes Drive Them to Excellence

With recent education reform, no teacher’s job is entirely secure. As it should be, if a teacher consistently doesn’t perform, he can be let go. However, new teachers have more at stake than anyone. Their jobs are never secure, which means they need to work twice as hard to prove they ought to be kept on. New teachers are more willing than most to take criticism and run with it, revamping their methods until they work for every child. They’re more likely to actively seek out help to improve, and in most districts they are watched the closest and given the most support to be better, because we want them to succeed as much as parents do. Who wouldn’t want their child in the classroom that the entire building, from administration to fellow teachers, is helping to be amazing?

Energy

Fourteen years ago I arrived at school at or before 7am, stayed after doing extra help or numerous after-school activities until 4pm, went to grad school one or two nights a week until 8 pm, and still had energy left on Friday afternoon to go socialize with my co-workers over a beer. Today, I do not.

New teachers are usually young, often don’t have families yet, and still have the stamina they built up in college to survive quite well on limited sleep. This energy is evident in the ways they teach, the ways they get involved in the school community, and in the ways they interact with the kids. They have the energy to be more active, more creative, and more involved, all qualities that make for excellent teaching and student engagement. Energy is contagious in a classroom and, when channeled, can lead to tremendous learning.

Untainted Passion

Like energy, passion is also contagious. I was given a little sign one year by a parent that reads “A teacher that loves teaching creates children who love learning.” I absolutely believe this is true. I also absolutely believe that the majority of teachers, no matter how long they’ve been in the classroom, do love teaching. It’s too hard a job to stick with if you don’t love it. That said, the longer you teach, the more you experience the downsides to the job: pendulum swings in policy that condemn one year what they espoused five years before, interference by politicians who’ve never taught a day in their lives, and an ever-increasing workload that seems to take more and more time away from the very things teachers love—the kids and the teaching.

New teachers lack experience in all areas of the profession, the good and the bad, which can actually benefit them and the students they teach. They start their careers focused on what all educators should be focused on: great teaching and great learning. If you’re lucky enough to have a child in a room of a teacher who has yet to have their passion tempered by the realities of the profession, who’s bounding with energy and new knowledge, and who’s striving to prove she’s capable of being the best, enjoy it—and encourage it with all the support and kind words you can! You and your child are in for a great year!

 

Photo credit: alphaspirit

Making the Most of Parent Night

Originally posted September 13, 2015 on Merely Mothers (now Evie & Sarah)

With school underway just about everywhere now, the season of parent nights has begun. No matter what age your children are, attending these informational evenings can be a great way to assure a smooth school year for them and for you. In order to get the most of these nights, here are three top tips from a teacher who’s now hosted fourteen of these evenings herself.

Know the Format and Purpose

While nearly all schools have an evening event early in the fall during which they welcome parents, not all are created equal. In order to get the most of the evening and not be disappointed, know what type of parent night your child’s school holds ahead of time.

Open house – Usually this type of parent night is what it sounds like. Teachers are available in their classrooms for a set number of hours, and parents are welcome to come in and out during those times. Open houses often involve seeing the learning space, meeting and chatting briefly with the teacher, and viewing some early student work.

Curriculum night – Unlike open houses, curriculum night usually involves hearing the teacher or teachers speak about what will be taught that year. Teachers usually have specific times to present their prepared presentation, and parents need to follow a set schedule to see all their children’s teachers. While there might be a little time before and after the presentations to meet teachers, this format often doesn’t leave as much time for individualized conversations.

Conferences – Often time open houses and curriculum nights are held very early in the year, sometimes even the first week of school. While these nights are certainly times to introduce yourself to your child’s teacher, they are not the time or place to expect an individualized conference. Parent-teacher conferences are usually held later in the year so that the teacher has a chance to learn more about their students and can provide better feedback to parents. That said, if you feel you need a one-on-one conference sooner, you can certainly mention to the teacher at open house or curriculum night that you wish to meet and that you’ll be contacting them to set up a time. Please don’t put this burden on the teacher. Remember, while your brood of three might seem overwhelming, the teachers most likely have twenty or more students and sets of parents to keep straight—in addition to their own families.

Do Your Homework

Whether it’s emails, online newsletters, or paper handouts, the beginning of the school year usually involves flooding parents with informational memos, forms to be completed, and packets to be signed. Once the dust settles and the important documents have been sent back to school, do take the time to read the rest of what the school or teacher sent home at the start of the year. Often teachers send welcome letters to parents or post important information on their teacher website. School websites are also often a wealth of information. Knowing a little about the teacher’s and/or school’s philosophies, policies, and expectations prior to going in to school will help you prepare questions you might have and will allow you to reinforce some of the same things at home with your child.

Follow Up

Curriculum night and open house can often be a whirlwind for parents and teachers. Time can run out. The line to talk with the teacher can wind around the classroom. Emotions and nerves can run high—on both sides. Take a breath, and know that if you forgot to mention something, didn’t get a chance to ask an important question, or just didn’t have time to say hi, there’s always tomorrow. Thanks to technology, parents and teachers are in constant contact through emails, websites, and newsletters. And while daily questions or comments can become burdensome, teachers usually really appreciate hearing from a parent after an open house. It shows you were interested and that you are concerned, which usually means you’ll also be supportive—and those are the best kinds of parents to work with! So don’t feel bad about following up with a comment or question (or compliment!).

And if you can’t make it to a parent night event, it’s great to send an email saying you would have loved to attend but couldn’t. Please understand though that it might not be possible for a teacher to convey in an email everything that was covered. Instead ask if any handouts provided could be sent home with your child and if there were any key points you should know to help your child have a great year.

Whether it’s called curriculum night, open house, or something else at your child’s school, these early events are a way of starting the year off with positive and open lines of communication between home and school. It’s a reminder that all involved want the same thing: to assure every child has a terrific school year!

Photo credit: egal

Making the Most of At-home Read Alouds

Originally posted August 23, 2015 on Merely Mothers (now Evie & Sarah)

Snuggling up with your child and their most beloved books and just reading (or rereading) for sheer pleasure is magical—and important to developing children who love reading.

However, as school starts back up, children may be asked to do more reading at home, and parents might be looking for ideas to boost their child’s interest and understanding of new books. Here are a few ideas teachers and literacy specialists use with students of all ages (kids are never too old to be read to!) to develop stronger, more engaged readers. They are all based on the idea that good readers think deeply about what they’re reading as they read. Some of these strategies work best with books being read for the first time, and all of them can be used with picture books as well as chapter books and novels. So gather the little ones and the bigger ones, and tell them to bring their books!

Predicting

Asking kids to guess what is about to happen in a book is one way to engage them in the story. It can be done using the title, the pictures, and/or the text that was just read, and is as easy as asking, “What do you think is going to happen?” While it seems simple, it’s actually not. Predicting requires readers to use not only pieces of the text they know, but also their knowledge of story structure from previous books they’ve read or been read, to formulate a logical guess as to what might happen.

Young readers might come up with silly (though amusing) predictions at first. That’s fine; let their creative minds go! But then help them by modeling. It’s as simple as, “I think __________ will happen next, because…” The ‘because’ is important. It shows them that predictions need to be based on evidence. By the upper elementary grades, kids will need to provide such evidence when speaking and writing about texts, so practicing at home is great preparation.

Asking Questions

How often as an adult do you find yourself yelling at a book or even a tv show: “Why are you doing that?” “How could they kill off my favorite character?” When we find ourselves conversing with inanimate objects, it’s not a sign we’re insane; it’s a sign we’re engaged. That is the same type of engagement we want to encourage in young readers.

As you read with your children, ask questions and encourage them to do the same. Depending on the text and your child, the questions can be as basic as “What’s happening now?” or “Who’s that?”, or as sophisticated as “Why do you think the author would do that? How does it affect the story?” Questions about plot, writing, vocabulary, characters, morals or messages, or main ideas are all super. And the best part? There isn’t always a right answer. Often these types of questions are just discussion starters. So there’s no pressure, just engagement.

Making Connections

When we encounter something new, we automatically try to compare it to something familiar in order to understand it. That something familiar might be a firsthand experience, or it might just be something we read, saw on tv, learned in school, or heard from someone else. If we can make a connection, we’re better able to frame our understanding. The same works for books.

Kids are asked to read books with a variety of topics and structures, not all of which will be familiar to them. While pictures and visuals in books can aid a lot with comprehending new material or reading a book with an unfamiliar structure, making connections can help as well. Encourage this by modeling it for your children as you read with them. If a book reminds you of another book you’ve read with them, a place you’ve visited together, or something you’ve seen or heard before, point it out to them or ask them if they can see the connection.

Connections can also be personal, related to experiences, but more likely just related to the emotions that experience evokes. For instance, your child will likely never meet a talking pig, but he or she might have had to say goodbye to a friend or loved one. Seeing the similarities between the known and the unknown will draw kids deeper into their reading and allow them to learn and explore people, places, and things they never otherwise could.

There are dozens of other reading strategies you can use when reading with your children, but you don’t need to know them all. And you certainly don’t want to cram every strategy into each at-home reading session. It’s enough to just read with your kids.

But when there’s time, talk about what you’re reading together. Share a little about what you’re reading as an adult, when it’s appropriate, or at least share that you’re reading and enjoying it. Find news articles your family or children can relate to, and read and discuss snippets of them at the dinner table. Make your home rich with words and stories, and your children will inevitably discover the magic of reading.

 

Photo credit: Wavebreakmedia

5 Tips for Reducing Back-to-School Stress

Originally posted August 9, 2015 on Merely Mothers (now Evie & Sarah)

Please don’t shoot the messenger, but it’s almost that time again. That’s right, some schools are starting up in another week, and even those that don’t start until September are starting to ready their bulletin boards and wax the floors for the first day of classes. Back to school will always involve some level of stress for parents and kids (and teachers!), but it doesn’t have to be doomsday. Here are a few tips to take a little stress out of the start of the year.

  1. Return to Routines Early

Lazy mornings. Late nights making s’mores by the fire pit. Ice cream for supper. These are what make summer the relaxing reprieve we all cherish. Unfortunately, the school year follows a far more rigorous schedule. There are busses to catch, soccer practices to make, and homework to be done. For learning, playing, and family time to be a success, kids need to be well rested and nourished. For that to happen without excess stress, families need to get back into a routine, and the best time to do that is not the day school starts, but a few days (or weeks) before. If you use the week or so before school starts to slowly adjust bedtimes, wake up times, and even meal times (schools serve lunch anywhere from 10:30 am to 1:30pm!), the start of school won’t seem like such a jolt to everyone’s system.

  1. Plan Ahead

Back in my Weight Watchers days my favorite leader loved the expression “Proper planning prevents pudgy people.” It’s corny, but I think she was definitely onto something. Nothing increases stress and anxiety like having to make decisions and get things done last minute. So make a list now of everything that needs to get done before school starts, as well as updating your list of weekly chores and to-dos to include school-related activities, and then start checking things off as soon as possible. Have the kids help with whatever they can, too. I’m still only running a one-woman show at my house, so there’s a lot less chaos than most families deal with, but even I get all my outfits and lunches for the week ready on the weekend. If you have the closet space to hang things and some great Tupperware, it’s doable, and it makes mornings so much smoother.

  1. Address Anxiety

There are those fearless kids, often younger siblings who’ve eagerly waited for years for it to be their turn, who dash onto the bus the first day of school without a worry in the world. But for most, starting school brings with it some anxiety. Kids worry about having friends in their class, liking their teacher, fitting in. Parents worry about Common Core, bullying, reduced recess time, and standardized tests. Anxiety around school is natural, and while we certainly shouldn’t worry the kids with our own fears, it’s good to address theirs. If they voice concerns or just act differently in the days leading up to school, be sure to talk to them about it. Try to make a concrete plan for addressing any worries you can, things like making new friends, talking to the teacher, and catching the right bus. But be honest about the things you likely can’t change: teachers, classmates, homework. Learning to deal with people and things that might scare us at first is one of the best lessons we learn in school.

  1. Jump Start the Learning

One stressor you can help your child with is getting his or her brain back into school mode. If traveling, camps, swim lessons, and just plain relaxing has got in the way of your best intentions for academic play and practice, returning to it in the week or two before school starts is a good idea. This might be a scary fact, but nearly all children regress to various degrees over the summer months. While teachers know this and spend time reviewing skills from previous years, new rigorous curriculum guidelines don’t give teachers the time they used to have to re-teach previous years’ material. So to assure your children don’t feel overwhelmed in those first weeks, do a little review with them at home before school starts. Obviously, they’re still in summer vacation, so make it fun and active. You don’t want something that’s meant to help adding to their anxiety, but if you can find games, apps, or activities that sneak in some math, spelling, reading, and writing, transitioning back to school work won’t seem as challenging for them come September.

  1. Celebrate New Beginnings!

Growing up with two teachers as parents, you might think early September was a time of mourning in my house. It wasn’t. Ok, it probably was, but my parents hid it very well! In fact, they did such a great job of celebrating the start of school that I looked forward to it like it was Christmas or my birthday. I remember the little gifts—a few pieces of candy and maybe a fun pencil or eraser—that was left at my spot on the kitchen table when I came to breakfast before the first day of school, the notes my dad snuck into my lunch box, the dinner at a favorite restaurant at the end of the first week. Was there anxiety, mine or my parents? Probably, but it was overshadowed by excitement.

Back to school was an affirmation of the importance my parents put on learning and a celebration of new beginnings, new friendships, and new opportunities. If you can create that for your children, you’ve given them a tremendous gift.

So this back to school season, try to squash the stress and get giddy with your kids. Skip down the aisles of Staples like the dad in that commercial, but not because you’re happy to get rid of the little buggers, but because you’re overjoyed to watch them to learn, play, and grow over the course of a wonderful new school year.

Photo by Prometeus