6 Thoughtful Gifts for Teacher Appreciation Week

Time to say thank you to the tireless people who challenge the minds of our kids, support them, and inspire them to think big about their future.

It’s almost teacher appreciation week!  Time to say thank you to the tireless individuals who challenge the minds of our little ones, support them both academically and socially, and inspire them to think big about their future.

How are you going to show your appreciation?
Parent Co asked a handful of teachers – from preschool to high school – to tell us what some of their most meaningful teacher appreciation gifts have been over the years.  We invited them to tell us not only about the “things” that students and parents have given them, but the other gifts of words, time, or thoughts that have meant something to them.  So before you buy that “World’s Greatest Teacher” mug check out what teachers have to say about the best gifts they have received.

1 | Thank you notes

This simple solution was mentioned by almost every teacher we talked to –genuinely being thanked for their work.  “I do feel that at times parents spend way too much on their child’s teacher and completely miss what teachers actually appreciate most, a simple thank you.  When parents thank teachers for their work with their child it really means a lot.
This is especially true when they use examples of specific things the teacher did, such as a learning activity or project their child really enjoyed or growth that they have seen in their child.”  Handwritten pictures and notes from children are equally valued for their simplicity and thoughtfulness.

2 | Memory jar

Taking the thank you note idea to the next level, one teacher told us how a room mother gathered comments on the best memories that kids and parents had of their time together in the classroom.  She put them on separate sheets of paper and stuffed them into a jar for the teacher to take out and read.
“The memory that is still taped to my desk is a handwritten note from a student that says ‘when I crushed my spelling test.’ This student used to tell me that he was going ‘to crush this’ when he thought he was going to do a good job. This message spread to the rest of the class…it became a motto!”

3 | A donation in the teacher’s honor

One teacher mentioned that he liked to “pay it forward” by inviting parents to make a donation to a charitable organization that he supports in lieu of shopping for a gift.
“In the past, I have sent a note out prior to gift time thanking families for their generosity and suggesting charitable organizations they could support in lieu of traditional gifts. I make it very clear that there is NO pressure for any gifts at all, but many families have expressed thanks- a gift in a teacher’s name is a little less stressful than determining a ‘thoughtful’ gift!”

4 | Your time as a volunteer

“I don’t know if this counts as a gift,” one teacher said, “but it’s great when parents can come into the classroom and do a special activity, share their knowledge about a specific subject with the class, or just help out.”
Teachers have a lot of planning to do every day to keep our kids engaged; if we have something to contribute we can lighten their load even just for an hour.  Do this just once and you’ll have a newfound appreciation for how much work it takes to keep a group of kids interested and paying attention for an hour much less a whole day!

5 | Build a bouquet

If you can get the whole class on the same page, have each child bring the teacher one flower.  Put them together and the teacher has a beautiful bouquet for her desk or to bring home.  This group gift reminds her of each kid in the class without cluttering her desk (or a drawer at home) with a bunch of separate gifts.

6 | Lunch break

This takes a bit more planning, but a couple of teachers have had parents bring them a special lunch during teacher appreciation week.
“The greatest ‘Teacher Appreciation’ event ever was when a group of parents came in before our lunch period, decorated our team’s break room with flowers and table cloths (!), and served us lunch during our lunch break. Parents actually served the sandwiches and beverages while we all chatted.  I think the monetary cost was minimal (donated flowers and multiple parents chipping in on food) but the impact of “getting away” in the middle of the day was amazing.  I think this happened three years ago and we still talk about that amazing lunch not infrequently.”

Heads up – there are also a few things that teachers quietly and politely said we could discourage.

Gift cards are nice if they are for places where teachers actually shop, but a pile of gift cards to a big chain coffee shop doesn’t do much good if the teacher prefers to go to their local coffee shop.  Likewise, teachers get a lot of candles and mugs.  There are only so many candles they can burn in a given year.  The caveat – a homemade candle made by your child from your own beeswax was a noted exception (possibly because this author raises bees and the teacher was a friend).
The lesson here is this – while teachers appreciate your gifts, they don’t want you to spend loads of money on gifts that won’t get a lot of use or aren’t from the heart.  They remember the gifts that make them feel special, help them to take a “time out” from the stress of their work, and reinforce the value of the time they spend with our kids.

Sight Words Are So 2016: New Study Finds the Real Key to Early Literacy

The best indicator of future success as a reader is actually a child’s ability to use invented spelling as they write.

It’s no secret that teaching a child to read is a pretty big deal. Research has proven again and again that children who grasp early literacy skills by the end of first grade become strong readers for the rest of their lives, while those who struggle early on continue to do so throughout their schooling. So, no pressure, right?
This is exactly why, when it came time to choose a focus for my career in education, I opted for the upper elementary grades. Multiplying fractions? Thesis statements? Identifying the author’s purpose? Those I can handle. Reading? No, thank you.
But as the mom of two preschoolers, early literacy skills are back on the table now.
Last year, I sat across from my son’s preschool teacher as she calmly shrugged and told me that he wasn’t yet showing interest in letter recognition nor writing his own name. On the surface, I copied her even, close-mouthed smile and nodded as she assured me that this was not unusual for a boy his age. On the inside, I felt my heart pound while I mentally outlined the things I should have been doing at home to encourage his early literacy.
A year later, though, with no interventions from me or his teacher, my son began to write his name and became obsessed with letters, letter sounds, and letter recognition. He just needed the time and space to come to this understanding himself.
We were lucky that his fall birthday meant he narrowly missed the kindergarten cut off and had an extra year in preschool. We were lucky he was given the time and space to come to his own understanding in his own time.
But what happens when time and space aren’t available? What happens when children in kindergarten are pushed towards early reading, even if they are not developmentally ready?
A 2010 article in the Harvard Education Letter points out that modern children are still meeting developmental milestones at the same ages as children studied in the 1920s. That is, children’s abilities have not changed over the past century. The educational standards they’re held to have, however.
With the introduction of Common Core Standards, kindergarteners are now required to read, write, and even participate in research projects. This is a stark contrast to the play-based kindergarten of the 1980s. Is the emphasis on sight word memorization and explicit reading instruction misguided?
A new study seems to point to yes.
Published in the January 2017 issue of the journal “Developmental Psychology”, the study concludes that the most valuable early literacy skill to encourage in kindergarten is neither alphabetic knowledge nor memorization of key sight words. In fact, it’s not a reading skill at all.
The best indicator of future success as a reader is actually a child’s ability to use invented spelling as he writes.
Researchers assessed 171 kindergartners on measures of oral vocabulary, alphabetic knowledge, letter-sound association, word reading, and invented spelling. The same students were assessed a year later, and modeling revealed a causal relationship between invented spelling and increased literacy skills.
Simply put, children who used invented spelling developed stronger reading skills over time, regardless of their existing vocabulary, alphabetic knowledge, or word reading skills.
So, what exactly is invented spelling?
Invented spelling refers to a young child’s beginning attempts to spell words. Using what they know and understand about letters and writing, children who use invented spelling are encouraged to create their own spellings based on their own phonetic knowledge. As their phonetic knowledge grows, their invented spellings become more and more similar to actual word spellings.
For example, a very young child might begin writing words by using a series of non-letter scribbles. As that child progresses, he or she will begin to use random letters, and then consonants consistent with the first sound in a word. Eventually, the child will grasp both the first and last sounds, and finally the vowels or other syllables in between.
A child writing the word PEOPLE might progress from random scribbles to:
P
PPL
PEPL
PEEPL
PEEPLE
before finally reaching PEOPLE.
A recent article in Psychology Today underlines the importance of this process, pointing out that “reflection about how to spell a word allows the child to actively practice making decisions, rather than passively memorizing.” In this way, students internalize letter-sound associations rather than simply attempting to memorize the rules as instructed.
How can we help our children develop this integral skill?
To encourage development and progression of invented spelling, children should simply be encouraged to write. While writing has previously been thought of as a skill separate from reading, and one that can only be applied once a child has a basic grasp on reading, the new study suggests that writing and reading skills emerge concurrently, and that reading may actually rely more heavily on writing, rather than vice versa.
Dr. J. Richard Gentry, who writes the column Raising Readers, Writers, and Spellers for “Psychology Today”, suggests that children should be allowed the time and space to piece together invented spellings using their own knowledge of letters and sounds. Gentry then suggests that “having the child read back his or her own writing in conventional English written by the teacher [or parent] integrates the child’s invented spelling into a reading and fluency lesson.”
In other words, rewriting what the child has written, and allowing them to read it again will help deepen their understanding of the letters and sounds used.
So, the next time you’re tempted to correct your young child’s spelling, instead encourage him or her to read back what has been written and praise the attempt. From time to time, rewrite the sentence in conventional spelling for your child to read back to you, but don’t make a big deal out of pointing out the differences or correcting the misspellings. The key is for your child to internalize the letter-sound associations as he or she learns to write.
With a solid understanding of how letters and sounds combine to make words, your child will be on the path to reading success.

How to be an Effective Parent Volunteer

There are many ways to stay active in your kid’s education from kindergarten through high school that will not only benefit them, but you as well.

In our time-crunched society, it can be a struggle to stay active in your child’s school.  Many of us work during the day, or have younger children at home and can’t come to school regularly to volunteer in classrooms, attend PTA meetings, be the party-planning room parent or chaperone field trips.  There are still many ways to stay active in your child’s education from kindergarten through high school that will not only benefit your child but you as well.
Children achieve more when their parents are invested in their education.  By being present at school conferences, performances, and competitions, children see that their parents are interested in them and their day-to-day life.  You get to see your child in the context of his peer group, meet his friends, and get a sense of the culture of the school. Children see you form relationships with their teachers and friends, and by extension, the school community.

What can I do?

Visit an elementary school on any given day and you will see a steady stream of parent volunteers signing in and out of the office.  The end of the year Volunteer Appreciation Assembly at the school where I teach in the Detroit area is attended by no less than 100-200 volunteers who have helped in some way throughout the year.
There are many opportunities to help in elementary school. You can:

  •  Listen to children read or practice math facts 
  •  Be a “Mystery Reader” and read a favorite book to your child’s class
  •  Copy or laminate teaching materials
  •  Plan a class holiday party
  •  Offer to present programs such as Art Smart or the Math Pentathlon
  •  Attend evening events (Halloween Party, Science Fair, dances and sporting events)
  •  Prepare class materials at home
  •  Help organize fundraisers, such as Box Tops for Education
  •  Chaperone a field trip
  •  Organize or participate in an after-school program such a Study Buddies, basketball, Spanish Club, Wordmasters, etc. 
  •  Help in the Media Center, shelving books or assisting with technology

There is a decline in parental involvement in middle and high school, partially because of the children’s struggle for independence and the importance of the peer group, and partly because many parents return to work as their children grow older. There are still many ways of staying connected to school.

  • Offer to take tickets at the door or run the concession stand at a dance or sporting event
  •  Chaperone field trips
  •  Attend sports, music, and theater performances
  •  Sign up for snack duty at sporting practices
  •  Offer to take photos for the school yearbook
  •  Attend Parent-Teacher Conferences and Open House Night to build relationships with your child’s teachers and school staff
  •  Work with the drama department to help build sets or repair costumes
  •  Run a fundraiser
  •  Attend school board and PTA meetings

How to be an effective volunteer

Schools and teachers welcome volunteers as important members of the school community.  Many active volunteers mean that schools can focus their attention on academics while still providing enriching, meaningful opportunities for the students. You can make it easier by:

  • Arriving on time
  • Honoring each child by keeping academic and personal information confidential
  • Communicating with the teacher any concerns you may have
  • Respecting limits (don’t be the field trip chaperone who arrives back at the bus with ice cream cones for his child and two friends).
  • Don’t expect privileges for your child because of your involvement
  • Don’t hover over your own child. Give him some space.

Both you and your child will benefit from your involvement in school. Your child will see that you value and are invested in her education and the school community.   You will see your child in the context of other children, friends, and peers, as she begins to establish an identity that is uniquely her own.

How to Crush Your Parent-Teacher Conference

This morning I received a reminder text from my son’s school that Parent-Teacher Conferences are scheduled next week. Thankfully, it’s not my first rodeo.

 Just this morning I received a reminder text from my son’s school that Parent-Teacher Conferences are scheduled next week. In the best Pavlovian tradition, my mind immediately recalled a couple lines from Walt Whitman:

As the time draws nigh, glooming, a cloud,
A dread beyond, of I know not what, darkens me.

In case you don’t understand my ambivalence, and lest you think I’m being overly dramatic, I will explain. In the beginning, when I was young and naïve, a newly minted mom so-to-speak, I cheerfully anticipated every opportunity to meet with my children’s teachers. I still vividly recall my first Parent-Teacher night.
As I approached the school, mounted the front steps and opened the industrial-strength security doors, I was happy almost to the point of giddiness. I anticipated what I was sure would be a delightful conversation. The teacher and I would review some sample work and test results, but that wouldn’t take long, and then we’d share some amusing stories all featuring my intelligent and charming son. We’d wrap things up quickly, pausing a couple moments for me to graciously accept her invitation to help host the school’s upcoming symposium on parenting.
Our conference was nothing like I’d imagined it would be. Nor was the one after that, or the one after that. In fact, you could say that I have been the one being schooled all these years. What I have actually learned is not to expect anything from year to year. I was just as likely to hear praise and receive commendations as I was to meet with silent (and sometimes not so silent) condemnation and recommendations.  
I am now on the tail end of raising six children, and while these highs and lows have kept me alert and engaged, I feel a desire to pay it forward and share some hard-won lessons with you, possibly sparing you some humiliation:   

Dress nicely  

Think Office Casual, if you will. If, for example,  little Katie has gained a permanent spot at the time-out desk, and you show up wearing a color-coordinated ensemble, hair combed and if possible carrying a day planner or iPhone,  then you will appear to be a reasonable adult with whom the teacher can negotiate. On the other hand, if you arrive frazzled, carrying an over-tired toddler and looking like you just finished putting out an oven fire, little Katie’s fate for the year is set.

Know your child’s name and the teacher’s too, if possible  

This seems obvious, but I know that after a day of non-stop conferencing, it is possible for the teacher or the parent to lose track of where you are and who is being discussed.  This problem can be alleviated when school districts refrain from scheduling high school, middle school and elementary conferences on the same day.  It is also helpful to have a spouse who is willing and/or able to share in the conference experience, but we won’t get into that at this time.

Bring reading material

Preferably something that appears intellectual, so hide your cozy murder mystery inside the dust cover of “Moby Dick” or depending on your school, “Atlas Shrugged” Despite all efforts to map out an efficient and optimal plan, the conferencing parent will eventually get stuck waiting in a long line. I find that taking along a good book helps me channel all my pent-up energy.  This is energy I will later utilize as I try to convince this same teacher that pinning Steven’s homework to his shirt is still a viable option even though he’s now in grade ten.

A good pair of eyeglasses makes all the difference  

One does not want to discover that after waiting in line for 23 minutes there are two teachers with the same last name and that is why the drill team instructor has never heard of Wesley. While this might give you cause for celebration, you have now wasted 23 precious minutes when you could have been sitting in your actual line, which now winds out the door. Actually, in the effort of full disclosure here, I have to admit that I occasionally use wait time to people-watch and the glasses are useful then too. Better yet, bring your sunglasses so no one knows where you’re looking.  

Accept that your child has a public life that can be quite different from his or her home life

I first discovered this when all my daughter’s middle school teachers complimented me on her sweet and charming disposition, while my son’s fifth-grade teacher voiced concern over how withdrawn he was. At home, my daughter’s angst over suffering the fools around her was tangible. She’d recently campaigned to paint her bedroom black and I had, for a brief time, worried that she was suffering from some rare optical disease because her eyes rolled every time I walked into the room. Meanwhile, her brother kept the family in stitches with his jokes and antics. Go figure.

Above all else, keep this acorn in mind: it will all be just fine  

When I first started out on this journey, all I did was worry. Was my child having a good educational experience? Were we creating an environment that was nutritious, loving and nurturing?  Was s/he making enough friends? Did s/he have too many friends at the expense of his/her education? What about the national deficit? Okay, I still worry about the national deficit, but with time I have worked through all the other problems. The kids are turning out just fine, thank you, and are, in fact, thriving. Also, because of some dedicated teachers, they’ve learned a great deal. I have rarely met a teacher who didn’t actually care about my child at least a little and most of them care a lot.     
So, I’ve learned to worry a little less and believe in things a little more, to relax, somewhat, and to enjoy the process, to have confidence in my efforts and faith in my kids. Actually, another verse comes to mind, this time a lyric from Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.

 

According to Science, You Really Should Push Those Piano Lessons

There are evidence-based benefits of learning an instrument (and learning it early.)

My four-year-old son was James the train for Halloween.
Don’t know who James the train is? Well, neither did literally any other person that we met on Halloween. Let me clue you in. James is a friend of Thomas the Tank Engine – a popular character on a children’s program. In fact, my son loves Thomas so much that I recently used it to con him into learning part of the theme song on the piano.
That’s right. He has the first 10 notes of the theme song down and, already, my wife and I are planning our early retirement. We are pretty sure this was the sign we were waiting for that he is destined to be a prodigy/genius. Who cares if he’s still running into walls; he’s a genius I tell you. GENIUS!
In all seriousness, my bait-and-switch method of getting him to play the piano was very intentional. I am well aware of the cognitive benefits that learning an instrument can provide for my children. I’m also a firm believer, based on my own experience, that having a healthy passion, like a musical instrument, can help keep kids on the straight and narrow.

The Evidence-Based Benefits of Learning an Instrument (And Learning It Early)

It increases brain matter

 In a 2003 study by a Harvard neurologist, adult professional musicians were shown to have a higher level of gray matter volume in the motor, auditory, and visual-spatial regions of their brain than non-musicians. In a later study, the same neurologist demonstrated that positive structural brain changes take place in young children – average age of 6.3 years – after only 15 months of musical training.

It helps stave off the effect of aging on the brain

A 2011 study showed that having learned an instrument can slow the aging process on your brain. In the study, researchers divided 70 older adults – ages 60 to 83 – into three groups: those who had studied an instrument for more than ten years, those who had played for one to nine years, and those who had never learned an instrument.
Each group was then given a battery of neuropsychological tests. The group that had played an instrument for the longest scored the highest in testing on nonverbal memory recall, visuomotor speed and sequencing, and cognitive flexibility.
A 2012 study by the same researcher confirmed the findings of the 2011 study and also suggested that learning an instrument before the age of nine and studying that instrument for at least ten years results in the greatest benefits. Those who met these criteria in the study outperformed non-musicians in verbal working memory, verbal memory, verbal fluency, visuospatial, and planning functions.
Learning an instrument, especially early in life, and sticking with it has positive, long-lasting effects on your brain.

It helps keep kids on the straight and narrow

Another reason to learn an instrument is that you don’t end up in a van down by the river. Seriously, though, when I was in high-school, I was in marching band. Now, before you start making fun of me for being a nerd, I was on the drumline and I’m pretty sure that made me pretty cool. Like, way cool.
When I was in drumline, we spent hours a day together, practicing, goofing around, and eating. All those hours working and having fun together meant forging some pretty tight bonds. I didn’t want the validation or acceptance of the drinking or drug-using crowd. I had my gang and I loved it.
My life outside of school and drumline consisted of playing guitar in our church’s youth group. Yet again, music introduced me to some of my closest friends. I traveled to Africa, Hungary, and even to different churches in the states playing music with these dear friends.
Learning a musical instrument connected me to other musicians and kept me out of the wrong crowds.

To force or not to force?

You know what I’ve never heard an adult say? “I’m so glad my parents let me quit piano lessons.” Do you know what I’ve heard nearly every adult that was once taking piano lessons say? “I wish my parents would have made me stay with piano lessons.”
My son is only four. I don’t have any personal experience with the “joys” of forcing him to take musical instrument lessons. However, based on the evidence, I can’t help but think I’m going to want to essentially mandate that he take lessons of some instrument. It can even be one of his choosing.
And so, Parent.co readers, I turn to you. What has your experience been? Can we tell our kids – much like we do with chores – that they must practice an instrument without being resent-worthy Tiger parents?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.

What Is the Value of an Education to a Stay at Home Mom?

Women are pursuing degrees in record numbers. But taking time off to raise a family once you’re that deep in debt makes many have to choose between the two.

It was an introductory sociology class my freshman year and students were debating whether women who wanted to be stay-at-home moms should get a college degree. One woman argued that they shouldn’t bother – it was simply a waste of time and money. The majority of the class disagreed, some quite fervently.

At the time, her comments certainly rankled me, even though I had no idea what I was planning on doing with my life. And while I still think it is absurd that anyone would argue against women getting an education, now that I am a stay-at-home mom with a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree, I find myself thinking of that conversation often. What was the point of all that education? What am I doing with it now? Was it just a waste of time and money?
When my husband and I got married, we were both graduate students. Our decision to attend school simultaneously raised a few eyebrows, but I was adamant I would not play the role of the supportive wife who worked to put her husband through law school, promising herself she would take her turn “later” when the “time was right.” We were certainly on a tight budget for several years, but I have no regrets about the path I took. Even when I ended up quitting my job only a few years after graduation.
After six years in school, I might as well have used that Master’s degree in Anthropology and Public Health to wipe my baby’s bottom.
While I haven’t heard anyone debate the worth of educating future mothers since my freshman year, there are striking difference in education levels between stay-at-home moms and working moms. Nearly half of all stay-at-home moms have a high school diploma or less, compared to 30% of working moms, according to the Pew Research Center. And this disparity in education translates into financial losses – nearly one-third of stay-at-home moms live in poverty, compared to only 12% of working moms.
While a large percentage of stay-at-home moms have attended college, the share of mothers with advanced degrees who stay-at-home with children is fairly small.  For moms with professional degrees, only 11% stay at home – 9% for those with a Master’s, and just 6% of moms with a Ph.D.
The majority of these moms with advanced degrees who do leave the workforce to care for their children suggest that they would have stayed in their career if their workplace offered a more flexible arrangement. With a lack of paid maternity or sick leave, coupled with the high cost of childcare, it’s no surprise many women end up putting their careers on hold for a few years. 
Once the children of these moms get closer to school age, seventy percent end up back in the workforce. Unfortunately, there is a high price for women who leave the workforce – even for a few years – as their wages and lifetime earnings can take a large hit.  
I scrimped, saved, and worked through my grad school years in part due to a nagging fear that if I did decide to stay at home with my kids, the last thing I would want was a massive student loan hanging over my head. I was lucky to land a job as a research assistant to help cover some of my bills, but many aren’t so lucky. 
The average undergraduate borrower has over $30,000 in student loan debt. For every woman who quit her job because of an inflexible schedule or the high cost of childcare, there is another wishing she could take some time off but is paying off a mountain of educational debt instead.
Despite the large percentage of women staying at home who do not have higher degrees, more women are now earning college diplomas than men – 37% vs 35%. Nevertheless, women are still earning 79 cents for every dollar a man makes. This gap in pay hits women for whom college is out of reach even harder – They work at lower wage jobs and they have less of a chance to earn enough to pay for adequate childcare.
Whether or not I use my degree on a day to day basis, I don’t regret my decision to go to college or graduate school. I have gained perspective and experience that has improved my life and that I can pass down to my children. I  learned organizing and management skills that I use while volunteering I have a sense of accomplishment from pursuing a field I wanted to study.
On the days that I do use it, I’m working as a freelance writer from home, a degree of flexibility in a field I love that I’m not sure I would have if I didn’t pursue an education. And if I decide to return to the workforce full-time, I’m glad I have options available to me.
Women are pursuing higher education in record numbers, but we still have more work to do to ensure that college is affordable and accessible for everyone and that our workplaces are more flexible and accommodating of working parents. Only then we can be sure that women truly have the option to pursue what is best for them and for their families.

How to Raise Scientifically Literate Kids

What can we do as parents to raise children who view information through a realistic, scientific approach? Let’s start here.

Imagine if our kids walked into their schools to take a test and told the teachers that all their answers must be correct because theyre using “alternative facts.” What if a true or false exam could never be marked wrong because the truth was left up to interpretation? The presumption behind the use of “alternative facts” is that whatever you claim must simply be accepted as truth, without proof.

I could go on and on about why this is a travesty to society and future generations, but let’s focus on what we can do as parents to raise children who view information through a realistic, scientific approach so that they don’t fall prey to such lies in their lives.

What is scientific literacy?

According to the National Academies, scientific literacy is “the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity.” A scientifically literate person has the capacity to:

  • Understand, experiment, and reason as well as interpret scientific facts and their meaning.
  • Ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences.
  • Describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena.
  • Read articles with understanding of science in the popular press and engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions.
  • Identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed.
  • Evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it.
  • Pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately.

Science is a tremendously critical part of our lives. We rely on scientific data to protect us from contaminated food, polluted air and water, and transportation accidents – just to name a few. Every time we go to the doctor, our lives depend on accurate medical information. When we go shopping, our health and safety are tied to numerous scientific studies that have identified which products are safe for us to use.

If we no longer believe in science, then we are no longer safe.

How to raise scientifically literate children

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an American astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, and science communicator – and also a father. During an interview a few years ago, he explained the importance of raising scientifically literate children. He said that it is important for children to be surrounded by situations that force them to think about how the world works.

Understanding science empowers them to not be taken advantage of and helps them to confront critical issues that impact their lives, and society as a whole. He emphasized that if children do not grow up to be scientifically literate, they will be disenfranchised from the democratic process.

We have the power to raise educated children who have the ability to evaluate the information presented to them. Here are some ways that you can instill a sense of inquisitiveness and scientific literacy in your children.

Read

From a very young age, read books about science topics to encourage your children’s curiosity and broaden their knowledge base. As they get older, encourage them to read about science topics that interest them, whether it be dinosaurs, outer space, climate, or computers.

Check out the National Science Teacher’s Association book recommendations, subscribe to magazines like National Geographic Kids, and find websites geared toward science education for children.

Watch

Seek out children’s television programming and videos that focus on science. My children loved watching Sid the Science Kid on PBS when they were younger, which is all about the scientific discovery process.

Now that my son is older, he enjoys watching Discovery Channel shows, including Mythbusters, which tests scenes from books or movies using experiments. I love this show because it really teaches the value of not believing everything we see, and instead to test ideas using the scientific method.

Visit

Take your children to awe-inspiring places where they can learn about science, such as museums, planetariums, botanical gardens, aquariums, nature centers, and zoos. Incorporate science into your vacations by hiking, skiing, fishing, and visiting places like national parks, lakes, and beaches. During these activities, encourage your children to ask questions about what they observe and enjoy a back-and-forth discussion.

Experiment

When it comes time to make birthday and holiday wish lists, be sure to add some science kits to your children’s list. My children have always enjoyed these. They’ve built their own model volcano, hooked up electric circuits to make things spin or buzz, and learned about measuring and chemical reactions using everyday products.

You can also set up your own experiments. It can be as simple as filling up the kitchen sink with water and testing different items to see what sinks and what floats. Be sure to ask your children to predict what will happen before doing the test, and then ask why they thought it happened after their observations.

Attend

Sign your kids up for extracurricular science and technology classes or summer camp. A couple summers ago, my son enjoyed a week at Camp Invention, and now he attends a local computer science class after school. These have been great opportunities for him to learn in depth about science topics that especially interest him.

Create

By incorporating simple science-based activities into your children’s daily life, you can inspire their interest in and love for science. Spend time together in the kitchen baking and explaining how measuring works and why baked goods rise in the oven. Plant a family garden and appreciate spending time outside learning about nature and then enjoying the food that grows. When your children need to take medicine, explain how chemicals affect us and how important it is to follow the directions on the bottle.

There are endless opportunities to bring science to the forefront of your children’s lives so that they begin to see the world through a scientifically literate lens. When you learn together, you make it incredibly meaningful, and most of all, have fun!

Phonics Instruction Can Help Your Kids Learn How to Read

Some educators and experts believe the phonics approach is old-fashioned and boring, impeding or even slowing down the learning process. But is it?

While we were wrapped up in the hustle of the holidays and still recovering from Election 2016, a triennial survey came out comparing the world’s educational systems.

For many countries, including the United States, the news was dismal. Reading numbers have barely budged and math scores have dropped. There’s been little media coverage of the results and what attention it has received focused mainly on math and science. In a world driven by technology, the ability to add, subtract, and write basic code now takes a front seat to reading – to understanding the very words on a page and articulating the fundamentals of our language.

Sadly, there’s sufficient data to support these findings. Only about one-third of fourth- and eighth-grade students in 2015 performed at or above the “proficient” level in reading.

According to Reading Rockets, a national multimedia literacy initiative, “Children may struggle with reading for a variety of reasons, including limited experience with books, speech and hearing problems, and poor phonemic awareness,”  or the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words.

Research from The National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) and other organizations clearly indicates that “deficits in the development of phoneme awareness skills not only predict difficulties learning to read, but they also have a negative effect on reading acquisition.”

Yet phoneme awareness alone is not enough. Children must also develop phonics concepts and apply these skills fluently in text, including identifying and manipulating units of oral language – parts such as words and syllables.

In his recently released Amazon bestselling book “Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What Can Be Done About It,” author and veteran cognitive neuroscientist Mark Seidenberg stresses the critical role phonics play in children learning how to read. As old as humanity itself, the most productive and efficient pathway to reading starts with phonetic speech – or phonics – the book explains.

Phonics relies on children being taught the alphabet first. They learn the names of the letters and the sounds they make. Once they’ve mastered the basic sounds, they can then add letters together to form words, grasp syllables and other basic language units, and so on.

It can take two or three days or even longer for a child to grasp one letter of the alphabet, which seems overwhelming to some parents. When they do catch on, however, there’s no stopping their young brains. Using the phonics method, most children learn to read basic words and sentences within three to six months. In fact, children can be up to two years ahead of their peers if they learn to read through phonics.

Education theorist Jeanne Chall said, “By the age of six, most children already have about 6,000 words in their listening and speaking vocabularies. With phonics, they learn to read and write these and more words at a faster rate than they would without phonics.”

Unfortunately, some educators and experts believe the phonics approach is old-fashioned and boring, impeding or even slowing down the learning process. They consider the “whole language approach” to be more effective.

Whole language is a method of teaching children to read by helping them recognize words as whole pieces of language – on sight, rather than by sound – and as whole words, rather than in smaller, multiple-letter units. Proponents of the whole language philosophy believe that language should not be broken down into letters and combinations of letters and “decoded.”

Yet, written language is often compared to a code, because it is very much like code when you cannot comprehend its meaning. When a child knows the sounds of letters and letter combinations, they can decode words as they read. Knowing phonics will also help your child know which letters to use as they write words. Phonics can benefit all children regardless of socioeconomic status, and is particularly useful for children at risk for learning difficulties.

Phonics instruction is most effective when it begins in kindergarten or first grade. Keep in mind, however, that there are various ways to teach and learn reading. Phonics is only one part of a comprehensive reading program, and some children learn better from one method than they do from another. Explore with your child and, together, find the way that works best for them.

What are your thoughts on phonics? Is it still an effective, evergreen method? Or is this process outdated? How are you teaching your child to read? Share in the comments!

The Best Way to Help Your Kids With Their Homework Is to Make Them Do It Themselves

Nearly half of all parents have done homework assignments for their kids. Make no mistake, it’s not helpful at all.

When a child comes home from school with a massive bundle of homework, it’s hard for a parent not to think, “When am I going to find time to do this?”

On paper, we know that our children’s homework is meant to be for them, but, in practice, it doesn’t always end up that way. Part of the reason we get so frustrated about the amount of homework our children get is that we know we’re going to be the ones who end up doing it.

Nearly half of all parents have done homework assignments for their kids. It’s not uncommon for a parent to scrape together a volcano for a science project and slap little Timmy’s name on it, or to fill out a few math questions your child just doesn’t have time to get through.

Even if we don’t do our kids’ homework for them, most parents believe that we need to help out. We want, after all, for our children to succeed, and what’s going to give them a better chance than an involved parent?

In theory, all of this makes sense, but, in practice, it doesn’t actually work out. Studies show that the more involved a parent is, the worse the child does.

If you want your child to do really well on their homework, the best thing you can do is back off.

Doing your kid’s homework actually makes things worse

When I was in the fifth grade, a classmate gave a presentation on the Seven Wonders of the World – with props. She insisted she’d done it all herself, but the class couldn’t help be a bit suspicious about the 10-year-old who’d hand-crafted plaster replicas of mankind’s greatest architectural achievements, to scale.

Most of her grade school work went that way, and, in a way, in worked. She ranked at the top of her fifth grade class. If that’s what her parents were going for, they succeeded. Unfortunately, though, Harvard doesn’t usually look at your fifth-grade GPA. By the time she’d made it to high school, her grades started to slip – and, today, she’s a waitress at a bar.

Studies have consistently found that getting involved doesn’t lead to better grades. It’s the opposite, in fact. We often want our kids to have the best project at the science fair or get a perfect grade, but we’re really just taking away from a learning opportunity.

When parents regularly help their kids do their work, they usually do worse.  The kids with the best grades, on the other hand, usually study on their own.

Trying to teach the way you learned just confuses them

When a child comes home with Common Core Math, a lot of parents want to throw it out the window and say, “Listen, this is how I learned it, and it’s a lot better.” Even if your way really is better, though, teaching it to them that way only makes things worse.

Studies have also found that trying to teach your kids at home usually leaves them more confused. Like most studies, this is a generalization. Some parents can make it work. We are talking about most parents here, and when most parents try to show their kids how to do their work, they generally create more problems than they fix.

You also run the risk of ruining your child’s attitude toward school. Your child will adopt your attitude to homework. If you’re telling them their teacher is doing it wrong, they’re going to believe you, and they’re going to have a much harder time listening and learning in class.

Letting kids do their homework alone helps

The best way you can help, according to a review of 20 studies on parental involvement in homework, is to set rules. Don’t do the work with your kids, but do make sure they’re actually doing it, and that they have a good environment in which to get it done.

Not only do kids do better when parents back off, but it lets them grow up to be better people. Doing homework on their own teaches kids to manage their own behavior, and that’s a lot more important than getting good grades in elementary school.

You’re not going to be able to do their homework for them in college. And let’s be honest – when your kids get to high school and start bringing home two hours of homework every night, you won’t have time to do that for them, either.

How you can actually help

We parents need to back off, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help. Dr. Harris Cooper, one of the world’s leading homework experts, has a few tips on how parents can help their kids succeed when they do homework.

Set up a good environment

Make sure your child has a distraction-free zone to work. Help them manage their time and make sure they have all the materials they need.

When your child does homework, so should you

If your child is reading, read the newspaper. If your child is doing math, balance your checkbook. That way, you let your child know that these skills are going to be essential later in life.

Help your child manage frustration

Part of doing well is handling frustration. If your child struggles, let her know that’s okay, and allow her to take a break.

Reward progress

Kids view homework as a way to appease their parents. Keep a positive attitude about their work and, if your child improves, let them know you value their hard work by making a special meal or taking them to the park.

That’s it. That’s all you have to do. Your kids’ homework doesn’t have to take up all your time. Just make sure they’re doing it, and back off. It’s not only going to save you time; it’s the best approach, too.

Don't Worry! Homeschooling Your Kids Will Only Make Them as “Weird” as Everyone Else

Of course there are differences between homeschooling and more traditional approaches to education. But the outcome doesn’t necessarily vary.

When we decided to homeschool our kids, it was widely touted that homeschooling’s individualized attention would result in better grades, higher-than-average standardized test scores, and most importantly, lots of scholarships to elite universities who would recognize my children’s inherent intellectual potential. Though they sound like a typical mother’s high hopes, these claims are not unsubstantiated.
Research studies, such as one from 2009 mentioned by US News & World Report, reveal that homeschooled youth who go to college graduate at a higher rate (over 65 percent as opposed to a little over 55 percent for those publicly schooled), while holding higher than average GPAs.
The US News article goes on to tell the story of San Diego native Jesse Orlowski who was homeschooled and later accepted into a number of name universities, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Princeton, and Vanderbilt, ultimately choosing MIT and double-majoring in physics and math.
Orlowski attributed his academic excellence to his homeschooling experience, praising its flexibility and extra opportunities to follow his curiosity. Stories like this one inspired me and fanned the flames of hope for full-ride scholarships.
I had also read that homeschooled children would be well-mannered, socially mature, and not prone to tantrums like other, well, normal children. Critics argue that public school provides the best venue for children to learn the social skills needed to get along in the real world, but homeschooling supporters point out that nowhere in the real world is a person placed within a group where everyone is the same age and doing the same tasks. In fact, some wonder if it’s really possible for children to have meaningful interactions when they’re immersed in such a large group of peers.
Though some homeschooling families pride themselves on shielding their children from any negative cultural influences, others, like professor and homeschooling parent Stephen D. Holtrop, say that guiding children’s exploration of culture is much more fruitful. Still, well-intended sheltering by some has given rise to the stereotype that homeschoolers are socially inept.
When my husband and I decided to jump on the homeschooling train, he had only one request: that our children wouldn’t grow up to be socially awkward or “weird.” So he took on the socialization and cultural studies portion of the homeschool curriculum. (I was stuck with English and algebra and it became clear who the “fun” parent was.)
My husband took our kids to movies, to play paintball, and made sure the way they dressed reflected their own unique style and taste. As a Rotarian, service opportunities like the United Way’s Day of Caring were plentiful, and he took them along to collect and sort canned goods.
One spring a nearby village was in danger of flooding, so my husband took our two boys, then ages nine and 10, to help other Rotarians and concerned community members fill sandbags to keep the flood waters at bay.
His socialization efforts were rewarded by the time our kids reached their teen years. They became involved in the local YMCA’s Teen Leaders group, an organization that connected with other YMCAs across the state and into neighboring states to plan service opportunities and fun leadership events for teens.
Several times a year, our kids would pile on a bus and travel three hours or so to sleep on the wooden gym floor at another Y. They raked leaves, painted, or played bingo with senior citizens at an assisted living home. There were some teen dances, too, and a few dress-up dinners. New acquaintances would ask where they went to school. After our kids shared that they were homeschooled, these new friends would gasp, “You’re homeschooled? But you seem so normal!”
Standing here now – 18 years, a few tantrums, and one 4:30 a.m. call from the sheriff later – I can say with confidence that all three of our kids are decidedly normal. Their bedrooms were always a mess and their standardized test scores were average. College has so far been a mixed bag with average or slightly above average grades and some failed or retaken classes.
I can testify that homeschooling will not create geniuses if they are not already geniuses. (Some have even argued that socio-economic status and a stable family probably contribute more to a child’s academic success than homeschooling does.) This observation doesn’t discredit the choice to homeschool. It simply removes homeschooling from a pedestal and places it on the same level as other educational options that parents have to choose from.
So perhaps the biggest difference is that a homeschooling parent has a front row seat to watching their children learn and grow. And then there’s the bond created among siblings who are homeschooled together. From the time we brought our daughter, the youngest, home, we taught our sons that they must always look out for each other and for their little sister. On one of their YMCA teen treks to serve at the Special Olympics in a bigger city, I charged them with staying by her side. “If she needs to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, you will escort her,” I said.
They did, and they even started including her when they invited friends over to play video games or watch movies, sparking a comment from one of their friends (whose stepsister would rival Cinderella’s), “Your sister is so cool.”
I loved every minute I spent homeschooling my children, but expecting grand outcomes – besides the joy that comes from a loving family bond – only creates unrealistic demands and pressures for both parent and child. Homeschooled children will be normal, with strengths and weaknesses, victories and mistakes, just like the parents who raised and educated them.
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Oak Meadow partnered with Parent.co to sponsor this post because they believe that a homeschool curriculum can be joyfully and artfully integrated into your life.