Monday, January 28, 2013

The Daily School Report: How was your day? Fine...

Parent: How was your day?  Child: Fine.  Parent: (sigh of frustration)

Breath Eleven:

My children attend a quaint neighborhood school.  I feel comfortable inside and outside this school.  I have made my face known. I frequent the school through my visits with Frederick and James in tow, volunteering, or simply dropping off items for Lee and Jane.  Perhaps part of my confidence and comfort level parading our stroller brigade through the school is that I was formerly a teacher; or perhaps because a few of my former co-workers, and a personal friend (aka James’ mom) work at our school.  Regardless, I have made it a mission to know the school, learn the names and the roles of adults who work in our school. I gain this information from my children, other parents, and teachers.  I also, learn the names of the students in my children’s classrooms, greeting them on the playground as they run to the tire swing.  I offer a good morning as they line-up for the school day, or as I pop-in the classroom to drop off forgotten and required tennis shoes for gym class.  Why am I being obsessive, intense, fanatical or just plain psycho-mom? Well, it is simple- I want to know what my children are doing at school.
 I want to know who they are playing with, what they are learning, and how they are doing.  I would venture to say that all parents have this desire.  In fact, playground chats with parents have indeed told me that they rarely get information out of their children about their school day.  To be honest, my children are big on sharing and jabbering about their day.  I just don’t know where they get the gift of gab from (wink, wink.)  However, even I need to probe deeper to get the information I desire.

Generally the information I seek is based on the following ideas:

 1. What is my child learning?  topic, skill, subject

2. How are they learning it, practicing it, being presented it?

3. How is the learning environment?

4. What were the social interactions among peers during the day?  (During learning/work time in the classroom, in specials, and on the playground or free choice)  Who are their friends?

Similar to a detective, I actively seek out information about each of my children’s surroundings, and I fish for information in a strategic twenty questions way.  I ask peers, teachers, and parents to help me develop a deeper insight.  I am persistent.  I am an unrelenting mother, protector of my children.  It may seem strange, but there is actual strategy and thought into how I delve into the detective work.

Here are my strategies and questions that I pose to my children:

1. I visit the classroom.  I look at each area in the classroom. 

There might be a word work area, a classroom library with bookshelves, baskets, book boxes and pillows.  There could be math boxes containing number charts, counters, ten frames, math books, playing cards or flash cards for fluency practice.  Perhaps there will be a carpeted area where morning meetings are held, community circles, read-alouds, mini-lessons, modeled writing, and shared writing take place.  There could be tables/desks placed in pods where children have their own space to work.  A behavior system chart might be present, though hopefully not (that is a post for another day).   There may be round or kidney-shaped tables, where teachers, assess skills individually, meet with small groups for math, reading, writing, and oral language groups.  And finally, you might see a class schedule posted in the room.  Look for your child’s name and where they sit.  Where does your child sit on the carpet?   Where is their work displayed- in the classroom, outside the classroom?  Is his/her name on the behavior chart (if there is one)?  Look at his/her math and reading boxes. These are all things that will help you in gaining understanding of the coveted, questions “How was your day? What did you learn today?”

2. I check-in with the teacher.

 I attend parent –teacher conferences and open house.  I go to PTO meetings, family fun-nights, and drop-in after school occasionally.  If I have time, then I volunteer my time.  While I do not email or call daily or even stop the teacher in the hall each morning, I always say good morning, and if there is time, make small talk and generally make myself easily available if there is an issue or I have a question.  A friendly face and a quick chat is all that is necessary.  I try to be respectful of the teacher’s time, since it is a precious commodity for them.  Being friendly and inviting leaves the lines of communication open.   

3. I ask my children specific questions.

Based on what the teacher has said and what you know about the classroom and your child’s schedule you are ready to begin your fishing expedition.  It is important to give some thought to when you ask your children these questions.  Twenty questions directly after school does not work for my children. Directly after school, I do ask the uber general question, “How was your day?” and then let them play. Usually, I receive a “fine,” and a backpack swung in my direction.  Occasionally, I get tears and we quickly proceed home.  It is on the walk or drive home that I begin my questions.  Then the questions commence later at dinner, sometimes during bath time, finishing up around bedtime. Staggering the questioning allows for space, thought, and continued conversation between you and your child throughout the evening.   

Here are some specific questions that I use on my own children.

  • Tell me about something you did today in school.
  • What book did your teacher read aloud today?
  • Who is in your reading group? Math group? Oral Language group?
  • What is in your math box?
  • When do you use your math box?
  • What book did you read out of your book box?
  • Where did you read your book box books today? Did you read with a buddy or independently?
  • Who did you play with at morning recess? Lunch recess?
  • What did you play?
  • What did you talk about in community circle?  In morning meeting?
  • What did you share today?
  • What specials did you have today?
  • Who was your partner today?
  • Sometimes, I list each child in the classroom and ask how their day was.  This prompts stories, gives me insight into what my child thinks about each student in their class.  It opens discussions on how to work with diverse learners and how to choose partners and friends.
  • What did you write about today?
  • Who did you sit by at lunch? On the carpet? At your table?
  • Who was absent today?
  • What was your favorite thing about today? What was the worst thing about today?
  • Where do you work best in the classroom?  Who do you feel you work best by? 

I might follow- up with a, “Tell me more about that,” or “Give me more details about that.”  These investigations may seem tedious, but they are fruitful in the information you gain about your child’s day. They also prove to your children that you are interested, involved, and listening. 

Here’s to revealing the details of the day detectives!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Off My Shelf

Breath Ten:

I read books for pleasure, to relax, calm children down, learn, teach, explore and discover;  however, I sometimes read books out of obligation too. I've had to read handbooks, articles, and text books for work and classes.  These readings challenged, surprised, invigorated and exasperated me.  When I read out of obligation versus for pleasure I read differently.  Sometimes it is with a notebook and pen for note taking, sometimes with great irritation at the task.  To be honest, I have also felt this way when one of my children placed a Disney Princess book or a Lighting McQueen book on my lap.  Give me, The Paper Bag Princess by Robert N. Munsch or a Dr. Suess any day. 
Let’s face it, not all children’s books are created equally.  I am certain that we all have these children’s books that are brain-numbingly boring.  Our children carried them home from the library, or we bought them to meet our children’s reading levels, or perhaps the book featured their favorite character in a movie.  While these books contain value to promote successful independent reading, or entice interest in books, they are not particularly enjoyable to the adult readers, nor are they laced with interesting dialogue or beneficial vocabulary.   Some of these books are indeed housed on our bookshelves, but I often find myself reading them with a sense of obligation rather than pleasure.  The only delight to be had in reading these books, are the snuggles offered by my children while reading.  I concur with C. S. Lewis, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” 
Devoting time to reading regularly with your children is one way to prepare your children for success in school and in our literate society.  The discussions that arise from books in our house, as well as the quiet and silly moments that reading provides, are some of my most cherished memories.  From sweets tales when they were infants, to entire bookshelves unloaded, books have surrounded my children. Frederick is only four, yet he regularly makes connections from books to our experiences and connections from one book to another book (educators would call this text- to -self connections and text-to-text connections).  Even the vocabulary that my children choose as they write or engage in a conversation reflects the quantity of written and spoken language that they have been exposed to. Reading books helps children to further understand the structure of language, concepts of print, introduces them to various text structures, and exposes them to rich vocabulary and glorious art, while also allowing room for imaginations to flourish and establishes that our written word contains meaning.   In addition to the educational value, reading quality children’s literature is an art that can be enjoyed by adults.  Personally, I love the beauty of the oil painting in, Come Along, Daisy, by Jane Simmons, yet can relate to the text as I often hurry my own children along.  (This was Jane’s phase of loving every book with ducks!)  Quality children’s literature provides poetry, endless supplies of fascinating facts from nonfiction, songs to sing along, and made-up words of Dr. Suess to capture each reader.  While I don’t drizzle honey on my books like Patricia Polacco’s character, Babushka, I too hope to pass on to my own children the deep appreciation for books and teach them that reading is as sweet as honey.  
Here are a few sweetened children’s books off my living room shelf.  As a former teacher, we have a monumental amount of children’s literature, but I promise to only share a few.  I cannot possibly say that these are my favorites, because my favorites are too numerous.  I can, however, say that I enjoy these books! I did not include any readers/ TV spin-off books, since you don’t really want to read them anyway. 

 Twelve off my Shelf:
1. Not Norman: A Goldfish Story by Kelly Bennett

2. The Mitten, Jan Brett     

3. Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site, by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld     
4. Mice Squeak, We Speak,  by Tomie dePaola  

5. SeedFolks, by Paul Fleischman 
6. Dog Food, by Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers     

7. Biggest, Strongest, Fastest, by Steve Jenkins
8. Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse,  by Kevin Henkes 
9.  Pinkalicious, by Victoria Kann and Elizabeth Kann
10. A Porcupine Named Fluffy, by Helen Lester
11. Thank You, Mr. Falkner, by Patricia Polacco
12. You Can’t Take a Balloon Into The Metropolitan Museum, Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman and Robin Preiss Glasser                                                                                                                                                                                                 

Quick tip:  While I let my children select books for me to read to them, I also get to choose a book to read to them.  We all get to take turns and we are assured at least one quality read aloud. 

What Children’s books do you have on your bookshelf?  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

From Here to There

Breath Nine

 “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere!”

~ Dr. Seuss

Tuesdays and Thursdays are our busy days.  We are always flying from there to here, and here to there.  From drop-off at elementary school for my big kids, to our morning routines of a nap, snacks, and lunch, to Frederick’s drop-off at preschool and then pick-up Jane, Lee, and our friend Kathleen at school, and finally to pick-up at preschool.  Yep, I usually need an extra cup of coffee on these days, a deep breath, and a prayer of patience.
This Thursday at pick-up after greeting my lovelies and/or having backpacks tossed my way, I quickly checked in with James’ mom (a friend and teacher at Lee and Jane’s school).  I turned to wrangle in Lee, Jane, and our friend Kathleen from the playground.  We needed to book-it to Frederick’s preschool!  Instead of staying close, however, they decided to go sledding. Ugh!  So I hollered to Jane and Lee to hurry over (it may surprise you that I can really project my voice)! Kathleen was already close by.  Jane raced to down the hill towards me, and Lee looked at me, and then proceeded to plead with his pal to hurry because he wanted to go down one more time.  A little irritated, I once again hollered, “Let’s go!”  He looked directly at me… and still went down the hill on his sled anyway.  I marched over with my blood boiling and firmly shouted “I am furious!” Needless to say, he decided to hustle my way.  I am okay with giving my children frequent reminders…not with them blatantly ignoring me. Well, several parents turned my way in surprise and we raced to the van. 

Mom flipping out is one quick way to get children moving; however, it is not a pleasant way to get from here to there.  I understand that my nine year old will test me and challenge my requests with questions of why.  I suppose parents of older children will attest to this as being only the beginning.  Well, I personally would like it to be the beginning and the end of this behavior.  However, that is a blog for another day.  My children are indeed exceptional, and I say that from a completely biased perspective. (I could, however, provide evidence from current and former teachers, friends, and family that would confirm this statement.) But I digress.  I hate to be late, and I hate to rush my children. With our busy schedule, we are never on time- we are either too early or we are late.  I travel with a pack.  There are always negotiations, stuck zippers and lost mitten search parties.  We are bundled up for Wisconsin winter.  It is difficult to determine the best time to gather our gear and suit-up with a pack.  It is also just as difficult to calculate the time it will take to get from here to there with the pack.  We try to walk to school daily.  Most days it works out.  Some days it just does not, and since we are flexible, or teaching children to be flexible, we roll with it.  Again, I wander. Wandering, moseying, and shuffling, one way we get from here to there. How do we get from here to there when there are funny things everywhere?  And how do we get there on time without freaking out on our children?
The following are ten strategies I have used, for how to get from here to there, (aka school) and enjoy the funny things everywhere:

1.) I utilize a large jogging stroller to get from here to there.  It provides space for two small, pokey children, holds backpacks that weigh children down, and provides space for sticks collected along the way to school.  My children are avid collectors of sticks.  They frequently morph into weapons, walking stick, whacking sticks, or more recently writing tools for the snow. Each stick we collect on our walk must be saved, so in the stroller it goes.  A stroller is a wonderful thing!  I’m not sure what I will do when I don’t have one.

2.) On Monday, Wednesday, and Fridays, my children ride their bikes to school.  They can race way ahead of me and we are not usually late unless we have a bike problem.  We have predetermined spots where they ride and wait for me to catch up.  This is the quickest way we get to school other than driving.  Warning: The challenge is dealing with who is the lead rider and how far they get to ride as the leader.  Yep, these negotiations can slow us down.  Riding to school allows them to move at a speed they crave, and investigate their surroundings while waiting for me to catch-up. 

3.) While a rarity, Jason sometimes has off on days we have school, and I get to stay home with James while he takes the children to school.  With Jason’s long legs, and no-nonsense manner, the children walk briskly to school and Frederick gets what we call a giraffe ride (a shoulder ride and views the world from a different perspective).  I do not do the giraffe ride; I prefer the monkey-on-the-back rides. This is very difficult while pushing a stroller, but it can be done. Frederick is typically the receiver of this ride; however, Jane has had short monkey-on-the-back rides at times.  Poor Lee has to walk, or it might be monkey-breaks-mom’s-back.

4.) In spring and summer, we race to wipe dew off the grass, jump in puddles, and search and rescue worms. Each of these activities proves to be highly motivating and rewarding.

5.) In fall, we kick and crunch and collect leaves.  Rocks, acorns, and pine cones, are other treasures we hunt.  Wading through piles of leaves on the way to school, may not endear us to our neighbors, but encourages great physical challenge.  Our frequent conversations of colorful trees and busy squirrels keep us trudging along and occupied.  And, everyone knows that occupied and interested children fuss less, making it a successful walk to school.

6.)  In winter, we trek on the snowy mountains piled high from the snow blowers and plows.  We crunch ice from the puddles of yesterday, and we kick ice chunks deemed, hockey pucks across the sidewalk.   

7.) Sometimes a song and walking to the beat us moving.  My children really like Good Morning, by Phil Joel 

8.) One trick I have learned for a speedy walk is positioning Lee in front. With his long legs and fast movements, Frederick moves quicker to keep up, while Jane holds onto the stroller or my hand.

9.) Sometimes we play “I spy with my little eye” on the way to school.  This is a useful game for times when distractions from disagreements are necessary. We play youngest to oldest as in most children’s game boards.

10.) Divide and conquer is a tried and true strategy for happy trails.  We frequently bring a scooter and each child takes a turn on the scooter.  Again, negotiations on who goes first and distance each for each rider is determined prior to leaving the house.  Then I have two walkers and one rider and a stroller.  Divide and conquer!

(While our walks from here to there are brisk on the way to school, our walks from there to here are usually much more leisurely!)

Honestly, not all of our mornings run smoothly.  Sometimes I get fed-up and bark orders, I huff and puff about hurrying up, or I holler, “I am furious!”  It’s crucial, however, that my kids have a calm and kind mother most mornings to arm them for battle (oops…I mean prepare them for school and equip them to deal with, negotiate, and learn from other people’s children.) Similarly, greeting my children with compassion after school as we huff-it home is necessary, because after laboring all day, I want to be a haven for my children. It is from there to here they can share and rest in knowing they are loved and heard.  And, as we stroll to and from school, it is these small moments from here to there that teach us to appreciate and find funny things everywhere.