Posted by: Sara Carbone on: March 2, 2012
D was having a rough afternoon. We were at the big table down in his basement trying to study math facts for a quiz the next day. But no matter what we did – using cards, singing them, trying hand games – D couldn’t concentrate. Every 2 minutes he’d slide to the floor to roll around or kick his legs in the air. Most sessions, short fun breaks and a few laps around the table were enough to bring him back refreshed and ready to go, but not today. We couldn’t make it past 1+4.
D was a magical sprite of a boy with big round eyes and soft blond hair. Bright and articulate, he was a 4th grader struggling with reading and math skills. Some days he had a hard time staying focused in class and when doing homework. Today was one of those days.
Somewhere between 1+6 and 1+7 when I was racking my brain to see what else we could try, D hit on the solution.
He rolled and crawled his way over to some sports equipment in the corner. D pulled out a football helmet. Marching over to a nearby stool, he scrambled up and stuck the helmet firmly on his head. I quickly pulled up a stool. Leaning close, I could see his blue eyes peering out from the shade of the helmet.
“Ready!” he piped, voice echoing slightly.
For 10 minutes, with feet dangling and hands clasping the sides of the helmet, D sat perfectly still while we went from 1+1 to 12+12 and back again.
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Posted by: Sara Carbone on: February 29, 2012
Sara Carbone: What makes a great English teacher?
Elana: A great English teacher knows how to interact with their students and knows the text being read in class in an intimate way. He’s read the text numerous times and knows exactly what a student is thinking while reading through it. His teaching style is more one of discussions about the text and helping students understand the plot than just giving answers or having the students write essays about what was read the night before every class.
The writing assignments that a great English teacher gives are ones that include analyzing the text and going beyond what the text directly says. The topics in the writing assignment should also have previously been discussed in class so the students understand what they’ve read and know how to more easily write the paper. Because the teacher has already read the book numerous times, he should also be able to identify foreshadowing and metaphors the author includes in their text.
SC: What are some specific things a teacher does that make reading or writing a text simple and even interesting?
E: My current English teacher is one of the best English teachers I’ve ever had. He cares about his students’ success and is always willing to help out someone in need. To make my life easier as a student, he makes sure to briefly summarize the text we had to read the night before so that we always understand what’s happening in the book. He also answers questions we have about the text. When grading our essays, he makes very descriptive and clear comments about how to improve our writing. So when we hand in our revision, we are sure to get a better grade. He’s available a lot of the time so that we can ask him questions about anything and requires us to have what he calls a “writing conference” before handing in a revision to make sure we understand his comments.
Posted by: Sara Carbone on: February 26, 2012
Even the most confident kids have moments of doubt about themselves and school. Others struggle with anxieties about adult approval, their grades and their abilities. One thing you can do is help her create a list called 50 Positive Things About Myself.
Start with all the things she can think of, school-related and otherwise. Go through the different subjects together and write down things she feels she does well. Be specific – in math she carefully double checks all her computations, in Earth Science she really understands how clouds form. Look at sports, hobbies, friendships. List both personality traits (great listener) and physical attributes (soft skin).
Ask questions: What would your friends say about you? Coaches? Teachers? How about at Sunday school? That time you helped the neighbor’s son with his homework? Throw some adjectives out and have her pick the ones she likes.
Only if her list isn’t particularly long should you add your own thoughts. When the list is done, place it somewhere she has easy access to it (and it won’t get lost). This way she can pull it out before a test she is nervous about or just when she needs a reminder about how wonderful she is.
Some thoughts: 50 things can feel like a lot. That’s the point. With a big number, she is pushed to really look at all the nooks and crannies of her life. If 50 isn’t long for her, make it 100 or 200! And it is key that this list comes from her as much as possible. It is her way of acknowledging herself and forming her own positive perception of herself.
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Posted by: Sara Carbone on: February 24, 2012
Is it torture to get him to read? Does she speed through a required school book? Is reading “boring, stupid and hard?”
There are two types of reading these days for elementary school age kids: reading for school and reading for fun. Sometimes the two overlap, sometimes not. In any case, the goals are for your child to meet the requirements for school reading and maybe actually want to read on his own. You can help on both fronts.
1. Read with him whether or not it’s for school. If possible, make it a quiet one-on-one ritual. Cozy things up by creating a special spot in the house – complete with stuffed animals and pillows. Take turns reading out loud, either by paragraph, page or swapping off with dialogue. Read expressively or with a silly accent. If he absolutely refuses to read, read to him or to a sibling while he’s also in the room. Try the book on tape (long car trips are ideal). A benefit to reading with him is that you can get a real sense of whether or not he’s struggling with reading and what seems to trip him up. This gives you good data when working with teachers and other learning professionals.
2. Bring the book to life. Watch a movie version if it’s available. Create a journal together about the book as she reads in which you do mini-collages, write back and forth to each other or come up with adventures for the characters. Act out pieces of it or make a craft based on the plot or an interesting character. Check out the companion websites for book series, like Magic Tree House, and get on local library activity lists to attend their book read activities. Some libraries even align their activities with what is being read at the nearby schools. This isn’t to pile on a lot more time to a busy schedule; aim for maybe just 10 minutes or so some nights or on the weekend.
3. Create a special spot for reading. Doesn’t have to be elaborate – maybe just a child-sized bookshelf with lots of books around his interests. Add a cozy chair for two so you can sit together. Cut windows out of and decorate a refrigerator box or stick a small tent in a corner. Add books, pillows, a flashlight and some toys that relate to the books in it. For quiet concentration, put it in his room. If he does better in a more social atmosphere, pick a high-traffic room.
4. Keep reading materials in prominent places. Around the house leave books, magazines, graphic novels and comic books out where he can see them. Pick topics he likes. Horses, baseball, Pokémon, American Idol, whatever! A magazine article on Sponge Bob or a printed copy of an online review for the latest Lego video game. Stick an enticing story or website on your laptop when he goes to borrow it. For a child who is allergic to books, just reading something of his own volition is fantastic. And don’t give up. The book may rot on the table for weeks until he picks it up (probably when you’re not looking).
Posted by: Sara Carbone on: February 22, 2012
More tips on how to advise the child whose book report has so many negative comments it looks like it was dipped in red paint.
Do start with something positive.
Any time a student and I are going over work, I start off with the strengths.
Examples: “Excellent structure and very clear topic sentences. Now let’s look at your quote usage a bit more.” or “You nailed converting fractions on this test. Nice work! I do think we should talk about long division next.”
It works like magic to ease stress they might feel about the work or my reaction. Plus they’re more willing to hear anything critical I might have to say afterwards. Do this even if you have to dig (“your handwriting is so neat!”). And when I talk about the negatives, I try to use neutral language – “unclear phrase” over “wrong words” and “a tricky area” over “one of your weaknesses.”
Keep your observations concrete and specific. Point to a particular question on a test or a specific part of the writing or studying that isn’t working. That way she can address it more easily and it helps encourage her to tackle other parts of the assignment. I find that vague, generic feedback is hard for a student to problem solve and it can feel overwhelming.
Too vague: “Why didn’t you do well on the test?” or “You should have studied longer.”
Better: “Your teacher says you were vague on this short answer. How could you have been more specific?” or “I remember you studied for an hour the night before, maybe two nights of an hour each would have given you more time to review the Lincoln/Douglas debate.”
Do validate their experience.
Even when you don’t agree with it. So what if it isn’t true that his math teacher is out to make his life a living hell? It’s how he’s feeling at the time. Saying something that seems to discount his feelings only creates a wall between you. Authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish write, “if we want to free their minds to think and learn, then we have to deal respectfully with their emotions.” They suggest simply acknowledging what your child is feeling. Avoid stuff like defending the teacher and analyzing or denying your kid’s feelings. Otherwise, he may feel ignored or not heard.
Rather than:”Your teacher wants you to do well” or “You must have done something to provoke her”
Try: “You sound angry about this teacher” or “That must have been frustrating”
Once he’s cooled off, he might be willing to take a second look at things with you and problem solve. It’s key for him to feel that he can share what he’s thinking with you because he perceives you as someone who understands what he’s going through.
Don’t lose your cool.
Very hard sometimes, but so very key. Child psychologist Michael J. Bradley writes, “The louder you are the less they hear.” And if you get overly upset it’s harder for you to think clearly and really assess what your kid needs. It’s true that sometimes showing a moderated amount of upset or anger can actually help a kid see the impact of his behavior. Just remember to keep a lid on it enough to still have him hear you and feel heard.
Questions for readers: What have you found to work around giving advice? And what have been some of the road blocks around advising your child?
Posted by: Sara Carbone on: February 20, 2012
Sara Carbone: What do you think teenagers typically struggle with in school?
Joyce Meiklejohn: A kid who is not doing well in school or making poor choices is very unhappy with his circumstances. Much like the adults around him, he has no idea how to improve his situation because he doesn’t know why he’s doing poorly. It makes me think he is a victim of his own adolescent stage of development. There is so much going on in his life and his head. School comes with academic and social pressure. Trying to navigate both, successfully, can be quite difficult for a teenager. In addition, if he doesn’t learn easily in the classic public school method, he has to almost teach himself.
SC: What do you think he tells himself in these circumstances?
JM: I often wonder about the conversation a kid has with himself when he makes a poor choice and what he tells himself when he’s dealing with the negative results of that choice. If either Grace or Erick study for a test and don’t do as well as they thought they should, I think they tend to be self-reflective (“did I study enough, in the right way?”) which is good. But kids can also plan so that the ways they are learning are ways that work best for them. Grace, for example, can re-read her notes, etc. and she is all set. Erick does a better job explaining outloud, or drawing diagrams, etc.
SC: How do you give feedback?
JM: When they come to me with something they are struggling with, I avoid yelling or losing my temper. It doesn’t work. I also avoid vague, generic feedback and point to a specific question or part and ask “what do you think went wrong on this question?” Outlines or guidelines for something like writing help too. This way I’m asking them to do a self assessment while trying to put it in perspective – that it’s not the end of the world.
SC: What else have you learned about how to help them?
JM: The best way to develop your kids’ self motivation is to separate your emotions and needs from their needs and be willing to let them struggle through sometimes – two of the hardest things to do as a parent. For me, English and social studies were courses I loved and did quite well in. With both my kids, I had to understand that these classes may not be academic areas they love. I needed to understand that how they do in school, what they like has nothing to do with me as a parent. My job is to help them acquire the skills to be independent thinkers, good listeners, kind people and to be independent of me.
SC: How do you remember this when things get rough?
JM: It helps if I can step back and take a deep breath and acknowledge that everyone has something they struggle with. Struggling helps build resilience and self confidence. If my kids fail or fall, I reassure and support them, but sometimes I need to step back and let them mess up and learn from it. Everyone makes a choice, that upon reflection, is a “bad one.” But if I make all the decisions for them and never let them struggle, what are they going to do when they are on their own? Erick sometimes forgets some of his homework. I tell him he gets 2 times per semester when I will drive him back to school to retrieve anything he forgot. He has to make the choice about when to use those times.
Posted by: Sara Carbone on: February 18, 2012
Your grade or middle school child’s science or history textbook can be pretty dry or hard to understand. Doing things to clarify the material and bring it to life can help if he’s struggling.
Go over the textbook with him each night. Talk about it to understand events, concepts and themes. Decipher the bolded words that are confusing and create a little notebook of vocab words defined in his own words, as often times book definitions use words he doesn’t know. Also, try to bring the subject to life by relating it to real life now.
Example: Explain that an oligarchical government in ancient Greece is like Bill Gates and Donald Trump running New York State
Example: Check out the plants out back when doing photosynthesis or Mendel’s theory of inheritance
Point out the more interesting and easy parts of the textbook, like the visual aides. Maps, photos and graphic organizers can be a lot more fun than words on a page. Also, try reading the preview summaries or questions in the beginning of a chapter, note its section headings and discuss the chapter’s review vocab and questions at the end. Answering questions about a topic can help get the info into his head more easily. If there are concepts that are confusing for both of you, note them with a sticky or a question mark so he can ask about that in class (teachers love this!).
Some extras if you are feeling ambitious. Create notecards of the vocab words and the key concepts (again in his own words). Go visual: cruise the Internet for images or videos that bring the info to life or use some of the great visual reference books from the library like DK’s Eyewitness series. And since repeat viewings of info help, preview the next chapter they are about to cover (ask the teacher for which one, as they jump around sometimes).
Question for readers: What are some activities you’ve used to bring homework to life?
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Posted by: Sara Carbone on: February 16, 2012
Does your kid eat and sleep video games? A child’s addiction to video games can be worrying. It may also be a point of contention between you. One option is to turn the obsession into a learning experience. Here’s some ways to do so.
1. Have her write about them. Non-creative writing can feel hard, overwhelming or even meaningless for some kids. But writing about something she is “expert” at helps. She can create persuasive paragraphs to practice things like topic sentence writing, using details and arguing a point. Sample topics: ‘Are video games too violent for kids?’ or ‘Why is DJ Hero the coolest game?’ The two of you can even write back and forth debating on issues related to games: ‘Are game ratings needed?’ or ‘Should parents limit how often kids play video games?’ Another option is writing game reviews – after reading samples of reviews online for inspiration.
2. Try creative writing. He can write a story about a favorite game character (the non-human ones would be interesting!). Or he can write from the perspective of an intimate object or a completely original character – maybe one he wishes the game had. Have him use stuff like all five senses or interesting adjectives. If it helps, keep the video game open as he writes. He can game and then pause it to write down ideas. The immediacy of playing the game can get creative juices flowing and help him capture tricky things like character emotions or setting descriptions. For young writers or kids who struggle to get thoughts out, try a story game I use. Create a story by taking turns writing sentences. You: ‘Link carefully lowered himself into the dark tunnel calling back nervously “Makar, follow me very slowly, cause it looks dangerous!”‘ Him : ‘Makar went into the tunnel too.’ Then he feels supported and you can help push the story forward, throw in things like dialogue and demonstrate strong writing. If he’s really young, try using game action figures or stuffed dolls to act out stories (one 5 year old I know loves to carry his Luigi and Mario dolls around and to entertain himself and others).
3. Consider game design. Designing games takes her hobby to another level. She can learn things like story and character design, animation and programming. And she can design for a number of platforms too, like the iPad and online games. Free versions of software like Game Maker and Microsoft’s Kodu are available online. Kid game designing is being embraced by organizations like summer camps, schools and major companies. There are design competitions for kids like the Kodu Cup and The National STEM Video Game Challenge launched by President Obama.
Posted by: Sara Carbone on: February 13, 2012
B was one of those smart, jaded kids who was “not living up to his potential.” He was a likable young man with real depth and strength to him, having survived some things a teen shouldn’t have to. And B hated school. Was bored stiff in class, blew off his schoolwork and lacked the skills to pull his grades out of the cellar. Our tutoring sessions were often a kind of dance – me bobbing around, waving workbooks and lists at him while he shifted restlessly in his seat, doodling or sneaking texts on his phone.
But lately he had began to listen a bit, seemed to be taking in some of what I was saying. So one night I pulled out Jorge Luis Borges’s poem Paradiso, XXXI, 108. I scooted my chair over to where he slouched and began to read this graceful, erudite poem aloud. Every few lines I paused to discuss what was going on, to ask B his opinion of what he heard, of what he thought Borges was telling us. We spoke of faith and dreams, of terrible loss and the idea “that God may be all of us.” We moved slowly through the piece, holding each exquisite phrase up to the light.
And he got it.
B’s face changed as he realized the power of the work. His body stilled and he looked at me in something like wonder. He told me that what we’d read was “incredible and powerful” and that it had “blown his mind.” B was rocked to his core in that moment. For the very first time a poem had reached across time and space and touched him.
I drove home that cold February night wrapped up in the warmth that comes from knowing I had been a part of helping a young person find the beauty in learning.
Posted by: Sara Carbone on: February 11, 2012
Below are resources you can tap to help support your child in math – up to about 6th grade. She can use them on her own or with you. The list consists of books and sites that I have consistently turned to over the years due to their ease of use and strong content.
1. Mathematics Handbook Series by Great Source Education Group
Mini textbooks of all the basics. Clear layout, visually differentiated by color and graphic organization. Great reference books to have “on call” as he does his homework or studies for a test. And these days, some teachers don’t actually use textbooks (just handouts and/or a practice workbook), so it is key for some kids to have this around. Make it a staple on their desk and help them learn to use it (rather than guessing or racking their memory). Ones for older kids include a glossary of terms and formulas, handy charts and test taking tips. Titles: Great Source Math to Learn: Student Handbook Grades 1 – 2 (Math Handbooks), Great Source Math to Know: A Mathematics Handbook, Grades 3-4, Math at Hand – Grades 4-6, Math at Hand: A Mathematics Handbook (Math Handbooks) - Grades 5-8. The breakdowns by grades here are rough estimates as there is quite a bit of overlap.
Note: For straight down the line math terms – real quick reference stuff – try The Absolutely Essential Math Dictionary.
Though they have multiple subjects, their math section is very helpful. While there are some options for non-members, I highly recommend joining ($20 a year). You’ll have access to things like: a myriad of printable worksheets by skill and grade, test prep, multi-colored worksheets (fun!), weekly word problem worksheets and the ability to easily design your own mixed review sheets.
3. Princeton Review’s Roadmap to Math Series
State test prep guides – top notch. Easy to use, well organized and specific to the state you need. Not available for all states, but I sometimes use them anyway. I particularly like that each topic includes a brief reteaching and the books have two full length practice tests. In the intro they also describe what the actual test entails.