Thursday, March 10, 2016

Bonding Over Fractions and Pancakes

My kids are going to know about fractions and basic fraction addition before they get to kindergarten. Seriously. And it isn't because they're little prodigies, either.

It's because we love pancakes.

About once per week, whether a dinner or weekend breakfast, Norah and I join up in the kitchen to whip up some flapjacks. She gets her special apron from the cabinet and I gather all the equipment she'll need. From her own special set I'll grab the whisk, the measuring cups and spoons. I'll take a big bowl down from the shelf, a bit bigger than really needed, but more forgiving to her developing mixing skills.

 Then, one by one, I'll get the ingredients out and we'll measure out the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, milk, and oil (plus the egg). This is where fractions come in. Right now, Norah's getting used to the vocabulary of measurements: a half, one quarter, two thirds, etc. Eventually, we'll move on to adding fractions: if we need three quarters of a cup of milk, but all we can find is the 1/2  and the 1/4 measuring cups, how do we do that? 


And, throughout all of this, Norah's helping daddy make something. She loves that, and so do I.

Except when she's trying to take a hammer to a $300 set of shelves I'd just finished. I have my limits.


Here's a little tip to brighten her day just a little bit. Put some pancake batter in a ziplock baggie and snip off the smallest bit of one of the corners. Then, "draw" something she'd like on her pancake, like a smiley face. Let it cook for a little bit so it's darker in the end, then pour batter over top of it. Your kid will love it.

As a bonus, if you want to score a brownie point or two you can put a heart in the pancake for your significant other.


Sunday, March 6, 2016

The New Era of Kindergarten, Part 2

It's important to mention that, as they say, I've got a dog in this fight. My kids are both under five and kindergarten is just over the horizon. Like most parents, I want what is best for my children and what will give them the best chance of success.

My kids are pretty active. Nathan is hardly past six months old, but a word best used to describe him would be wild. He's always in motion. His curiosity is incessant--he's always examining things and looking under things...when he's not trying to put them in his mouth.

Norah is four and loves, loves to learn. She wants to learn her letters and count things and ask
questions all day long, like "What's inside people's faces?" and "How do people grow?" BUT. I cannot imagine her sitting for hours at a time. She runs sprints in the house and has a trampoline in her bedroom.

Thus, I'm worried the current state of public education wouldn't just not allow for my kids to reach their full individual potential, but that it would dampen their zest and desire to learn.

The previous post in this series addressed some of the issues with today's kindergarten, aka the new first grade. In it, I discussed why learning to read in kindergarten isn't always a good thing and how the five year old brain isn't wired for a lot of the new expectations placed on it.

This post is all about fixes. As you might know, one can find research to prove any point of view. I found studies that declared our kindergarteners need more rigorous instruction in the same list of google results that included papers firmly stating our five and six year olds had no business even being taught the basics of reading. I believe I have found a good middle ground that balances out setting kids up for future success both inside and outside the classroom.

  1. Unstructured, natural playtime. This doesn't mean more playground time. Rather, it means time to play in the dirt, climb trees, roll down hills, and balance on anything elevated a bit off the ground (I know not all schools have access to forests. There are companies out there that build natural play areas). The benefits of this are many, including the encouragement of healthy development in all domains and improved creativity, problem solving, eyesight, cognitive abilities, social relations, and self-discipline. A lot of time spent outdoors also reduces stress and ADHD symptoms and improves physical health. More
  2. Unless a child wants to learn how to read and is ready, ditch the requirement. It's too much. Instead, teach the letters and phonetics and leave it at that. Read to them, tell stories, teach nursery rhymes, but not much time needs to be spent on anything beyond identifying letters and their sounds. Kids don't need to read in kindergarten, but this small step will set them up for future success. More And more
  3. Focus more on social/emotional health. Kindergarteners that show better social/emotional competence and get along well with their peers are less likely to go to jail and more likely to be employed in their twenties, among other things. More
  4. Boys especially shouldn't start kindergarten, especially how it is now, until they're six. Maybe at age five they could have a sort of special pre-kindergarten where the focus is still on play and social skills, as this paper recommends. Boys are set up to fail in the current system. They are less likely than girls to succeed in kindergarten, which could lead to stress and reduced academic self concept. Kids should come out of kindergarten wanting to learn, not dreading it. 
  5. Put the most focus on the skills that will help them learn and be successful. Persistence, problem solving, conscientiousness, self´control. Those are all things that will help the students for the rest of their lives. Getting it in early is the most effective way to do it. More
  6. There's already loads of great teachers out there. I'm going to put out my opinion that the best ones should be in kindergarten. According to this study, a great kindergarten teacher could be worth $320,000 for the effect they have on their students' lives, long term. 
I imagine I could eventually come up with more points to make, but that's a good start. I'd prefer something more Reggio Emilia, Montessori, or Waldorf-like for my kids that focuses on art, music, and independence, but private schools can be expensive. It would be great if public school met a few more things on my wish list. One can hope. 

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Simple Play

I took that picture on the beach of a small Fijian island. The amazing villagers were happy living in their grass huts and small, cinder block homes with tin roofs. They attended their small church every Sunday and had one of the best choirs you'd hear anywhere. On top of it all, they lived in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Living so far away from everything, there were plenty of things they didn't have. Television. Playstation. Tablet computers. Plastic toys of all shapes and sizes.

Wait, what?

If they don't have all that expensive stuff we use to keep our kids busy, then how on earth do they keep theirs from being bored?


They don't view it as their job to entertain their kids and instead let them entertain themselves. This boy is pushing around a curved stick, sort of like a small ski, with a longer stick. Plenty of the younger kids did the same, running up and down the beach, leaving lines that criss-crossed on the sand. Between this improvised toy and playing rugby on the beach, the children of Malakati village learned to occupy themselves just fine.

That's it.

Kids don't need a ton of stuff.

And sometimes simple is best. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The New Era of Kindergarten

United States of America: we have a problem. Remember back some decades ago when you were in kindergarten. Do it. Reminisce. What are you thinking about? Pretend play? Half days either preceded by or followed by a lot of outside time at home? Frequent art and music?

No more. (Check out this article, which shows how, since 1998, kindergarten has morphed into the new first grade.)

At first glance, this might not seem like a big deal. "Okay, our five year olds are learning to read. Isn't that a good thing?" After all, it must be, since Common Core says they should.

Not necessarily. According to a study released by Defending the Early Years and Alliance for Childhood, some kids might be ready to learn how to read, while it might be doing more harm than good to others. In fact, there is no research proving learning to read in kindergarten has long term benefits. See this study for more details.

But a lot of kids are successful in kindergarten. They learn to read. Awesome. How? Too often, it's through lessons that require sustained focus. Five year olds are required to sit and focus on a task, such as direct instruction from the teacher or on worksheets, and ignore distractions. If they are kids who struggle, ones who aren't successful, ones who get distracted easily, are constantly moving, and have a hard time planning and organizing, they are frequently seen as a behavior issue and just might get screened for ADHD.

This behavior is normal. 

The part of our brain that helps us focus and not be so impulsive is called the prefrontal cortex, located just behind the forehead. In three year olds this part of the brain is hardly developed at all. That would explain why my daughter ended up making her own "shopping list" with the crayons I had instructed her to pick up a minute earlier. Working towards a goal, getting organized, and showing self control is all a part of something called executive function. Between three and six, the prefrontal cortex is developing quickly, but in years four and five it is still well behind age six. The graph below shows this pretty well. You can read this study for more info.

This means that five year olds are not developmentally ready for the demands the new era of kindergarten places on them, expectations that were left left to six and seven year olds in past years. Their brains physically aren't developed to the point where they're ready for that level of executive functioning.

To top it all off, while the intensity of instruction has gone up, the amount of free time and recess has gone down. The effects of this are big and include poor social skills, increased obesity, and behavior problems.

Don't get my message wrong: there are many, many fantastic kindergarten teachers out there. As I typically put it, we do the best we can in the system we're in. Even the best teachers have common core standards they have to address and ingrained beliefs about reaching goals that have to be overcome.

So these are the problems. What can be done to fix this? In part two of this post, I'll stop complaining and give my ideas.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Mights and Won'ts and Wills and Don'ts

Hey, look up here!
Up in the tree!
Have you ever once seen 
a better place you could be?

But, wait! There is risk!
A wrong step I might take.
And with a slip from up here
one of my bones I could break.

I might get dust in my eye
or a bruise on my shin
or fall in the dirt
with a scrape on my chin.

And if you say "Don't!" 
I won't risk, I won't dare.
I won't learn what I'm made of
while I'm climbing up there.

I won't build my muscles
or learn how to balance
or find out if climbing 
is one of my talents.

Say yes and I'll grin.
Oh, how I will climb.
I will stretch and I'll pull
And be up in no time.

Above the heights I once feared
On high limbs I'll sit.
I will shout from the branches
"Hey world! look at me! I did it!' 

I ask all you grownups,
please, please don't hover.
How can a girl grow
with helicopters above her?

Please don't tell me "Be careful!"
"Don't take risks or get dirty!" 
Should I also stay home
at least till I'm thirty?

Let me make choices,
I need room to be free.
Let me stand up and say
To the world "I am me!"

Friday, February 26, 2016

I've Been Watching You, Dad, Ain't That Cool?

Let's get one thing straight: I don't like country music. In fact, if you told me I had to choose between walking across hot coals and listening to nothing but country music for a year, I'd tell you to get out the lighter fluid.

Sometimes, though, music hits you just right. Rodney Atkins wrote this song, Watching You, that takes place mostly between his pickup truck and his barn. It talks about his son watching him all the time and learning from him how to act. 

I've Been Watching You, Dad, Ain't That Cool?
I'm your buckaroo, I want to be like you.

The lyrics are dead on.

Dads, your kids are watching you. All. The. Time. (Ain't that cool?)

They watch how you treat their mom (or other dad. I don't judge), if you pick up after yourself and whether or not you hold the door for the person behind you at the store. They watch how you act around other adults like you and people not like you, ones that are very old or very young, have a disability or handicap, and people of other races and nationalities.

Your actions teach more than your words. In watching you, they learn the definitions of honesty, integrity, and honor. They learn how to respond when they're upset--whether they can stay calm in the face of adversity and disappointment or end up telling their school counselor they have anger issues. What they see inside you and what you do--not necessarily what you tell them to do--is the type of person they're likely to grow into. 

As the wise old adage goes, monkey see, monkey do. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Adventures in STEM


Besides being one of the latest in a long, long line of hot terms in education, what is it? The STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education movement focuses on building critical thinking skills and applying them. There are whole schools dedicated to STEM, but the concepts are also meant to be incorporated into other subjects. 

Why STEM education? 

In case you missed it, the vast majority of manufacturing jobs have been sent overseas. That itself took millions of jobs away from American workers. There's a bigger problem, though: the factory model, where people worked from the early 1900s to just a few decades ago, is what our schools are preparing kids for: a job where they have a role, are told what to do, and do it over and over. No thinking outside the box needed. Many of theose jobs are gone. Replacing them is a high-tech field requiring the ability to think critically. This is where STEM education comes in. Many jobs now are in STEM fields and I imagine the field will keep growing. 

Less than 1 in 4 workers in STEM fields are women, which makes it all the more awesome that Norah told us she was making a list of all the things she wanted to learn on our way to the Adventure Science Center in Nashville. She loved the place and stayed excited the whole time. Definitely a great place to take kids in Nashville.

Encourage your kids to ask questions. Even the dreaded "Why?" I admit it makes me want to bang my head against a window when Norah asks why incessantly. One thing I'm trying is telling her we ask questions to learn things. If you already know the answer, you don't really need to ask.

Foster their innate curiosity. Believe it or not kids want to learn. They just want to do it on their own terms and at their own pace. Have patience. If you've got the time, let them look under rocks or try to float random objects down the stream or do whatever it is they're interested in in that moment.

Bottom line is, if you have the time you should let and encourage kids to pursue their curiosities, particularly if it involves figuring something out. This applies to any age, really. For these little ones, plant the seed that will become a love of learning and a base for critical thinking. In older kids, have them find the answers to their own questions and share what they've found. Their smartphone could be good for something, after all.