Family Storytelling at Thanksgiving

After the pumpkin pie is put away, take your phone and sit with a loved one in a corner.  Ask some thoughtful questions.  Listen and record (video or audio) their responses.

Why?  You’re participating in StoryCorps’ Great Thanksgiving Listen, by asking meaningful questions of someone close to you. Storytelling is an art form that links us humans through time.  Oftentimes, some of our most personal and meaningful stories come from loved ones, like grandparents, and we should preserve them whenever we can.

Here’s how to do it.

You’ll always be glad you did.  There is no greater act of love than listening, really listening, to another human being.


Talking With Kids About Paris

The images, audio, and news about the terrorist attacks in Paris worry all of us.   The war on terror is perhaps one of the most difficult things for us to cope with because of its sinister, cruel, and unexpected aspects.panneau-liberte-egalite-fraternite

How do adults stay informed while keeping children safe from the media onslaught?

These are three ways to handle it.

First, turn off the TV and radio.  TV delivers too much live coverage of violence for children to process. Even hearing gun shots and screams on the radio is frightening for many children.

Second, as a parent you have the power to shape the interpretation of what your children learn.  Monitor what they hear and know, then talk with them about it.

Third, find out what your children have heard, think they know, or what questions they have. Answer them simply and honestly.

-Yes, bad things do happen in the world. The grownups are doing everything they can. You are safe with me.

-Look for the helpers (borrowing from MisterRogers). See how many good  people there are?

If children ask, find a way to help them express their emotions.  Painting, drawing, or sending a card or message to the nearest French embassy work.

Thanks to my eighth grade French teacher, I learned La Marseilles, the French national anthem. In solidarity with the French people, there has never been a better time to sing it.



We Are One


Music Lovers Are Problem Solvers

Problem solving stretches far beyond a math lesson, into every facet of a child’s education. When you use music as an intentional strategy, you’re building music lovers who will be problem solvers. Active listening (what do you hear?), imagination (what are the possibilities?), and sustained focus (what do you think is the composer’s message?)

You don’t need to be a music educator, nor do you need to know a lot about music to do this. Here’s one way to build music lovers and problem solvers:

  1. Start with an easy-to-listen-to piece like The Moldau, by the Czech composer Smetana. It’s about a journey down the River Moldau and what pictures the composer paints along the way.
  2. Ask children to listen for small streams, a rural wedding, white water rapids, a stately castle.
  3. Discuss what everyone heard. Play the piece again. Have students  draw what they heard.

The results show you what children heard in an unfamiliar piece of music, what they heard their peers say, and how they learned to incorporate it into a larger picture.

It’s not a stretch to see how music lovers become problem solvers. We need more of them in our world, especially ones who listen.

Vocabulary for Achievement: Talk Your Way To It

Want to help your child do well in math and reading? Make regular trips to the library. Sing and play music. Take him to a zoo or museum. Above all, talk about these experiences together.

Studies show that the more a child learns new vocabulary words in conversation, the greater their achievement in school. What we talk about counts, too. While “set the table” is necessary transactional speech for us parents, conversing about rich topics introduces new and more complex words.

It's been a few days for this tree to turn from yellowy-orange to red? Or is that from saffron to cerise?

It took a few days for this tree to turn from yellowy-orange to red? Or is that from saffron to cerise?

For example, talking about a trip to the zoo uses words about unusual animals or habitats. A parent who works in biopharmaceuticals or who is a carpenter uses words particular to their employment. It enriches kids to learn new vocabulary words from every area of their family’s life.

It’s not surprising to learn that vocabulary grows depending on the way we use it with kids. Kids’ vocabulary grows when a parent talks in a supportive way. Here’s an example.

Recently, I saw a big, burly grandfather pushing a grocery cart with a little girl perched on the end. Her chirpy voice contrasted with his deep one as she described something she wanted to find and pointed down an aisle.

“Okay,” he boomed and nodded his head solemnly. “We’ll go up and down every aisle if we have to.”

Support. Undivided attention. Meaning what we say. We all learn more when we’re in that environment.

Listen and Learn with Spooky Stories

When you teach children to listen and learn with spooky stories, consider using my favorite, a performance by the Colonial Radio Theatre on the Air. Listen to a sample here.

Image from

The tale’s terrifying chase. Image from

You remember the tale about a schoolmaster with a strange name…a ghostly night…and a frightening, headless horseman. Accompanied by evocative music, it’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving.

We know that learning to listen is a life skill, but it takes loads of patience to teach. However, when you start with a topic of high interest to children—like spooky stories—it becomes easier. And radio theater is an art form that includes dramatic readings, sound effects, and music to engage the imagination.

1974 U.S. postage stamp. Image from

1974 U.S. postage stamp. Image from

I’ve taught children to listen toThe Legend of Sleppy Hollow many times.  I wrote key phrases on the board for children to think about and to listen for in context. Some children liked to draw during a learning to listen lesson–and you wouldn’t believe the terrific results!  Reenactments of favorite scenes followed the story. A good extension activity students explored was about creating sound effects.

When we work at teaching children to listen and learn, it doesn’t have to be drudgery.  Engage children through their interests and you are halfway there!

Cool Science: Why Are Trees So Pushy?

  • Enjoy this updated post from October, 2012.

Elementary science projects are not just for kids. Good ones  have something for everyone aged infant to one hundred! In autumn, your nearest deciduous tree has a lot to teach.

A Milford, NH, tree in all its glory.

A Milford, NH, tree in all its glory.

Make that tree into a cool science project. In fall, it’s experiencing the “Get-Off-Me Season.”

That’s what botanist Peter Raven calls it.  In this 2009 NPR story, he explains how trees push off their leaves when no longer needed.

To learn this science in nature, try the following:

  1. Listen to the 4-minute NPR story (transcript and pictures are below it).
  2. Take children outside for a walk. Observe trees in different stages of “pushing.”  Talk during the walk.
  3. Collect and display fallen leaves.  Include a branch with some leaves still attached.
  4. Ask children to write a story using what they learned about science in nature.

Ready, set, push! All that action at the end of a leaf stem–in a tree near you.

Science ideas like this one show how science in nature is available for all, both at home and in school.  This topic teaches listening, observation, discussion, evaluating, and creating–all skills that we reinforce in every grade.

Plus, any cool science project that involves a word like abscission is bound to be memorable.

Halloween Mathematics for Kids

Who doesn’t love to guess the weight of a pumpkin? It’s a wonderful Halloween math game for your children–and you!

We know that the best mathematics for kids is fun and engaging. Math is a developmental subject, which means that brain growth continues throughout childhood.  Enriched experience and mixing lots of math practice into life helps children become more capable and confident mathematicians.

In October Halloween math opportunities abound. How many apples in a bag? How many mini pumpkins in a pound? Are there tens or hundreds of seeds inside a pumpkin?

Think about ways to practice Halloween mathematics with kids at home, in the car, or at a fair. Below, enjoy this video of winners at the Topsfield (MA) Fair Giant Pumpkin Contest, courtesy of The Boston Globe.



Elementary Science Every Day

Maybe there isn’t a lot of science in your child’s school, or science materials, or time to teach science.


Looking east at 6:15 p.m. on Martha’s Vineyard (9/17/15).

The solution? Stop and look at the sky. It’s elementary science – on the ground, out the window, or in a car.

Identify clouds by name, as well as colors, shapes, wind direction, and the horizon. Have your child look up what they don’t know.  Play the what-do-you-see-in-the-clouds game to build the imagination.

The western sky, about 35 minutes later.

The western sky, same day, about 35 minutes later.

What time of day is this and how do you know?  What do the colors and shapes tell you?  Where do you see evidence of patterns and why?  If this were a scene in a movie, what do you imagine would be happening?

These are simple but profound concepts.  A lesson on a shoestring?  Not quite. In a brief conversation, you’ve taught a child to use facts, research skills, curiosity, imagination, reasoning, math, and science to explain their world.

That’s how we turn elementary science into nature’s poetry.

The Best Way to Teach Your Child to Read

Let’s imagine that you studied the clarinet as a child. You attended a weekly lesson, thirty minutes long. In between lessons, you practiced at home to make progress before the next lesson. Your amount of home practice determined what kind of progress you made after each clarinet lesson.

The Reading Lesson, by Emile Munier (19th c.)

The Reading Lesson, by Emile Munier (19th c.)

This is the best way to teach a child to read, too. Home practice makes all the difference. I know that some teachers ask children to read twenty minutes a night, but many fluent readers easily read for an hour or more. If your child is a struggling reader, several short sessions may be better. Think of twenty minutes as a minimum amount, rather than a maximum.

Also, there’s no magic script to use to help your child become a good reader. It’s more important that you spend time with your child and talk about the book before, during, and after reading. Try reading aloud to him, and then listen to him read aloud to you. Listen to audio books together and let your mind illustrate them.

Part of teaching a child to read is to create an environment loaded with print. That’s what teachers do, and in your child’s classroom you see words, poems, songs, and stories on the walls, on shelves, even hanging from the ceiling. It’s not about decoration as much as it is the best way to teach reading.

Still Life with French Novels and a Rose, Vincent Van Gogh (1887)

Still Life with French Novels and a Rose, Vincent Van Gogh (1887)

Likewise, think about where you keep print in your home. Are books, magazines, newspapers, and library books readily available? Using a Kindle or Nook is great, but children need to touch, feel, manipulate, and enjoy all the sensory pleasures of reading a physical book.

As for learning the clarinet, remember the old joke:

Q.  “What’s the best way to get to Carnegie Hall?”

A.  “Practice, practice, practice!”