Writing a Love Letter to a Child

Some time ago, my husband and I agreed to stop spending more than $2.00 on a card. Later on, we scratched even the $2.00 and resumed our note writing. I say “resumed” because back in college, we wrote love letters to each other every week for two years.

I saved every one of his. Forty years later, I discovered them bundled together in our cellar.

His handwriting hasn’t changed much. He used his own voice, wrote in his style, from his heart. His love sings clearly and he writes about specifics—what he’s thinking of me as he rushes off for work, how he feels as he drives home. The letters said things that were meant only for me. Above all, he took the time to send it in an envelope with a stamp, something rare today.IMG_4572

Believe it or not, there’s a parallel here to home and the classroom. We educators are taught to give specific praise to a child. “You chose an excellent synonym for ‘yellow’” helps the child more than the generic “Good job!” Not that “good job!” is wrong, but it can mean anything to anyone.

It’s the same thing with Valentine’s Day cards. Why purchase generic messages? Write a handwritten love letter to your child, full of specific things that only you know and notice.

Also, remember that the best love letters are personal.  In forty years, your child might even have a bundle of them, in their own cellar, to rediscover.

Handshakes As Positive Discipline

A father with two little girls approached me at a school picnic. He explained that his daughters were new students, and that the older one, Maria, was a bit worried about starting a new school.

“Say hello to Dr. Nollet,” he said to Maria.

Maria lifted stepped forward and stuck out her hand.

“Hi, Dr. Nollet,” she said. “My name is Maria,” She made eye contact, her grasp was firm, she stood straight. A smile transformed her face.

The father said that teaching his children to look someone in the eye and shake hands properly was important to him. He’d been working on this discipline since they were preschoolers.

“I tell them anywhere they go in life, no matter what they become, it is important they greet people with a proper handshake and eye contact.”

When we discipline children, we’re instructing them. When we teach or discipline with respect, we teach respect for the other.

Positive discipline is effective discipline because it’s light-handed, substantive, and guides through practice. It lifts children up instead of putting them down while preparing them for life.

Here’s a wonderful video about mentors teaching children to handshake:


Democracy and Education, Kazoo-Style

Want a fun idea for teaching about democracy?

Hand out kazoos to your students and celebrate National Kazoo Day on January 28. Democracy—a system of the people, by the people, for the people—prevails because everyone can hum.

You can make kazoos out of recycled materials (toilet paper roll, wax paper, and a rubber band) or buy them at a dollar store. Hum a song into it that everyone knows in unison, harmony—it’s all up to you. Aren’t these kazoo choir students impressive?

Not everyone gets to play in a band. But with kazoos, everyone gets the thrill of being part of a large group. Whatever your contribution sounds like, it adds to the forward movement of music.

Here’s a group from 2008 trying to break a record for the world’s largest kazoo band. (There’s a long intro, so begin watching at 4:30.) 


Social Justice and Excellence in Learning

Today’s designation of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day reminds us to take his memory a step further.  It’s more of a call to action, for as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., asks in this speech to junior high students at a Philadelphia school,  What is Your Life’s Blueprint?  As you’ll see, he believed there was a three-part structure to think about.

The themes of social justice for all and excellence in learning are as fresh today as ever. Watch this speech with students sometime this week.  Then ask them, “What is your life’s blueprint?”





Video from Beacon Press on YouTube.com





Use What Talents You Possess

…The woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.”

I love this quote, attributed to Henry van Dyke (1852-1933). It encourages us to grow our talents and share them with the world. It’s also the way we encourage students to aim high, practice, and try even harder. It’s only then that we help them uncover new abilities, whether they are gifted and talented or not.

Think about this when you work with students in school today, and listen to The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi (1723). It’s recognizable to almost all and is full of energy of imagination.

Science at Home: For the Birds!

To help students learn to read, teachers design their classrooms as literacy-rich environments. You know how to support this at home, by having books available and reading with your child.

But did you know that supporting science at home is just as easy?


Chickadees scold in the background as a house sparrow fills up on mixed seed.

The key is to make the science accessible and a natural part of your home environment. A lot of science is about inquiry, wondering, and observation, which works beautifully if you have a bird feeder around.

My friend, Anne, was famous for her bird feeder outside the classroom window. Anne’s purpose was simply to share her love of birdwatching with children. Before she knew it, the students had made the feeder into a science center. They observed, developed hypotheses, researched, and persisted at finding their answers.

The results amazed everyone. Some students created complex spread sheets on bird behavior. Others drew birds and researched the different kinds of sparrows they saw. A few wrote stories and poems inspired by the bird’s lives. The important thing to Anne was that she’d introduced birds in a no-pressure way and let her students do the rest, even while their “regular” science lesson from a kit was underway.

Borrow Anne’s idea and see what evolves at home. Remember to just let it happen. It’s no secret that when children are given the opportunity to construct their own learning, it becomes memorable and lasting.

The Best Gift to Give Teachers

You cannot buy it in a store, nor can you bake it.  Your child’s teacher will prize it.  Teachers feel appreciated when they receive one. And you’ll free yourself up, too, from racking your brains for ideas or spending more money.


Every bit of the card was decorated by this girl, including front and back of the envelope!

Give your child’s teacher a hand made holiday card from your child.


This boy’s card came with a diploma–only earned if I successfully solved his math puzzle inside.


Begin by talking with your child about what he’d like to say to his teacher.  Scour for materials at home, because this is a use-what-you-have project.  Any kind of paper, crayons, markers, glue, fabric scraps, leftover glitter or buttons work.


This young child came from a home with very limited resources and used a freezer-wrap type of recycled paper. Her hearts told a story.

Then step back and watch your child create.

I keep hearing stories of teachers in wealthier districts who receive expensive gift cards for dinner, book stores, or malls.  Sometimes the room parent organizes these splashy teacher gifts, and participation is expected.  But why? 

A handmade card with a child’s own art and written message is priceless to teachers, who have taught your child all of these skills.






Unique Gifts for Children


You’re doing lots of gift-giving this month, no matter which holiday you celebrate.  Our family celebrates Christmas, but what I write here works for any December holiday of light and peace.


Painting by Jessie Wilcox Smith, who also illustrated The Night Before Christmas.

After each child of mine was born, I began a family tradition of giving and inscribing a Christmas book to our children every year.  Over time, they build up a sizeable library of Christmas books, with a different inscription to mark each holiday.

Adding an inscription—a personal message, signed and dated by you—on one of the first pages–turns a book into a unique gift.  I still have a few books given and inscribed to me before I could read. Reading an inscription from an older relative remains meaningful, even years later.

If you buy books for children this Christmas, here are four I recommend:

The Night of Las Posadas, Tomie de Paola (author and illustrator). Puffin Books. For picture book lovers.

Thomas Nast, Santa Claus

Illustrator Thomas Nast of the 19thc. gave us one of the most famous images of Santa Claus.

The Night Before Christmas, by Clement Moore; I like the version illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith.

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. (“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents!”).  The version edited by Daniel Sheely includes photos of Concord and Orchard House as well as fascinating annotations.  Remember that it’s a book for boys, too.

The Gift of the Magi, by O.Henry. in The O.Henry Short Story Collection. I like the 2009 volume published by Merchant Books.

Enjoy thinking up an inscription that’s special to the child and remember to date it. Whatever you write is unique because it comes from you, and will stand the test of time.



Classroom Environments: Compost or Clutter?

One of my friends, like me, is clutter-challenged. We’re simpatico not only because we’re teachers, but also because we tend to store clutter in “organized” piles or tote bags.

“Oh, I’m so glad you called,” she begins. “I just got through emptying 3 tote bags and you wouldn’t believe what I found!”

Then we’re off into a chat about the ephemera she discovered, its significance, and its relationship to people or events in past/present/future. It’s always a satisfying and wonderful conversation.

That’s what I mean by compost. Items unearthed give off the rich flavor of memories and experiences. But I can get frustrated in a classroom well before the tote-bag-compost-stage, when clutter appears strewn everywhere.

If clutter is in neat piles, does it count? Believe it or not, each pile has a theme.

If clutter is in neat piles, does it count? Believe it or not, each pile has a theme.

Therefore, I invented a game called “Twenty Things” for my students. Busy and creative classrooms are cluttered, and at the end of the day, my classroom floor was covered with paper clips, scraps, marker caps, glue sticks, and so on.

To play, each child had to pick up 20 things and put them away or throw them out. The 20 could be small objects, like popping a green pen back into its cup, or larger ones like books. It took five minutes because the kids raced through it. On their own, they expanded it into organizing bookcases and cleaning stuff out of the closet.

Afterwards, they worked out the mathematical results of Twenty Things:

25 kids x 20 things = 500 items

Five hundred pieces of clutter resolved! The game Twenty Things improves the classroom environment and delivers fantastic results. Why not let your kids try it at home, too?










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.