High Stakes Kindergarten

A recent story about kindergarten and the Common Core in The Boston Globe got me steamed enough to write a letter to the editor.

We teachers and administrators must speak out when articles like this one appear. I take seriously my responsibility to cultivate social justice in the world. The Common Core and other state standards do no harm as a road map. It’s when we set children up for high stakes testing that policymakers go awry.

Make no mistake, test prep is everywhere and in every grade. If your kindergartner comes home with piles of worksheets, well, there you have it. Just because a five-year-old can learn to multiply doesn’t mean they should spend time on it. No body of research on young children supports this type of learning.

Children from privileged families in well-to-do areas don’t attend worksheet kindergartens. Children from generations of poverty and illiteracy do. Yet they are the ones who need play the most, to help them develop into socially and emotionally healthy people.

All kindergartners deserve creative, loving, well-provisioned kindergartens—complete with wonderful play areas that include small furniture, blocks, dress-up supplies, tools, and homemaking areas with pots and pans.  It’s hardly an understatement to say that our society depends on it.

Do Pets School at Work, or Work at School?

To mark Take Your Dog to Work Day (June 26), I offer this piece from 2010, published at Lesley University as “The Magic of Mario and G Force.” Learn what a difference pets make in the classroom.

It’s a steamy spring afternoon in a city school. Twenty-six hot first graders in navy polo shirts plop onto the rug to hear their teacher read a story.Brown and white guinea pigs Afterward, she asks her students to write a journal response from the perspective of hamsters Mario and G-Force, the class pets.

Then the magic of this lesson unfolds. As students drift to different areas of the room to write, many of them choose to sit in the camp chairs arranged around the large hamster cage. It has tall rolling legs, bringing it right up to student level—perfect! This means Mario and G-Force participate as full members of the class, offering viewpoints from all 4 sides as they nibble, groom, and snuffle around.girl writing

Students who gather around Mario’s and G-Force’s cage sit as easily in their camp chairs as if they were adults sitting around a campfire, except they have journals in their laps. Voices drop to a murmur as students read Mario’s perspective aloud to themselves or review G-Force’s opinion with a partner.

Where is the teacher during this half hour of student writing? Not at her desk, which is practically invisible. She’s working one-on-one with two or three students as the rest of the class handles the writing on their own.

And their writing is terrific! Children show me some of their journal responses and I see spirited and imaginative writing, wonderful vocabulary, and students who love to write. Mario-G-Force-and-camp-chairs-as-writing-center is a blueprint for success if ever there was one.red guinea pig

For first graders only, you say? Not by a long shot. I’ve been in secondary classrooms with pets and comfortable chairs and they are the kinder, gentler places our adolescents need to support their growth and development.

Try some Mario and G-Force in your classroom. The results won’t disappoint.

Math on National Fudge Day

When I heard that today was National Fudge Day, I dug out my grandmother’s recipe book to find “Fudge Without Cooking.” Grammy reused and recycled many things, including two pieces of plywood from her friend Mrs. Bagelmann’s husband, a pharmacist. Inside, she handwrote, typed, or taped recipes on stiff manila cardboard pages.

The first page recipes begin with “Mrs. Potter’s Sponge Cake” and end with “Amalia’s Yum Yum Cake.” (Photo by K.Nollet, 2015)

Following a fudge recipe with children creates the perfect opportunity for practicing math skills. It’s a great way for students to help build confidence using math. Recipes involve other skills, too, like reading, comprehension, vocabulary, planning strategies to solve problems, thinking, rethinking, timing, and lots of measurement and estimation.

Ask students if this potato is right for the fudge. (Photo by K.Nollet, 2015)

Ask students if this potato is right for the fudge. (Photo by K.Nollet, 2015)

Plus, it’s fun to hear students hypothesize about why a potato is in the fudge.

Approach using this recipe any way you wish.  I’d probably provide the ingredients, tools, and a microwave and tell a small group of students that I had faith in their ability to figure it out.  Then, I’d assess them along the way.

For others who prefer to take it step by step, consider this approach:

1.  Students read the recipe.  Ask “What ingredients do you need and how much of each? What is your plan to obtain them?”

Shave a little chocolate off the block so children can experience the taste. (Photo K.Nollet, 2015)

Shave a little chocolate off the block so children can experience its particular taste. (Photo by K.Nollet, 2015)

2. Student read the list of ingredients.  Ask “What units of measurement are used in this recipe? What tools will you need? How is unsweetened chocolate different from a candy bar?  How many potatoes do you estimate make 1/3 cup?”

3.  Students explain the tasks that the verbs indicate, including if they need tools to complete them.  Ask them about melt, blend, mix, sift, add, knead, turn out, press.

(I encourage teachers, parents, or grandparents to let the child talk more than you do.  It’s easy to jump in and tell the answer, but don’t.  The best hands-on learning lets students discover on their own.)

IMG_3889

(Photo by K.Nollet, 2015)

Continue and release the responsibilities as much as you can.  Click on the recipe to enlarge it.

This recipe was originally printed in Parade magazine, in 1971 or 1972.  The Parade Food Editor was Beth Merriman and the photo was by Walter Strelnick.

 

 

3.

Flag Day, Vexillology, and You

Did you celebrate Flag Day when you attended school? Perhaps classes gathered at a special assembly, or around the flagpole outside.  The program was short and centered on patriotic songs and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, often led by a scout or a local official.

Flag Day rarely requires an elaborate celebration and it is more powerful, I think, because of its simple sentiment: we remain loyal to our country, symbolized by its flag. The youngest of us understand this, too, especially when they see older children carrying out a Flag Day ceremony.

One person who collects United States flags and knows a lot of their history is John Andringa of North Carolina. Watch this short video with children and see what you learn from this vexillophile!

 

 

 

Music for Trust, Focus, and Clarity

My children attended a high school that encouraged its students to listen to music if it helped them focus on their work. Neither ear buds, nor phones, nor iPods were banned.

Do you prefer piano music? (Photo by K.Nollet, 2015)

Do you prefer piano music? (Photo by K.Nollet, 2015)

I like this philosophy of beginning with trust. It shows both faith in a student’s ability to make appropriate choices, and then values the student’s choice.

Do you see the suggestion of raindrops in Chopin's score? (Photo by K.Nollet, 2015)

Note the suggestion of raindrops in Chopin’s score.(Photo by K.Nollet, 2015)

Students who were distracted by music received help or support depending on their needs. The teachers’ overarching goal was to help students learn what worked best and helped them concentrate.

For me, it depends on what the task is, so I adjust my environment accordingly. Favorite musical soundtracks, jazz, or early music are some of what I use. Today, I offer Frédérik Chopin’s (1810-1849) Prelude No. 15 in D-flat Major, also known as the “Raindrop.”  How does this piece work for you?

After Memorial Day

Memorial Day has its roots in the years following the Civil War. In the nineteenth century, on Decoration Day*, people honored their loved ones who died serving our country in war, by decorating their graves. In 1971, it was designated Memorial Day, a federal holiday.

Sarah Orne Jewett, author of short story "Decoration Day" (1892).

Sarah Orne Jewett, author of short story “Decoration Day” (1892).

I prefer the old name, though, because it conveys so much more. While some still decorate graves on Memorial Day, it has the feel of a day that is celebrated at-arm’s-length, like something that we watch on TV. That lulls us into forgetting that death—and great suffering—is part of war.

Perhaps you remember the controversial, reauthorized ban by President George W. Bush, on the media publishing photographs of our returning dead from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I believe that when we see the awful results of war conveyed by flag-draped coffins, we cannot hide from our responsibility to make peace.

What’s a parent or teacher to do with that huge agenda? After Memorial Day, teach toward peace. Teach children to write letters to representatives, senators,to the secretary of defense, and to the president, and express their opinions. Hang your American flag every day.

Photo by K.Nollet, 2015

Photo by K.Nollet, 2015

Most importantly, teach children how to make peace with neighbors, friends, and family, and then set the example.  Our world has never needed this practice more than it does today.

*Click here to read “Decoration Day” by Sarah Orne Jewett

Should Parents Help with Homework?

An article in yesterday’s Boston Globe about homework caught my eye.  Its subtitle is “Should parents nag, assist, or [let kids do it…]?”

Heavy backpacks are a health problem. (Photo by K.Nollet, 2015)

Heavy backpacks are a health problem. (Photo by K.Nollet, 2015)

I once ran an after-school  homework club for students. It began with a snack and fun conversation between the students and the volunteers who staffed it.  The environment was quiet but not silent.  All the tools students needed were in reach.  Volunteers circulated to answer questions and provide help when needed.  If students finished early, they read.  Then everyone played outside until their rides arrived.

Students went home happy and with the bulk of their homework complete.

Parents loved the homework club because it helped them understand the essentials of getting homework done–through conversations with me and a newsletter I sent home.  Snack. Relax. A quiet environment. Tools and help available. The student does the work.  Read and play.

Some commonly asked questions I received follow:

Do homework in a different environment. (Photo by K.Nollet, 2015)

Do homework in a different environment. (Photo by K.Nollet, 2015)

What if the homework is too hard?  Let the student do as much as possible alone.  Then help, but remember that helping is assisting, not doing.

What if the homework is boring?  Ask the teacher about the rationale for it.  Request a challenging twist for your child if you think he needs more.

What if the homework is repetitive, like packets of worksheets?  Ask the teacher why they are assigned.  Sometimes we parents learn that they are assignments that the student didn’t finish in school.  But homework should not be make-work, punishment, or mind-numbing for students.  If it is, discuss this with the teacher.  It’s okay to ask the teacher for modifications that help your child to love learning.

What if the homework consists of test prep?  Research shows that this kind of cramming test prep does little to raise scores, although it may help students with some types of questions. If a school’s curricula is well-designed, properly resourced, and aligned to the Common Core or your state’s curriculum frameworks, there is no need for burdensome test prep.

 

 

 

 

 

Common Core Plus S’mores

Our daily conversations are full of fractions and estimation:

I’m half way there…The project is 75% complete…About a quarter of a piece

What fraction best represents this slice?

What fraction best represents this slice?

That’s why it’s important to thread these skills into teaching whenever possible. And since this Friday, May 15, is National Pizza Party Day, pull out all the stops!

Remember math worksheets with pictures of pizza showing how     ¼ + ¼ = ½ ? Without a visual, it’s hard for some students to understand that when they add fractions, the piece gets bigger but the denominators get smaller.

Guy Fiori's S'mores Pizza.  Photo by Yunhee Kim, Food Network Magazine

Guy Fiori’s S’mores Pizza. (Photo by Yunhee Kim, Food Network Magazine)

This isn’t just for young children, either. I’ve known many students who needed the help of visuals and manipulatives right into high school. Providing these aids is not babyish, nor is it some kind of crutch, nor should it be shaming. Knowing that you need tools to help solve a problem is smart.

When you have a pizza party math lesson, it’s an interdisciplinary feast! Allow students to make the dough and choose their own combinations and amounts of toppings.

Will you use 1/2 of the bag? (Photo by K.Nollet, 2015)

Will you use 1/2 of the bag?
(Photo by K.Nollet, 2015)

Next, students write out the recipe using fractions and demonstrate making their pizza, explaining their math along the way. You might even have a taste testing to choose the most delicious variations.

Sprinkle about 1/8 of a bag on each slice.  (Photo by K.Nollet, 2015)

Sprinkle about 1/8 of a bag on each slice. (Photo by K.Nollet, 2015)

There you have it.  Common Core math and English language arts, plus a built-in assessment.

National Teacher Appreciation Week

Forego the mugs, the trinkets, the gift certificates. I speak for many teachers when I say, “If you must give me something for Teacher Appreciation Week, I’d love a handwritten thank-you note.”

Start with these two  words. (K.Nollet, 2015)

Start with these two words. (K.Nollet, 2015)

It’s the soul of teaching that matters to us teachers. Who could stick to such a difficult profession if there weren’t more than a marginal salary to it? We’re devoted to your children. We know we shape the world. We love the career that chose us. To us, it’s a calling.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t tough. One of my students, an Army vet learning to teach middle school math, told me that she thought teaching was harder than basic training. Student difficulties, family problems, and student social-emotional-behavioral issues affected how her students learn (or if they learn) every day.

Above all, National Teacher Appreciation Week is not about what parents or the PTA think that they should give to teachers. Help shine a teacher’s soul by writing a personal thank-you note, an act that speaks volumes to a teacher.

From Zymurgy to Zyzzyvas

IMG_3741

Photo by K.Nollet, 2015

Are you a dictionary lover? If so, you enjoy holding the book in your hands while browsing through its pages. You relish the distraction of looking up a word, because you see lots of other cool words along the way.

I never mind when students do that; in fact, I encourage it.  At their age, I’d visit my grandmother’s and tuck away in a corner with her 1937 version of Merriam’s Collegiate Dictionary, Fifth Edition. It was an adventure and I loved the last word in it, zymurgy (p. 1174):

IMG_3744

Photo by K.Nollet, 2015

 

leafhopper

Image from unvegan.com

Today I click on Merriam Webster online and get to the point without distractions, a real loss. Also, I need to know the word for which I’m searching, which takes the fun out of it. The last word in today’s unabridged version (you pay for it) is zyzzyvas, a genus of South American weevils. Notice the amazing snout of one in the photo.

There’s value in having physical dictionaries in classrooms and homes.  It’s not just about finding the word.  It’s about the pleasure of finding a word that’s your very own discovery, as you hold a book in your hands.

 

 

 

 

 

Image:  http://unvegan.com/reviews/a-nightcap-at-smokes-poutinerie/