How to Solve Puzzles: “Dig it Out!”

Today is National Puzzle Day and when I read this in The Boston Globe, it brought back childhood memories of lolling on the floor playing Monopoly with my sister.  I tended to be an impatient partner, especially when others joined the game (why were they so slow to complete their turn?). I didn’t know it at the time, but by playing Monopoly, I was learning how to plan, predict, strategize, count money, and solve problems–all excellent math and life skills. Board games of all kinds are full of puzzles.

By eighth grade, I had discovered the puzzles in sewing.  I enjoyed sewing and made all of my clothes through college and beyond.  Figuring out how much and what kind of fabric to buy, laying out a pattern, estimating what 1/2  yard of 42″ fabric looked like, analyzing the directions, learning sewing vocabulary, making mistakes and then ripping out and redoing it until it was right — the skills were puzzles themselves. At the end of it, I had a new dress or skirt to wear.

There was plenty to learn about using a sewing machine, too. Choosing stitch length, modifying tension, learning how to thread the machine, and countless other small puzzles within the larger ones of operating the sewing machine. Sometimes I used my grandmother’s machine, an ancient black Singer that had different ways of operating–another puzzle to solve.

Usually my mother was busy in the next room preparing dinner as I sewed. There was no hovering or helicoptering from her. When I reached a tricky step and couldn’t figure it out, she’d say:

“Dig it out, Kathy! Dig it out! You’ve got to dig it out yourself!”

This annoying answer–why couldn’t she just tell me what to do?–always irritated me. I’d go back to the pattern’s directions. Reread them from the beginning. Hold the vexing piece of fabric up to the drawing in the directions. Turned it around and inside out to examine it. Match it to the directions phrase by phrase, even word by word, until I solved the puzzle of how to fit the piece.

As I matured, I discovered tremendous intellectual satisfaction and pride in figuring out sewing challenges myself,  I didn’t realize then how much I’d use those skills later on in life. The experience helped shape my teaching and parenting, too, particularly the idea of not jumping in to solve or eliminate the hard parts for children.

Whatever games your family plays (board games, chess, 1000 piece jigsaw puzzles) or hobbies that are shared (woodworking, gardening, knitting) take every opportunity to step back, be hands-off, and let your kids dig it out.

 

Open Your Door to Imagination

Think for a moment about how many times a day you look out a door or a window.  Do you gaze outside to rest your eyes or enjoy looking at a view?  Does looking at the sky or a pond help you de-stress or relax?

Henri Matisse painted this piece in 1896, when he was 27 years old.

Right there!–that moment when you relax and rest your brain–that’s the key to opening the door that leads to imagination, which has been the root of every step forward, the beginning of all inventions, and the seed of each new idea that moves humankind forward.

Sometimes people think that imagination is a thing that kids “have” when they paint a picture or write a poem in school, and that serious learning doesn’t take place until they move on to facts, figures, and formulas.  Over a century of educational and psychological research tells us that’s incorrect. In fact, it’s quite the opposite!

We need our imaginations our whole lives. Adults and children thrive when the imagination is fed with new experiences, new books, or visits to museums.  Our brains learn and our minds open wider when we create a piece of art or simply take time to think about the doodle we just drew in a notebook.

I offer a challenge to you and it involves an open door. Henri Matisse painted a number of works centered on views through windows and doors, but my favorite is Open Door, Brittany (1896).  The calm colors, the light and shadows–perhaps a slight breeze?–invite you to pause.

Matisse shows you what he sees outside that door. What about you? Imagine your own view through the door. Fill in the picture with ideas.  Shake them up and try on different perspectives.  Take a playful approach. Grow your adult brain with new practices and experiences and talk about them with your child.

The more you practice using your imagination, you’ll find a new window on how your child uses hers.  You’ll understand why and how she plays and thinks and grows.

Step into the new year by gazing through the Open Door.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Does “Education Spring” mean?

In 2002 the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was signed into law by President George W. Bush.  My colleagues in education despaired at the fact that (among other provisions) standardized testing would become a sole indicator of a student’s progress.

By then, I had been a school principal in two districts and knew that soon every dime, every school resource, every bit of professional development would be shaped by this narrow measure.  Teaching to the test became a fact of life. The urban schools I visited spent lots of  money and time on test preparation workbooks.  Some schools dedicated whole periods to “Test Prep”–considered a class in itself, alongside English, Calculus, Biology, Spanish and others.

Students in my university teacher preparation classes were affected, too.  This is not why they chose to be teachers! I stuck to my philosophy shaped through experience:  that when we teach for understanding and we use interdisciplinary, project-based learning, students learn well.

“Consider chemistry. It  should never be restricted to a textbook or the lab. What is  your plan for teaching students that chemistry is part of their daily lives?” I’d say. We examined examples like this often.

Another belief I stated. “You are preparing your students to be active and educated citizens in a democracy.  A democracy is messy, just like learning.”  This perspective usually resulted in a new view of education’s purpose.

By 2011, reports of the Arab Spring uprisings for democracy inspired the world.  It was astounding to learn that regular citizens banded together using social media to organize large protests and topple suppressive governments. This movement mirrored that change that I (and countless others) believed necessary in education–an Education Spring.

Immediately I began this blog for principals, teachers, student teachers, parents and grandparents, caregivers, and anyone else concerned about progress in education.  My readers now span five continents.

I’m glad you are one of them.

Talk Like a Pirate Day

Wondering why so many people are wearing eye patches today? Or have parrots on their shoulders?  Or have taken to growling Arrrgh! at unusual moments?

It’s because today is National Talk Like a Pirate Day!

Did you find his buried treasure?

Drag out your old copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and read it aloud to your children.  Point out the author’s phrases that stand the test of time–“Yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum!”—is one that comes to mind.

My older daughter Jessica loved playing with Legos when she was young and her favorite was the Lego pirate ship.  Too pricey for our budget, we discovered her friend Alex owned it.  Their play dates became pirate ship dates that were never long enough for them to finish a story.

Pirate toys and stories spark a child’s imagination.  When you see children play with a pirate ship toy, you’ll hear them spin unbelievable stories, some which have recurring themes, particular characters, and amazing plots.  This is the sound of brain development!

Forget the “put away the toys” and let them leave the Lego or shoebox pirate ship out. Children return to continue their imaginative play when their creations are out and ready to go.

I read both of my daughters and all of my students plenty of gory, bloody, scary stories.  They thrill children and sharpen listening skills, critical thinking, the creative imagination, and the development of self-regulation skills.  (Watching scary, bloody, gory TV or playing video games loaded with violence do not do any of that.)

When you pick your children up at day care today or meet them after sports practice, give them an “Arrrgh!” to have fun and to celebrate the day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parent Talk: Natural Catastrophes

Today I awoke to news of continuing devastation by several Atlantic hurricanes, a deadly 8.2 earthquake in Mexico, and tsunami warnings for the Pacific coast of Central America.

Forces of nature like these transfix children.  Their natural curiosity makes them eager to know and understand more. We parents, however, need to monitor the ceaseless stream of media that bombards our children through radio headlines, television reports, cell phone alerts, and internet streaming.

The best way to strike a balance between satisfying a child’s curiosity and navigating media is through you.  At any age, your child watches and learns by your example.  Your influence, whether you are a parent, grandparent, or caregiver, is always the most important one.

For example, it matters how you explain and interpret natural disasters for your children.  Whether you are experiencing the disaster firsthand or live far away, I think that the late Fred Rogers’ wise approach works best.

To build on “always look for the helpers” talk with your child about what kind of helpers live in your community. Encourage your child to draw pictures and write stories about what they see and read, because the arts provide a unique resource for expressing thought and understanding.

Your older children may decide to collect money and send a donation to areas struggling to cope. Ask an older child to explain to a younger one why money can be a better way to help, rather than sending clothing or blankets.

When you invest time in teaching your children social-emotional skills like empathy and understanding, you are helping to create a better world.  It always begins at home with you.

 

 

 

 

“Little Ears:” The 2016 Election Results

Never do I recall teachers calming frightened students after an election. But that is what happened all day today in many, many schools.

Teachers reassured students from all kinds of families—some immigrants, some children of immigrants, their friends, their classmates, all while handling their own shock. In urban schools, administrators sent home letters and read announcements in many languages so everyone understood that their classrooms were places to feel safe and the adults would help keep it that way. american-flag

The harm and danger children feel is not just about racism and anti-immigration policies that have been made explicit for more than a year.

It’s also about how we adults behave and how we talk to each other. Attacking, bullying, blaming others, vicious name calling, derogatory chants, lying, verbal abuse, rampant misogyny, and deeply trenched xenophobia abound.

Under the guise of eliminating anything “politically correct”, children now see that speaking without a filter, without consideration for hurting others, gets a huge reward!

Years ago during adult conversations, my grandmother would sing in a whisper, “Little ears!” She knew, correctly, that I was sitting on the stairs listening to grownups talk. “Little ears!” was a warning to the adults to monitor one’s tone or words.

What steps can you take in your life to speak more kindly and discuss important topics more respectfully?  As I see it, that’s the only path forward.

5 Summer Reading Tips for Parents

book
“Books fall open, you fall in” (David McCord)

Almost every student has a summer reading list to conquer.  Some children love summer reading and can’t wait to dive into the books. Other dread it. If your child dislikes required reading, I have five tips for you:

  1. Start early and space reading out over the next few weeks. Plan a related reward for each book.
  2. Is there an assignment to complete after the book? Find the directions and make sure she understands what to do before reading. That way, she can pick up cues as she reads. (Even better: Ask her to find the directions and read them aloud to you.)
  3. Create a routine and a comfortable place to read. In a treehouse? By the pool? Tucked away on the porch with lemonade and cookies?
  4.  If a book is challenging, have everyone in the family read the same book, together or separately.  Invite grandparents to read it, too. Then talk about it over a book dinner.
  5. Complete the assignment right after reading is finished and keep it out where your child can see it.  She’ll use it in the following days to remember what the book is about.

Everyone responds to praise and don’t be afraid of using it abundantly while helping a child complete a summer project, a difficult book, or many books!  It boosts your child’s confidence when you compliment her thoughtfully and often.  Two suggestions:

  •  “Emily, I’m proud of you for sticking with that book. Doesn’t it feel good to accomplish something difficult?”
  •   “Luis, I love to see you disappear into a book.  I can see your mind learning new things when you read.”

Let me know how any of these work for you.

Stargazing, Jupiter, Parents and Kids

Gazing at the night sky is one of the pleasures of summer. The best place to view it is somewhere away from city lights or the yellow-y glow from shopping centers. The darker and clearer the sky, the better.

Toward the end of this month, you’ll see five planets in the sky, including Jupiter, where the exploratory spacecraft Juno, after its five-year journey, is gathering information we’ve never had before.  Here’s a video from NASA that explains Juno and Jupiter:

It’s difficult for most of us to comprehend Juno’s 540,000,000 mile trip to Juniper, or even a five-year journey in a vehicle. Our journey to explore the universe is a marvel of humankind’s collective curiosity and imagination.

The important thing to do, though, is to revel in the wonder of space, to let your imagination tumble around ideas and questions. When you talk with your child about big ideas, no answers are right or wrong. It’s the open exchange of ideas–and growing closer–that matters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The “Sloppy Copy” That Changed History

School kids learn that the first draft of writing is considered the “sloppy copy.” Rereading and revision is the writing process they are taught to use and it’s a good one. This summer you may see it, especially if a piece of writing is due on the first day of school.

This Fourth of July, tell your child about how thirty-three year old Thomas Jefferson authored the “sloppy copy” of the Declaration of Independence.  It was only after John Adams and Benjamin Franklin suggested revisions that one of our founding documents was ready to change the course of history.

Here’s one view of the Declaration of Independence in it’s “sloppy” form.

DEC. OF INDEP. 1
DEC. OF INDEP. 1

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, loc.gov

Flag Day’s Star-Spangled Banner

What do you remember about Flag Day celebrations (June 14) when you were in school?  You probably participated in a ceremony at the school flagpole.  Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts wore their uniforms on that day, and the Boy Scouts usually performed the honor of raising the flag.  This ceremony often included singing the Star-Spangled Banner.

If Flag Day fell on a weekend one of my grandfathers, a WWI veteran, made a solemn ceremony of putting out his flag.  During this task his attitude receded into silence and duty, which impressed me. We’d climb the stairs to the landing just before the third floor, where he’d lean out the window to attach the flag to the pulley.  The sound of the metal flag grommets clanking against the pole made a memorable sound to me.

In addition to Flag Day ceremonies, we school kids were drilled in the lyrics to the Star-Spangled Banner.  I’m not an educator who favors drilling to learn, but memorization has its place.

When you and your child put out your flag on Flag Day, see if you both know the words to the Star-Spangled Banner, written in 1814 by Washington, D.C., attorney and poet Francis Scott Key.

Thanks to the Maryland Historical Society Collection, all four verses of our national anthem are here.