“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

“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.

Who Was X in Your Family?

On the day I received my bachelor’s degree in music, my father told me that I was the first person in his family to graduate from college.  It was a fact I’d never known.

Years later, while digging into genealogy, I learned that my paternal grandparents–the generation that emigrated to Boston–received only a few years of schooling. Some of my great- and great-great grandparents had no education and used X to sign their names.


This didn’t surprise me.  My family lived in western Ireland, the area hardest hit by potato famine. Somehow they suffered through severe poverty, cold, starvation, and disease.  Their lives were about survival, not adult and child literacy.  X spoke volumes to me.

My story is not unique. Most immigrants share a similar tale of escaping poverty and disease in search of a better life and education for their family.  Look back a few generations in your ancestry and you’ll discover where your X is.


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.



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.


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.

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.



Piano Month and Chopin: Developing the Mind

September is National Piano Month and taking lessons is a great opportunity to help your child to develop her mind—think problem solving, listening, analyzing, focus, grit. I studied the piano for years and tenacity was one of the biggest skills I learned.

The first months, even years, of learning the piano is fun. The pieces are easy to play and the practice demands are few.

Chopin as painted by his once-fiancé, Maria Wodzinska.
Chopin as painted by his once-fiancé, Maria Wodzinska.

However, once a student gets to the third through fifth years, the fun turns to work and discourages many students from continuing. A lot of children take piano lessons (did you?) but lose interest after they reach the intermediate level.

Help your child stick to it when the going gets tough. Listen to piano music together. Play the works of incomparable composer Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) to wash your home in piano music. Load the dishwasher as you listen to a Chopin piece, or sit with your eyes closed and relax.

You’ll then be ready to enjoy the International Chopin Piano Competition in October!

10 Parent Tips for Back to School Night

Want to hear from a teacher, principal, and parent about the secrets of Back to School Night?

Feel free to print out this list.

10 Parent Tips for Back to School Night

1. Attend.  Make the effort to attend this critical gathering of teachers and parents.  Every child should have a family representative present.

2.  Bring a box of tissues with you so the teacher doesn’t have to buy them.

3.  Introduce yourself to the teacher.  Keep it brief and pleasant.  This is an opportunity to meet, not conference.

4.  Listen to the teacher’s talk.  It’s okay to ask general or clarifying questions.  You don’t want to be the parent who asks a long-winded question particular to their child.

5.  Take notes.  Not everything important appears on handouts.

6.  Find out how the teacher wants you to support your student at home.  Should you assist with homework or not?  Read every night?  How much help should you give on student projects?

7.  Walk around the room.  How are the walls used for teaching and learning? This applies to middle and secondary schools, too.  A blank wall speaks.  Jam-packed walls do, too.

8.  Look for evidence of creativity.  What have students made or written? If not visible, ask what opportunities for creativity are planned.

9.  Look for evidence of rote learning.  Memorization is okay to a point, even necessary at times.  However, rote and memorization should lead to understanding, using, and thinking.

10.  Send the teacher a thank you note.  Teachers rarely get these–so be the parent who appreciates the huge effort to prepare for your child’s Back to School Night.

Have questions? Email them to Kathy@Education-Spring.com

School Dress Code Wars

Back to school and new beginnings feel exciting, except for one thing—the dress code wars! I wonder if parents know how much time teachers and administrators invest in enforcing these rules. We want our children to dress safely and “appropriately,” a word that has different meanings for many.kids getting dressed  I hold two perspectives.

When principal of a K-8 school, I enforced a dress code of uniforms that were part of the school’s mission. Parents loved the uniforms because they were affordable and the parents associated it with high standards, belonging, and pride. However, many children came to school with shoes, shirts, pants, and other items that were not dress code.

Much of my communication with students became about what they were not wearing and to fix it. Go to the nurse, call your parents, borrow the right item out of the lost and found. As the year wore on, so did these tiresome, negative conversations.

Callout-round-leftIn contrast, my daughters attended a junior-senior high school with no dress code. Saggy pants? Go for it. Tank tops with spaghetti straps? Perfect. Shorts and flip flops in the snow? No problem.

Except that “belly shirts” were the fashion and my younger daughter fought me mightily over wearing them. It was extremely hard being a parent and holding the line.

What began to change her mind? A teacher, who began a conversation with the students in his class:

“What message are you sending with your clothes? Why?”

This teacher kept the conversation going for a few weeks, until the students had taken enough time to talk and really understand the issue, and from many points of view.Callout-round-left

That school’s mission was to teach students how to think. Doing this takes time and thought.

A teacher’s relationship with students should be deep enough to talk them through struggles that affect them daily. Let’s think about this. Consider the message. Is it one we want to send? Let’s think about who we are. How do we want to present ourselves?

A dress code may not be part of the curriculum. Teaching students how to think? It’s never out of style.