The Routine of Obligation

Living in the Northwest, this is the darkest, wettest, coldest time of year. Add to that the continuing routine of school, extra-curriculars and day-to-day life and I usually enter March feeling pretty thirsty for change. When I homeschooled last year, seasoned moms warned me that this is also the time of year when homeschool parents and kids get burnt out. It is nice, then, to plan a little getaway to soak up new stimulation and break the routine of obligation. I decided to take the kids on an overnight “staycation” this past holiday weekend to the city. Seattle is about a 30 minute drive for us but it is just far enough away from the housework, scheduling, carpooling, and daily tasks to feel like 1,000.

I had some basic ideas about what to do but let the kids decide most of the activities. Of course, being 6 and 7 years old, most of their choices involved food and play. It sounded perfect to me. Besides keeping busy with fun, I also wanted to challenge myself to unplug a bit. I wanted to fully engage with my kids and really listen to them and enjoy what they had to share. Usually we are on the go and I am torn between quality engagement with them and trying to keep up with emails, phone calls, and appointments. I am very conscious of my tendency to over-obligate myself and have kept our business to a pretty decent level this year. But it all still creeps in. It distracts me from this fleeting time when my little ones are growing up fast and want so much to share with me. I put my phone away. I didn’t check email. I didn’t even pack a book or magazine. It felt good.

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Found at Playdate SEA

Highlights:

We enjoyed an exhibit at the Experience Music Project (EMP) called Block by Block: Inventing Amazing Architecture. The kids enjoyed some free building time before we explored the museum’s other exhibits.

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A minifigure hard at work on one of the buildings

On the 3rd floor of the EMP, they have a sound lab where kids and adults can try out different instruments and invite other players to join in. My son ended up jamming with a gentleman who was an amazing drummer. They became buds. It was pretty cool.

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Two dudes jamming

We got lost twice while making our way around the city. I love getting lost and discovering new places. Since we had no set schedule, the kids enjoyed “wasting” time talking and being lost with me.

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A beautiful mural I passed while lost

Each of my kids wrote me thank you notes. They left them for me to find. I loved it.

Dear Mom, I'm loving our adventure. It is almost the coolest one ever in the city. I like to explore a lot.

Dear Mom, I’m loving our adventure. It is almost the coolest one ever in the city. I like to explore a lot.

The view from our room was amazing. I have lived here most of my life but will never get tired of the cityscape.

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It was only a one-night trip but we all returned home feeling refreshed and reconnected. I know we are all busy but I hope you find ways to make the important people in your life feel loved.

Some more fun photos from our adventure:

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The Best Intentions

It is bound to happen. You plan, you prepare, and you feel ready to teach. Then things just don’t go the way they’re supposed to. This has happened to me as a teacher, as a parent, as a homeschooler, and as a parent volunteer in my kids’ co-op classes. When a lesson tanks, it’s easy to throw your hands up and admit defeat, but there is always a lesson to be learned for both you and your students.

As a student teacher, I had a group of 4th graders that I worked with weekly in math. It was the first half of the year and we were reaching our math goals like clockwork…until we tackled long division. Every week we learned the process. I made up cute stories about numerators and denominators to help them understand. I’d teach the lesson, we’d work together on a few problems, and I would feel confident that they got it. They’d go home on Friday as capable dividers and return to me every Monday with no memory of how to work the problems. This went on for a few weeks until I finally tabled the concept and moved on to something else.  Not a comfortable move for me. Toward the end of the year, we tackled long division again. This time, it clicked right away. That is when I realized that brain development is not just a term in textbooks. There are concepts that kids will not understand until their brain is ready. Lesson learned.

When I homeschooled my daughter last year, I made sure to include art lessons at least once a week. I love being crafty and creative and want to give my kids as much hands-on fun as possible. I made a sample project (oil pastels on paper) and explained the project to my daughter. As we dove in, we made small talk but I could tell my daughter was distracted. Before she even finished her project she was in tears. I honestly didn’t know what to do. We had worked on much harder lessons in math and science and nothing like tears ever happened. After she calmed down and I abandoned the lesson, she explained to me that she didn’t like her results compared to the sample I had made. She wanted hers to look just as “good”. I explained that art is all about expressing yourself and that no two pieces should look alike and that her work was great on it’s own. I felt awful. From then on, we continued our weekly art lessons but I never made a sample again. I learned about my daughter and her incredibly high expectations of herself that day.

Now that I am a volunteer in a co-op classroom, I am experiencing these kinds of challenges again except without as much control. I am not the kids’ teacher. The students only see me once a week for a couple of hours. There is a behavior system in place but I’m still not comfortable with when or how to implement it with kids I am still getting to know. The kids do not earn a grade with me. Plus, kids are plucked out of my group for assessments regularly, which makes it hard to engage them or help them catch up. It is challenging.

During my lesson this week, all of these elements came together to make a particularly lackluster lesson. Most of the kids completed their work but their engagement just wasn’t there. There were a couple of students who were tough to get through the lesson at all. I walked away that afternoon feeling frustrated and wondering if it was just a big waste of time. But I know it wasn’t. For some of the kids, school is the only reliable routine they have in their life. Me showing up every week shows them that there are safe adults who care enough about them to be there. Now, that doesn’t mean I will let them run amuck. They are testing their limits and learning about me too. Are they experts on the subject I taught? No. Did we all walk away learning a little bit more about how we work together? Yes. The kids can have an off day but they will come to understand that my standard for their behavior and expectation of them when they’re with me will not change. That’s good for all of us.

There is always a lesson to be learned.

National Reading Month!

“So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.” -Roald Dahl from Matilda

Teaching children a love of reading is one of the greatest gifts we can pass down to them. If you have any doubt why kids should read, then start here.

February is “I Heart Reading Month” and there are great activities to challenge kids to read like maniacs:

-Education.com has an “I Heart Reading” contest. If you commit to helping your child read four books by March 2nd, they will be entered to win a Kindle prize pack (which includes a Kindle, $250 Amazon gift card, and a t-shirt).

-Reading Bingo is always a hit with my students. Grab a free printable Bingo sheet here.

-Amazon has a great list of recommended books by age group. Check it out!

Have a child who doesn’t love reading? There are still tons of great options to get them interested. Try these:

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Kids also enjoy reading about themselves. Since my kids were babies, their grandmothers and I have made them little scrapbooks on Shutterfly that include photos of the kids and captions that they love to revisit and read.

Kids can also make their own books! Most teacher stores have blank booklets that kids can illustrate and author themselves. Blank books can easily be homemade too. Here is a handy-dandy tutorial.

If your child or student is more artistic, there is a fantastic line of books at Story Lines that tell a story but leave the illustrating to them. My daughter is a big fan. These are also my go-to for birthday gifts for kids.

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Just because a child reaches a certain age doesn’t mean they have to read books in that age range.  It’s great for them to have books that make them feel successful. I always have picture books on my bookshelf. Even my most advanced 5th and 6th grader enjoyed the story a good picture book has to tell. My favorite picture book author is David Wiesner. His tales are so engaging and imaginative and tell wonderful stories though most have no words at all. His latest story, Mr. Wuffles!, will have even the grumpiest reader hooked. Wiesner can tell you more about the story’s inception:

Of course, the best way to teach your kids a love of reading is to model it yourself. Part of my kids’ daily homework is 30-minutes of silent reading time. I make sure to sit down with my book and read during this time too. Make a reading goal for yourself this month and lose yourself in a good book. Thanks!

Kids and Technology

I’ll admit it. I have a love/hate relationship with technology. If it was up to me, I would still have a paper calendar and ask for directions from the guy at the gas station. Unfortunately, the world moves a lot faster than me and I’ve had to assimilate. My husband is the exact opposite. He is an early adopter to his core and works in gaming at one of the largest tech companies in the world. We have always worked to find a balance with our kids between the inundation of tech at the cost of their social skills and the kids being tech ignorant.

One of my biggest pet peeves as an educator is the oversimplification of tech education. Often it’s accepted that playing video games and teaching kids how to use a laptop or an iPad is all kids need to know about technology. Has anyone ever met a child who couldn’t operate an iPad?  My 6-year old son can download movies on my phone faster than I can and no one taught him to do it. When I was in the classroom, we were strongly encouraged to use laptops in class. Even the most cutting-edge school has outdated hardware. The laptops at my school hardly ever worked well. What was supposed to be an hour of tech time with my kids usually ended up being 45 minutes of me rebooting them and trying not to cuss in front of my students. There is also the misconception that playing video games is good tech training. Countless friends with kids interested in a future career in video game development have asked my husband what they should do to best prepare their son or daughter for a career in gaming. His answer? Lots of math. Being addicted to playing video games does not prepare one well for actually creating them.

Here are my recommendations for great ways to educate your kids about technology:

1. Teach them to code

Edutopia has a great list of apps that teach kids how to code. I particularly like the app “Move the Turtle”.

Code.org offers great tutorials for kids 6 and up that have familiar game characters and celebrity cameos.

Kodu is a Microsoft project that encourages coding through either the XBox or PC. Kids can create their own games including building levels and simple and complex state machines (the way a character knows what to do in a game).

Scratch allows kids to program their own interactive stories, games, and animations and share them.

2. Demonstrate the use of technology

When my daughter was ready to learn how to subtract double-digit numbers, we used Khan Academy to teach her about regrouping.

Geocaching is a fantastic use of technology. Download the app and use satellites, a smartphone, and geographic coordinates to find hidden treasure in your area. My kids love it!

Are your kids obsessed with QR Codes? For $5, you can download this bundle of math worksheets that lets kids confirm their answers by scanning the QR Code for each problem.

Last year I took the kids to a championship robotics competition. It was great to watch the robots complete their assigned tasks but the real fun was going behind the scenes and talking to the students who built the machines. We learned a ton!

3. Begin at the beginning

Here in Seattle, we are fortunate enough to have the Living Computer Museum. Every historically significant model of computer is on display in working condition. Visitors are encouraged to use them! For kids born today who use devices within their first year of life, it’s fun for them to see what amazing progress we have made since the first computer:

Finally, I have to recommend Snap Circuits Jr. as a fantastic introduction to basic circuitry and electronics for kids. My son, who got it as a gift, and I love working together on the more than 100 projects offered in the kit.

Have fun!