Monday, November 14, 2011

Fostering Your Child's Writing Skills

by Dan Gilbert

Children are curious creatures and they want to understand everything -- from why clouds appear in the sky to how the television works. They are also intrigued by what grown-ups are doing when they have a pen or pencil in their hand. When a child first gets hold of a crayon or marker and starts scribbling in zigs, zags or loops, they are making an effort to emulate you when you're writing.

“Children watch adults as they write notes, checks, and stories, and they are eager to begin writing themselves. Early writing is oftentimes labeled ‘scribble writing’ and is considered a legitimate form of emergent writing,” says Dr. Mary Zurn, vice president of education, Primrose Schools. Children are going to attempt to write long before embarking on their preschool education. These first attempts are going to look nothing like real words or pictures, but should be celebrated nonetheless. Your child is trying to learn how to write, and that is something very special.

Observe your child, and see what exactly they are trying to do with that crayon. “The first conscious attempts a child makes to write a letter are usually the first letter of his or her name. To an adult, the attempts may only vaguely resemble the letter, but these are moments to cherish and celebrate,” says Dr. Zurn. The important part is that they are writing, and not their penmanship or personal style.

The key to helping your child develop their writing abilities is teaching them that writing is a method of conveying language, so they don't worry if their letters are malformed. The more you focus on precision, the less they are going to enjoy writing. Writing is different from penmanship. As your child develops a love of writing, you can slowly fix how their letters look and teach them the proper way to hold their writing implement.

Make sure to keep everything they need to enjoy writing nearby. Keep a cool head as they begin. Soon you are going to have a child who is ready to face school and beyond because you have fostered in them good writing habits.

• Have them explain to you what they are writing. Make suggestions about how to make their work better, but never chastise them.

• The more you read with your child, the more they are going to understand that the words you are saying are the words on the page.

• Never turn them away when they are asking about writing-related tasks. If you are making a grocery list, let them see the list, and perhaps even ask them to help by adding something to the list. Always praise them for having done the job, and you will see them do it even better next time.

• Writing on the computer is still writing. Don't be surprised if your child figures out aspects of writing with a computer before they do with paper. The ease of seeing the letters on the keyboard move to the screen might help them more than trying to form the letters on paper and being frustrated that they aren't precisely the same.

Dan Gilbert is Marketing Support Coordinator at Primrose Schools, which operates early childhood education centers nationwide.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

184 Tips for Teachers

On Shellee Hendricks’ first day of tenth grade, her teacher shook each student’s hand.

“It’s customary to shake hands when starting work with someone,” says Hendricks in her new book, Notes on Teaching: A Short Guide to an Essential Skill. “I realized that I was being invited into a partnership; I quickly understood that my teacher respected me, held me responsible, and wanted to work with me toward a shared goal.”

“Shake hands” is note number 20. Hendricks and co-author Russell Reich offer 183 other insightful and inspiring recommendations in Notes on Teaching (RCR Creative Press, 2011), a comprehensive yet concise guide to perfecting the craft of teaching.

In an elegant and user-friendly format, Notes on Teaching covers all bases in sixteen sections, including Planning and Preparation, First Class Meeting, Setting Expectations, Classroom Staging, Leading a Class, Talking to Students, and Talking to Parents.

Below are ten of my favorite insights from Notes on Teaching:

25. Say why (First Class Meeting)

“Students face many compulsory subjects and deserve to know why they must study algebra if they have no interest in becoming financiers, physicists, or engineers.”

26. Dive into the subject (First Class Meeting)

“Start with housekeeping only if you want to signal pending tedium and forfeit the opportunity to, well, teach something. Reviewing your lateness policy line by line will demoralize everyone.”

31. Involve them in setting goals (Setting Expectations)

“Ask: ‘What do you want out of this class?’ Have students write down their answers. If you set all goals, they won’t be invested.”

33. Don’t tell them they’ve achieved what they haven’t (Setting Expectations)

“Don’t deny students a good education in the name of self-esteem. Deceive people about their own progress to make them feel good, or lead them to believe they’ve mastered something they have not, and you will quickly and rightly lose their trust.”

35. Champion failure (Setting Expectations)

“Foster a sea change in education by explicitly introducing ‘failure’ as a worthy goal, not a taboo. Failure is not a signal to give up or a cause for dejection or humiliation. It’s a healthy sign of working at the frontier of one’s ability or understanding.”

71. Be an emotional leader as well as an intellectual one (Leading a Class)

“Enthusiasm is contagious. So is its lack.”

114. Notice what they want you to notice (Talking to Students)

“Students drop hints: repeated references to basketball in their writing, or a tendency to break into song upon leaving class. Comment on their point of pride. Let them know you’re paying attention.”

130. Know the student, and show you know (Talking to Parents)

“Be specific. Your familiarity with each student gives your observations, suggestions, and warnings credibility.”

131. Deliver good news first and last (Talking to Parents)

“When parents see your interest in discovering the positive in their child, they absorb subsequent criticisms and warnings more willingly.”

140. Do not grade everything (Giving Feedback)

“Offering feedback without a grade sends a message to your students: Their practice and improvement are more important than where their work falls on some supposedly objective scale.”

For more information, visit

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Let’s Invest In Learning, Not Testing

When I read the news last week that the New York State Education Department recently signed a $32 million contract with a new test developer, I started thinking about how $32 million could be used to foster learning, particularly in low-income school districts. Let’s forget for a minute that these tests may be useless—many education experts say standardized tests are not a valid measure of a student’s knowledge or skills. Let’s say standardized tests actually provided valuable information about student learning. It seems wasteful and illogical to spend money on assessing student learning without first investing in the resources students need to learn, like the following:

* Instructional Materials

Schools in low-income districts often don’t have enough books, desks and other resources students and teachers need. Students often lack basic school supplies, such as notebooks and pencils.

* Healthy Food

Even if students have the appropriate school supplies, they will not be ready to learn if they don’t eat properly. Many students rely on the meals they receive at school. We should be offering fresh, nutritious menu options, not processed foods that are high in salt, fat and chemical preservatives.

* Professional Development

About half of new teachers leave the professional after five years. Many new teachers feel overwhelmed and underprepared. Perhaps innovative, valuable professional development workshops would embolden new teachers.

* Parent Involvement

It’s clear that parent involvement has a positive impact on student achievement. We need to make it easier for parents to be involved, despite language barriers, time constraints and transportation issues. I recently met a teacher whose school organizes home visits for parent-teacher conferences. Some schools and community organizations are making an effort to provide translators so teachers can communicate with parents who don’t speak English.

Sadly, all of these overlooked areas will continue to languish until policymakers acknowledge the real weaknesses in our education system. I don’t think the solution is better tests.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Indiana’s Destructive Education Reform Plan

Indiana touts its “Putting Students First” education agenda, but the state’s detrimental education reform package puts politics first and students last.

“Indiana legislators have succeeded in passing the most comprehensive education reform package in the nation,” the Indiana Department of Education announced in a press release on Friday. “Today marked the end of the 2011 legislative session, and every component of the state’s ‘Putting Students First’ education agenda has either been signed or awaits the governor’s pen.”

Indiana’s education reform plan demonstrates that the people making decisions about our children’s education don’t understand the needs of students, the teaching profession, or the keys to successful learning.

I find it equally disturbing that Indiana has transformed the misguided movement toward scapegoating teachers into law. Plagued by a lingering economic malaise, politicians have inexplicably targeted teachers, claiming they should be forced to relinquish their “generous” compensation packages. The media has latched onto this ridiculous notion and perpetuated it. Sadly, it’s not difficult to convince people that teachers have it easy when many Americans are frustrated by fruitless job searches, the threat of foreclosure, and mounting debt. They forget that teachers are underpaid and underappreciated in this country, despite the vital service they provide.

So, the politicians in Indiana look like heroes for passing an education reform plan that they claim will improve education by dealing more effectively with teachers. But due to their lack of insight into the school environment, the law is doomed to fail. Here’s why:

* Pressure to contain costs will lead school administrators to replace effective veteran teachers with inexperienced new teachers.

Indiana’s education reform plan will eliminate the provisions in teacher contracts that require school leaders to lay off teachers with the least seniority first. Politicians like to say that this policy is unfair because it penalizes young teachers who bring enthusiasm and energy to the classroom. The reality is that most new teachers bring to the classroom anxiety, bewilderment, and a lack of confidence. They are unprepared to deal with the diverse academic and emotional needs of their students, behavior problems in the classroom, demanding parents, the lack of downtime in the fast-paced school day (even to use the bathroom), and a mountain of administrative tasks. It takes years for teachers to learn how to overcome these challenges and successfully master their craft. This is why the best and most effective teachers are typically those with experience. When faced with pressure to control costs and contain school taxes, a school administrator in Indiana may now opt to lay off the experienced teacher instead of the new teacher because senior teachers are paid more. Teacher effectiveness is a luxury when you’re facing a budget crisis and irate taxpayers. What happens when all of the experienced, effective teachers are replaced with novices who find themselves without any mentors to support and guide them. School districts will enjoy cost savings, residents will appreciate lower tax hikes, and government officials will pat themselves on the back. Who are the losers in this scenario? Students, teachers and parents.

* Merit pay is based on the faulty premise that teachers are solely responsible for student performance.

Under Indiana’s education reform plan, teachers will receive pay increases based on their effectiveness. But a student’s academic success is based on so many factors that even the most dedicated and talented teachers can face failure. Unmotivated students, uncooperative parents and unsupportive administrators all create obstacles to success. In addition, a student’s home life plays a vital role in their academic success or failure. Standardized test scores will likely factor into the evaluation process, even though many educators contend that standardized tests are not a valid measure of a student’s knowledge or skills. But because their students’ performance on standardized tests will determine their compensation, teachers will be forced to spend more time on dull, insipid test-taking strategies and less time on creative and intellectual activities that spark excitement about learning. The focus on testing will widen the achievement gap. High-achievers will spend time on enriching activities, such as music and art, while at-risk students focus on test-taking skills. A student who is not a skilled test-taker may be a gifted writer, artist or musician, but their abilities will be devalued. Once again, merit pay is just another opportunity to pay teachers less than they deserve, and students, teachers and parents are on the losing end of the deal.

* Support for charter schools diverts funding and attention from public schools.

Indiana’s education reform package allows for more entities to sponsor charter schools and provides vouchers for qualifying families who want to send their children to non-public schools. My main question concerning charter schools is this: why are we investing time, effort, personnel and money in charter schools instead of leveraging those resources to bolster public schools.

If “Putting Students First” means filling classrooms with inexperienced, underpaid novice teachers; forcing students to focus on useless test-taking strategies; and diverting much-needed public school resources to charter schools, then I suppose Indiana got it right.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Join the "Save Our Schools" March on Washington

Teachers and parents may have their differences from time to time, but they all agree that providing our nation’s children with the best possible education is a top priority. That’s why parents and teachers are joining forces to make our voices heard in Washington, D.C.

I hope you’ll join me, other concerned parents, and teachers at the “Save Our Schools March & National Call to Action” in Washington, D.C. on July 30.

The main goal of the event is to advocate for education policy reform that will enhance educational opportunities for all children. Objectives include:

· Equitable funding for all public school communities

· Full public funding of family and community support services

· Teacher, family and community leadership in forming education policies

· The use of multiple and varied assessments to evaluate students, teachers and schools

· Educational opportunities that develop every student’s intellectual, creative and physical potential

The march toward the Department of Education will begin at 2:00 p.m. on July 30. A rally preceding the march will take place at Ellipse Park at noon, featuring speakers, music and other activities.

If you can stay longer, workshops, seminars and a film festival will be held at American University on July 28, July 29 and July 31. Inspirational speakers and informative workshops will offer attendees strategies for taking action in their communities and school districts.

To attend the “Save Our Schools March” or to obtain more information, please visit

I hope to see you there.

Natalie Schwartz

Chair - Parent, Family and Community Outreach Committee

Save Our Schools March

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Maybe College Isn’t for Everyone

We keep hearing about how our education system is failing many of our kids. Maybe that’s because our education system is too narrowly focused. We’re not taking into account the skills, interests and needs of all of our students.

A veteran teacher I interviewed for The Teacher Chronicles believes in a dual-track education system that provides for vocational training as well as academic instruction. The national education system is currently geared toward preparing students for college. But not all students are interested in pursuing a career that requires a college degree. Some of them have skills and interests that will take them in a different direction.

By insisting that every student aspire to go to college, aren’t we devaluing the occupations that don’t require a college degree. Don’t these occupations make a valuable contribution to our society?

With the right amount of motivation and dedication, every student may be capable of academic success and college admission. But that's not the issue. The question is, are we encouraging every student to become a productive member of society.

The teacher I mentioned believes that offering vocational training will allow schools to maintain the interest of students who are not necessarily college-bound. If these students are offered course options that appeal to their interests, tap into their skills, and prepare them to enter the work force after high school, they may be more committed to school and their academic subjects. After all, academic subjects are important—we all need reading and math skills, an understanding of history and current events, knowledge of life sciences—but for some students, this is not enough to maintain their interest in school.

Until we stop viewing college as the ultimate goal, and start recognizing that other options have merit, schools will continue to alienate a percentage of students and a successful national education system will continue to elude us.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Uninformed Reformers, Part II

In his second State of the Union address, President Obama conveyed the following assertions:

1. “Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation.”

2. “…reform isn’t just a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals, school boards and communities.”

3. “Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect.” (In reference to how teachers are treated in South Korea.)

In January 2010, I posted an entry about President Obama’s first State of the Union address. I titled it “Uninformed Reformers” and lamented that the President was not paying enough attention to the thoughtful and insightful letters that the members of “Teachers’ Letters to Obama” sent him.

A year later, education reform continues to progress in the wrong direction, as President Obama’s address last night indicates.

The President and the Department of Education continue to tout the Race to the Top program. Race to the Top turns the distribution of education funding into a contest with winners and losers, instead of providing all schools with access to adequate resources, ensuring all children receive a quality education. Race to the Top also places too much weight on standardized tests, which do not adequately measure a child’s knowledge, skills or understanding.

President Obama contends that education reform is not a top-down mandate, and input from local educators and communities is important. But to receive Race to the Top funds, states must implement reform plans that meet the federal government’s criteria.

If the Obama administration really respected teachers and valued their input, efforts to thwart the administration's misguided reform policies would not have gained so much momentum over the past year. The “Teachers’ Letters to Obama” Facebook group has amassed 3,195 members, up from 760 a year ago. And a new grassroots movement is gathering steam: the “Save Our Schools March & National Call to Action” is headed to Washington, D.C. this summer to advocate for equitable funding for all public schools, an end to high-stakes testing, and teacher and community leadership in education policy reform (see my December blog post).

I wholeheartedly agree with President Obama on one point, though: “It’s family that first instills the love of learning in a child.” If our children are to love learning, we must embrace innovative lessons that spark their intellectual curiosity and shun dull, uninspired and scripted test preparation. We must ensure that all children have access to the resources, staff and materials they need to succeed, regardless of where they live. And parents and teachers must join together to promote thoughtful and appropriate reforms that truly benefit our children and secure our country’s future.