Thursday, May 27, 2010

Current events

I’ve been doing current events at my son’s school.

I approached my son’s teacher a few weeks ago, and proposed a weekly, half-hour current events discussion for the grade 3 / 4 class. My son’s teacher is very cool, and progressive and totally supported the idea. He also helped to provide structure for my amateur (I’m a journalist, not a teacher) efforts.

I’ve gone in twice now, and the kids do seem to enjoy it.

It occurred to me that what I’m doing with the class can easily be done by parents (and educators) with their own kids.

The Current Events class
The first class was a review of the news from the past few days. I wanted to tell the kids about some of the major news stories that were unfolding – like the oil spill and the G20 summit that’s coming to our city this summer. And then I just picked out a bunch of interesting stories that I thought kids could relate to.

I held up each newspaper article, read the headline and then explained what the article was about. I also gave a bit of information about the various newspapers available in Canada and what they were all about. I talked to them about “how” to read a newspaper – for instance, you don’t have to read every word of an article – and how to understand headlines even though they’re often written in a very truncated way.

We talked about the G20 summit – what it is and the various ways in which it would impact the city. And the oil spill, and what BP was trying to do to stop it (including shoving golf balls into the pipe! We had a show of hands as to how many kids thought that would work.)

And then we reviewed a handful of other stories including the discovery of some new species in New Guinea, the fact that our city is missing millions of dollars in unpaid speeding ticket fines, and Robert Munsch’s revelation of his alcohol addiction (we were careful to present that in a positive light—how he had overcome adversity).

The children were very interested in the news and how it affects them. For many of them, it was an introduction to parts of the newspaper that didn’t have comics or Sudoku.

And then the teacher did something really, really smart. He took a vote on which stories the kids wanted me to follow up on the next week. That way, we could see what the kids were interested in and hone the presentation to be of the most interest.

The kids picked the G20, the oil spill and the species, which I thought was an incredibly mature list—this is some heavy stuff.

Week 2
The second week I followed up on the G20: the $1B security tab for the summit, and the many tourist attractions (including the CN Tower) that will be shut down during the talks. And I was also able to report that the golf-ball idea is going ahead – and that one of the back-up plans is to use human hair to clog the spill. Seriously. (No one in the class thinks that will work, either. Maybe BP should call us.)

And we added in a few new stories that were interesting that week: the boy in Alberta who was refused the right to wear a kilt to his graduation (his principal has since changed his mind); the million works of art that are currently in the hands of the Toronto District School Board and which may be loaned out to schools; and the fact that vending machines in our city’s recreation centres will be going healthy (the class cheered).

Reading the news is a fantastic literacy exercise. Kids are keen to know what’s going on around them, but newspapers can be daunting. Headlines are hard to read and articles generally require a lot of general and historic knowledge in order to understand them. But once an adult puts things in context, kids just jump right in.

And that’s a gigantic step towards getting kids reading.

Sorry I haven’t been blogging as much as usual – but you can see how busy I’ve been. Add our school’s FunFest and other activities to the mix, on top of my “money-making” job and it hasn’t left much time for blogging. But I hope to be back on the horse again soon.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Quick and easy literacy activities

Our school board issued a list of great literacy activities.
They're simple and fun, and are great examples of what I like to call "guerilla literacy" - using tons of little tactics here and there that add up to... a kid who likes to read.

You may want to print this list out and put a copy in your kitchen, in your car, in your purse; wherever you can use it to remind yourself of a quick and easy activity that encourages reading.

The great thing about the list is that it specifically targets some of the things that the Toronto school board has found that kids typically struggle with: identifying the main idea, making inferences and explaining point-of-view.

The school board also found that students could use more exposure to poetry and graphic texts. Discussing song lyrics or talking about billboards, ads and menus for instance, will help familiarize your child with these text forms.

So here's the list - I've bolded some of the ones I found particularly new, fun or do-able.

  • Write out a phone message for a member of your family.

  • Bake a favourite recipe.

  • Tell a story about growing up.

  • Tell the story of your birth.

  • When you are travelling in the car with your parents, give the directions.

  • Tell a traditional story about your culture.

  • Put a message on a sticky note and place it on the fridge for your parents.

  • Look at family photos and tell stories together.

  • Make up stories when you are travelling together.

  • Make a scrapbook about something that interests you.

  • Play cards.

  • Play board games.

  • Read or write poetry.

  • Make up tongue twisters.

  • Look up words you don't know in a dictionary or online.

  • Read a news story out loud and talk about what you think about it.

  • Learn a song. Teach it to your parents.

  • Write an e-mail together to a friend or family member.

  • Get some refrigerator word magnets and play with them.

  • Write a thank-you card together.

  • Watch a TV show together and talk about the main idea.

  • Watch a movie and see whether you can summarize it in just five sentences.

  • Read a book together and then watch the movie version. Talk about the differences between the two versions.

  • Write out the family shopping list.

  • When you are travelling together, point out street signs, ads and other text that is interesting.

  • Read a computer manual or online instructions together.

  • Put something together that comes with plans.

  • Read something while thinking about the author's message.

  • Read "between the lines" and see if you can make an inference about the way someone in your family is behaving. For example, "based on the fact that you are rushing around the house frantically looking in every drawer, I'm going to infer that you've lost your keys again, Mom."

  • Make a connection between an idea in a book and something from your own experience.

  • Give a five-minute summary of a movie you recently enjoyed (but remember not to ruin the story by giving away the ending!).

I don't think "bolded" is a word. It sure is a concept I find that I need to use a lot. Emboldened? I could say "higlighted in bold" I guess, but "bolded" is faster. Sigh. But probably not a word.

This list was put together by the Toronto District School Board.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A good teacher - the most important thing

Sometimes, the research catches up with what mothers already know.

"Everything the world has learned about education shows that the quality of the teacher is the most important factor in a student's success." -The Toronto Star, reporting on a speech given by Malcolm Gladwell, author of the bestselling Blink and The Tipping Point. Gladwell was speaking to Ontario's Liberals at a fundraiser in Collingwood, Ont.

Let's look at that again.

The quality of the teacher is the most important factor.

And I'm going to add, "equally important is whether or not the parents play an active role in supporting the child's education," but I think Gladwell's talking about an "all-things-being-equal" scenario here.

So what he's saying - and what the research says - is that if a kid has a lousy teacher, he's likely not going to do well that year. And if he has a lousy teacher three years in a row, he "will fall three years behind a child lucky enough to have a good teacher three years in a row," Gladwell said.

Gladwell says it's much more important than classroom size, and that "even if you were to cut every class in Ontario in half, you'd (only) improve the performance of Ontario's schoolchildren by about five percentile points."

So back to the parents. I don't know about your school, but this is the time at our school when we can let our principal and our current teacher know what our child needs. We are encouraged to write a letter outlining our child's strengths and weaknesses, and what kind of teacher we think could best help our child.

So for instance if your child is having trouble reading, you could let the principal know that reading instruction would be a priority for you next year. Or if your kid's a really good reader, you could ask for "learning extensions" in reading so he's challenged.

No teacher is good at everything. And getting a good teacher who is proficient in the areas in which your child needs help is really important to a successful year. So talking to the principal about what your child needs is a good idea. It's something parents can do to advocate for their child, and I don't think we should be shy about doing it.
After all, teachers and principals can't be expected to read our minds. And as long as we're respectful and talk about the teaching qualities our child needs, then I think it's a good thing to do.
Here's a link to the Toronto Star article.
And here's a link to Malcolm Gladwell's website.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Reading is a language

My son called me over.

"Mom," he said,"remember when I used to look at a word like 'fox' and I'd sit there, trying to sound it out? And it would take forever?!"

"Yes," I said.

"Well, isn't it funny," he said, "that now I just blast through sentences and pages of words. I don't even have to think about it! Why is that?"

And then we both sat there, silent, thinking about that.

If your child is struggling with reading and sounding-out - here's a great reminder that one day... it will all just click.

And reading will become a new language that your child doesn't even have to think about - that he'll just know - that he'll blast right through.

It will.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Tips from an editor

Here's a tip that may help your child's writing.

Half of me (professionally) is a writer, and the other half is an editor.

I edit books, articles and speeches; I've been doing it about 20 years or so, and over the years I've discovered some common traps people get into with writing.

I was thinking that some of this insider knowledge may help kids who are struggling with an essay or a book report. When writing is easier, it's more enjoyable and they'll do it more often.

So here's my first tip:

If your child is working on a sentence that doesn't sound right and she's tried it several ways and it still doesn't sound right... bail! Delete it. Start the whole sentence over. It will be faster, and it will sound better.

It seems obvious, but the next time it happens, you'll be surprised. We write a sentence that doesn't sound quite right, and so we rework it. And rework it and rework it. Frustration builds, and the sentence never ends up sounding right.

If you can catch yourself doing this early on, you can really save time by just stopping, deleting, and rewording the whole thing.

Here's an example:
"Being discouraged is a fact of life. But giving up is not the right answer."

The first part doesn't sound quite right. So you can try:
*Becoming discouraged is a fact of life.
*Being discouraged is a fact, in life.
*It's a fact that everyone becomes discouraged.

Instead, delete the whole thing and start over:
*We all get discouraged sometimes. But giving up is not the right answer.

It says the same thing, but you've taken yourself out of that frustrating idiom maze that can drive you crazy. The end result is faster and clearer.

If you see your child struggling to perfect a sentence that just doesn't sound right... tell her to bail. And come at it from a new angle.

I'll try and remember some more tips that have helped me out over the years. Anything to get those kids writing!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Reading Incentive: KidsCash

Try KidsCash to get your kid reading.

If you’re looking for an incentive to get your kid to read, you may want to take a look at KidsCash.

I saw this product on Breakfast Television, and I think it could be applied really well to help encourage kids to read.

You reward your child for reading by giving him "KidsCash," printed kid-friendly coupons that look like money. You can dole out the KidsCash for each book read, or each page he reads, or for reading for a certain amount of time.

Here’s the twist: your child then spends the KidsCash to do something he really wants to do, like video-game time or TV time. Or he spends it on a toy, switching out with you for real money which he then takes to the toy store.

The KidsCash website has lots of ideas, including reward charts.

KidsCash comes in six different colours—they recommend a different colour for each child in the family—and it sells for $25 (plus tax and shipping) for a box of 250 coupons.

Related posts:
Using real money.
Create a reading reward chart.

So, I sent the KidsCash people an e-mail, asking them if I could see some samples of the cash or post a .jpg, but I haven't heard back from them. I got tired of waiting and thought I'd post this anyway--I think I've got the idea. Meanwhile, my friendly little e-mail is probably sitting in their JunkMail box and they have no idea I've even e-mailed them. Another potential friendship scuppered by technology!
UPDATE: The nice people at KidsCash did get my message and they e-mailed me the above image of their coupon. Friendship has triumphed over technology! A happy ending.