Should Schools Reopen In The Fall? Absolutely. Not.

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Back to school.

In our Pre-COVID world, this simple 3-word phrase was wrought with emotion: excitement, nervousness, last-minute FOMO to squeeze the most out of summer, relief, maybe even dread. But now, in our pandemic-stricken society, “back to school” is stirring up a whole new mix of emotions: fear, anxiety, anger, confusion, disbelief.

What will back to school look like this year, and should our schools even reopen?

This is a hot topic that has blown up to epic proportions over the last couple of weeks. There seem to be two pretty distinct teams that have emerged from the debate: Team School and Team No Way.

Team School argues that we need in-person instruction. It is the government’s responsibility (and the tax-payer’s reward) to have full-time instruction available for all students. We need schools open, and we need them now.

Team No Way is reading CDC guidelines and WHO statistics and shaking their heads. Those curves we wanted flattened or diminished are looking more and more like the first uphill tick on a roller coaster. They’re all gripping the lap bar with white knuckles as they wait to see what terrifying turn of events will happen next.

So, where do I stand on this subject? Which team am I rooting into the World Series?

Neither.

And Both.

When looking at the dilemma of whether or not schools should open, we need to acknowledge that education is only one of the many functions of capital-s School. School as a societal function on the surface appears to be merely a place for teachers pouring knowledge into the empty vessels of students. But, as anyone who has spent more than one microsecond on the other side of a whiteboard will tell you, School is not only for education.

In fact, I would argue that education is not even the primary function of School. I am a former teacher and, in addition to “educating”, my years in the classroom included the following roles and job responsibilities: counselor, mediator, nurse, childcare provider, special learning needs intervention specialist, disability services manager, mandated reporter, lunch lady, snack monitor, bully remover, recess supervisor, parenting trainer, financial advisor, culture and race ally, safe haven. School is not just a place, and its function is not just education.

You see, we need schools. And not just because schools are school. Allow me to illustrate.

One of the hardest years of my life was teaching Spanish Kindergarten in a highly-impoverished charter school in California. Every single one of my students was poor enough to qualify for free lunch. Only two of my 28 students spoke any English at all. Not a single one of my students’ parents had attended college; most had never graduated from high school, and a handful had never even completed elementary school. Privileged white girl teacher was in culture shock…and still had to teach kindergarten. In Spanish.

During the course of that manic year I received a crash-course in the true multi-faceted function of School. Those kids arrived at school every day–usually by themselves, because Mom had already run off to her first job (she worked 2 or 3 jobs) and more often than not, Dad was not in the picture–and, as a class, we marched over to the cafeteria for breakfast. After breakfast we learned about things like how to line up and raise a hand, because none of these kindergarteners had ever attended preschool or music group or library story time. I taught them how to tie their shoes and use a tissue. We practiced paying attention for 2 minutes, then 3 minutes, then 5 minutes until, by January, we were able to get through an entire lesson in one go. Sure, those kids learned their letters and numbers and all that, but they also learned essential life skills. School was vitally important for them.

And, just as school was vitally important for my students, school was vitally important for their parents as well. Those parents knew that they could go to work during the day and support their family because their child was safe and supervised. Their child’s physical and mental needs were, to the best of our ability, met every day. They knew that, even though they had never received an education themselves, their children now had this opportunity. They knew that their child with Autism or Dyslexia or Vision Impairment would get the services they needed but could not afford. They knew that, even though they did not yet speak English, that their child would learn the Language Of The Land and be able to help communicate for them–at the store, at their job, in court. They knew that their child would come home with a full belly and a full mind, and that was everything.

I have thought of those families often during this pandemic. How on God’s green earth are those families surviving this? Do those parents have jobs, and if they do, are they dangerous “essential worker” jobs that put them at a higher risk of contracting the virus? Do those families have health insurance during this pandemic? Do those children have food to eat every day, and is it healthy and accessible and guaranteed? Do those children have supervision during the day while their parents work outside the home? Did those children have access to technology or learning tools during last spring’s school shutdown–and if they did, was anyone able to help them with their education at home?

Those children need School.  Not just “I’m tired of having my kids around all the time” need-School, but their very lives depend on it need-School.

And yet, COVID rages on. In some areas of our country positive COVID cases are at an all-time high. We can not go to school.

So what are we to do? How can we have in-person school while guaranteeing the health and the safety of the millions of students, staff, and families “back to school” involves?

We can’t. It’s an impossible situation. As much as I love cake (and I LOVE cake!), this is not the time to have your cake and eat it, too.

But there are positive steps we can take in the right direction. There will not be a one-size-fits-all solution that can solve this impossible situation, but there are some guiding principles that could help make this transition more manageable:

Money
Doing anything safely at this point is going to cost a boatload of money. Extra staff, sanitization, PPE, improved technology services, upgrading buildings and ventilation systems, hazard pay for teachers (this is not a thing, but it should be). All of it will cost actual US Dollars. Lots of them. Someone (I’m looking at you, US Government with a $721 BILLION DOLLAR annual military budget…) needs to pay up. And, no, asking teachers to pay for this in any capacity is not an acceptable answer.

Schools Must Open
This is not even a question. In-person School is an essential service in our world, and many students and families will not make it to the other side of this pandemic in one piece without it. Parents need to work. Students need to learn. School in all of its capacities is absolutely essential.

We need to find a creative way to start School services…and that may or may not be in actual school buildings with our usual army of teachers. Maybe we utilize the (many) shuttered spaces in our local communities and the (many) unemployed adults to help provide daytime childcare for children so their parents can get back to work.

Maybe we send school buses full of food on their usual bus routes every day to distribute 3-squares to every man, woman, or child that needs nutrition. Maybe we send (well PPE’d) OTs and Speech Therapists to childrens’ neighborhoods to provide essential special education and therapy services. Maybe we employ college students who can’t return to their university campus this fall to facilitate remote learning with pre-recorded lessons from certified teachers. These lessons could take place in empty movie theaters with a handful of students at a time. Or in a community park. Or whatever. The point is, School does not have to happen within the four walls of an actual school.

Families Must Have The Choice To Stay Home
After months of shuttering ourselves away (“sheltering in place”) we can not expect families to willy-nilly throw their children back into the mouth of the lion. There are a million reasons why a child or a teacher should not be in a physical classroom with even a dozen other humans for multiple hours at a time right now. Just Google it.

We need real, equitable, well-planned, well-executed modes of remote education. Teachers need specialized remote-teaching training. Students need access to physical learning tools, books, and equipment. Parents and tutors need access to remote teacher training and teaching materials–we need to equip everyone involved and set them up for success.

We need parents to have the choice to unenroll from public education for however long this pandemic rolls along without any negative impacts to the local school district. Funding should not be withheld from local schools just because a family needs to make a different choice during an uncertain time. Parents must have the ability to make the right choice for their family–whatever that choice is–without negative repercussions.

Teachers Need To Have A Say
You guys, some of my best friends are teachers. Some of them are terrified right now. They’re afraid to return to the classroom because they don’t want to get themselves or their families sick. They don’t want to accidentally kill their parents or their neighbors or their grocery store clerk. Some of them are pregnant or have babies and young children at home, and they don’t want to infect or orphan their children. Some of them are cancer survivors. Teaches are already heroes, we don’t need them to be martyrs, too.

Some of them–all of them–have 8 days of paid leave for the year…which is not enough for even one 14-day quarantine if they are exposed to COVID in their classroom. Some of them will lose their health insurance during a pandemic if they don’t teach this year. Some of them are being bullied by administrators to suck it up or get out the door. Some of them have PTSD from being thrust into online teaching last spring and they don’t know how they’ll manage it for another year.

They’re all tired. They’re all waiting for an answer that values their life and their opinion and their needs and their desires. We owe them a voice in this decision and a guarantee that they have options.

Temporary Shifts
We need to acknowledge that any changes we make now are temporary. It feels like COVID has been going on forever and it will never end. But it will. And when it does, we need to have a mechanism in place for change. We will need to swiftly remove the parts of this temporary plan that are not best practices moving forward in whatever new world we find ourselves in on the other side; crisis School may not be used as precedence for the new world.

By that same token, we need to be able to continue the parts of the crisis changes that actually do work. If increased technology or the different solutions we come up with to survive crisis schooling do work in some ways, we should hold on to those ways that do work and not throw them out with the face masks and respirators at the end of this whole thing.

Every change that is made during crisis schooling needs an asterisk *This is temporary*. Schools need to be given the autonomy to rebuild themselves in the right way when this is over. Some things will be the same, and some will be forever changed, but schools themselves need to have a voice in how the new world of School will look.

***

We are in an unprecedented time. Unprecedented times call for unprecedented action. My hope is that each family and each teacher will feel empowered and validated to make their own right choice in regard to school this year. Impossible as it is, we will all get through this. And even if the choice my family makes is radically different from the choice your family makes, we will all be stronger if we walk through this uncertain time together.

This, too, shall pass.

And until then, let’s be the best advocates for each other.

Stronger together, forever.

A Day in the Life of COVID-Summer Vacation

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We made it.

I just have to declare this fact because, to be honest with you, there have been days over the last few months that I didn’t think I’d ever get to write those words. Back in March when I first heard the words “Novel Coronavirus” (Are we talking about a fictional book? A Mexican beer? A seasonal cold?) I had no idea how much our lives would change in such a short amount of time.

The whole world flipped on its head overnight: school became home and the classroom teacher became me. School this year had its challenges–and its rewards–and then some more challenges to round things out. But we made it. We survived the first wave of Epidemic Crisis Schooling that the world has ever endured, and I’m pretty sure we can survive anything now.

Except maybe summer vacation.

Because if you’re anything like me, you’re just as confused about “summer” as you were about “E-learning”. Quite simply, summer in the time of COVID is about the most stressful, labor-intensive, hair-pulling period of relaxation I’ve ever experienced. For those of you not lucky enough to have young children at home with you this summer, allow me to give you a glimpse into a typical day of summer vacation 2020:

Tuesday, June

7:40  You wake up to the sounds of your 4 year old screaming your name from down the hall. She’s not hurt or incapable of moving out of bed on her own. No, she just wants you to remember who’s boss in this family.

7:45  You bring the screaming child downstairs and find the older boys already awake and playing video games. They ask you if they can have your real American dollars to buy video-game-nonsense-dollars so their avatar can wear a shirt with a “sick flame” on it. You politely decline. For the 10 millionth time this week.

7:55  Start making breakfast and realize there are no clean dishes. Start emptying the dishwasher that you ran overnight (this is the first of up to 3 loads of dishes you will run through your dishwasher today with all of these people home eating food 24/24 hours of every day).

8:00  An alert pops up on your phone that today is supposed to be the first day of that super awesome summer camp you signed your kids up for 12 months ago. Of course the camp has been cancelled, so you delete the calendar entry and replace it with the sobbing emoji.

8:15  Return to the breakfast situation. It’s been nearly 2 weeks since the last time you picked up a curbside grocery order. Prepare the best available option: granola bars AND fruit leather, because you like well-balanced meals.

8:30  Announce breakfast and turn off all screens in the house. Earn the title “Meanest Mom Ever”.

9:00  After breakfast you ask the kids what they’d like to do today. The boys want to stay home and play video games so they can whine at you about buying video game dollars. The girl wants to go to a princess party just like Cinderella. In your head you debate your options because after 4 months of house arrest with these kids, you just need to get out of here. Compromise and tell the kids we’re going to find a quiet park where we can be outside and physically distanced from other people. “It will be fun!” you say, “It will be our own little adventure!”

9:30  Pull up Google Maps on your phone and look for green spaces (usually parks) that you’ve never heard of (maybe nobody else has heard of them either). Pick a promising green patch in the middle of nowhere and pack some snacks for the adventure.

10:00  Before you leave the house, tell the kids to bring a face covering with them since we’re going into public. One child comes downstairs wearing underwear on his head.

10:30  Pull up to the “park” you found on Google Maps and realize it’s mostly just some bushes on the side of a road. Consider your options and decide check it out anyway. After about 20 minutes of the kids throwing rocks into the bushes and one kid falling into some blackberry brambles, decide to call it a day.

11:00  On your way home you drive past one of the kids’ favorite parks. They haven’t been to this park in nearly a year and they all beg for you to stop for just a little bit. Since the first stop was such a bust you decide to give the park a try.

11:05  Before you get out of the car, remind the children that they must stay at least 6 feet apart from all other people, wear their masks, not touch anything, and basically try their very hardest to not enjoy themselves. Remind the children that the playground is closed so we can’t play on it anyway. We’re just here to look and reminisce, and then back into the car we go. They agree to abide by the law of the land as they pile out of the car.

11:10  You walk into the park and notice that the playground is no longer roped off. You weren’t prepared for this. We already had the “we don’t touch anything” talk in the car, and now this playground is just sitting there like a siren in the wild beckoning to eager children. Thankfully the kids haven’t noticed the playground yet, so you stop in your tracks and point wildly into the sky: “KIDS, LOOK!!!! A BALD EAGLE! NO, MAYBE IT’S A DRAGON! OR A UNICORN! QUICK! LOOOOOOOOOOK!!!!”. As the children avert their gaze heavenward, you huddle them together and usher them back toward the parking lot. The middle child swears he saw the dragon.

11:15  When you get back to your car there is another family unloading right next to your car. Fortunately/unfortunately they are friends from school. Fortunately, because THEY’RE REAL LIVE FRIENDS!!!!!! Unfortunately, because OH MY GOSH WHAT DO WE DO?!?!  Humans! Gah! The kids all want to hug and play and just be kids. You glance at the other mom and reach an unspoken understanding: We’ve all been quarantined for so long that it’s in our health interest at this point to allow the children a few minutes to catch up. Relish the quick reunion while you pray under your breath that nobody present is an asymptomatic COVID carrier.

12:00  Upon returning home from the morning’s adventure (AKA the most excitement we’ve had in half a year!) set to work preparing lunch. The kids decide on Unicorn mac-n-cheese (the girl wants it because it’s magical, the boys want it because they want to bite the heads off the unicorns).

12:30   After lunch, send the kids outside to play in the back yard. Return a couple of emails and check the “news” to see updates on which of the 10 Plagues of Egypt we can expect next.

1:30  Call the kids back inside and tell them that we have a fun game to play this afternoon. The game is called “Living With COVID Challenge”. Here’s how you play: everyone gets a face mask and they have to wear it while completing “challenges” such as reading aloud, taking a math test, writing a letter to a friend, or “shopping” in our pretend store. The goal is to leave your mask on for the entire challenge without touching your mouth, eyes, or nose. Players can earn bonus points for washing their hands, checking their friend’s temperature with a temporal thermometer, wearing gloves while disinfecting a surface with non-toxic cleaner, or engineering a plexiglass shield.

You make it exactly 2.6 seconds before all 3 children fail the challenge.

Consider writing (another) email with the updated results of your at-home challenge to the members of the school board that will be making the “safe return to school” plan for this fall.

2:00  The kids say it’s too hot outside and they want to go swimming. A quick Google search shows you that every public pool within a 100-mile radius is closed, the nearest lake is full of toxic algae, and the nearest river is still full from spring melt-off and has a no-swimming advisory. Tell the kids to put on their swimsuits anyway, because we’re swimming in the upstairs bathroom “Bathtub Pool”!

2:45  Check on the kids in their bathtub pool and realize that 90% of the water has now migrated from the bathtub to the bathroom floor/walls/ceiling. As your blood starts to boil, notice that you already have “month-3 of summer vacation patience” rather than the actual “week-1 of summer vacation patience” that should be accompanying this moment.

3:00  After you mop up all of the water from Bathtub Pool, tell the kids that it’s reading time. Since you’re pretty sure the only learning your children accomplished in the last 4 months involved Roblox obby hacks, you count this daily reading time as sacred.

3:15  Since your husband is still working from home in his basement “home office” cave, you sneak out of the house for a quick solo walk while the kids are busy reading. These 20 minutes walking around your own neighborhood are the highlight of your day.  5 minutes into your walk a cyclist passes you on the road. It’s not until the cyclist is out of view around a corner that you realize you’ve been unconsciously holding your breath since you saw the other human approaching your air space.

4:00  Bake something. Because COVID.

5:00  Start preparing dinner. Again. For the 4,376th day in a row.

6:30  After dinner, have “family movie night”…also for the 4,376th day in a row. Whisper a silent prayer for the timely providence of Disney+ during a worldwide epidemic.

8:00  Tuck the little one into bed. You tried to order her new bedroom furniture 4 months ago for her birthday, but so far only her mattress has arrived because everything else is backordered indefinitely due to the COVID shutdowns. So, actually, just tuck her into mattress instead of tucking her into bed.

8:30 Despite their pleas to stay up later, tuck the older kids into bed because you are D.O.N.E. DONE. Promise them chocolates in the morning if they just stay in their rooms and don’t bother you for the rest of the night. If quarantine has taught you one thing, it’s the power of bribery. And chocolate.

9:00  Go downstairs and immediately notice the filth that is covering  every square inch of your house. Debate cleaning it up while the kids are tucked away in their bedrooms, but decide against it. After all, we need to save some fun for tomorrow’s COVID-Summer adventure!

***

Happy summer, everyone–stay safe, stay healthy, and stay sane!

Fortunately This Will All Be Over Some Day

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Today marks 6 weeks since our school district announced they would be closing for in-person classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Six long weeks that have essentially thrust me into a time warp. From that fateful day onward, our world began to slowly (and then quite rapidly) shut down around us–and what a whirlwind it has been!

I have started a routine with my kids each morning where we write down the day’s date together–not so much because I care what day it is, but because if I don’t write it down I fear we will never find our way out of the COVID-chasm again. You could ask me a question such as what I had for breakfast this morning or what day/week/month the International Olympic Committee announced their deferment of this summer’s games, and I would simply look at you with the same dumbfounded look. I just don’t know. We have entered a supernatural realm where time nor space nor work nor former purpose seems to hold any significant meaning. For better or worse: The world has changed.

And, speaking of “for better or worse”, I like to play a little game when life becomes tragically hilarious as it has at this moment. The game is called “Fortunately/Unfortunately” and it goes a bit like this:

Fortunately the world is still spinning.

Unfortunately everything in the world has had to shut down.

Fortunately, my 3 adorable/precious/loved/needy/not-yet-self-sufficient children still have school.

Unfortunately, all of their schooling has moved out of the classroom and onto “the cloud”.

Fortunately, “the cloud” is not an actual cloud, because all of the airlines are shut down and it would be quite difficult to reach the clouds by our own might.

Unfortunately, this means my children are doing school at home. Yes, even the preschooler.

Fortunately, we have internet access and computers and *me* to oversee the daily learning/weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Unfortunately, even teachers working in one of the most tech-savvy pockets of one of the most industrialized nations on earth run into tech issues during remote learning. And Zoom is full of perverts.

Fortunately, my son is too preoccupied with turning his computer background into a mythical Pokémon creature during his Zoom lessons or typing “toot” in the private chat bar to notice any of the tech glitches that may or may not occur during this time.

Unfortunately, he still has to learn the material presented during lessons. Even if they’re on a cloud.

Fortunately, his mom has basically given up on hardcore academics at this point and is pretty well appeased by “good enough”.

Unfortunately, school is not our only preoccupation.

Fortunately, baking and consuming massive amounts of empty carbohydrates is not a difficult task to pull off.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the new jeans that I bought back in February will fit me any more.

Fortunately, I haven’t even tried them on since February (#yogapantsforthewin). Ignorance is bliss.

Unfortunately, diet and exercise is still important. Even when you’re in lockdown.

Fortunately, I have a 100% legitimate excuse for not making it to the gym.

Unfortunately, the gym being closed is not a legitimate excuse for sloth.

Fortunately, my husband is a born-again Cross-Fit converter and we have enough gym equipment in our basement to make Gold’s Gym shudder behind their no-cancellation-policy long-term contracts.

Unfortunately, simply possessing gym equipment does not somehow make you magically fit.

Fortunately, my friend makes Facebook Live videos of her workouts so I can join with her to sweat it out.

Unfortunately, my kids and dog always want to join in my workout fun (Sidenote: The best part of working out is that you do it without your kids and dog.).

Fortunately, I have learned that I can sit my kids in front of a screen for an hour, slip outside with my yoga mat, and nobody ever even realizes I’ve tried to do something without them.

Unfortunately, no good thing lasts forever, and eventually you have to return to the screen zombies.

Fortunately, my children are totally fine with me turning off screens and they never throw a fit or scream or stomp or cry when screen time is over.

Unfortunately, this is a true story. Children losing screen time without losing their minds is a paradox that does not exist in reality.

Fortunately, our TV is password protected and I’m now strengthened from my invigorating bout of exercise. Off go the screens!

Unfortunately, now I have to make dinner. The children are not pleased. They are *just a colossal smidge* tired and cranky and demanding my attention, even though I’ve basically done nothing today except give them my attention.

Fortunately, I have a fridge full of food because I just picked up my once-weekly grocery order last night.

Unfortunately, I have to cook all of the food. Again. For the “Every meal of every day”th time since this lockdown began.

Fortunately, as with all things in my life at this point in time, my acceptance of mediocrity has reached an all-time high. Hot dogs and chips it is.

Unfortunately, this dinner is lacking a bit of pizzazz.

Fortunately, there are several dozen wineries in my town that are now offering free at-home no-contact delivery. Which brings me to my next question: Which pairs better with fire-roasted frankfurters and crispy tortilla strips: Syrah or Zinfandel?

Unfortunately, after dinner we still have to kill a few hours until bedtime.

Fortunately, family movie night has become a nightly occurrence.

Unfortunately, even with Disney+, Netflix, Hulu, Plex, PrimeVideo, and a collection of old DVD’s there is nothing to watch.

Fortunately, all of the movies my kids had been anticipating being released in the theaters are now being directly released to home streaming.

Unfortunately, the new Trolls movie costs $19.99. To rent.

Fortunately, it’s still light enough outside in the evening that you can just send the kids outside to play instead.

Unfortunately, your kids seem bent on climbing high trees and jumping off of moving objects. You remind them that they may NOT, for any reason, break a limb right now.

Fortunately, your kid who broke his arm in September and had to wear a cast up to his armpit for the first 6 weeks of first grade understands the severity of the situation. He implores his siblings to comply. Kind of.

Unfortunately, we have spent most of the evening arguing over unwatched movies and safe outdoor playtime tactics, and now it is time for bed.

Fortunately, it is time for the kids to go to bed.

Unfortunately, the kids will not stay in bed forever.

Fortunately, we are putting the kids to bed. Right now.

Unfortunately, the kids getting to bed can not happen soon enough.

Fortunately, both parents are equally motivated to get the kids to bed and we move them through the bedtime routine in double time.

Unfortunately, one kid has a wiggly tooth (WHY AT BEDTIME MUST YOU HAVE A WIGGLY TOOTH?!?!?!) and another kid has somehow outgrown all of their pajamas.

Fortunately, the tooth fairy can still make house calls during quarantine and Amazon carries pajamas.

Unfortunately, everything I order on Amazon is now taking approximately 23 years to arrive.

Fortunately, we’ve sorted out both the tooth and the pajamas, and the kids are finally in bed.

Unfortunately, we have to do this all over again tomorrow.

Fortunately, we have another tomorrow. Another chance to do life a bit differently, to take a step back, to lower our standards, and to try something new. Tomorrow is a gift, and even this will all be over some day.

 

 

 

 

How To Homeschool On The Fly In The Age Of The Coronavirus

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Late last night our school district outside of Seattle became the first school district in the nation to close due to concerns about the Coronavirus. Effective immediately, and for an indefinite period of time, all schools are closed and shifting to a remote learning model “on the cloud”. Translation: ready or or not, we’re all about to homeschool!

While I 100% support our district’s decision to move to this model, I know from experience how daunting the task ahead will be for families. I used to be a classroom teacher, and I’ve homeschooled before. Teaching is my jam, but helping my own children learn at home was a totally different league.  Let’s just say there’s a very good reason why I’m not still homeschooling.

My kids were only 3- and 5-year olds the last time I attempted homeschooling, so I’m definitely a bit out of practice (And I’ve never done this with a 1st grader, a 3rd grader, and a preschooler, as I’m about to attempt.). While I am by no means a homeschooling (or “cloud schooling”) expert, I did pick up a few tips and tricks during our oh-so-fun year of “Mommy School” that I want to pass along. Just remember: we’re all in this (separately) together!

Set Expectations
Make sure the kids know that this isn’t just a never-ending weekend. These days at home will be a learning time that they will be expected to participate in the same as if they were away at school. Attendance will be taken, they will need to check in for certain online classes, and they will have assignments to complete within specific time frames. Bonus: They can do it all in their pajamas with their dog curled up underfoot.

Gather Supplies
For our particular scenario, students will need a computer, internet access, and a few  physical supplies in order to attend Coronavirus School.

Our school district has come up with a plan to move all learning “outside the four walls of the school and onto the cloud”, which basically means kids will be completing and/or submitting their school work online. Each physical class in the real world now has a virtual Google Classroom where students and teachers can interact with each other virtually. It’s actually really cool! And, since we had a bit of warning that this was coming, teachers spent the school day yesterday as a bridge day. They trained students how to use these new-to-them online tools and had time to practice using them under teacher guidance. In addition, our school district has made available computing devices and WiFi hotspots for any students that need them in order to complete their “cloud learning” at home. Really, I can’t believe how well-planned this whole thing is on such short notice and in such an unprecedented circumstance!

Each of my kids also came home yesterday with a backpack full of physical tools (textbooks, workbooks writing journals, books) to use at home. In addition to these supplies, it will probably be a good idea to have basic school supplies on hand. This is what I’m going to have available in our homeschool space (More on that in the next section!):
-Pencils
-Pencil Sharpener (At the beginning of the school year I bought this fancy sharpener and it’s been a great tool to have at home!)
-Crayons/markers/colored pencils
-White printer paper
-Lined notebook paper
-Headphones (so my kids can work on their computers simultaneously with minimal disruptions to each other).
-Computer microphone (we had to get one for my third grader because his PC doesn’t have a built-in microphone)
-Small dry erase boards with markers and erasers
-Ibuprofen (for Teacher-Mom)

Since we are yet to put any of this into practice, I’m sure this list will evolve over the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, if you want to stock up you can find most of these items in the Dollar store (Or, if you don’t want to even set foot in the world of viral outbreak, just have them delivered from Amazon).

Set up Your Space
It’s important for you (Teacher-Mom or Teacher-Dad) and for the kids to have a dedicated space for school at home. This can be the kitchen table (This is a great choice because it’s central and you can spread out a lot of junk learning tools on it at once) or a home office with tables  set up for the kids. Or, really, just sitting on the floor in a hallway. For the love, do NOT set up school near a TV/XBox/Switch/Pokemon card collection that will be more enticing than the schoolwork that lies ahead!

Schedule Your Day
You need a plan some structure for your day or you will all go crazy and quite possibly end up in a mental institute (Which is probably quite clean and Coronavirus-free, actually, so that might not be a terrible back-up plan).

As you make your “School Day on The Cloud” schedule, think about what will work best for your family, and don’t be afraid to adjust as you go. Set a time in your day when schoolwork will get done–maybe this is first thing in the morning when everyone is fresh, or maybe it’s in the evening after Mom and Dad get home from work. Agree on an amount of work and/or an amount of time that you will dedicate to schoolwork during the first chunk of work time, then take a break (this is when you kick your kids outside for 30 minutes to roll around in the mud puddles). If your kid usually eats snack at school, eat a snack at the same time. Try to have lunch at the same time every day…again, consistency is key. Plan a block of time for independent or shared reading somewhere in there, then schedule a second chunk of work time later in the day (if you can muster it) and call it a day.

A typical homeschool day usually lasts only 2-4 hours, compared to 6.5 in a regular school day. YOU DO NOT NEED TO DO 6 HOURS OF SCHOOL “ON THE CLOUD” (Sorry to my childrens’ teachers who are probably reading this, but I’m just telling it how it is in the real world!). Just do what you need to do, and don’t burn yourselves out.

I’m using a checklist with my kids so they know what needs to be accomplished each day and can move at their own pace. Here is the checklist I’ve made for my kids to follow:
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What About Younger Siblings?
Great question! I have a preschooler who will be joining us on this grand learning adventure, so I will also be curious to see how this aspect all plays out in practice. Some tactics I’ve tried before to help minimize the distraction of a younger sibling with marginal success:
-Having simple activities prepped and available that the younger sibling can work on independently while I assist the older sibling(s). Think: coloring pages, simple puzzles, Play-Doh, building with blocks, Duplos, or an iPad with noise cancelling headphones (#kiddingnotkidding).
-Do “school time” during the younger sibling’s nap time
-Childcare swap with a neighbor or trusted friend so you can take turns playing with younger siblings and helping your school-aged kids complete their schoolwork.
-Hire a teenage babysitter (They’re all out of school right now, too!) to come entertain one or more children while you help your school-aged child.
-(Weather permitting) move school outside–younger siblings can play outside while you sit in the grass or at a picnic table to do schoolwork with your child
-Let your school-aged child work independently while you care for the younger sibling.
-Involve the younger sibling in the learning. Have your school-aged child read to them or teach them a concept they’re learning about (Teaching is the best tool for testing comprehension!).
-Turn on Frozen 2 in another room and walk away.

Use Bribery Liberally
Please don’t judge me, but you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do, and bribes work wonders. Maybe the kids earn screen time for finishing assignments. Or a trip to the drive-thru for ice cream after they’ve chosen to read rather than squabble with their siblings for __ minutes. We’re only trying to make it through a few weeks here, so no long-term habits are going to have time to fully grab root–I say bribe away!

Plan Enrichment
School is all well and good, but we all need a break from the rigor every now and then. Consider both academic and non-academic enrichment you can offer your children while they’re at home to help keep everyone’s minds and bodies moving. And since we’re trying to maintain social distancing, here are some ideas you can implement from the comfort of your own home.

Academic Enrichment Ideas:
-Learning games such as Uno, Cribbage, Chess, Scrabble, and Bananarams
-Do a puzzle
-Read! You can even ask Alexa to tell you a story and “she” will comply
-Play academic games on a website like Starfallor ABCMouse (subscription required)
-Write a letter to someone–they would probably love to hear how you’re doing in Ground Zero of the Coronavirus Apocalypse!
Do a science experiment 

Non-Academic Enrichment Ideas:
-Get moving with an app like Go Noodle! or Cosmic Kids Yoga
-Bake (Math, Literacy, and Science all wrapped up in one!)
-Arts and crafts (You can literally just pull stuff out of your recycling bin and tell your kids to get creative with it!)
-Make homemade Play-Doh or Slime
-Create a song in Chrome Music Lab

Give Yourself Grace and Space
School-at-home can be stressful. There is a different dynamic when the environment and the people involved in school change, and this is a process that can take a very long time to feel comfortable. Give yourself (And your kids! And the teachers!) grace–this is a big learning curve!

Also, give yourself physical space to decompress. If things in the living room-schoolroom start to get rowdy or out of control or just feel off, take a break.  Maybe this means taking your kids outside for a walk around the neighborhood or banishing everyone to their bedrooms for “silent reading” so you can take a shower and eat the chocolate you have hidden in the laundry room. After everyone catches their breath, come back together and begin again–I promise, you’ll all feel better!

And if all else fails, just remember: This, too, shall pass.

Stay healthy out there, friends!

How To Prepare For The First Day of School In 10 Easy Steps

FullSizeRender 5 copyTomorrow is (finally) the first day of school(!) for my kids. I think we’re about the last ones starting school this year, which is only fair since they basically didn’t get out of school last “spring” until the 4th of July. We’ve had a glorious summer and I’m not quite ready to face the reality that’s about to smack me in the face tomorrow morning when I have to actually get kids up and dressed and fed and out the door at a reasonable hour like civilized humans. Ready or not, though, here it comes: the school year beckons.

If you, like me, need a little help getting psyched for the first day of school here is a little guide to whipping your crew into shape:

Step 1: Locate your children
It’s likely you have at least one rogue child at this point in the season, but fear not. In order to locate your children, start with the most obvious places: the blanket fort in your living room, the playhouse in the back yard, in the garage where you keep the popsicle stash in your freezer. If the primary locations come up bust, widen your perimeter: the neighbor’s house, that park down the street, the woods behind your house. If you’re still coming up empty-handed, just take an important phone call or hide in your bathroom and unwrap a candy bar: this is the universal signal to children that it is time to come find Mom, and they will surely be pawing at your door within seconds.

Step 2: Hygiene
This step will meet with much resistance, but it must be done. Carry on, warrior. Yes, we have been taking “pool baths” and using the “nature potty” all summer, but now it is time to re-introduce your children to indoor plumbing. Give your children an actual bath in an actual bathtub with actual soap. Scrub off the sand and the dust and the layers of crusty sunscreen that have been accumulating for the past 90 days. Pick the seaweed and the tree branches out from their hair. For heaven’s sake, trim their talons so they at least resemble human fingernails.

Step 3: Clothing
Your children must wear clothing. No more tiny nudists, we’re going public here. Go to Target or Costco or whatever real clothing store you shop at and buy something that is not a swimsuit and flip flops that your children can wear on their bodies when they re-enter proper society this week. Make sure the clothing you choose is new and exciting so they’ll want to wear it more than that horrendous excuse-for-a-t-shirt that they tie-dyed with you this summer. Also remember that your children are now accustomed to very little–if any–effort in dealing with their wardrobe: limit tedious tidbits such as zippers, buttons, and snaps.

Step 4: Nutrition
Oh my gosh, you guys, we have to quit feeding our kids hot dogs and Cheetos for every meal! I mean, I’m going to keep doing it when they’re at home and everything, but when they’re at school you’ll get nasty notes compelling you to pack “healthy, balanced meals for the benefit of your developing child’s mind and body” if you try to pass that stuff off as lunch. Cut veggies into festive shapes, decorate sandwich bags with little faces and googly eyes, cut napkins into confetti—just do what you’ve got to do to make it look like you’re putting in the effort here.

Step 5: Preventative Care
Schools are basically just giant cesspools of germs. There has never been a time in the history of ever when all children come home healthy from the first week of school. Nope, not gonna happen. What we can do, however, is take a few steps now to prevent the onslaught of disease that is about to return with our kids after their first days back with other living, breathing children. Serve Emergen-C or Airborne in place of their regular juice at breakfast. Bathe them in hand sanitizer. Preemptively shave their heads so the lice don’t want to mess with that. Insist on their wearing of face masks and surgical gloves during all periods of contact with other children. Tell them that a you’ve cast a magic spell on them and now their boogers will taste like brussels sprouts. Line up emergency babysitters for next week when you yourself will inevitably be so sick that you can’t get out of bed.

Step 6: Wake Up
This will be a challenge. Not so much for the kids, of course–they’ve been waking up by 6 AM every day since, well, they were born. No, no, no–the challenge is for YOU. No more laying in bed while the kids watch “just a little TV” in the morning so you can catch up on your beauty rest. No more. Set your alarms and your coffee pots, Mamas: School is coming.

Step 7: Hone Your Homework Skills
Watch a few YouTube videos on new Common Core Math strategies (what on earth is this hocus pocus they teach now, anyway?) and hop on Pinterest for science fair project ideas. It’s always better to stay ahead of the curve so you actually look like you know what you’re talking about when your kid comes to you for homework help. If that doesn’t work, just practice repeating this phrase: “Go ask your Dad.”

Step 8: First Day Photo Prep
What good is a first day of school if you don’t document it with photographic evidence? Print off your customized first day of school chalkboard-inspired sign for your child to hold in the photos. Have your child practice poses and smiles in front of a mirror so they look cheerful yet natural, as opposed to the freakish half-smile/half-snarl they usually don for non-candid photos. CHARGER YOUR CAMERA AND MAKE SURE THERE IS MEMORY SPACE AVAILABLE. Lots and LOTS of memory space.

Step 9: Review Your Script
What will you say to your children on the momentous occasion when you leave them at the bus stop or their classroom door on the first day of school? I have a dream of what this moment will look like, but somehow my last words always end up being something like “Quit making those tooting sounds NOW!” or “Pencils are not for stabbing”. Review your script beforehand so you can inspire the other parents in the drop-off line.

Step 10: Celebrate!
You did it! You not only kept your children alive all summer, but you have delivered them safely to their teachers on the first day of school. Have a party. Drink some coffee. Drink something sparkling. Cry. Take a nap. Sit in your car in the school parking lot. Go to the grocery store BY YOURSELF. Pat yourself on the back. You did it. Hooray!

And to all of us starting a new school year: may it be a year full of joy and learning!

Ready For (Home)School!

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Can you believe it? Summer is OVER, and hi-ho-hi-ho it’s back to school we go. Back-to-school is always a special time of year, but this year is totally unique for us as it will be our inaugural year of homeschool. The butterflies are stirring.

Even though I’ve formally been out of the classroom for the last five years, I still suffer from Teacher Complex A. I can’t walk by the school supply aisle in a store without stopping to ogle the newest offerings, and I have a strong affinity for paper cutters and laminators. I speak in my Teacher Voice when I mean business–even with other grown adults. I’ve been known to opt out of traditional home décor in favor of colorful die-cut shapes so we can practice our letters and counting skills. You can take the teacher out of the classroom, but you can’t take the teacher out of me.

You can imagine how giddy I’ve been these last couple of weeks, then, as I’ve eagerly set up my own classroom at home (and by classroom, I mean I have completely taken over the entire house). This was no small feat considering we just moved into this house a 12 days ago, but where there’s a will there’s a way, amirght?

We’re officially starting school next Tuesday after Labor Day, although we’ve already started tinkering around with some of the school stuff because the boys saw it and were curious and I’m not about to miss the opportunity to capitalize on their eagerness. Since this will be our first year of homeschool, I know that I’ll be making tweaks and adjustments as the year goes on. For now, though, here is the set up for the 2015-2016 school year at Peterson Learning Academy:

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This year we will be using a curriculum (and I use that term lightly) called Five In A Row (FIAR). After reviewing the first volume of FIAR, however, I decided that Before Five In A Row (BFIAR) would be a better fit for us this year since most of the FIAR lessons are geared toward early readers and writers and we’re just not quite there yet.

Each week we will read a different classic children’s book (think Going On A Bear Hunt and The Runaway Bunny) every day for a full week (five days in a school week = five in a row). The curriculum/guide suggests learning activities across all subject areas that go along with the themes of the story. This is called a unit study approach, and I really like this idea for my multi-age preschool (see how fancy we are here at the Peterson Learning Academy?). FIAR allows me to adapt ideas to meet the interests and needs of both boys while keeping the focus on hands-on activities (I have a strong aversion to worksheets and rote seat work for kids of this age, but we can get more into that later…).

I will also be supplementing a the BFIAR guide a bit as I find necessary. For Bible I plan on using the FIAR Bible Study Supplement, The Jesus Storybook Bible, and Five Minute Devotions for ChildrenFor handwriting practice (for David only) we’ll use the Get Set For School My First School Book by Handwriting Without TearsI made my own planning notebook because that’s just how I’ve always done it and it works and I like it.

As far as the classroom goes, we have several spaces to choose from. I’m sure as the year goes on I will see how each space works best and we’ll move around all day as it suits us. This is our learning corner where we will do calendar/circle time and work on projects at the boys’ small table.
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I also set up some bookshelves and storage on the opposite wall so I can keep books and supplies at the ready.IMG_6113

The drawers next to the bookshelves contain supplies (crayons, markers, scissors, glue, tape) and manipulatives (teacher speak for Stuff We Use…letter and number magnets, big foam dice, ice cube trays for sorting activities, blocks, felt board pieces, puppets, pointers…all kinds of goodies).IMG_6115

The living room just happens to be in the center of our learning space, so we’ll use the couch and fireplace for story time and cuddle breaks.IMG_6121

Our dining room table will be another great workspace since we can clear it off and have plenty of room to lay out projects.IMG_6123

The kitchen will play a big role in our learning adventures this year. I plan on doing at least one cooking project each week that goes along with our story, so I wanted to make sure the kitchen was accessible for the boys. I dedicated several lower drawers to the supplies they’ll be using most often in our cooking: measuring cups and spoons, baking dishes, bowls, and cutting boards.IMG_6126

Perhaps what I’m most excited about, as far as the actual learning space is concerned, is the fact that we will have nearly unlimited access to the Outdoor Classroom (thank you, California sunshine!). One of our decks will host our outdoor learning stations: a sensory table (designed and built by Jon, our resident playtime architect and Principal Daddy), the “Play Doh Table”, and a big tub of plastic toys and Play Doh tools (plus a comfy chair for Teacher Mommy).IMG_6130

Our new house is in an awesome location for outdoor explorations. We live in a mountain canyon with a creek in our back yard–what else could two little boys ask for? We will spend plenty of time out in nature exploring and using our senses as we learn about the world around us.IMG_5921

Right up the street from us is a large lake with trails and beaches. Yet another exciting venue to explore in our outdoor classroom.IMG_5971

Since reading books will be a big part of our year, we will also be spending plenty of time at our local library enjoying books together.IMG_5925

I’ve joined a local homeschool co-op that a fellow homeschooling friend of mine is a part of, and we’ll be having weekly park days and field trips throughout the year. Not only will the park days and field trips be fun for us, but they will also give me and the boys an opportunity to connect with our peers. In addition to the co-op, we’ll also be attending MOPs (Mothers of Preschoolers) or CBS (Community Bible Study) each Wednesday morning, and AWANA on Sunday evenings. We’ll have quite the varied schedule, but I’m sure we’ll never get bored!IMG_3285

I can’t wait to see what this year has in store for us as we embark on this new homeschool adventure together–wish us luck!

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We’re Going To Homeschool?!?!

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Seeing as yesterday was David’s last day of preschool, I thought it would be fitting to make our big announcement. After much thought, prayer, and deliberation we have decided to take on a new challenge in the Fall: homeschool. That’s right, folks–HOMESCHOOL.  As in, me having my own little classroom of two darling pupils located halfway between our kitchen and the boys’ bedroom. Every day. All year. By myself.

This is a relatively recent decision for us, and we’re still piecing together what “homeschool” will look like for our family. As I’ve started to share our news with people, however, I  have discovered that our somewhat unconventional decision has the potential to spark a lot of debate/dismay/panic. So, in order to answer some of your burning questions, I thought I’d put together a little Q and A session for us:

Q) Are you crazy?!
A) Yes, but I think we established that fact long before the topic of homeschooling came up.

Q) I could never homeschool my kids. They’d drive me nuts.
A) That’s not really a question but yes you could, and yes they would.

I believe that homeschooling is a calling–it is not something that you simply fall into or decide on a whim. One lesson I have learned (repeatedly) is that God equips the called, not that He calls the equipped. To be quite honest, I don’t have a clue how I’m going to do this. I do know, however, that God has called our family to take this on for this “season”, and I trust that He will lead us every step of the way.

I’m fairly certain my kids will still drive me nuts, though.

Q) Have you always wanted to homeschool?
A) I’m going to answer this one with an emphatic NO. No no no nooooo no. Because I used to be a teacher, a lot of people assume that I’ve always wanted to teach my own children–not the case. Not at all. My response to the “Would you ever homeschool…” question has always been, “Only if it’s the only best choice for my kids.” I know that homeschool is night-and-day-different from traditional school, and I never really thought I was cut out for the job. Plus, I REALLY like my free time (which just so happens to only occur during the hours my children are away at school).

Which leads me to the next question:

Q) Why on earth would you decide to homeschool?
A) The short answer is: because it’s the best choice for our kids and our family right now.

The long answer is…well, longer. I could write a whole post on this one question, but I’ll try to summarize some of our thoughts here. The main factors that went into our decision include: the privilege of building our childrens’ character and teaching from a Biblical worldview; the ability to address the specific learning needs and learning styles of our children (our boys are c-r-a-z-y); flexibility in the daily schedule to allow more “wiggle time” and play time (which research shows is more beneficial than strictly academic instruction for young children); more time for pursuing outside interests and extra-curricular activities; proximity to home (as in, roll out of bed and you’re already at school); the absolute absence of the term “high-stakes testing” (and for those homeschooled students who choose to participate in state-mandated testing, consistently scoring 30% above their “typically schooled” peers);  allowing our children to get enough sleep, at the times that naturally work for them; having more time together as a family mid-week (like, we can actually be awake during some of the hours when Daddy is home); and financial considerations (one local private school that I visited had an annual tuition of $24,000. For KINDERGARTEN. For the love…).

Plus, I genuinely enjoy teaching and being home with my children (they’re actually really cool people), so it’s kind of a perfect fit.

That, and I also think I enjoy torturing myself a bit.

Q) Are you trying to shelter your kids from the world?
A) Yes, and no. The world shelter is defined as “a place giving temporary protection”. There are several matters in The World to which I would like to offer temporary protection to my children while I build a strong foundation for them so they will be able to weather storms on their own. I am not naïve enough to assume that I will shield my children from every potential Bad Thing that is out there, but I’m happy that I will have more time in these early ears to equip them for the challenges that lay ahead.

Q) What will you DO all day?
A) Here’s the thing: I can’t STOP my kids from learning. All day, every day, they are learning. When my boys work together to build the world’s tallest Lego tower, they are learning. When we go to a new park and spend 3 hours exploring nature trails observing the flight pattern of a butterfly or which objects sink or float when they throw them in a creek, they are learning. When we bake cookies and they measure and count each ingredient, they are learning. For children, the world is a classroom.

While my children are little, I want them to…well…stay little. To explore. To play. To be bored for awhile and sort their own selves out. To sit in a cozy lap and read books all afternoon. Next year we will do a lot of that: exploring, playing, reading, learning as their interests lead us (plus some hardcore academics thrown in for good measure).

If this homeschooling thing sits well with us, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of curriculum options available to us. We can use “official” curriculum provided by our local public school district, formal curriculum packages available for purchase, an assortment of unit studies pieced together from Pinterest/library books/my brain, or anything in between.

All I know is we’ll be doing it all (or most of it all) in our pajamas.

Q) Going against the stream, are you?
A) I guess so. Strange as homeschooling may sound, though, it’s not that strange. A growing number of my friends already homeschool–so it doesn’t seem that unusual to me. In fact, with nearly 2 million families choosing homeschool for their children this year, homeschooling is the single fastest growing form of schooling in the United States. 90% of Americans still choose traditional schooling for their children…but 10% (and growing each year) are choosing homeschool. I dunno…a part of me has always kind of enjoyed the challenge of an upstream battle.

Q) How long are you going to homeschool?
A) As long as it’s the best choice for our kids and our family.

We’re going to use next year as a trial year to work out the kinks and see how we like it. David will be in Pre-K next year and Jacob will be entering preschool, so we still have plenty of time to decide if this will be a good long-term choice. We’re just going to take each year as it comes, and go from there.

If I’m comatose or neurotic by this time next year, we may have to call it quits.

Q) So, are you against “normal schools” now?
A) Absolutely not! Jon and I both went to public schools (whoop!), and I’ve taught in both private schools and public charter schools. Each school setting has different strengths and challenges, as does each individual school. We plan on transitioning the boys to a traditional school some day–whether that’s in a year or two or ten, I don’t yet know. I love schools and I’m excited to try out one more type of school for myself.

Q) Won’t your kids become socially awkward now that they’re being homeschooled?
A) You’re wondering if Boy 1 who believes his toys are actually alive and Boy 2 who has full-blown conversations with my hair might possibly become socially awkward? Not a chance. There are actually plenty of opportunities for homeschool kids to interact with their peers: homeschool co-ops and support groups, church groups, sports, extra-curricular clubs or lessons, and playing with friends in the neighborhood. My boys will also have plenty of time to interact with their favorite life-long friend: their own brother/new-schoolmate.

Q) Now that you’re homeschooling, are you get an ugly haircut and frumpy clothes and move off the grid?
A) Now that you mention it, that doesn’t sound half-bad. I actually don’t even know what my hair looks like any more because I only ever wear it pulled back in a “messy bun”, my clothes are already about as frumpy as yoga pants and t-shirts can get, and I’m kind of over this whole overcrowded-too-much-traffic-people-everywhere thing. As long as we have internet access so I can binge watch Netflix after the boys go to bed, “off the grid” could work out just fine for us.

And so the ending to this school-choice saga is the same as the ending to any good story: unexpected, yet inevitable. It’s been a huge decision–but now that our choice has (finally) been made, we are excited and confident that it’s the right one!

I hope that this Q&A session has been helpful for you and that I’ve answered all of your questions. If you have any additional concerns, feel free to keep them to yourself for awhile so I don’t have a nervous breakdown before this whole homeschooling thang goes down.

Wish me luck!

School Skills For Babies and Toddlers, Part 5: Social and Emotional Skills

This will be my last post in this little series about school skills for babies and toddlers. Social and emotional skills often get overlooked when people are thinking about what it takes for kids to be successful in school. As a former classroom teacher, however, I can assure you that these are some of the most important skills a child needs to develop in order to thrive (both in school and in the larger society that awaits them after graduation). Being able to cooperate, work with others, obey an authority figure, and follow the rules (at least most of the time) will go a long way in getting your child through school in one happy piece.

Social Skills
People are social creatures. And, since babies are just little people, they are born as social creatures. Children need to learn how to get along with others from a young age because, let’s face it, they’ll never be alone. There will be many situations that your child will be in where they will need to use good social skills: sharing with a sibling, playing with a friend, or completing a project with a school mate. Here are a few things you can start doing with your budding socialite now!
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  • Socializing baby- Introduce your baby to others and include him in your conversations. Baby will feel included and start to learn how to behave in social situations.
  • Practice playing with others- Young children don’t really play together, and they are psychologically not yet able to share. So don’t put that expectation on them.  What you can do, however, is give them opportunities to practice playing (some day they will actually care that there’s another child there who wants to play with them). Have play dates with other kids who are about the same age (for young children, keep play dates small—1 or 2 friends at a time–so they don’t get overwhelmed) and let them each do their own thing while occupying the same space. If nothing else, they’ll learn that the world  does not solely consist of them nor does it solely exist for them.
  • Solving Problems- Your toddler will throw a tantrum (“But MOM, I wanted to cut the dog’s hair with those scissors! How DARE you take them away!”). If your toddler is like mine, he will throw a tantrum every 15 minutes or so.  This is good–it gives us lots of opportunities to practice problem solving. After he calms down from the tantrum, have him help you solve the problem (“Sorry, scissors are for grown ups. Let’s get a brush for the dog instead. Would you like to help brush her fur?”). Get those problem solving skills down solid now–you don’t want to get “that call” from your kid’s principal about the fist fight on the playground!
  • Obeying- Learning to obey authority figures (you, Grandpa, a preschool teacher) is an absolute necessity. Sometimes when I find David is not obeying particularly well we’ll sing a little song: (to the tune of “Farmer and the Dell”) “O is for obey. O is for obey. Obey is doing what you’re asked, right away.” It’s a little cue for him to listen up and obey (and he knows by now that discipline is coming next if he doesn’t). When I start singing he usually will stop what he’s doing and sing with me–a good sag-way into diverting his attention to some other activity, thus forgetting about the need to disobey in the previous activity.
  • Following Directions- This goes along with obeying. Play “Simon Says”, “Red Light, Green Light” or “Mother May I?” to practice. Cook together and follow the directions in the recipe. Tell your baby how you are following directions: “When I’m driving I put on my seat belt and always drive the speed limit because that’s the law.” (You’re welcome, officer.)
  • Teach them how to use manners: Say please, thank you, excuse me, and sorry. Even babies can learn how to say these words with sign language. As soon as your little one starts doing “bad things” on purpose, have them apologize.  Then, say “I forgive you” and move on. As the parent, you can also demonstrate apologizing to your little one when YOU’VE done a “bad thing” (“I’m sorry I yelled. Sometimes Mommy gets frustrated when you don’t obey. Will you forgive me?”). If your child has wronged another, have them apologize to them (I even make David apologize to the baby. He’ll give Jacob a hug and a kiss, and then Jacob usually tries to eat his face. I love it!).
  • Role Playing Social Situations- Does your child get nervous every time they meet a new person? Does he like to hit to get what he wants? Does she scream to get your attention? Whatever your kid does that drives you nuts, practice it. Do a role reversal and pretend that you’re the kid and he’s the daddy–and throw a little temper tantrum for him (he’ll LOVE this!). Then show him the right way to get dad’s attention. Switch roles, and let him show you how to do things right and wrong. Or, before you go out for a play date, “play”  play date at home. Practice how you might say hello to your friend, how you will ask to play with a toy, how you will help clean up, etc.
  • Have them help- Even toddlers can help with simple chores like putting away their toys, sorting laundry, and washing things (this is David’s favorite job! I give him a damp paper towel and he’ll spend the better part of an hour cleaning my cupboards, the walls, the floor, his toys. It’s fantastic.). This gives kids a sense of ownership and shows them that they can (and should) contribute.

Emotional Skills
Here are some ways you can help your baby or toddler get in touch with their feelings. Awwww, baby kisses!
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  • Acknowledge and name emotions- Tell your child what the emotions are that they are feeling in a given situation. When your child is kicking and screaming because you have to leave the park, tell him that you know he’s frustrated by leaving something he enjoys. When your baby is giggling at your silly faces, tell her that you enjoy making her happy. Let your little ones know that it’s okay to feel _____ (mad, sad, shy, etc.).
  • Sing a song-We sing our own version of “If You’re Happy and you Know It” using lots of different emotions. Each verse has an emotion and an action (or a face) that goes with that emotion: If you’re happy and you know it, then you smile; If you’re sad and you know it, cry big tears; If you’re mad and you know it, make a frown; If you’re excited and you know it, jump up and down; If you’re scared and you know it, hide your eyes….and on and on until I can’t think of anything else to sing about.
  • Showing empathy-Help your child to notice how others are feeling: “Your brother is crying. He’s sad right now, but he’ll feel better soon. Let’s give him a hug to help him cheer up.”
  • Find emotions in books- Most children’s books have characters who express pretty obvious emotions. As you’re reading, ask your child (or tell your baby) how the puppy or the princess or the dinosaur is feeling right now.

So, that’s it! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my little series on school skills this week as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. You’re well on your way to having one savvy little student! Feel free to leave a comment with ways that you like to incorporate learning into your days–I’d love to get some new ideas!

School Skills For Babies and Toddlers, Part 2: Literacy

My first topic for this exploration into school skills for babies and toddlers will be literacy (reading and writing). This is probably the biggest area of instruction in early elementary school, so we’ll start here. You can do any of these things with your baby or toddler. Even if they can’t tell you what they’re learning, trust me, they’re soaking it all in!

Early Reading Skills:

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  • Read- I’ve mentioned this before, but reading is so very important. Make it a priority, and a habit, to read with your kids every single day. For us, this means we have an “official” story time before nap time and Bible story time before bed. We also read at various points throughout the day, but this way I know we have a set time every day when reading will definitely happen.  If you establish good reading habits (and good reading memories) early on, it will be a lot easier for your kid to keep up those habits in school.
    **One other thing here. As you’re reading to your child, read slowly and with a lot of expression. Give your baby time to process what you’re doing. Also, repetition is key. Children love hearing the same stories over and over and over and over again–and it research shows that repetition helps young children learn and retain information. So indulge your little guy in reading “Goodnight, Moon” for the 5,000th time this week.
  • Talk about “concepts of print”- As you’re reading, point out different concepts in the book: the title, the cover of the book, the author (“the person who wrote the wonderful words”), the illustrator (“the person who drew the beautiful pictures”), where the sentence begins and ends (talk about different forms of punctuation–“Wow, see that little dot after this word? That’s called a period. A period is like a stop sign for readers.”), the author’s note at the end of the book. This may seem really silly to do all of this with a baby or a young toddler, but they’ll start to get it and they’ll start to become familiar with the language you’re using (so always use the proper names: author, illustrator, etc. and then explain them as necessary).
  • Point out details in the story- Rather than just reading the words on the page and calling it a day, take time to elaborate on the story on each page. Point out details in the illustrations, ask questions about what’s happened so far, and see what your child thinks will happen next.

Early Phonics Skills
Phonics basically deals with letters and sounds. Here are some things you can do with your budding linguist:

  • Find letters- Find letters and words in your world (on food packaging, road signs, the side of a bus, etc.) and point them out. It’s fun for young kids to see how letters and words are all around them!
  • Teach letter sounds- Letters are a confusing concept for young children, especially in the English language where our letters make so many different sounds. At a very young age, it’s best to not even teach the letter “names” (A, B, C, etc.).  Rather, focus on the sound each letter makes. For instance, when you see the letter A, say, “this letter says /a/ like apple, alligator, animal.” After all, when it comes time to read, your kid’s going to need to know the sound of the letter, not it’s name, in order to read a word.
    I told David that all letters make sounds, just like animals make sounds. We learned the names of the letters and the special sounds that they each made, then we even sing about the letter sounds in a song to the tune of “Old McDonald”. For instance, I’ll hold up the letter A (we have a foam set of letters that we play with in the bath tub) and sing: “Old McDonald had a word, e-i-e-i-o. And in that word there was a letter, e-i-e-i-o. With an /a/ /a/ here, and an /a/ /a/ there, here an /a/, there an /a/, everywhere an /a/, /a/. Old McDonald had a word, e-i-e-i-o.
  • Find sounds- Say a sound, and see how many things you can find that begin with that sound. You can even make a “sound box” where you put all of the things that begin with that sound into a box. Making things concrete will help your young child to learn the skill.
  • Practice rhyming- Find rhyming words in the stories you’re reading or things you see (“You’re wearing a blue shoe today. Blue, shoe. Those words rhyme!”). There are lots of fun nursery rhymes and songs that have rhyming words, too (“Hickory Dickory, Dock”, “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, “Jack and Jill”, “Down By the Bay”, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”).
  • Sing- Singing is a great way to develop your baby’s language skills. You can sing about things you’re doing (you can make up the song as you’re going. It can be ridiculous, off-tune, and not make any sense. Your baby will love it). You can sing while you’re doing things–I like singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” during diaper changes. I use my fingers to go up the water spout (up baby’s legs), make the rain come down (tickle baby’s tummy), wash the spider out (rub baby’s tummy), and have the sun come out (trace a circle around baby’s face). You can also sing to teach (like when you sing the “ABC song”).

Early Writing Skills
Young children lack the fine motor skills to physically hold a pencil and write. There’s a lot you can do now, though, to help get them ready.

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  • Writing with fingers- Give your kid a chance to practice writing and drawing with something they don’t have to hold on to–their own fingers! Just get a large surface–a high chair tray, table, or a cookie sheet–and cover it with something they can write in. Some of my favorites are shaving cream, finger paints, pudding and whipped cream (just make sure if your baby is still in the puts-everything-in-his-mouth-regardless-of-it’s-level-of-toxicity stage that you give him something edible to play in). If you don’t like messes, put a bit of the “painting material” in a large ziploc bag and duct tape the edges. Your kid can still paint through the bag mess-free.
  • Pinching practice- One of the greatest hurdles to writing for young children is the simple fact that their bodies are not physically able to do it. Holding and controlling a pencil is a specific fine motor skill that takes time to develop. Pinching practice can help get those little fingers ready to grasp a pencil. We play a “pincher pick-up” game where I give David a set of tongs and a bunch of little things for him to try to pick up with them (small toys, crafting pom-pom’s, large buttons and beads). He still uses two hands on the pinchers most of the time, but he’s already able to control them a lot more than when we first started playing. A variation on this game is to play in a rice table (to make your own rice table, just fill a large bucket or rubbermaid bin with rice or uncooked beans). Bury the toys in the rice and let your kiddo dig around with the pinchers to find them.
  • Playing with clay and dough- Get those little finger muscles strong by letting your kids play with play dough and clay (clay is harder to use, so wait until they’re a bit older for this one). You can make your own play dough or even let them play with bread dough or pizza dough if you’re concerned they will eat it.
  • Hand-eye coordination–This is an important foundation to develop for both reading and writing. With a baby, have him practice grasping at toys that you dangle in front of him or reaching for toys that you shake on the floor. For older tots, you can play catching games with “slow” objects like scarves or balloons. You can even make a parachute out of a bed sheet and put soft objects on it to watch as you shake the sheet up and down (get another grown up to help hold the sheet, or invite your friends over for a play date and play parachute together).One of my favorite baby parachute games is “popcorn”. I fill up old socks or nylons with cotton balls, fabric scraps, etc. and tie them off into “popcorn kernels”. Then we make imaginary popcorn: lay out our pan (the sheet), pour our popcorn kernels (the sock balls) into the pan, add whatever flavorings we want (just shake our hands over the “pan” adding chocolate, salt, sprinkles, and cheese…yummmmm….), and then we hold opposite sides of the “pan” and give our popcorn a good shake until all of our popcorn balls invariably pop out of the pan. Repeat until you’re all good and full of popcorn.

School Skills For Babies and Toddlers Part 1: Introduction

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Back in the days before I had babies, I was a teacher. I got to enlighten the young minds of America for 6 hours a day, 180 days a year. Now that I’m a full-time mom, I’m not in the classroom anymore. It has become quite obvious, however, that I am still a teacher. Only now, I’m in teacher-mode 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with my own kids–no Christmas break or summer vacation, no sick days or off-site training days. Oh, yeah. And I don’t get paid any more. And I wouldn’t change a thing about it!

It is one of the greatest privileges and responsibilities I have as a mom: to be my childrens’ first teacher. And, whether or not they know it, this is every parent’s role. Our children are always learning, and so every little thing we say or do is teaching them something. Babies and young children are like little learning sponges who soak up this wide new world they have entered. And, as the big people in these little people’s lives, we get to share in that with them.

Kids are never too young to start learning, so why not start teaching them? I thought it would be fun to do a series of posts about how I incorporate learning into our days. I don’t do anything formal or “academic” (c’mon, my oldest kid is only 2!) but I do try to teach them at every possible opportunity. For young children, play is serious business. When I “teach” my baby and toddler, then, most of it is done while we’re playing together or through little songs and games that we play.

Since I used to teach Kindergarten and first grade, I know a lot about what kinds of skills kids need to be familiar with before they enter school. I’m certainly not an expert on this matter– not by a long shot!–but there are lots of things I do every day that will help my kids be better prepared for the school years that lay in their (not-so) distant futures.  And if you have young children I bet you’re already doing a lot of these things, too!  I’ll do a post each day this week covering a different topic: literacy, math, science, and social/emotional skills. So, read on this week to find out how great of a parent you already are and maybe get a few ideas for some fun new things to try!