Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Helping to Meet Classroom Needs

A recently released report from the U.S. Department of Education, through its National Center for Education Statistics, looks at spending by classroom teachers on supplies for their students and classrooms.

Based on data from the 2014-15 school year, which included teachers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, fully 94 percent of teachers spent their own money on classroom supplies, without reimbursement. The average expenditure over the course of a school year was $479, with teachers in schools with a high percentage of students who qualify for free lunch tending to spend more.

Clearly, teachers are stepping in to fill gaps in the supplies they believe are needed for optimal learning in their classrooms. But there are things that parents can do to help with this burden. One option is the organization Donors Choose. Donors Choose was founded in 2000 by Charles Best, a teacher at a Bronx public high school who needed books for his students. To date, the nonprofit organization has fulfilled over a million projects for almost 80,000 schools across the country and has a four star rating on Charity Navigator.

The model is a simple one. Teachers post information about the projects or materials they need. Donors can view these requests and fund some or all of a particular posting. Donors Choose keeps an eye on the donation to make sure it is put to good use. Take a look around their website. See their impressive list of corporate partners. And see what you can do to help teachers and schools in your area or around the country.

Monday, May 21, 2018

A Changed Perspective

Last Friday, your blogger once again was a guest at HALA, The Hillside Arts and Letters Academy, a New York City public high school located in the historic Jamaica High School building in Queens, New York. Created as part of a New York City initiative to close large, academically failing schools and to replace them with smaller schools, HALA shares its current building with three other schools and all four schools share an auditorium, cafeteria, and sports teams.

HALA opened in 2010 and your blogger has visited for numerous functions over the years; one of the two current Assistant Principals is Matthew Yellin. Matt began his teaching career at HALA and continues to teach a class or two each semester, even as his primary role has changed. And he continues to recruit his family and friends to assist at school events.

But this post isn't about the terrific students I met during Senior Interview Day, when 12th graders prepare a resume and submit to mock interviews for "jobs" in their hoped for fields. It isn't even about the excellent scores this school achieved during its reviews by the NYC Department of Education.

What was striking about this visit was how I felt about the metal detectors that all students and visitors to the building need to pass through whenever they enter. For several years, each time I visited the school, I was troubled by the security procedures, even though the safety officers were always polite to me and seemed efficient. When I mentioned that this must be an issue for the students, it was explained that it was a real inconvenience, especially when large numbers of students were arriving at once. I was told, this level of security went back to the day when Jamaica High School was a single school, with thousands of students. Still, the process made me uncomfortable.

I am still troubled by these devices, but for a different reason. Now I am grateful that the students -- and the staff -- are protected by metal detectors. I am not so naive as to think that these devices or the folks that operate them are foolproof, but I appreciate the level of safety they offer nonetheless. And I am sad that the world in which we live, where school shootings seem to pile one upon another,  has managed to change my mind about the need for this level of security. Very sad.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

What's Cooking?

Any parent who is faced with providing dinner for his or her family knows that eventually this can become a chore. Deciding on a menu, having the ingredients on hand, and doing the preparation and cooking, not to mention the clean-up, can challenge even the best cooks and most dedicated moms and dads. Furthermore, making sure that everyone gets healthy food and finds something they will eat can add to the job. It's one reason that prepackaged meals that come in a box, ready to cook, are finding an audience.

But neither boxed meals nor dining out is a practical every night solution for most families, and certainly not for those who are concerned with nutrition and budgets. One solution is to enlist children to help with nightly dinners. Sure, busy parents may not want to take the time to involve their children in dinner preparation. It can slow things down and require more thought than working parents can bring to this task. All they want, much of the time, is to get dinner on the table as quickly and easily as possible.

But, with a bit of planning, parents can involve children in this job, making it a time for family interaction, and getting real assistance while teaching children important skills.

Start on a weekend. Spend some time discussing what everyone likes to eat and what might be a healthy way to include that in family dinners. Have kids do a bit of a kitchen scavenger hunt, checking to see what ingredients are on hand. Work with them to make a shopping list for the week's menus. Planning makes everything easier and the skills involved in this part of the job are important ones for children to master. And have the menus for the week readily accessible. 

  • Involve children in shopping. Specific lists are a must. Not just "vegetables" but "two red peppers and three green peppers;" not just "chicken" but "one package of chicken drumsticks, about 10 drumsticks." If you have multiple children, old enough to be on their own in a supermarket, you may want to break the list into parts. If you shop in small neighborhood stores, you may want to have your child ask the counter person for a specific item. And once the shopping is completed, have the children help to unload and put the groceries in their proper place. 
  • Prep in advance. Lots of elements of recipes can be prepared in advance and stored for several days. Chop vegetables and portion and freeze packages of meat or fish. 
  • Assign tasks. This can be by the day - with one child helping on Tuesdays and Thursdays and another on Monday and Wednesday. Or by job, with even the youngest children able to set the table or put bread on a bread board. What about other days? Pizza night works well for many families, as does breakfast for dinner. It's not easy to cook, especially with children, every night and a couple of nights each week of something simpler can keep things doable. 
  • Older children can do real cooking, especially if they have been working up to it with simpler tasks. And everyone can pitch in with clean up!
  • Don't forget the skills that cooking can build: reading directions, writing out lists, measuring, working on the sequential step-by-step tasks involved in cooking. 
With some planning and patience, family dinner preparation can be helpful for everyone.

Photo credit: sydney Rae

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Going Easy on Homework Help

It is rare to speak to a parent who is not somehow involved in their child's homework. From making sure their student has a time and place to work, to answering the occasional question, to actually sitting with their child and providing lessons and guidance, parents seem to be part of the homework process, especially for younger students.

Often, homework is a chore for both child and parent, one that both may dread. Are there ways to make children more independent when it comes to this inevitable part of most school programs? What works best to build skills without fraying tempers?

One answer seems to emerge from a study out of Finland. The First Steps Study is a wide-ranging long-term examination of learning and motivation in some 2,000 Finnish students from kindergarten through high school. In this component of the study, reported in the journal Learning and Instruction, researchers looked at 365 second through fourth graders and at how their mothers supported their children's homework. They found that the more opportunities for independent, autonomous work that the mother offered the child, the more persistently the child worked on his or her school assignments. This, in turn, resulted in the mothers offering more opportunities for independent work.

In contrast, when mothers offered their children concrete homework help, the children were less independent in their work and the mothers responded by offering more and more help. Note that this effect persisted even when the child's ability level was controlled for. Notably, the study does not mention interventions by fathers. The study authors posited, in a press release from The University of Eastern Finland, that,

"One possible explanation is that when the mother gives her child an opportunity to do homework autonomously, the mother also sends out a message that she believes in the child's skills and capabilities. This, in turn, makes the child believe in him- or herself, and in his or her skills and capabilities."

Similarly, concrete homework assistance - especially if not requested by the child - may send out a message that the mother doesn't believe in the child's ability to do his or her homework.

It is difficult for some parents to draw down their level of homework involvement. It seems, however, that doing so may have long term benefits for students, and likely for their parents as well.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

One Thousand Blogs!

Today marks our 1000th blog post and we are celebrating this milestone with pride.

We began blogging in August 2009 as a way of reaching out to the families we were seeing, to share information about learning, legal issues, schools, and strategies that they would find helpful. Over the years, we have expanded our subject matter and our roster of regular bloggers, including many of our Learning Specialists. Each writer brought their special interests and expertise to their posts, making for a rich array of topics and information.

Beth Guadagni wrote about language and reviewed books, and continues to blog from her current position as a teacher at a school for students with dyslexia. Renee Jordan shared educational games she had created for her own students when she was a classroom teacher, and Lindsay Levy wrote posts on a wide array of subjects, especially how we think and learn.

Currently, our writers include Dr. Jacqueline Kluger, who brings her insights into research and behavior, and Susan Yellin, who writes about legal issues and serves as editor of the blog. Even Dr. Paul Yellin blogs from time to time, when his schedule permits. And no discussion of our blogging team would be complete without noting the enormous contribution of Jeremy Koren, who was our Operations Manager when the blog first started and has written posts, helped with technical issues, and probably had the idea for writing a blog in the first place. From his current job on the west coast, he is always available when needed.

Thanks, Jeremy and all of our writing team, past and present. This celebration is only a brief pause in our mission to keep the students, parents, educators, and others who we serve and who read this blog, entertained and informed about our work and issues related to learning and education. Thank you for taking the time to read our posts!