Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Boy's Night Out!

It was Saturday evening and my wife and daughter had plans which resulted in a Boy’s Night Out! We didn't really have a plan. We started by taking a drive to the local slot car hobby shop, but unfortunately they were not open.  That is when my son said, “Let’s go get some pizza, I’m super hungry!”  It seemed like a logical plan, and we needed to eat.  Nevertheless, this is where the “fun” (note a sarcastic tone) began.  

We entered the restaurant (10 minute wait) and sat quietly in the lobby, which is unusual for us.  It had been a long day of playing outside, so I figured my son was just tired.  As we were called to the table, my son reiterated that he was hungry and also a little thirsty.  We sat down and were quickly greeted by our waiter who brought us our drinks and took our order.  While waiting, we played the dot game.  Do you remember the dot game?  Players take turns connecting dots in attempt to complete and initial the most squares. It is a great game to predict, problem solve, and strategize.  I digress…  During the game my son said he had a little headache.  Again, just thought he was tired and hungry.  Our pizza arrived and then the “fun” began!

My son quickly stood up, put his hand over his mouth, and opened his eyes wider than I have ever seen.  I asked, “Are you going to get sick?”  I apologize, in advance, for the the graphic picture I’m about to paint.  I started looking for anything that he could use to collect… well, you know... because the bathroom was too far away.  The last thing I wanted was for him to “spray” all over the restaurant. I had no luck finding anything!  So, I panicked and put my hand over his hand, which was still covering his mouth, and started moving toward the exit.  The poor waiter came by to help.  My son could not hold it any longer!  Advice for everyone: never tightly cover a puke-ish mouth.  It projects much further than you would expect, similar to placing your thumb over a garden hose. I felt horrible for the waiter!  Due to all the commotion, the restaurant, typically filled with the normal sounds of a Saturday night, became eerily silent.  My son ran to the bathroom to clean up, I quickly followed, and imagine that the waiter did the same.   

This is when I realized that there are still good people out there.  As we returned, the waiter looked concerned.  Not because he needed to clean his shoes, but because he was genuinely concerned for my son and his well-being.  He quickly asked if there was anything that he could do to help.  A bit embarrassed, and both of us needing clean shirts, I proceeded to ask for our bill and a couple of boxes for the pizza.  I could not believe the level of understanding, and at no time did the waiter look disgusted or upset.  As he was getting our bill, we were still cleaning up, and the waiter’s assistant was doing the same by cleaning the carpet. The assistant looked at my son and said, “Are you alright buddy?”  My son said, “Yup, I’m better now.”  At that time, the young man gave my son a high five and said, “Stay strong little man!”  Other customers in the restaurant started to smile and make comments such as, “Don’t worry,” “It happens,” There was nothing you could do,” etc.  I think they were trying to reassure me more than my son, who seemed totally fine at this point.  The uncomfortable concern and eerie silence soon returned to the normal sounds of a restaurant on a Saturday night, but with a bit of laughter as well.  You see, the restaurant was filled by mostly families, and they all knew that it could be them next time!  

The night ended with me doing a load of laundry to wash away the evidence, now I just wish I could wash it from everyone’s mind who experienced the “spray!”  I am sure you all remember the movie Stand By Me… it wasn't nearly that bad, but still, it wasn't good!  During the waning part of the evening, I contacted the restaurant's manager to give accolades to the wait staff.  The manager appreciated the call and responded by saying, “no worries, that is why they make carpet cleaners.”  I truly appreciated everyone’s understanding.  

All in all, Boy’s Night Out was not what we anticipated.  Nevertheless, it will be something that will not be forgotten and definitely highlights the kindness in others.

Stay Healthy and Happy Thanksgiving!  

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Just went to conferences... Now what???

After conferences, parents often ask me how to better support their child’s learning.  There are many additional things families can do to keep skills moving forward.  It is important to be mindful of students' interest levels while supporting youngsters’ intrinsic desires to continue learning.  A multitude of learning opportunities take place during the school day, with many teachers giving homework or practice to support learning each night.  We need to be careful not to overwhelm students or turn them off of learning.  We don’t want to force; we want to empower!  Empowering students to assume the responsibility for learning should be our goal!  With that said, below are some ideas to encourage learning outside the school day, on weekends, or even during winter break.  Enjoy!

Creating family reading time is one of the most important things we can do for early learners.  Reading is the “foundation of success” and is essential for all subjects.  Good readers activate background knowledge and are able to predict, infer, and question while reading.  Fluent readers can put themselves into the text, making self-to-text connections.  When reading stories together we should stop and ask questions, predict, place ourselves into the story, and ask, “What would you do?”

Sample Questions:

·                Describe the main character.  Where does the story take place?  When does it take place?
·                Name the supporting characters.
·                What do you think the characters are feeling?  Why do they feel that way?
·                What is the problem in the story?  How does the character deal w/problem?
·                Could the character do something different to solve the problem?
·                What is your favorite part of the story?  Why?
·                Have you ever read a story that is similar to this story?
·                Does this story remind you of anything in your life?
·                If you could come up with a new title for the story then what would it be?
·                How did the story end?  Would you change the ending?  Why/How?
·                What is the most interesting part of the story?  Why?
·                Did you learn something new?  Give 3 new facts?  How can you apply this lesson to your life?
·                What are the main character's traits?  How is the character like you/different from you?
·                What do you think will happen next?
·                Tell an opinion you have about the story.  Tell a fact from the story.

Set a purpose or objective for reading, and allow time to make connections, such as:  text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world.   It is important to have conversations to enhance comprehension skills and understanding of the material being read.  Simple “making connection starters” could include:

·         This story reminds me when I went swimming because…
·         This story reminds me of when (character from different story/chapter/etc.) made a new friend  because…
·         This story reminds me when my teacher did ______ because…
·         This story reminds me of when we went on vacation because…
·         This character reminds me of my neighbor because…

I am sure you can think of additional questions or connection starters.  Understand that it is not necessary to use every question or connection starter during your family reading.  Pick three or four that will enhance the reading experience.  The goal for family reading, besides great family bonding, is to support a natural transfer of skills into the child’s independent reading activities, enhancing comprehension, reading fluency and fostering a love of books. 

Spelling and Vocabulary:

Driving vocabulary - Attach three to five vocabulary words on the back of the driver/passenger seat in your car.  While driving, have your child read, spell, and tell the meaning of each word, using them in a sentence.  Change the words every week or two, but don’t tell them when.  Anticipation will increase excitement for new vocabulary words.  Have children keep a driving journal, keeping track of the new words they are learning.  Make sure the words are grade level appropriate and keep it fun.  You can also use this strategy to practice new spelling words.

Vocabulary practice/sentence building – Place words on index cards in two different piles – mix them up and see who can make a sentence.  Make a game out of this activity, creating a point system and the first one to 50 points wins! 

Label the house – Label some items in your house with index cards.  Environmental print supports immediate recall and enhances reading fluency.

Word of the week – Take a higher level vocabulary word and make it the “word of the week” in your house.  Use it in sentences, post it in the house, spell it together, and encourage them to incorporate the word into their writing at school.  Try to make it fun!

Spelling City - Practicing spelling was a challenging event in our household until we were introduced to Spelling City, which is a game-based program that provides spelling, vocabulary, and other language arts activities for K-12 cross-curricular word study.  The site offers a free or affordable premium membership that allows children to use their classroom generated spelling list within the program for motivational practice while providing immediate feedback to learners.   My children no longer complain when we ask them to practice their spelling words.  Give it a try; it might help your family as much as it has helped ours. 


Sports journal – While watching a game, keep a journal of your favorite plays so that you can go back and try it on the field.   We are well into the football season (Go Lions!) and your favorite team or players can provide many writing opportunities.  Simple sports writing prompts could include:

·         Have you ever dreamed about being a sports star?  What team would you play for? 
·         What is your favorite sports team and why?
·         Who is your favorite player and why? 
·         What are the 5 top plays from yesterday’s game?

Connecting to a child’s interest level will enhance likelihood that practice will be meaningful and empowering.

Family time capsule journal or scrap book journal – Keeping track of movies, family vacations, major news stories, special sporting events, birthdays, etc. in a family journal will make writing exciting.  You can add pictures and make it into a scrap book of memories and thoughts that can be remembered for years to come.

Writing for a purpose – Write a letter to a company that makes the best chocolate, game, toy, golf club, etc.  Maybe they will send you some free goodies as a thank you!  Write a letter if you are not impressed with a product.  I wonder if the CEO of the company will respond.

Popplet – Used as a mind-map, Popplet helps students think and learn visually.  Students can capture facts, thoughts, and images while learning to create relationships between them.  Check out a previous post – Popplet: Supporting son's writing homework - he loves to build!


As an elementary teacher, I focused on the students’ ability to understand math concepts and think mathematically. Unfortunately, some of my students had a difficult time because they lacked the ability to recall basic facts. They understood the process; however, they scored low on assessments due to simple computation mistakes throughout the problem.  I always encouraged my students to practice math facts for five minutes a day when they were at home.  Five extra minutes of intense practice per school day might not seem like much, but it adds up quickly. By the end of the year they will do over 900 minutes of extra basic facts practice!  Check out Edutopia - 10 apps for math fluency

Think Through Math - For the past couple of years, our building has been utilizing Think Through Math (TTM) as a supplemental tool for fourth and fifth grade students in conjunction with our district math curriculum.  We have found it to be extremely beneficial.  Think Through Math does exactly what its name suggests.  It provides students with opportunity to understand mathematical concepts rather than just getting to a final answer.   The uniqueness of TTM is that students can connect with a LIVE certified teacher when they are unable to solve a problem on their own.   They can also access the program from home!  TTM understands the importance of immediate support when a student is struggling with a new concept.  Connecting and interacting with a live teacher enhances the likelihood of student success, while taking their mathematical skills to the next level.  Check out a previous post for more detail about TTM. 

These are some of the additional learning opportunities I have used with my children or suggested to parents.  Please remember the importance of keeping things fun and enjoyable while empowering children’s intrinsic belief to be life-long learners.  Most importantly, don’t forget the need for family time, playing board games, making a snowman (yes, snow is just around the corner), putting together a puzzle and having rich conversations with your children, enhancing family relationships.

Enjoy your week as great parents and teachers!  

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Successful Parent/Teacher Conferences

Conferences are one of my favorite nights of the year!  They reaffirm the beliefs that I already have: our teachers are great!  As parents are leaving the building, many will stop by my office, to give accolades to our teachers and praise the learning experiences their children are having throughout the year.  This is terrific informal data which supports the positive relationships and learning environment that we have created.  What a great feeling for our teachers and families! 

Fall conferences might be the 1st time teachers are meeting parents, other than the friendly, "hello" during drop off/pick up, and the occasional family night.  Conferences are a time when teachers get 10-20 minutes (depending on district) to showcase academic/social/emotional learning, goals and experiences that students are demonstrating throughout the school year.  Sometimes, parents don’t know what to expect… and neither do teachers!  Some simple things for teachers and parents to consider as conferences approach.  

Research tells us that there are 5 things parents want for their children:

1.      Success
2.      Safety
3.      Love
4.      Happiness
5.      Wisdom

Research tells us that there are 5 things teachers want from parents: 

1.       Establish child’s behavior
2.       Initiate warm conversation
3.       Get involved, monitor homework/school work/notes sent home/etc.
4.       Respond to teacher communication
5.       Good health

I am positive you could add a few more "wants" to each list.  The goal of a conference: make sure both parent and teacher “wants” are met for the benefit of our children.  When parents and teachers are able to collaborate and meet each other’s “wants,” then conferences are usually a great success, where student goals are established for the betterment of learning.  Unfortunately, on occasion, (maybe no fault to anyone) conferences might be difficult.  Some things teachers and parents should consider to avoid a negative conference:

Parent and teacher traps to avoid: 

·         Comparing student (teacher) with siblings (last year teacher).
·         Arguing, becoming negative, or being judgmental towards parent or teacher.
·         Becoming defensive:  if you made a mistake (teacher or parent), apologize and move forward, brainstorming to find a solution.  Constructive brainstorming is much better than becoming defensive. 
·         Psychoanalyzing the student (teacher) (parent).
·         Blaming each other or child.

·         Teachers should avoid:  lecturing, speaking in generalities, using professional jargon, overwhelming parents, trying to be the all knowing authority.  Remember, parents are human, they love their children, and it is hard to hear negative things about them.  We are all in this together!  

·         Parents should avoid:  taking the word of others without meeting with teacher, speculating before knowing (ask questions if you have them), demanding or being accusatory. Remember, teachers are human, they love their job and students.  Their goal is to give parents a clear picture of the school day, while setting future goals for success.  We are all in this together!

I know these seem like simple things; however, it is easy to fall into some of these traps if parents/teachers are discouraged or concerned with the developmental progress of their child/student.  Sometime you can fall into these traps due to only having 10-20 minute for your conference.  If extended time is needed from either party, let each other know and establish an agenda to support a positive and collaborative experience, keeping student success at the forefront of all conversations.  
Positive things parents and teachers can do during conferences:

·         Shake hands and welcome each other, acknowledge by name, smile and create a friendly conference environment.
·         Talk about things of interest, establishing a relationship.
·         Make friendly eye contact.
·         Have positive body language.
·         Try to appear unhurried.
·         Have a caring attitude.
·         Be a team, provide strategies with each other’s input.
·         End all conversations on a positive note.
·         Everything you talk about should focus on the student and their future goals while celebrating their success. 

For Teachers:

·        Say something positive: Show parents that you have a positive relationship with their child.  Show parents that you care about their child as if they were your own.  
·         Focus on the 5 things parents want from teachers (see above).
·         Act, instead of react.  Watch body language of parents and adjust if necessary, focusing on positive collaboration.
·         Have some suggestions ready, setting goals for behavior or academic needs.  Know your students and their academic and behavioral characteristics.  
·         Keep to your conference schedule, and if you need more time then reschedule an additional conference. 
·         Let your principal or colleague know if you need support with any of your conferences.  It is always beneficial to work as a team, collaborating to meet the needs of all students.  Parents will appreciate the extra support and ideas to increase learning and/or improve behaviors.  
·         Understand parents: there is nothing more important to them than their children, parents act out of love for their children.  

For Parents:

·         Be on time for your conference and understand that if you are 5-10 minutes late, then that will affect the entire conference schedule for the rest of the day. 
·         Focus on the 5 things teachers want from parents (see above).
·         Don’t wait until conferences to provide teachers with a list of your concerns.  Waiting months to articulate your concerns will only lead to speculation and negative feelings.  Many times a quick conversation or e-mail will answer your questions and put your mind at ease. 
·         Understand educators: the teaching profession is their calling and a life-long journey of learning.  Teachers act out of love for their students and their passion for educating children, helping them become their best.

Co-founder of Love and Logic Institute, Jim Fay, in his CD, Putting Parents at Ease, teaches a variety of tips for building relationships with others within an educational setting.  In my opinion, the ideas can support Parent/Teacher conferences.  Many of these tips are even great for supporting relationships with a spouse, friend, or family member.  Highlights are as follows:

-          Remember that people who look angry and resistant are usually hurting inside.
-          When we remember this, it becomes easier to avoid becoming defensive or angry ourselves.
-          The most powerful skill involves listening and allowing others to vent about their frustrations, before sharing ideas.
-          “Tell me more.” “What would you like to see here?” or “How long have you felt this way?” are great responses to show others how much you care.  
-          Share your ideas only after making sure that the other person is ready.  Asking, “Would you like to hear my thoughts on this?” is a good way of showing respect and testing to see if they are ready to listen.   

In conclusion, teachers, as you enter into conferences, make a great impression! Help parents believe what we already know: your classroom and school are the best, with amazing teachers for their children!  Make sure they leave your room with no doubt in their mind.  Parents should be saying, "there is no better teacher and place to learn for my child!!!!!"

Parents, I will leave you with the conference note my son’s teacher sent to her families, which truly puts conferences into perspective.  It is a letter to parents from their child.  Please keep this in mind when you are listening to the “snapshot” of your child’s learning. 

To my parents,
When you see my snapshot, remember this is a report of someone near and dear to you.  So, please don’t get too uptight if you see a blemish.  I hope you will accept me as I am.
Please do not picture me as being better than all the other children.  Remember that all children do not learn to talk or walk at the same time, nor do they learn math and reading at the same rate.  I ask you not to compare me with my brother, my sister, or the kid next door.  You can set realistic goals for me, but please be careful not to push me to succeed at something that is beyond my ability.
I want you to understand that my report card is a picture of my school progress.  This will show many things about my life at school, even some things that might surprise you.
My teacher knows me as I am at school.  You know how I am at home.  The “real” me is somewhere in between.  When those two pictures become blended with acceptance and understanding, I hope my “snapshot” will be a shining portrait. 
Your child,

It all comes down to positive relationships with teachers, parents, and ultimately students that will enhance success during conferences and throughout the year.  Enjoy conferences, making it a great experience for everyone!

Keith Howell