Monday, June 30, 2014

Thoughts on Education

This morning I read this article HERE about a battle in education in Maryland.  In response, I wrote the following letter to the writer of the article that I thought I'd share here...


I just read your article from Sunday's Sun about “A New Battle in Maryland Education”.

I wanted to share a few things that might be interesting to include in future articles on the subject of testing and teacher evaluation. But, before I begin, I should explain who I am so you can understand the background I am speaking from. I earned my MA Ed in curriculum and instruction thirteen years ago. I taught middle school in Colorado and Texas. Then, I taught remedial math in a community college GED prep program in Georgia. I also taught math part-time in a private school in Georgia for one term. Since moving to Maryland eight years ago, I have been homeschooling my three children. I have seen all three modes of schooling (public, private, and homeschooling) and do not feel that there is one right answer for all children. For some children, homeschooling is the best option. For others, private, and for others it is public schooling. As a former public school teacher and as a community parent, I care deeply about what happens in the schools. I have many friends who work in the school districts here and I talk to people wherever I go about our state's education system, because I care.

When I first moved here, I was floored to learn that the school boards were not entirely elected. I grew up in Southern California where the boards were wholely elected. As I researched the state board, I learned that the board was not representative of our state's varied counties, but focused in on two or three counties. I was shocked to read the biographies of the board members and additionally learn that seven of the twelve have not been educators. This last piece of information is a very influential one. Teachers who have not been parents often think they know how to parent because they can manage a classroom. But, on the flip side, parents often do not understand the challenges and skills a teacher needs to have and use constantly in the classroom if they have not been teachers themselves.

In the same way, policy makers who have not been teachers often place unreasonable expectations on teachers. The SLOs are an example of this. I have assumed that teachers were involved in the invention of these plans which are basically “classroom IEPs” but I have not researched the matter in depth. Most of the teachers I have spoken with in the counties surrounding the area where I lived still didn't know how to write one of these mid-year of this school year even though they were supposed to be implementing one this school year. Maryland is micro-managing the implementation of the common core standards by dictating lesson plans and adding on the additional burden of the SLOs to teachers' plates. My understanding from your article is that the state is requiring teachers to be accountable to these SLOs (which many teachers have received very little instruction about) but not the test scores from the common core for two years? Is this true?

To connect test scores to teacher evaluation is extremely unfair in my opinion. I recently had a friend call me from Nevada and ask me about the schools in Maryland. He had a friend who was offered a job in this state and was considering the position, but wanted more information about whether the schools would be good for his child. He quoted the national ranking of his state (49th) and asked about Maryland. In reply, I told him that as an educator I don't pay any attention to those statistics. There are many important factors that statistics cannot take into account. The first is the socioeconomics of a community. The more resources—intellectual and physical—that a community has, the more successful the schools in that community are. Here are three articles that I found quickly on the web that mention its importance:
This article explains SES and mentions in its conclusion that although SES is often mentioned in the introduction of research, it is not factored into the measurement of outcomes... as it is not factored into test scores.
A quick and easy article to read which summarizes the relationship between SES and education outcomes.
A third, easy to read article about the relationship between SES and educational outcomes.

The second factor I mentioned to my friend about why I don't pay attention to test scores is student transience.
This article makes some wonderful points about the impacts of transience on students. Students who move a lot are typically below grade level. They do not have the academic and emotional stability to rebound quickly from a move.
This is an excerpt from a book that states that the number of moves a child makes is connected to lower test scores.
This third article is a dissertation focused on a particular school district in Tennessee. Its implications are limited in my mind, but it made the point that most of the transiency was interdistrict and when standard programs (ie. Curriculum) were implemented there was less variance. The problem with taking that and applying it to a nation like the Common Core does is that children across the nation have such widely different sets of background knowledge and experiences. A child from an urban, inner city area will not understand the same stories that someone from a rural area in Iowa would. I would daresay that the academic needs of the communities are different. So, when the focus of classroom education is required to focus on taking a test, teachers are not able to build the knowledge children need to understand the world they live in. There simply isn't time. Within our own state, we have urban and rural areas. The state policy makers on the board of education all come from urban areas. Hmm.
To judge a teacher on test scores when 50% of her students are not the ones she began the school year with, is extremely unfair. Transience is not factored into test scores to my knowledge in any way.

Lastly, the encouragement I gave to my friend was that the greatest predictor of how a child will do in schools is the parents. I live in an area of our county that many people look down upon and people often ask me about the schools. This is what I tell them in reply. How your child does depends on you. Get involved in their schools. Communicate with their teachers. Ask about their days. Our county uses a math program that most parents struggle to help with at home (and which causes issues for most students I hear about). Parents need to be able to help their children with their homework. It is not a school's job to parent children. They are to educate students. Teachers and Parents need to become teams again—working towards the same goal.

Unfortunately, our system currently seems to constantly pit parents and teachers against each other. Teachers are defensive because they are judged by test scores, yet there are so many factors that they have no control of. Those factors multiplied this school year when districts micromanaged classrooms by dictating lesson plans to teachers and how the common core should be implemented. Teachers are not supposed to be robots. They, like me, were trained modify curriculum and teach to the needs of their students. Back up, go a little slower, reteach, move ahead. Teachers have been trained. We need to let them do their jobs and what they were trained to do.

Obviously, my opinion is that test scores are a very poor way to measure how teachers are doing. We live in a world now that doesn't believe in teachers and doesn't believe they can do their jobs. Why do we have so many teachers on instructional plans in Maryland schools? Why don't we have administrators that are backing their teachers and believing in them? I've heard of a few. I've heard of many that aren't. My heart grieves for the state of education in our state. I may homeschool my children, but I still care. I do not homeschool because I don't think teachers can't do their jobs. I homeschool because I love teaching my children and I am able to modify their education plans in a way that public schools cannot do. It is the best option for my family. I am a better teacher after homeschooling for the past seven years. I have learned a lot. It has also prompted much reflection in me about my time in public schools. My conviction that teachers need to be allowed to teach and do their jobs has never wavered. I someday hope that we will let them do their jobs again and believe in them.   

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Awesome Story Starters!

Yesterday, I was at a friend's house and saw this great little book of McDonald Story Starters.  Unfortunately, when I looked online at Amazon, I couldn't find an inexpensive used copy, so I started searching the web for story starter websites.

I came across this awesome one from Scholastic HERE!  The teacher's guide on Scholastic (a short set of lesson plan ideas on how to use the story starter tool).

Monday, June 23, 2014

Stretching, Pulling, Hurting...


It's stretching.  My heart feels often like it's being pulled.  Honestly, my sanity is being pulled!  And then there's the hurting...  Hurting when another child says something mean to your child...or when an adult says something hurting to your child... or they are slighted or mistreated... or when one of your children says something about another that hurts.  I think they all hurt horribly.  And when our children get off track, we hurt.

So, what do you do with that hurt?  I look to my friends.  I ask questions like I did last Sunday of my friend Jenny.  I asked if she had ever encountered what I was trying to tackle with my kiddos last Saturday.  We talked and it helped.  It gave me food for thought.  I do this a lot.  I talk to my friends who have children just a few steps ahead of mine or at the same place/age as mine.  It helps give me perspective that I'm not alone, reminds me to hope, and helps me see outside of the moment.

I know that a lot of folks read books about parenting for encouragement and help.  I have too.  I haven't read one in a while, though, until recently.  The book I picked up was Kathi Lipp's new book "i need some help here!"  Yes, that really is the title.  The subtitle is "HOPE for when your kids don't go according to plan".

Before reading this book, I hadn't heard of Kathi Lipp.  I read online that she's written several books.
This one is about how to cope with the troubles that we may face as parents.  There's no guarantee with parenting children.  Older and wiser friends have told me this multiple times.  There's no parenting approach that can guarantee our children will turn out a certain way and stay on a certain, particular path.  But, neither can anyone guarantee that our children will fall into a particular hole.

A few years ago, a woman I know shared with me that her daughter was just like my oldest when she was her age.  Now her daughter won't have anything to do with her and has walked away from the Lord.  I can't remember what the woman said after that, but it felt like I'd been kicked in my stomach.  That kick still lingers and I have to turn it over to the Lord when my mind wanders.

I began reading Ms. Lipp's books not knowing anything about it.  I liked the first chapter, quite a lot, actually.  The second chapter was very good as well.  There was some very wise encouragement to Moms to be authentic with others, to find a few friends they can confide in and have discernment about what to say and when, and to remember that everything comes down to God (not us).  But, then the book began to weigh on me.  After reading a few more chapters, I realized that this is a book to keep on your shelf for when you need it.  But, DON'T read it all the way through as I did.  I'll get back to this opinion of mine in a minute...  Ms. Lipp addresses topics like what to do when your child is troubled, sick, making poor choices, running from God, and a few others.  I appreciated the stories and insights that other parents shared.

The tone of this book is very different from another book I read recently that I was concerned about.  This author speaks from experience and shares both her pitfalls and successes.  She speaks from the humility of knowing that no parent is perfect.  The prayers and scriptures at the end of each chapter were encouraging and helpful, I think.

But...don't read this book front to back.  Read the first three chapters and then skip to the chapter that applies to you.  What I realized as I continued reading is that parenting started to seem rather hopeless.  I couldn't find the sentence that said these things happen to everyone, but I remember one.  I think it's important to be honest that parenting is tough and usually tougher than people think it will be, but it's not hopeless and we aren't helpless!  Yes, my kids are only in elementary school, although my oldest embarks upon middle school next year.  But, I look at my husband and me and I know that how our parents parented us affected us both for better and for worse. How our parents parented did matter.  And if you read The Journey of A Strong Willed Child, you'll be encouraged with hope that how we parent matters.

I don't think the author of this book would say that how we parent doesn't matter or that we can't help our children gain strength of character and a strong work ethic.  But, it's simply the nature of this book and reading all about the serious pitfalls kids can fall into.

So, instead, if you're in a pickle and feel at a loss, and you're looking for some encouragement, then this may be an encouraging book to you.  I was talking with a friend yesterday and she shared how the parenting books they read when their oldest was a year old greatly harmed them.  This is why I take reviewing books seriously and I consider how a book can impact.  In this family's case, it was a specific book that advocated some parenting methods that I would liken to a wolf in sheep's clothing that had an impact on them.

One more catch.

I just figured out what I was looking for in this book and what I'd encourage any reader to keep in mind.
As parents, the Bible gives us a responsibility to love and teach our children.  Proverbs 6:20-23 talks of how this teaching will guide, protect, and speak to them.  This is Hope to me.  Hope that I can help my children.

The approach of this book is a reactive one, rather than a proactive approach.  It is comfort for hurting parents.  It is reminders to pray and examples of how one can pray.  It is comfort for parents to remind them they are not alone.  Their are coping strategies that are included for the reader and child.

But, here's something to consider.  How would God have us be towards others?

After the chapter on how your child is different, what about a chapter on who your child is.  Exhortation on how you can encourage your child to understand who God made them to be and why they are valuable the way they are.

After the chapter on what to do when your child is overwhelmed, a chapter of suggestions or talking points of how to help your child grasp what the peace is that God gives--that only He gives.

After the chapter on what to do when your child is troubled, a chapter about how to help your child understand suffering--from a biblical to help them cope with suffering.

After a chapter on when my child is left out, a chapter on helping your child learn how to be a friend and include others.

As parents, I think we assume that children learn how to be a friend and many of their social skills naturally.  I have come to believe that yes, children do learn from each other, but that these skills are often more harmful than helpful to them.  We are to teach our children the way of God (Deuteronomy 6:6-9).  That includes talking to them about how to be a friend, how to love others (who aren't your friends and may be unkind to you), how to include others that they may or may not want to.  We are all called to these things as the body of Christ and our children are called to these things as well.  We both model (implicit) indirectly and teach (explilcit) our children directly about the matters of the heart and friendship.

I'll close with this...
I'll never forget when Autumn was 6 months old and I took her to a friend's egg hunt.  One mom sat down with me and explained that sharing is one of the hardest things to teach children.  I listened and pondered.  Why is this?  I came to conclude that it is because human beings are all selfish in nature and our culture values competition.  What does this equal?  Lots of "Me first"ers and "Mine"s.  Sinners who think of themselves first.  I have seen this in myself and repent to the Lord when I see it in my heart.  But, I have to admit that my children struggle with this same thing.  We're all human and though we've been saved, we are still sinners.  This is why I think sharing is hard.  We want what we want when we want it.  Our children do too.  Wouldn't it be better to teach them what the Lord wants for them? how he wants them to love others and think of them first?  to teach them why they are valuable?  I come back to the introduction of Walt Wangerin's book Little Lamb, who Loves Thee? and what he said about giving our children a solid foundation so that they will be able to weather the storms of suffering that they will face as they grow up and become adults.

Let's make our children sea worthy vessels that can go out into the world instead of forts that defend where they are and stay put.

This book, "i need some help here!" has some good food for thought.  I just wouldn't read it all the way straight through if I had it to do over again.  And I'd spend some time reflecting on the opposite of each chapter and how I can strengthen my skills to live a life glorifying to God and tackle the challenges they, like each one of us, face as we walk through this life.

I'm afraid this has been quite the book review of rabbit trails, but it has helped me process and remember what I am called to do with my children.  Speaking of which, they are my priority and I need to go make sure that they know that ;)

Please note that I received a complimentary copy of this book from Revell books for review.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Our Favorite Games

At swim class a few weeks ago, my girls' friends with brought Uno with them.  Every week since, my girls have tried to take a game with them.  My kids love games and they've had a few favorites along the way.  I thought I'd share a short list of them.  

Ages 5 and under
* Zingo (4 and 5)
Tumbling Towers
* Hullabaloo by Cranium
Cranium Cariboo (only found at garage sales now)
Any Bingo game
Hi-ho Cherry-O

Ages 5-7
* Life (the old version, not the new one is my preference)
* Zooreka by Cranium
What Time is It? by Eeboo (called Eeboo time telling game on Amazon)
* Wig Out
* Battle Ship
* Blokus (square edition)
* Uno
* Connect 4
Sum Swamp (good for practicing kindergarten level addition and subtraction) by Learning Resources
* Sequence for Kids (may be better under 8 and up though)

Ages 8 and up
* Catan (basic edition)
* Risk (classic edition)
* Make it and Break It (this was such a hit because both adults and kids could enjoy it--just caution the adults to not be too competitive--I watched as some guys played it and totally missed how the kids felt left out)
* Sherluck
Quelf Jr
War, Steal the Old Man's Bundle, and Old Maid (the old card games)
Blokus Trigon and * Blokus (original square edition)
Rush Hour by ThinkFun--there's a junior edition, but my son who's 5 loves the easier cards from the harder version
* Hoppers by ThinkFun (good logic building game)
Qwirkle (just found this one at a garage sale and like it)
Rory's story cubes
* Phase 10
* Apples to Apples Jr (Autumn declares that this one is her favorite)
Checkers and Chess
Learning Resources Money Bags Game (it used to be called Money! Money!), I bought an older version at a garage sale.  This one helps kids learn their coins.
Mexican Train Dominoes

Ages 10 and Up
* Rummykub
* Bananagrams
* Boggle (there's also a 5x5 square that's made)

On my wish list...
Tenzi (but I'm thinking about just getting generic dice to play the Tenzi variations with).  This is a great one for ages 5 and up.
Catan Jr.  (the kids need us to play the grown up version with them, but a friend has this version and said her sons love it)

Some we weren't so crazy about...
Boggle Jr.
Chutes and Ladders
Clue Jr.
Don't Rock the Boat (the boat didn't balance very well even without any pirates on it)
Tetris Jenga
Hedbandz (the kids version)
Charades for Kids (they play this without the cards because they felt like the cards just made a mess--a good intention, but Autumn says that brains are better.)  I like the cards, but they're the ones playing ;)
Word Pirates

Somes of these games we bought new.  Some at garage sales.  At garage sales, I will usually pay $1-$2 for a game.  Games have gone up a lot in price in the stores.  Catan new runs $35-$40.  Ugh.  I did buy it on sale last Christmas for $30 which saved a few dollars.  I placed a star by the ones I would be willing to buy new if I didn't have them.  Some of them we did buy new and I'm very glad we did.  Some of them were treasures I found at yard sales that I'm even more thankful for.  When I found Blokus and Blokus trigon at a yard sale three weeks ago for $1 each, I was so excited!  My kids have already played Blokus several times. 

One thing tripped me up with games, though.  I put them out of the way and made room for their cars and Barbies on the lower shelves.  This has meant that my kids always have had to ask me to get them down.  This is good if one doesn't want a mess of pieces.  But, it's not good if you want your kids to play--which I do!  So, I'm working on finding space for their favorite games on the lower shelves along their walls...

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Finding Time: Free Inventions Unit

I think that I, like many homeschool moms have the best of intentions sometimes.  We plan on bringing together curriculum from multiple sources and then getting it all together.  One of the tricky parts of this method is finding the time!

A few years ago, I wrote a third grade inventions unit while I was getting my master's degree.  It has been sitting on my desk for a month... waiting for me to pull lesson plans from it for my children's invention unit.  When I pulled it out this morning and sat down with it, I realized I didn't have the time to make additional worksheets and bring it all together.  So, I started a quick search on the web and came across this first grade blog...

The blogger has posted a free inventors unit.  Yes, it is for first grade and yes, I will be using it with my older children.  But, honestly, the difference between first and third grade is complete sentences and spelling ;) With my fifth grade daughter, she's going to focus her energy on her invention at the end of the unit...

What I often find is that I can adapt materials up a grade (or a few grades in this case) simply by changing the expectations of my children's work and what I require of them...

Kitchen Counters

In the morning, I wake up and switch the laundry.  Then, I make my way to my kitchen and begin the coffee, empty the dishwasher, and clean up the counters.  Once that's done, I start on my husband's breakfast and lunch.  When he leaves for work, I sit down, read a few minutes, and try to get my mind around the day ahead.

I have to start my day by getting my counters clean.  If I don't, I feel frazzled inside.  I feel like I'm behind the 8 ball before I even start my day.  I have to admit, though, that I hate wasting time drying dishes.  So, I have a drying mat that all my hand washed dishes dry on in the morning.  The dirty pile of dishes becomes a clean pile that will dry over the next few hours.  

Sometimes it feels like these piles won't ever get taken care of.  Yet, somehow, they always do.  I just keep pressing on.  Some days I have one load of laundry and some I have three!  

The past few weeks have pressed in on me.  A bit like the walls of the garbage compactor in the first Star Wars movie.  It all started slowly, imperceptibly.  Then, it moved a little faster.  Something braced it, but the walls moved again after a moment.  

Then, the reprieve comes and the brave and valiant heroes escape.  And they continue on their journey, which encounters joys, triumphs, and trials.  

Life is like that.  Life presses in.  Then, there is a reprieve or a triumph.  Later, more trials and challenges are encountered.

My children tell me at times that they wish I didn't have to work so hard.  My oldest daughter has often told me that she doesn't want to have kids or get married.  To this, I respond by telling her that she, her sister, and brother bring me my greatest joys.  I try to explain that life involves work and it often isn't easy.  

The sadnesses of life can compound the stress of the work, though.  That is what I am walking through.  You see, my mom is sick.  She has been sick for two months.  We don't know what it is yet.  She's having tests done and taking care of herself.  I'm watching out for her and doing my best to love her well.  It's hard.  Really hard.  She had a blood transfusion two weeks ago and that has bought her some more time as we wait for appointments and tests.  

When someone asks me how I'm doing, I often answer these days, "Putting one foot in front of the other."  Or "Well, I'm standing.  And that's good."  I don't take the strength to stand (emotionally and physically) for granted.  Some days are better than others.  In my mind, having the strength to stand and bear up comes from the Lord.  That's a given in my mind.  I wouldn't have the peace that I do without him.  I try not to dwell on what could be.  I try to trust and simply consider today.  

Last week, someone commented on a book review I'd posted on Amazon.  I always go back and read what I've written before to see if I still agree with what I once said.  I was glad I did.  This is the review of the Money Smart Family System.  Then, I read the comments again to the review.  Only 3 of 28 people on Amazon who have read my review have found it to be helpful.  It is a book about family finances from a Christian publisher.  All of the negative comments basically intimated that our finances don't need to be about God and that I was presumptive in making such an assertion.
In the review, I say this about the book:
"This book is not what I'd recommend to a Christian family. God isn't a part of the picture this book presents. Is it a book I'd recommend to a family that wants to live a moral life, but doesn't believe in God? Yes. That's who this book is for. Is there a danger to a Christian family following this model? I think so. I think one of the greatest pitfalls for our children to believing in God is the strong American value that we can do it ourselves. We don't need help or need anyone else. We are always hearing "Believe in yourself" . We need to be careful to teach our children, I believe, that everything we have comes from the Lord and we are to be good stewards of it."

One of the comments particularly struck me...
The writer said basically that it's my job to raise my kids and that not everything needs to revolve around Christ.  The author stated that money is money and that it's my prerogative about how I teach my children.  It's my job to teach my children but that I shouldn't fault the authors for leaving God out of the picture in the book.  Finally the writer asks what business it is of mine anyways.  (I've paraphrased the comment to make it more mild, but also so that I can't be sued or some such for quoting someone who doesn't desire to be quoted.  It does cross my mind that someone might do something like that someday, because people can be quite unkind in their comments on Amazon.)

To which I responded with this comment:
"First of all, I disagree with you. I'm not being rude. This what reviews are for--to provide different points of view. I often read views that differ from my own opinions as a tool to help me figure out what I think. The greatest commandment in the Bible is to love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. That means with my finances, too. I am not telling you how to raise your children. I am sharing my opinions in my reviews. It is very ironic to read your comment this morning. My husband and I have been discussing how much we need to trust God with our finances. It's easy in the process of penny pinching and being frugal for us to become very focused on every penny we spend and put our focus there instead of simply being frugal and trusting God to provide. I was just reading Mark 4:40 this morning and it talks about trusting God amidst the storms. Family finances can be some of those storms. I have written this review for parents who want God to be part of the picture in how they teach their children about finances. It sounds like this book is what you're looking for, but it wasn't for me and my family. That is okay.

I went back and read Mark 4:40.  It was just what I needed to hear.  It was my way out of the garbage compactor I found my heart in.  The storm is going to continue.  It is going to be hard.  But, I can trust that God will see me through it.  I don't say this in a morose tone, but in one of persistence.  I know I am going to press on.  Sometimes my heart is going to falter.  But, God isn't going to let me down.  

I will continue to stand.  I will continue to clean my counters in the mornings and prepare for the day ahead.  Speaking of which, I need to skedaddle right now!