How to Teach Your Kids to Read . . .

. . . .wherein I share my foolproof secrets for teaching kids to read early and often–NOT!  The truth is, I’ve never taught a kid to read, not from scratch so to speak, and I don’t know what the best way is or even if there is a best way.
My mother started teaching me to read when I was two, following the method described in Dr. Glenn Doman‘s How to Teach Your Baby to Read. I still have the battered box of big red-letter words she used to teach me. [edit: not anymore.]  I read picture books at four and at six read at the sixth grade level.  I was eight when I read Gone with the Wind for the first time.  For years I was convinced that my academic success sprang from my early reading instruction.  I read the Doman book over and over again and vowed that one day I, too, would teach my baby to read.
Only . . . I didn’t.  Like I said, I have the cards.  And I seem to recall dragging them out and trying to teach my firstborn “Mommy” and “Daddy.”  But I was working part-time until she was past three, and I had three kids by the time she was four (my mother was all finished teaching me to read before I ever had a second sibling!), and she started kindergarten without knowing how to read.  And I felt like a failure, convinced that I had dampened her potential by my negligence.
Emily was always “reading,” in her own way.  At one year old she would sit for an hour in front of a bookshelf, looking at every single book until she was surrounded by a pile of them.  And once she did learn to read, in first grade, she never stopped.  She always had a book in her hand, just like me.   My oldest son started learning to read in kindergarten.  When I started homeschooling him in fourth grade, he was not a confident reader.  He read only when he was forced to.  So we started reading at the third grade level, using one of my old Catholic textbooks.  I would read one page aloud, then he would.  Page by page, his confidence increased.  One day he picked up The Tale of Despereaux on his own and became absorbed.  This once reluctant reader read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and THE SILMARILLION!!! of his own accord just a few years later.  Son number two learned at school, with no difficulty.  While not a voracious reader, he can get through a Harry Potter book in two days if he wants to.
No doubt I shall be writing many a post on son number three, who marches to the beat of his own drummer.  I anticipated no problems from him, even though he had not picked up on letters and numbers by his kindergarten testing date.  But by the end of kindergarten, he had not learned to read.  He did not even know all the letter sounds.
If there’s just one thing I’ve learned in the 14 years I’ve had kids in school, it’s that educational fads come and go.  Little William’s kindergarten experience was much the same as his big sister’s–learning letter sounds from worksheets.  Both his big brothers learned from the fabulous Letter People program, retired now from their alma mater for unknown (to me) reasons.  If I could have afforded to buy the program–even on ebay it was too much–I would have, because I think creative, imaginative William would have been captivated.
As it was, though, he got stubborn and shut down.  We nixed having him repeat kindergarten and instead sent him to first grade at our local public school, where he had a great time with a fantastic teacher who really “got” him and appreciated his strengths, especially his fount of animal knowledge.  But despite the extra tutoring offered by the public school system, and a stint in summer school, he was still not at grade level by second grade.   I’ve been homeschooling him for more than a year, and the situation is finally improving.  I got him a little more interested in reading last year with Extreme Readers which catered to his passions.  This year he is finally showing signs of reading because he wants to–picking up Bionicle instruction sheets or looking up facts in his book on cat breeds. [edit: William at 16 is now a voracious reader, although he prefers to get his information via computer rather than actual books.]
You would think being the mother of five would have made me an expert on many things, but it’s actually humbling because I realize how little I DO know.  All I can promise is that I am an expert on my OWN kids, and that I will always keep trying to find ways to help them learn the way they learn best.

Kindergarten: It's not a walk in the park any more

Kindergarten.  Think about the word:  a garden of children.  It evokes an image of children placed in an environment that allows them to bloom.  But is that what it is like these days?
Chances are the kindergarten you remember bears little resemblance to the one kids attend today.  Clara Cassidy’s We Like Kindergarten  (ilustrated by my favorite, Eloise Wilkin, and published in 1969) depicts a little girl enjoying painting time, story time, and singing time before going home to eat lunch with Mommy and baby sister.  A story about kindergarten today would have to tell about sit-at-the-desk-and-do-worksheet time, about learning to read time, maybe even about test-taking time!  And no one would be going home for lunch either–most kids attend into the afternoon, even though I recall one teacher telling me that the kids were so tired that it was impossible to teach them anything after lunch anyway!
Studies have shown that the benefits gained through early instruction are transient, with any initial advantages over kids who start school later diminishing as children age.  This article, by David Elkind, author of Miseducation:  Preschoolers at Risk, provides an excellent overview of different theories of early childhood learning, why children are being pushed to achieve at younger and younger ages, and what other countries are doing.  This morning I read a Newsweek article on the perils of pushing children to learn too much too soon.
This situation is only getting worse.  When my oldest started kindergarten in 1996, she learned letter sounds, but no one was expected to be reading by the end of the year.  Fast forward ten years: my youngest son could not write his name or recognize letters and his command of math consisted of counting to five when I took him to kindergarten testing day.  I wasn’t concerned; I’ve never been one to consciously attempt to teach my preschoolers (all of whom were home with me until kindergarten) such concepts.  They picked things up from being read to, or watching Sesame Street, and the first three had no problems in school.  But suddenly this appeared to be a Big Deal.  I had thought Willie would learn those things in kindergarten, but instead, without ever having darkened the doors of a school, he was already behind!
Why is this topic on my mind right now?  My littlest one goes on Friday for kindergarten testing. [edit: this was in 2010]  And as ridiculous as I think all this is, I found myself yesterday setting up Starfall on the computer and having Willie go over letter sounds with her.  She got bored halfway through the alphabet–she wanted to go play.  Of course she did.  She’s five years old.

Lorelei with her cousin Ella

Math: How Much Is Too Much?

The accepted wisdom these days seems to be that our kids need more math in order to be “competitive.”  The requirements at my teenagers’ school just changed from three years of math to four–regardless of what level a student has reached upon matriculation.  For my second son, our math whiz, who completed Algebra I and Geometry in grade school, this means he will have to take Calculus I and II, or Calculus I and Statistics, in order to graduate, regardless of whether his future career plans require advanced mathematics.
My oldest child, now in college, who has a learning disability in math, struggled mightily through her required courses, and still faces a college algebra course next year.  As far as I can see, there is no point to any of this, since she is majoring in Writing and minoring in Theology and has no future career plans involving math in any capacity.
One of my kids once asked me, “Why do we have to take so much math?  What use will it ever be to me?”  I told her that it helps you get a good score on the SAT and you need to know how to do it so you can help your kids with their homework.  I was good at math, was a member of Mu Alpha Theta, got a high SAT score, participated in Math Bowls in high school. I’m not a math hater and I’m not math phobic.  But I truly don’t understand what advantage is gained through making uninterested kids take higher math that they will never use again.
At the same time we are forcing kids to take more and more upper level math classes, we seem to be ignoring the basics.  Kids rely on calculators to do things that we were taught to do on paper. If I were in charge of the schools (that sentence again!) I would make sure kids understood arithmetic.  That’s what they will use in later life.  A little basic geometry, enough algebra to understand the concept of finding an unknown–that’s it.  Those who showed special capacity for math, like my son, would be encouraged to go  further.  Those who realize in college that they wanted to major in something requiring Calculus could pick it up then.  Most people are just not going to need that, and we aren’t going to turn kids into mathematicians by forcing them to take a lot of math in high school!
In fact, this article makes the case that we are turning kids off math by teaching too much or it and teaching it  wrong, starting in the early grades.  Click the link and read the story–it’s fascinating and made me feel a lot better about my failure to interest my youngest, homeschooled son in math!
I know, I know, everyone says math is so important for learning logic and critical thinking skills.  So why not just teach logic and critical thinking skills?  What do you think?  Is it a good idea to force all kids to take four years of math, or should they be doing something else instead?

I Hate Homework

Since this is the week that public school students are taking the TCAPs, I’ve decided to make it Education Week on my blog.  I have enough opinions on this subject for an Education Month, but we’ll just have to see how it goes.
I’ve got a busy day ahead of me and as usual I am already behind, so I’ll just say this:  I hate homework.  If I were in charge of the schools (a favorite opening phrase of mine!) there would be no homework in the elementary grades (with the possible exception of studying for tests) and very little in high school.
Why?  Studies fail to prove conclusively that homework is beneficial, for one thing.  It impinges negatively on family life, for another.  And it makes kids hate school.
If you have kids, you know that a lot of elementary school homework is no more than busy work:  worksheets, or forcing kids to read, or copying spelling words ten times.  For many parents it is a painful nightly struggle to get their tired children to sit down and do more work after they’ve already been sitting still working all day.  I’m sure it’s particularly hard for parents who work outside the home, who pick up the kids from aftercare at 6 p.m. and have a limited amount of time to spend with them in the evening already.
What happens many times, especially in the case of more complicated work like science fair projects (which I loathe, and which probably deserve a post of their own) is that the parents do the homework for the child.  This, of course, erases any potential value the homework might have had.  In our house, homework is the responsibility of the children.  I’ve got enough to do myself and I already did LOTS of homework and am not going to be doing any more.  It has been frustrating to my children to be graded lower on projects they did completely on their own while other chidren’s projects done mostly by their parents received high grades.
When kids are older, and you can’t do the homework for them (high school Biology, for example, has changed a lot in 20 years!), it’s easy to get locked in battles with kids over whether they do their work.  Because usually homework carries a grade, and a bright kid can fail his classes, even if he passes all the tests, even if he understands the material, if he doesn’t do the homework.  And what parent wants that?
High school kids are encouraged to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities, to do community service, to take part-time jobs–all this plus homework, school, some family time, household chores, maybe a little fun?  Do we really want our children stressed out like this?  Stressed out like we are?
I wrote this in 2010 and I stand by every word.  I started homeschooling Lorelei primarily because of the stress of homework, and my nightly homework sessions with William (who does need my assistance) are without question the worst part of my day and probably his as well.

She'll Be Gone

emily baby 1
It’s late, and I haven’t had time to post anything today, so I thought I’d share something I wrote a long–VERY LONG–time ago (about 15 years ago). [edit: this happened in 1993] The incident I recount below touched me so much at the time that I wanted to write it down so I wouldn’t forget it.  When you read it you will see why it is even more moving to me now than it was then.
A high school friend was finally getting married (at the ripe old age of 25), and had come to pick me up to take me to the bridal salon to be measured and to see the bridesmaid’s dresses.  My daughter, Emily, just awakened from a nap and actively experiencing a case of the terrible twos, screamed the whole way there.  We met up with another friend at the salon, and busied ourselves in oohing and aahing over the dresses and moaning and groaning over our measurements.
Emily, of course, was busy too–running in and out of dressing rooms, rifling through the racks of dresses, and squealing with delight as I chased her and dragged her back, over and over.  Watching as she pulled out dress after dress for her perusal, I’ll admit that I had a brief vision of her in twenty years or so, with her dark hair veiled in white, but I thought more about how exasperated I was, and how much fun this outing would have been if her daddy (at a study group with law school friends) could have been home to watch her.
There were other customers in the salon, including a mother, father, and little sister watching a prospective bride try on gowns in search of that perfect one for her special day.  Emily, naturally, was already making friends with them, having struck up a conversation by saying,“This is a stupid place to be.”  The father, still in his delivery man’s uniform after a day of hard work, and the freckle-faced little sister, listened tolerantly as the mother complimented Emily’s unusual verbosity and talked about her own daughters.
Back in our corner with Emily firmly–for the moment–in tow, my friends and I watched the scene.  Surely, we said, from the vantage point of our advanced age and experience (we were all 25 and two of us had been married several years), that girl was too young to be married. We could all feel the poignancy of the scene–the parents watching their red-headed teenager about to take the step they had taken years before, seeing her transfigured as she tried on gown after gown of bridal white.
Emily had her own comments to make.  “She’s an angel, Mommy.  She’s beautiful!”  She trotted back over again to say, “I love you, Angel.”
The family turned their attention to the invitation books and I continued to chase Emily around the store while my friends discussed the exorbitant prices with the consultant. Finally, we were finished and I retrieved Emily from the men’s dressing rooms for the twentieth time, holding tightly to her 30 lb., wriggling body as she cried to get down.
The mother of the teen-aged bride stopped me.  She put her hand on my arm as she asked, “Is she your only child?”
“So far,” I answered.
“Well,” she said, looking at me so intently that I could see the tears swimming in her eyes, “You enjoy her, you love her, you hold on to her, because,” and she glanced across the room to her own daughter,“before you know it, she’ll be gone.”
I patted this woman, twenty years my senior and a stranger to me, on the arm, and the tears for that rose in my own eyes were both for her and for me, were tears for the pain of parting that all mothers of little girls must feel when their precious babies grow up and become women themselves.
I held my struggling bundle closer as we left the store and when one of my friends asked what the woman had said I replied through my tears, “It was a mother thing.”
Emily is 19 now and left us in August to go to college over 500 miles away.  I remember when she was a newborn baby I used to hear a country song on the radio about a mother helping her daughter get ready to leave for college and I would start to cry thinking about my baby girl growing up and leaving home.  Happily, Emily still seems to like coming home and will be here very soon for the whole summer! [edit: Emily graduated and came back home to live.]

Have you ever shared a touching moment with a stranger?  Do you dread the day your kids leave home?  Or are you secretly looking forward to it?
emily now

Why I Love Ebay

It really is true that you can find almost anything on ebay.  I know that many people shop for clothes there, and even big ticket items like cars, but I like to shop for treasures from the past, childhood toys, the kinds of things you think you will NEVER be able to find.  I have, for example, a small collection of the Fisher-Price Little People toys from my childhood.  I have the original school that was really mine, but most of the other things did not survive, so I bought some on ebay.  In our new house, I have shelves to display them on, and I let my two little ones play with them if they take good care of them and put them away when they are finished.
I have quite a collection of Eloise Wilkin books I compiled via ebay (although my very favorite one, Linda and her Little Sister, my little girl found in the McKay’s giveaway box!  A copy in decent condition on ebay is over my budget–$60!).  I have always loved the adorable chubby chiuldren and babies she drew, the houses she placed them in, and pretty much the whole lifestyle her books depict.
As you can see (or probably already know, if you’ve spent much time there yourself) ebay can get seductive–and expensive.  So in recent years I’ve restricted my browsing to items that were more or less necessary, like new old-fashioned Christmas ornaments to replace the heirloom ones that were destroyed when our tree tumbled over  on Christmas Eve several years back (that was the FIRST time–it did it again this year! In a new place, we forgot that we always secure it to something with rope.).  Or traditional Catholic textbooks to use in homeschooling (much more on that in another post).
But a couple of weeks ago I did indulge myself with a little present.  My very first job after college, for about six months, was head two-year-old teacher at Arlington Children’s Center.  Not having babies of my own yet, I contented myself with mothering other people’s.  A previous teacher had left behind a lullaby tape that the children and I just loved.  I kept my kids outside running around for about an hour before lunch.  Then I brought them into the darkened classroom to eat, and we would calm down to the first side of the tape.  Then the four of them would lie down on their mats, and I would flip the tape over and lie down too (I was working full-time nights as a waitress also, so I was always tired!).  They would sleep from noon until about 3 p.m.  I’m convinced the tape helped.
I took the tape with me when I left, and I played it for my first baby less than two years later.  But somehow it got lost.  For years I wished I could find it, but I did not even remember who the artists were or what it was called.  And the lullaby names on it that I could recall are so common I couldn’t search for it that way–I had forgotten the names of the more unusual, ethnic selections.
By chance I saw somewhere a title I remembered: “Oh Can Ye Sew Cushions.”  I put that into a search with the words “lullaby tape,” and, like magic, Google produced a title, Golden Slumbers: Lullabies from Far and Near.   What Google could not produce, however, was a copy of the tape.  Site after site listed it at the attractive price of $12, but it was out of stock or special order everywhere.  I learned that other people shared my passion for this recording, which was apparently kind of a big deal, but the only copy I found was on Amazon, for the somewhat ambitious price of $900 (of course, now when I went to get the link, there are currently abridged copies available at more or less reasonable prices.  That’s life, I guess.).
So I turned to ebay.  And no, they did not have the tape–but they had the record!  And for $20, it is now mine to play on my new old-fashioned turntable (2008 Christmas gift from my husband–the only thing I asked for–which looks old-timey but actually is a record player, radio, cassette player, and CD player all in one). 
And that’s why I love ebay.