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Posted by on in Movement and Play


We love technology. If it talks to us, requires a charge and responds to a touch, we gotta have it. But is the same true for our kids? Although they love these devices too -- just ask any parent with an iPhone or tablet -- should parents be tempted to forgo purchasing those colorful blocks and puzzles that have been staples in children's toy chests for centuries? A study we are just about to publish in the journal, Child Development suggests that opting for an electronic toy over that block set might be a big mistake. Playing with blocks may be crucial for helping preschoolers develop "spatial thinking." We use spatial thinking all the time -- like when we pack up the trunk of our car for a trip, or use a map or envision where the triangular block goes in relation to the square blocks. These are just the kinds of skills that support learning in science, technology, engineering and math (often called STEM skills). And spatial tasks like block building don't only have payoff for developing spatial skills. Putting block structures together and taking them apart may yield important lessons for math, where after all, we add units and take units away all the time.

In our study (conducted with Brian Verdine, Alicia Chang, Andrew Filipowicz and Professor Nora Newcombe), we asked three-year-old girls and boys to copy six structures we built out of blocks. So, for example, we showed each child a block structure made out of four blocks and asked them to make the same thing. We gave them the exact number of blocks they needed, but all separated. Not so simple for a three-year-old. For one thing, the blocks have little pips on them -- those bumps on the block that allow the children to tightly fit one block on top of the other. If a child puts a block over the wrong pips, they made a mistake. And children have to notice whether a block in the model is horizontal or perpendicular to the block on the bottom. 

Drumroll please! We found that both boys and girls who were better at copying the block designs were also better on math problems that don't involve language -- like when you slip two black disks under a cover and then slip in one more and ask children how many disks they have now. They don't see the disks, so they can't count them. Instead they have to keep in mind how many are under the cover and what adding one more disk comes to. Block building takes memory and noticing "how many" too, because of the pips on the blocks. So our research and other studies suggest that experiences with building blocks may turn out to be building a foundation for understanding math. Calling someone a blockhead has a whole new meaning!

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Posted by on in Early Childhood

Poor Johnny. Since 1975, we have known about this pesky achievement gap that just won't go away. Rich kids score better than poor kids in math and reading. While math scores have edged up a bit over the years, reading scores are inching along at a relatively steady pace, to quote Motoko Rich in her New York Times article, 1,2,3 is easier than A,B,C.

We have tried to remedy the situation. Indeed, our educational correctives have a flavor du jour approach. Poor Johnny has witnessed changes in reading curricula from sight-reading to phonics (a move supported by both behavioral and brain research). Schools have dropped recess to make more time for reading instruction (not supported by research) and teachers now pummel Johnny with vocabulary lists ad nauseum (a move only partially sanctioned by the research). More recently, in a well-intentioned move, politicians and policy makers are bringing this urgent issue into the public eye as over a dozen states passed the 3rd grade reading guarantee. Led by Ralph Smith from the Annie E. Casey Foundation states like Ohio now mandate that children not reading at the third grade level in third grade will be retained! (Envision classes of 15-year-olds hunched over 3rd grade desks.) Over 80 percent of children who qualify for free lunch and over 90 percent of low income dual language learners do not read at grade level. Sadly, these numbers also forecast high school graduation rates.

This national crisis needs to be addressed. But how? We hold to the false belief that mastery of the alphabet (Really? Just knowing the names of those 26 squiggles?!?) and a singular focus on vocabulary will reverse Johnny's plight. Yet the research says it isn't so. Reading depends on children infusing those letters on the printed page with meaning and learning about the structure of stories. When mommy tells Johnny about the eggplant they see in the supermarket or why a whale is different than a fish, he is gaining meaning. And don't forget books! Books tell stories and teach new meanings children don't necessarily encounter in the world. Books also help children become familiar with the structure of stories: characters, setting, problem, struggle and solution.

The core of our reading problem today is that we have divorced language and literacy. We teach Johnny a lot about the squiggles (letters), but little of the language skills needed to support reading. It does not matter how well you sound out the word b-o-y if you have no idea what boy means. And you need to have sufficient life experience to understand what it means to go to the b-e-a-c-h.

A lot of children in America come from homes where they have poor language skills with small vocabularies. They cannot translate the words they are reading into any home language. Shamefully, in these great United States, 22 percent of children live in poverty -- a risk factor for lower language competence. In their classic study, Betty Hart and Todd Risley from the University of Kansas found that low-income children from welfare families hear only 525 words per hour while their peers from professional families hear an average of 1116 words per hour. For the children who hear low numbers, poor reading and poor school achievement are often, though not always, the unfortunate outcome. Poor children thus have a trajectory of failure that starts before preschool and that can handicap them throughout their school years.

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Posted by on in Teens and Tweens

Dear Annie, I just got a call from my son's math teacher. She says he's consistently goofing off in class and distracting other students. I've gotten similar calls from other teachers. How can I impress upon him that this isn't OK? – Embarrassed Mom

When it comes to teaching kids to be good people (our #1 parenting job), we repeat ourselves... a lot. That's due, in part, to the fact that young skulls are thick and young minds are often distracted. We continue harping on the rules because we want our kids to act responsibly, even when we're not around. That's why we're thrilled to hear a good report from our kids' teachers. At those times, all a proud mom or dad needs to do is smile graciously and reply, "That's so nice to hear." But what about the not-so-great reports? How do you talk to your child about those?

6 Tips for discussing out-of-line behavior so your child gets a clear message yet still feels loved and supported:

1. Get the facts. Before talking with your child, talk with the teacher, calmly and respectfully. Find out exactly what’s going on and how it has been handled so far. Find out if other students are involved. The more information you have for your upcoming discussion with your child, the better.

2. Talk with your co-parent. If there are two parents in your child’s life, teaching him or her to do the right thing should involve both of them. Getting both parents on the same page adds twice the reinforcement for the course correction your child needs. Being on different pages (or in different books!) sends mixed messages. Suppose one parent says, “Emma, when you’re in class your job is to be the good student I know you can be. That means showing your teacher and your classmates respect by paying attention.” And the other parent chuckles and says, “Fooling around in class? That’s my girl! I gave my teachers a hard time, too.” Obviously, no responsible parent would say that in front of a kid, but you get the idea why staying on message matters.

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Posted by on in Teens and Tweens

Play music, think about things, and write about whatever happened inside while listening.  This simple technique helps release and exchange inner worlds peacefully.  Music creates, connects, and heals communication lines between people. 

“Contemplation Music Writing” introduces a novel approach for using music as a way to lead kids on journeys of self-discovery about their lives.  Parents, homeschooling parent-teachers, and educators can use my innovative, challenging, and rewarding approach to develop better relationships with their children, along with improved focus, self- and other-awareness, and academic skills in writing, reading, thinking, and creativity.

This is an original method for using music, so you’ll need an open mind.  Music listening and contemplating inner experiences create a whole new world inside kids (grade 3 and beyond), where they become avatars in landscapes of mind, imagination, body, heart, and spirit.  It worked in my classrooms with over 35 students, from the 70s until 2002 when I retired. 

I believe my music technique can be scaled down to 1-to-1 and small group situations.  One of the biggest differences would be the greater intensity fostered with fewer people involved.  Also, if you’re a parent bent on creating openness with your children, you’ll become an important link to make the potential connection work.  In other words, you would do contemplation music writing with the child, or else, how would you understand what he or she is going through while listening to music?

How a typical contemplation music-writing lesson works:

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Posted by on in School Culture

 About two months ago this young lady (see above) came up to me, gave me a hug and told me she wanted to be a principal when she grows up. 

I smiled, patted her on the back and told her, Go For It!  I told her she would be a fantastic principal. 

As I walked away I had a grin on my face.  My sense of pride was pretty high.  I take being a role model very serious, and for good reason, many of our students will only have a few principals in their lifetime.  I, for one, hope that they look back and remember the positives. 

Then a little later I thought of my advice.  "Go For It!"  Hmmm...would I tell my own boys the same thing?  Would I encourage our youth to become educators?  Is it a satisfying career? 

My mind pondered these questions as I lay in bed one night.  Years ago I didn't plan to become a teacher.  Shoot, I went to college and changed majors twice before I finally discovered my passion.  I still remember sitting in classrooms and I filling out interest surveys.  Each time it had me doing something outdoors and traveling.  The point is, some people find their passion at a young age and others continually search for it.  The trick is, whether you discover it at age 10 or at age 40, it's about doing what you love. 

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