Monday, March 8, 2010


     Now if anything will encourage creative writing and discussion, credible tales of fish raining down on Australia last month ought to do it.
     The fish were alive.
     Objects crashing down from the heavens apparently has its place in history. Spiders, hard boiled eggs, mice, frogs, crosses, blood, and more have been reported by reliable sources. Villagers in one town in Honduras take out pails each year to collect the fish that fall during the rainy season. Scientists guess why this occurs, but every answer has problems.
     It's a fascinating read for your students and children. Even more fascinating might be the stories they create to explain this phenomenon.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

     Kim*, one of my younger students, lights up whenever she sees me.
     Okay, it doesn't take much to get most little ones to like you. Smile a lot. Tell a few jokes. (They don't even have to be funny.) Hold their hand -- if they want to -- as you walk down the hall. Show them you care. (How could you not?)
     No wonder people like to work with the primary grades. Such unconditional love.
     Kim, however, misplaces her assignments, her classroom teacher tells me. She loses books. And her reading lags far behind that of the other children.
     I listen to Kim as she reads. She skips words, misses others I just gave her, reverses the letters of "slap." Sight words she should know she doesn't.
     As soon as Kim joins my class, I see what the teacher has reported. Kim checks out a book from me but has excuse after excuse why she doesn't bring it back. "It's on my table," she says, or it's on her bed, or it's in the car. When she does finally return it after three weeks and checks out a new one, that, too, takes over a week to return. Meanwhile, the students talk in class, and I hear Kim is in dance class and something else, either Scouts or baseball.
     I try to set up a time to meet with her parents. One meeting is missed. A second one never quite materializes. Phone calls are exchanged, but her mom can talk but a moment. I run into her in the hallway, and I can tell she is frazzled. "I'll call you," she says, stretching her fingers into that unmistakable handset shape. Of course I don't get the call.
     Everyone today, it seems, is overloaded. This certainly seems to be Kim's family. But I'm afraid that by trying to do more for their daughter, her folks may actually be doing less. What Kim needs now is structure. A bit of playtime when she gets home. Chores. Homework. Reading. Dinner and family time. Packing her book bag for the next day. Bath. Storytime. Bed. Other activities saved for the weekend.
     And filling up with stories. Learning to read well.
     This prescription isn't for everyone. But for Kim, yes, Kim needs this. Her other things will wait while she catches up on her reading, while her life organizes a bit saner.
     Then it will be time for her to go out and conquer the world.
*Name changed

Saturday, March 6, 2010


     I knew going in to the testing -- the No Child Left Behind testing -- that Kevin* might not pass. In fact, there was every reason to assume he wouldn't. His answers during reading class, during science and social studies and anything that required reading comprehension were all over the board, and usually they showed how little he really understood what he read. How did he get some of his bizarre answers we never knew.
     Of course his score wouldn't really affect him personally. It would not be posted in the grade book, and we didn't have to tell him whether or not he passed. Or we could always lie.
     But his passing, of course, did matter to the school. There was very, very little room for kids not to pass or major money would be lost to the district. With our large population of minority students, we were always on the edge.
    And Kevin's parents were so concerned about his abilities. He had often enough scored Ds or Fs. They vacillated between encouragements and reprimands.
    I could always use more training -- I'm always open to that -- but I did had one major strategy I had practiced over and over with the students: read only 2-3 lines, stop, paraphrase the reading. Do not, do not, I lectured, continue until they could restate what they had read. Do not. Work through the passage, no matter how painful.
     But at the testing, I couldn't tell Kevin what to do. I couldn't stop him when he barreled through a passage, not stopping once, typical for my students. Besides, if anything, we teachers want to know if what we are doing with the kids works. Stopping every few lines doubles the time it takes to read a passage. Was it worth it? Besides, sometimes this seemed to help; other times, he still missed so many.
     Wonders be, Kevin followed through. Stopped after the first three lines. Looked away. Tried to recite. Couldn't. Reread. Still couldn't. Reread. Never once looked over at me with his usual questioning face, just looked ahead and recited to himself. For each passage he may have reread it  4 times, sometimes 5 or 6. Amazing his inability. (Hadn't it improved any with all our practicing?) Amazing his tenacity. Exactly what was he thinking about the first 3 or 4 times he read the lines?
     And when he came to the questions, he only looked back twice to check his answers. No! That had been my second strategy I had hammered into the students. I was ready to, well, bang his head a bit -- a lot! (If only doing so would help!)
     But wait, he was getting the answers. Really. Well, almost all of them. Usually, by now he would have missed half. Hey, were we on to something? Could Kevin actually be taught to read -- and concentrate -- at the same time, something so basic for so many of us, yet apparently so out of his reach?
     And would the solution be that simple? How could it be?
     * Name changed.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


     For those of you interested in the early development of language in children, you might want to look at the article by J. Hartshorne in Scientific America or the recent one in the Boston Globe on J. Snedeker's work. Both discuss the current theories of how children acquire language. Hartshorne separates the discussion into that of language learned by native speakers, language learned by adoptees (ages 2-5), and  adult immigrants. Hartshorne argues that it might be the strength of the speaker's eventual vocabulary, and not developmental age, that determines the acquisition speed and complexity of her language skills. But the limited skills of immigrants brings into the discussion of a critical period for learning language efficiently; i.e. before a certain age. It appears a fascinating line of research.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


     For those of you with children around you who enjoy word games,  James Lipton of "Inside the Actor's Studio" tells of his foray years ago to unearth the terms we use for groups of things -- a gaggle of geese, a pride of lions, the charm of finches. He discovered more in 15th century texts (adding a few of his own): a charm of finches, a parliament of owls, a cry of players, an outback of Aussies, the unkindness of ravens, a quicksand of credit cards, a rash of dermatologists, the superfluidity of nuns, an acre of dentists, the acne of adolescents, a  queue of actors. He added some of his own and filled over 300 pages in The Exaltation of Larks: The Ultimate Edition. What a challenge for those around you, to create their own...

Monday, March 1, 2010


    The most basic of lessons can be become motivating to the child. How? Why has Spelling Baseball been a classic in classrooms for so many years?  It's its physicalness the students seek.*
     But there are many other ways to turn lessons physical. She correctly reads a line in her phonics lesson? She earns 10 seconds to do jumping jacks, skipping, or running across the room. (Believe it or not, she almost always calms down quickly if she know such activities will stop immediately if she doesn't!)
    Or the movement can be a part of the lesson. She claps her hands together three times, then four times more, and adds them together. Or a math challenge is written on a card. She computes it correctly. You wad up the card, and she runs as she catches it on the fly. 
     Or the child is learning to recognize description. Her challenge? To pop up every time she comes across another description in a story. (It might be best to give specific instruction, such as to stand only when she sees descriptions over one specific object or event in the story.)
     Or she is learning where certain punctuation marks go, such as quotation marks. You (or someone) reads an unmarked passage, and she throws up her arms (as if exaggerated quotation marks over her head) when she "hears" them.
     Okay, obviously you are not going to offer such movement activities all the time. You might already be getting dizzy, just reading this. Many lessons are enjoyable by themselves, and sometimes the child is going to do lessons because, because -- because she needs to, that's all. But on other days...
     Try some. Make up your own.
     And be prepared for a lot of laughter.
*This is assuming the child is healthy and not restricted physically.


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