Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Come on...What's One Day?

Spring Break is here! (Which I realize is not as exciting of a sentence as a mom as it was when we were kids.) 

Many families like to go on a vacations for spring break and I applaud you! My plan is usually to catch up on all the things I haven't gotten done for a few months while working - i.e. cleaning out the garage, working on scrapbooking, planting a summer garden, etc.

Many parents are tempted to pull their kids out of school to extend their trips or to avoid larger crowds at popular destinations. I would strongly caution against this and here are my reasons:

1. Schools have spring breaks at different times. They stretch from mid-March until the end of April. Most likely you are not avoiding any crowds by taking your kids out a few days early.

2. Teachers are often finishing up units of study right before break so if your child is out it means they will miss any culminating activities - which usually means the fun stuff! For example, a co-worker of mine is currently hatching baby chicks in her classroom. Her students are so excited to see if they hatch but they aren't expected until the day before break starts. If a child is absent that extra day they will miss the fun part and get no reward for putting in all the hard work!

3. Vacations are usually considered unexcused absences. That means that students are not supposed to be allowed to make up any work they miss on those days. This doesn't mean that teachers are heartless but they are not required to give the student the missed work. Many teachers will allow their students to do the work anyway. I typically assign a late grade or mark down in work habits for the time lost. (So the students is often penalized for something their parents decided.)

4. Students are at a distinct disadvantage if they miss the instruction for a particular assignment given in class. It is almost impossible for the teacher to recreate the activities that took place during class with a one-on-one session. It's just not the same.

5. It is my belief that taking a child out of class, for any reason other than an illness, teaches children that school is not a priority....IF it is happening a lot. Every once in a while will not hurt most kids but there are some students who cannot handle missing a day. Make sure you know your child's ability and attitude. Will they be able to catch up and understand the instruction they missed? Are you prepared to step in as teacher at that point? Will they start to think they can miss a day whenever they feel like it?

6. My most important reason why you shouldn't take your children out early is integrity. Very often parents lie about why their child was absent. Your child knows you are lying. Is that really what you want to teach them? Is it worth it to show your child it is okay to lie so you don't get in "trouble" at school? What kind of example does that attitude set for a young mind trying to figure out how the world works? So if you're going to pull them out at least be truthful about it.

So what to do? 

Keep kids in school when school is in session. Plan your vacations during scheduled breaks. If there is a need to pull a child out of school, plan ahead to ask the teacher for work assignments they will be missing. (Please do this at least a week in advance! Do not expect a teacher to pull together a vacation packet overnight or day of! It's not going to happen.) 

Also most districts have an option of putting a student on independent study if they will be out for an extended period of time. Be sure to discuss with the front office if this might be an option for you. (Again, school staff needs time to plan for this!)

And tell the truth! Your kids deserve that! 

Just remember you are the parent, and you have rights, but there are also laws that kids have to be in school, so be careful not to abuse it or you will find yourself in an undesirable situation.

No one else can make the decision but you, so know your options and the consequences of your decisions beforehand!

**Additional Information on truancy:
Read up on truancy laws here.

"The California Legislature defined a truant in very precise language. In summary, it states that a student missing more than 30 minutes of instruction without an excuse three times during the school year must be classified as a truant and reported to the proper school authority."

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Common Core - My Intro

For my next trick I will attempt to explain why, in my humble opinion, the common core standards are not the worst thing in the whole wide world and why they do not mean the end of civilization.

Now don't freak out. I know what you have heard. I hear it too. All the time. But I have been working with it much longer than most parents because as a parent/teacher I saw it coming and decided to embrace the change. Yes...I said EMBRACE...not fight.

Please be kind! I am not attempting to start a war. I am trying to help parents understand what is going on in the schools and discuss it in a civilized manner.

(This is the first part in a series about the Common Core from my own point of view - both as a teacher and a parent.)

Education is always swinging. It is not stagnant. Research is always being done, new practices are always being experimented with, and new implementations are always happening. Most parents do not even know changes are being made to their child's curriculum or if a teacher is trying out a new style of teaching unless they are active in the school community. This is a very good reason to be an active parent!

My journey into the Common Core started about 5 years ago. A couple of teacher blogs I read on a regular basis started mentioning the new standards and so I started researching. I was excited because I knew that the current standards we were working with were not good enough. The "old" California state standards were very rigid. They led to a whole lot of "teaching to the test" and I wanted my students to be able to do more than just pass a test.

As a teacher, I was bored. Every day I came into my class taught a lesson on a specific standard and then tested for that standard. Then we moved on to a new one. Every day, every year even, was exactly the same. It didn't matter what kids I had. It didn't matter what they needed. The goal was to get them to pass the test in the prescribed way. It was "easy" for a lot of kids, but not motivating at all. Sure, I did what I could to "spice it up" but it didn't change the fact that I didn't think it was getting our kids ready for their future. Everything was taught in isolation. And if a student didn't understand a concept they were doomed to have the exact same concept drilled into them until they could produce a satisfactory score.

Enter the Common Core...

The standards are set up on a continuum. The were started with the end in mind - what do we want students to be able to do when they graduate from high school? They need to be ready for college and their future careers. After that was decided the committees worked backwards to define what each grade level should be able to do all the way down to kindergarten. If you take a look at the standards in that way you can see the progression of skills.

The standards are also very easily integrated with each other and with the curriculum. No longer are we teaching each standard alone. For example in language arts we are using all of the standards all year long. I am no longer worried about getting to all the standards because they all fit together and that's the way we are supposed to teach them. (Math is a different story but I will discuss that later.)

This is what I have been trying to do all along. I would often add many of the skills, which are now integrated into the Common Core, into my teaching, despite it not being on the test. I expected my students to answers textbook questions with evidence from the text. I shunned multiple-choice only tests as much as I could. I used many different modalities in assessments.I taught students different ways to solve problems because that is the heart of critical thinking and critical thinking is the key to being successful.

Now this doesn't mean that I love everything about the Common Core. {cough...ahem...testing...cough} There are certain aspects that have not won me over and probably never will, but I do not let it slow me down. I have students to teach no matter what the standards are. Students depend on me every day whether I like the Common Core or not. Your children depend on you every day whether you like the Common Core or not. Our attitudes about these things have an effect on their successes and struggles.

No matter what you have heard the standards are here to stay, for now. You can fear it, fight it or embrace it. Either way you will have to deal with it if you have school-aged kids. My suggestion is to understand before you decide. Don't let other people tell you what to think, including me!

Oh! And actually take a few minutes to read the standards...you wouldn't believe how many parents want to ague with me about them and then I find out they have never read the darn things!

The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.
- Alan Watts

So what are your questions? How can I help?

Friday, March 6, 2015

Be There or Be Square: School Assemblies

School assemblies can be a great time to celebrate your kiddo! If you talk to students it means a whole lot to them to see you there. They relish the chance to be recognized for their achievements and to be appreciated for their hard work. (Don't we all?) 

The biggest tip I can give in this category is that no matter how you feel about the awards or the assemblies you need to BE THERE, as often as you can!

Your child will look for you. I have watched the happy smiles when students walk into an assembly and see their parents smiling from the back row. In contrast, I have seen the look of disappointment when they try to find you with no success.

If you cannot be there then make sure to talk to your kiddos about it ahead of time.

The second tip I have is to be enthusiastic for everyone, not just your own child. For whatever reason, some children do not have a parent there to support them. But we build our community by supporting each other! Be the parent that sits through the whole assembly, if you can.

We once had a winter program with the cafeteria filled to capacity with parents but by the time our 6th graders, the last group, performed it was near empty. Each group of parents had left as their own child was done performing and the 6th grade parents hardly ever show up! Those kids were left with a pitiful excuse for an audience. They had worked so hard to do a good job with their performance and there was no one left to appreciate it! It broke my heart!

One of my pet peeves, as a teacher in the upper grades, is that parents think it is not as important to attend these assemblies once their child gets older. I am here to tell you that thinking is wrong! An older child needs to know their parents are continuing to support them not matter what. In my own experience kids in 4th through 8th grade need the support even more. They are at a point in their life when things are starting to get confusing and knowing their parents are supporting them helps with the transition into the teenage years. 
Something is wrong with this picture. There were 180 kids at this assembly and only 14 parents. :(
  If you need to plan in advance it is possible to find out if your child is receiving an award. Just ask his/her teacher a week or so ahead of time. If you try to ask earlier the teacher might not have that information available yet. Some teachers will send home notices or make a phone call but others will not. You may have to be the one to reach out.

Working parents might find it harder to take time off in the middle of the day to visit their child's school. Don't forget that, by law (at least in California!), you have a certain number of hours each month available to take care of business for your child at school. It is typically considered unpaid leave but it is available. In California it is called the "Family-School Partnership Act". Whatever state you live in be sure to check out which laws apply to you.

Most schools have a set time during each month for assemblies. For example, my school uses the first Friday of each month and my daughter's school is the last Wednesday of each month. If you don't see a schedule be sure to call the office and ask. You might also find this information in school newsletters, classroom notices, or on bulletin boards.

What is your favorite part of student assemblies? What is your least favorite? How do you work them into your schedule?

Friday, February 13, 2015

How to Be an Awesome Chaperone

We have just passed my favorite week of the school year. My partner teacher and I took our 6th graders to Outdoor Science School for the WHOLE week.

Most field trips are not quite as epic as OSS. A week with sixty 6th graders is quite an undertaking. We plan a year in advance. We do at least three fundraisers throughout the school year. We hound parents. We persuade sponsors. We conduct meetings. It is exhausting...but totally worth it!

Parents Needed! 
How To Be An Awesome Chaperone

One of the most daunting tasks in planning a field trip is finding good chaperones. This is not an easy job. It is not for everyone. You don't have to feel guilty if you don't want to chaperone!

You will be given 5-12 students to keep track of during the day, depending on their age group. (Great practice to know what it's like to keep track of that many kids and all their stuff! If you were thinking about having more kids a field trip might change your mind.) You will be expected to help them with any assignments they have been given to work on as well. Here's some tips to help you survive.

1. Be on Time!
 This means from meeting the teacher at school in the morning to getting on the bus at the end of the day. You will need to be a certain places, at specific times, and with all your charges accounted for. Believe me...you don't want to be the parent that shows up late to the bus.  It lessens your chance of being asked to chaperone again plus teachers talk...we let others teachers know which parents are reliable. It isn't that we don't like you but we have our responsibilities too. We are ultimately the ones responsible for each child on that trip and if a group is missing we go into panic mode!

2. Do Some Prep Work
Your child will know where they are going on their field trip. Take a minute or two to familiarize yourself with the place. Look up maps, ask the teacher what their learning objectives are for the trip. A good teacher will be happy to send home information ahead of time so you are prepared to lead your group of kids or at least direct you to a website that gives the field trip information. For example: I take my students to the Getty Villa every year to supplement our study of ancient Greece and Rome. The website for the Villa has thousands of resources available to anyone, anytime. Check it out here:

3. Ask Questions
If you are wondering, don't hesitate to ask. This gets you major points! There are certain rules and regulations a school trip has to abide by. It would be helpful to ask what is expected of you as a chaperone if the teacher does not provide this information. Also don't be afraid to ask for help, especially if it involves a student!

4. Follow the Rules
School rules apply on school field trips.  This is not the same as taking your family on a trip.
Teachers set rules for trips based on their current class. For example, some years I let my kids take a quick trip to the gift shop and some years I outlaw it.
I don't make these rules to be mean. I know my class and what they can and cannot handle, as a group. I also know rules that are set by the administrators and district personnel.
We took a class trip to the county fair a couple years ago and the chaperones were told students were not allowed to ride on the carnival rides for liability reasons. A parent decided it would be okay for her group to ride and when the administration found out we almost lost our ability to go to the fair ever again. That one parent almost ruined it for all future students.
If you want to know a reason for a certain rule, refer to #3.

5. Have Fun
Field trips are educational but they should also be fun! They are a chance to get students out of the classroom and into the real world. Tell jokes, be silly, use your sense of wonder. If the kids see you having fun, they will too. 
*But a caution...too much fun will leave teachers talking for years! A colleague of mine had a set of parents join them as chaperones for a field trip. Turns out they were the ones who needed chaperoning! They decided it was a perfect chance to show each other some affection. [Face Palm]

Teachers truly appreciate parents who volunteer for field trips. They couldn't pull it off without parents willing to help out. So even if you aren't sure about it, give a field trip a chance.

Have you ever chaperoned a field trip? What was your experience? What advice would you give other parents?