Saturday, September 14, 2013

Teachers Open the Door... but Your Kids Must Enter by Themselves

Today is Saturday, September 14, 2013.

A great deal has been said about how teachers should teach, but not as much is said about how students should learn.  The fact is, teachers don't actually teach anything.  They simply create situations in which students can learn, if they want to.  Every teacher knows that you can't really force anybody to learn anything, and there are a lot of variables governing whether a student is ready to learn at any given time. 

Parents can help create a situation in which their child can learn every day by making sure that kids eat healthy meals and that they don't have too much access to sugary foods.  You would not believe how many parents refuse to do this one simple thing.  

Parents can also help their children learn just by not badmouthing schools.  Do you honestly think that your kids will want to go to school and do their best when they hear you saying negative things about schools?  Frankly, if you would just keep your opinions to yourself, things would go a lot more smoothly at school.  You have no idea how many times your children repeat what you have said at the dinner table!  So, you had a miserable time at school – are you going to sentence your child to the same miserable experience? 

Parents can make sure that their children get plenty of sleep each night.  This means that the TV should be turned off, or turned way down when kids are put to bed.  Please do not make your fifth-grade daughter help you at your evening cleaning job at the movie theater.  She needs to be in bed, sleeping, while you do your job.  If you don't trust her when you leave the house, then you need to find someone who will stay with her while you are at work.  

Parents should go through their kids' backpacks each night to look at completed homework and check for notes home from school.  You can ask your child what homework he or she has.  There should be something each night, Monday through Thursday, at least.  If your child has no homework at all, call the teacher and find out from him or her whether that is true.  Don't just let your child bamboozle you into thinking nothing was assigned.  

 Parents are responsible for seeing to it that their child has a place to study in the evenings, either in the child's room or at the kitchen table.  Parents should have their children show them completed homework and explain what they did.  Your elementary school child should be bringing books home to read. Have the child read to you. This should take no more than 10-15 minutes.  When the child is older and able to read "chapter books" on his or her own, insist that the child read 20, then 30 minutes, and work up to at least an hour.  If you really want to enforce this, create a family reading time.  Your kids should see you reading.  Be available for your kids to ask for help with a word.  Ask them about the book they are reading. 

Parents should insist that kids put their homework in their backpack before they go to bed, and all backpacks should be by the door so the kids don't forget them in the morning.  Make sure to ask your kids if they need any pencils every so often. Pencils are not furnished by the school, unless they are for a test.  As a teacher, I'm really tired of buying pencils for your kids every year.   Seriously. 

Kids have responsibilities, too.  We try to get kids to learn to organize their papers, and we actually do that with them in the lower grades.  We give them assignment planners and we give them time to write down their assignments for the next day.  We remind them again and again to take books home to read.  Kids need to learn these habits in order to succeed in school.

The biggest impediment to learning on the part of the child is emotional immaturity.  If your child is emotionally immature, it will not really matter how high his IQ is or how many things you have already taught her at home.  I have seen first graders who can read third and fourth-grade stuff, but at some level they simply aren't interested in going ahead.  Why?  They aren't interested in the topics that are written about at that reading level. If your child is ahead of his or her class in reading, why not just let the child enjoy reading whatever he or she wants to for a while?  What's the hurry?  If your child is that far ahead in the early stages, he or she will not drop behind later, I promise.

Another impediment to learning is a kind of mental development.  If you talk to your child and read to him or her before the child enters kindergarten, the child will have enough facility with the language to learn to read.  If you don't spend much time even talking to your kids, how do you expect them to learn enough words to do well in school?  Studies show that kids from families where the parents talk to their kids and read to them come to school with large vocabularies of maybe 5 thousand words and up.  (Some of these words they can use and others they only understand.)   Kids from families where the parents have to work so much that they don't have much time to talk to or read to their kids come to school with vocabularies of maybe only a couple thousand words.   Kids from families who speak another language at home instead of English may come to school with no words at all, or maybe around 100, max.  

There are other aspects to mental development, not all very well understood at this point.  There are points at which a child can understand that the printed words on the page are not part of the decoration.  There are points at which a child is able to understand the concept of patterns.  There are points at which a child is ready to understand things like number sense (15 is smaller than 51, 82 comes after 79, etc.) and concepts such as volume (a short, fat can might hold as much soup as a taller, skinnier can, etc.).   You can talk to kids and teach them about things like this at home, but basically, if they're not ready for it, it will go right over their heads.  

As a teacher, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to interest my students in the things I was required to introduce to them.  I tried to think of little games and fun activities that helped to create "buy-in" so that the kids were engaged in the lesson, and I did this no matter what grade level I taught – and I taught them all, kindergarten through twelfth grade.  

There was nothing I could do if the child was too tired and sleepy to pay attention, if the student was sick or coming down with something, or if the child had witnessed a horrific fight between her mom and her mom's abusive boyfriend.  The lesson didn't mean much to the child who was thinking about the rat that he discovered under his bed last night, or the one who was feeling sad and upset because his father, in a drunken rage, threw his cat against the wall and killed it.  I felt helpless to do anything about the girl who was molested by her uncle and wouldn't tell anybody about it; I certainly couldn't get her to understand the poem "Thanatopsis."   The young woman who just realized that her boyfriend made her pregnant was not listening to me or participating in the lesson

I did my best, and I stand by what I did, but in the end, all I could do was open the door and hold it open for kids to walk through.  Some of them did, and others just plain didn't.  :-/

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