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A Teacher’s Plea: Read with Your Kids

I have been teaching public school children for a decade. From first grade to eighth grade and all the grades in between, I have seen, first hand, students soar above their perceived potential. At the same time, I have seen others struggle to reach it.

I have heard all the rationales from socio-economic disparity to learning styles, from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to a lack of interest-based learning, from ineffective schools and ill-trained educators to the lack of necessary educational resources. I will not disparage those factors as they do play a role in the social and academic growth of all children, however, I refuse to believe that they cannot be overcome.

In my career I have met with hundreds of families to discuss the successes and shortcomings of each their children’s academic efforts. By the very nature of the educational process, each child and each family presents the educator with a unique set of challenges and needs that must be accounted for. That being said, it is a flawed mentality (be it explicit or implicit) that the responsibility lies solely with the classroom educators to meet these academic needs.

Looking back over my ten years in the classroom, I can categorically say that there is, in fact, one panacea that has continually produced students that excel both academically and socially. Regardless of financial status, racial background, familial makeup, or special needs, there exists a common experience that has been present in the majority of my most successful students. It is simple and timeless, and any parent has the power to do it. Nevertheless, it stands as the four words I find myself wanting to yell from the mountaintops each year as a fresh crop of families enter into my classroom:

Read with your kids!

Yes, indeed. That’s it! Read with your kids. It doesn’t matter what age the child is, what difficulties the child has in his or her academic abilities, or how busy the child (or the child’s parents) may be; in my experience there is no easier way to affect positive change on children’s academic growth than when parents make it a point to read with their kids.

Before I get ahead of myself, notice the preposition; read with your kids. not read to your kids. This is deliberate.

Don’t get me wrong, literally since the day my wife and I brought our twins home from the hospital, we have cherished reading to our kids. At nine months they now have favorite books, reach to turn pages, and genuinely change their entire demeanor when it is time to lay back and read a story.

That said, reading to kids amounts to a relatively passive experience. They receive the text as it is read to them while their eyes (possibly) scan pages of images and text. It can be stimulating or calming – exciting or the perfect pre-bedtime ritual.

While reading to kids is still more valuable than no reading or interaction at all, it only scratches the surface of the true power that lies in parents reading with their kids. Reading with your kids is an entirely active and engaging process. While that may sound complicated, it really is just a simple fundamental shift from reading to your kids.

Rather than one party simply reciting text to the other, there is the potential for a genuine exchange of information, for the generation and testing of hypotheses, for the creation and defense of opinions, for the dialogue of interpretation, and for the fostered ability to connect texts to each other and the world at large. This seemingly dubious list of goals may seem like a far cry from traditional story time, but it represents the skills being asked of students on a daily basis in the current climate of standards-based education.

Foster academic growth through purposeful reading time

In the world of education, the pendulum swings from tradition to innovation and back again and again. The Common Core movement represented one of the latest and most notable of said swings. These standards, were an attempt at creating a set of national math and literacy objectives for American students. In their creation and implementation, there was much attention given to literacy and the use of language in a manner that had typically been reserved for higher levels of academia.

These standards were also created with a growing emphasis on training and preparing students to engage with nonfiction texts on a much more regular basis (the Common Core Standards are built on an expectation of a 50-50 split between fiction and nonfiction texts). Under these standards, students as young as second grade are asked to complete cognitively challenging tasks like “compare and contrast the most important points presented by two texts on the same topic” and “identify the main topic of a multi-paragraph text as well as the focus of specific paragraphs within the text.”

While the aims of these standards are centered on college and career readiness, the reality is that most students have entered into these high academic expectations largely unprepared. Some of that is due to the sudden, yet grand shift in the educational landscape (thanks to both the Common Core push and states’ chosen replacements and alternatives); the other reason is that many children are solely reliant upon the efforts of their teachers and schools to be able to adapt.

As they always do, the academic systems across the globe will continually evolve and change based upon what the latest perceived focal point should be to produce the next generation of responsibly prepared citizens. In this moment it exists as the Common Core Standards or the rigorous alternatives states have selected in their stead, but in ten years it could be (and likely will be) something totally different.

Regardless of what the latest initiatives may be, the fundamental concept of reading with kids will never become obsolete. Parents can and must be at the forefront of fostering literary competence in their own children. We teachers cannot do it alone. There is no substitute for attentive time reading with children, asking probing questions, identifying new vocabulary, predicting outcomes, making connections, and simply discussing text. While this type of activity happens daily in classrooms across the country, no teacher can replace the type of one-on-one attention a parent or family member can provide.

If all a parent did was read with their child for at least thirty minutes a day, there is no doubt that there would be measurable gains in that child’s academic career and, quite frankly, to the quality of education we as teachers can provide. I have seen the transformation take place with some of my own students. As such, I have started sowing the seeds of literacy with my own children (to be fair, they can’t talk, so reading to them will have to suffice for now…).

With a minimal time investment, parents can contribute to conceptual understanding, vocabulary growth, comparative skills, textual comprehension, and improved socialization skills all at the same time. In school, we as educators can then build on these skills with increased opportunities for rigor, exploration, and student-guided learning.

As a teacher, as a parent, as a person hoping for an educated, engaged, and prosperous society – I humbly beg of every parent out there…

Read with your kids.

 

The Power of Paper

From the outset of my teaching career, integrating technology into my lessons has remained a constant priority. Whether it was piloting SmartBoards in a district elementary school, using iPads to digitize workflows, or making the switch to Chromebooks, technology has been at the forefront of how I prepare and deliver content to students. Lately, however, I have seen value in a switch back to a more analog-focused learning environment.

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Improve Your Teaching Practice with These Great Podcasts

Whether you are looking to land your first teaching job or have been in the classroom for years, there is always something new to learn in the world of education.

Even if you have already talked the ear off of every teaching veteran you know, attended all the district professional development opportunities you could stand, and completed all the expensive college courses you could afford, there is still so much to learn.

Thanks to the plethora of quality, education-focused podcasts, a pair of earbuds may be the most impactful professional development tool in your arsenal. Whether you listen while cooking dinner, mowing the lawn, or driving to work, these great podcasts can help improve your teaching practice a little bit each day.

In no particular order, here are some of the best podcasts for educators to dive into!

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Using Innovation Competitions to Motivate Students

Over the past 20 years, advancements in science, technology, and communication have transformed our world. If you trace any one of these advancements back to their roots, you are likely to uncover the story of a person or team who dared to break from traditional thinking and approach a common problem in a new way.

Whether it’s a billionaire visionary like Bill Gates who transformed the way the world uses computers, a team of innovative mathematicians like the women featured in the hit film Hidden Figures who revolutionized space travel, or a student inventor like Alexis Lewis who transformed how first-responders save lives, this is what innovation is all about.

In today’s world, the demand for innovation continues to grow. As a result, the focus of traditional learning paradigms needs to shift.

In the 21st century, simply finding creative ways to expose students to curricular content isn’t enough. Educators, whether teachers or tutors, have a responsibility to include opportunities for students to apply knowledge in innovative ways. One great way to bring this type of opportunity to your students is through participation in innovation competitions…

 

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Three Ways to Boost Vocabulary

Improving literacy skills can often be a complicated proposition. Successful readers and writers use a combination of several skills such as print awareness, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension skills, grammar, and spelling to be able to both understand and create meaningful text. Improving a student’s overall literacy skill-set requires a multifaceted approach that deals with the individual skills as well as practice putting the skills together.

Of all of these skills, vocabulary is literacy’s toolbox. The more words a child knows, the more that child can understand and the more ways that child can express him or herself. In this article, let’s start improving literacy skills by focusing on three ways you can boost a child’s vocabulary.

 

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