Monday, August 26, 2013

THE School Supply List

Today is "Back To School" day in most of Texas as well as several places around the country. Some states, municipalities, and private or parochial schools are already back. A few have another week or so, sticking to the "old" school year of the Tuesday after Labor Day through the Friday before Memorial Day.

Those who home school may have eased up classes and directed learning over the summer.

However, for most of the country, including many colleges and universities, today marks the first day of the new academic year. With the new school year comes shopping. We end up buying paper, folders, book covers, crayons, pencils, pens, hand sanitizer, facial tissues, etc. We go through the wardrobes checking the fit (and sometimes fashion) of clothes. New attire is purchased, many times to fit a dress code. There are a few things that students need that aren't on those published lists. There are also things the teachers need.

Some Lessons Learned

Before we delve into enumerating those important things that rarely seem to make the lists, I'd like to share an experiment we ran this summer. This is what the US Army may call a partial "hot wash" or "After Action Review". See, it can be only partial because we won't know the results for a few months.

Based upon her end of year scores last June, our daughter demonstrated some amount of advanced proficiency in some subjects. Others she struggled with throughout the year. Still, other topics and subjects #WeTheParents felt important seemed to not be covered to the extent we had hoped.

So, at my wife's urging, I developed a little curriculum for some summer home-learning. My wife looked over the subjects I intended to cover. She let me go with it. Now, since this was our first real foray into homeschooling, we tried a few different things. Other things we wished to try, we just didn't get around to.

One of my shortcomings as a homeschooling parent of an elementary age student is that most of my experience has been at the collegiate and graduate level. I taught classes to high school and college grads. There is a reason that advanced critical thinking and the adult learning model pedagogy should be reserved for high school graduates. My experience still drags me back towards Socratic Method and facilitation. I found some of that works. Mostly, though, it really doesn't, not for elementary aged kids.

I found our daughter loves to learn. We already knew that. We just didn't know the extent, or at least I didn't. We just needed to nudge her to doing research. Give her a topic, even one she claims no interest in, and give her a couple of search strings. She'll read articles online. She will learn things. She will question things that don't "seem true". She will take out books from the library and read more, on her own. Where it gets difficult is in getting her to perform some task with a metric or rubric to gauge her comprehension. Ugh!

She loves to write. She hates to write on a topic. Ugh! To top it off, she tries so hard to write well above her grade level. Trying to keep it sane and sensible devolved into a few confrontations. In the real world, spelling and grammar count. So, those were both "graded". That lead any topic to also segue into language arts/skills lessons. It came to a point that she resisted writing anything. She would spend eight academic hours trying to get a paper perfect. It would still have mistakes, of course. However, the time spent was due to striving towards a goal that was too high. Perhaps the one smart thing I did was to never tell her not to aspire to that goal. Instead, I would comment on improvement and let her know that, while there were mistakes, they were mistakes at a higher level. She learned something. She surpassed the expectations of her level. So, she should be proud. Of course, that didn't satisfy our little perfectionist. Ugh!

The "classes" and projects were never supposed to take more than 4 hours a day. They started taking from breakfast to dinner, with breaks just for lunch, snack, and chores. Now, some of the classes were entertaining. We watched documentaries on history or other educational shows. They sparked questions which led to directed research, and then a project. To keep it from being boring, other projects were suggested:  a diorama, some pictures, write a poem, act out a play, make up a song... anything to demonstrate what she learned. Half of the time, though, she preferred the dreaded papers.

We also went over math. I found some podcasts that helped with several subjects. She did fractions, for example. However, some of the things she wanted to learn were difficult. I eventually found the problem. She had not yet been taught the times-tables. She had been taught the concept of multiplication. However, she did not know the times tables. I was told that they are not taught anymore. GASP! Ugh!

So, we went back a step. She started practicing times tables. She had learned the concepts of short division and long division. But, as you may recall, those concepts require quick recall of times tables. That took a few weeks, but she got them down. On her last quizz, she got 98 out of 100 correct in 15 minutes. That isn't too bad at her level.

But it almost felt as though the summer was wasted. She learned history. She advanced her math. Her language skills improved greatly. But did she have any fun? Not really. Not like the summers I remembered as a kid, anyway. The incentive of "get this done by lunch so you can go play with..." failed. Most of the neighborhood kids were in day camp or some such. Those who weren't tended to hide from the hot Texas sun after lunch. Perhaps next year, if we try this again, we'll start the "home learning" (we tried not to use the word "school") after lunch.

We also lacked assets to do some of the "field trips" we had wanted. The ideas we had, but never got to do, involved going someplace fun and educational. Even a trip to Six Flags could be used. Whatever we did had to come with some project, though. It meant writing or more research or some art project. We did get to go to one place. However, we decided to leave that for "real school" assignments.

If we had any success, it will show in performance throughout the school year. One of the problems we identified last year was her performance dropped when she was bored. When they reviewed what she already felt she knew, her mind wandered and she would rush through assignments in class. Many times that meant not reading all of the directions or missing entire pages on multiple-page worksheets. So, also over the summer, we worked on repetition to improve. Getting a 96% might be an "A". But, while doing review or reinforcement work, strive to get that other 4%. With some things, like math, if you don't use it, you lose it.

11 Things Not On School Supply Lists:

 Here are the things I haven't seen on any school supply list that your kid needs to bring to class every day. Many of these must be provided by the parents.

1. Curiosity. Even those subjects that seem boring have something new to learn. Make it a challenge to learn that new thing. Ask questions and pay attention. Look for answers through research.

2. An open mind. First of all, an open mind isn't a naive one. It is not a mind that just accepts everything it is told. It is one that listens and pays attention, collecting the data. But it is also one that questions the data. it is one that seeks more data that will corroborate, confirm, or contradict the rest. That mind needs to be open to all of it. It needs to analyze and decide. Then it needs to be open to more, willing to revise as new data comes in. To get new data, they have to seek it. Teachers will not always present it. They do not always have it to present. They are not perfect and do not know everything. As parents, you need to encourage a little extracurricular research and exploration. The stuff in school is a basis, a starting point. So, teach the kids to question everything!

3. Respect. Sometimes questioning everything can seem as a challenge to authority. Many times it is just that. Kids need be shown how to question without challenging that authority in a way that crosses lines. This can be taught only through demonstration and practical exercise. Also, teachers are a form of authority figure. The kids need to show them, and their fellow students, respect. Now respect should be earned. However, the right thing to do is to loan it until it is earned, or proven to not be earned. In either case, others need the opportunity to do so. You cannot succeed unless given the chance to fail.

4. Failure is not an end. It is a beginning. It is an opportunity. The only real failure is one to not take that opportunity. Now, standards are standards. A grade is a grade. No kid should get an "A" for effort alone. But it is a goal. It is a way-point, not a destination.

5. Manners. Some kids are good with manners outside the home, but leave them at the doorstep. However, manners will get you pretty far in this world. They need to be brought to the classroom.

6. Self-confidence. Kids need to understand that messing up is part of life. Get a little upset, sure. But then get back at it. They need to know that they can, they just may not have, yet. Yet. Try again. Each success should build that confidence that the next goal is attainable with effort and work. They also need to be confident in their self, because there are those who will have a different opinion. Somebody may not like the color green and will make fun of a green shirt. You know, that's their problem... .

7. Time Management. With many homes having both parents working (or in single-parent households...), time management is key. The students need tome for fun and to blow off steam. However, they also need to prioritize work and play. Chores still need to be done. Homework needs to be done. Fun needs to be had. That means sticking to a schedule. If in an after-school program, the students should be encouraged to get their homework done during that time. That will leave more time for family fun afterwards. Parents need to schedule in time to review homework and review grades. Time management is a skill many adults struggle with. It is never too early to set the kids up for success.

8. Good nutrition. Some school lunch programs are healthy and tasty. Most probably lack one or both of those qualities. Inspect and ask your kids. We make our kid lunch. She gets some input. We also know what she gets is healthy, most of the time. Yes, there are "treat days" here and there. (We make up for those at dinner). Our local schools also have a snack time. The school requests healthy snacks. (I've seen what some parents consider healthy. Sorry, but fruit flavored gummy snacks are not all that healthy!). So, she brings fruit or nuts or something tasty and healthy.

9. Patience. Yes, this is very important. The student needs to be patient with himself. Not everything comes automatically. It takes effort. They need to be patient with their own progress as they work. They also need some amount of patience with those who don't "get it" as quick as they do. Everybody learns different things at different rates through different means. Some people learn audibly. Others learn visually. Some learn from reading. Others learn from hands-on (probably the most effective way for most people). So, good teachers go through all of these in order to get the teaching points across. The student needs to be patient if they understood the first way.

10. Trust and faith. On a religious basis, these are important for families "of faith". The trust and faith here are in the family, though. They need to trust that Mom and Dad will call them out when they are slacking. They need to trust that Mom and Dad will push them to try, try, try again, try harder when they are having difficulties. Mom and Dad will be involved. Mom and Dad will sick up for them if there is a bully. Mom and Dad will stick up for them if the school decides to challenge or deny beliefs or morals or values. Mom and Dad will not stop loving them because they didn't get an "A". Mom and Dad will be there to talk to about things, be them pleas for help, celebrating successes, or just showing interest in what the kids are excited about. The kids need to have trust and faith that they can tell Mom and Dad anything.

11. Morals and Values. These are most important. The kids need to understand right and wrong, good and evil, correct and incorrect. They need to know the differences. They need to know they will make choices and will live with the consequences. They need to know to stick up for the weak, not to bully. Morals and values are not issued at school. Seldom are they taught. If a school claims to teach them, many times they are not the same morals and values the parents wish taught. Guess what! Morals and Values are a parent's responsibility, not a school's. Teach them. Praise your kids when they employ them. Discipline (corrective training, not punitive) when they don't, and do so in a manner that they learn them. Never punish them for making good moral and value judgements.

A Little Information On Classroom Supplies

Last year, our school supply list contained twice what our daughter needed for class. We dug around a little and found that the school had a policy of redistributing from the haves to the have-nots. While the Utopian idea sounds all nice, it really isn't. Parents were expected to supply two kids for every one they sent to school.

This year, the list was a lot better. It contained reasonable lists for one student. The letters sent to the school board must have made an impact.

School teachers are not as poorly paid as they were 20 years ago. Don't be fooled. This applies to public school teachers. I know some parochial and private school teachers who make substantially less (like $11 an hour).

Regardless, teachers should not be made to supply their own classrooms, at least not to the extent that some claim to be.

Most public and charter schools are considered 501c organizations. Many parochial and private schools are as well. Keep that in mind.

That leads to donations! Guess what, they can often-times be tax-deductible!

Talk with your child's teachers and principal. Find out what the donation program is. Some may have one. Others may suddenly wake-up and start one.

It may be difficult for your kids' teacher to do their job if the classroom (or school) runs out of chalk or dry erase markers, for one example. That should not be an excuse to not teach the subject matter. So, making sure your kids' classes have them for the teacher benefits your kid.

Something that surprised me is printer paper. Speaking with a couple of teachers in regards to CSCOPE, I found out about this problem. Many educational materials out there are online. The teachers need to print the worksheets. CSCOPE was notorious for this. However, it and Common Core are not the only resource that brings this problem. In fact, many materials you would want a teacher to use in place of these require printer paper even more. Many times the teachers have to provide their own paper. In many instances, they have to use their own printers and ink at home, as well. The resources in the schools just cannot accommodate 24 teachers printing out 24 worksheets for 3 subjects each day. There isn't enough time to use the resources at school. They break down. They run out of paper. So, ask your kids' teachers if they need any.

[Of note, the teachers I interviewed hated CSCOPE for multiple reasons.]

You, as parents, are responsible for your kids' school supplies. Yes, there are some parents who cannot afford all the items on the list. So, donations for this purpose are a good thing. This is something else to talk to the teacher about. However, do not let the school dictate what you will "donate" through some socialist redistribution program. Forced redistribution is not sharing. Sharing must be done freely, of one's own will. Sharing is good. Donating and charity are good.

However, the parents of all the students are responsible for helping stock the classrooms. we do so through taxes. But we all know that taxes, even those allocated for education, get redirected. Those funds allocated to education get plugged into maintenance, professional development, retirement funds, etc. Those are fights for the school board meetings. The classrooms should not suffer in the meantime. It means your kid suffers, and is cut short because a teacher runs out.

So, if you can, donate. When you do so, ask the school for the 501c number. Most teachers have it because they can buy school supplies "tax free". If you make the donation, get a receipt with that number on it. You can claim the donation on your tax returns.