Does Your Kid Need a Topic for a Report?

Does Your Kid Need a Topic for a Report?

I will often give a children’s book I love to a friend’s child and say, “Someday, you are going to need to write a report on (fill in the blank), and you will find this book really helpful.”  I guess I have too many children’s books.  Or my own kids did.  Today, I would like to direct you to a resource that might be as good as having your own library of fascinating, informative, insightful books for students.  Maybe better.

It is The Learning Network, a blog published by The New York Times.  It provides great resources for kids and parents and teachers, “based on the articles, photographs, videos, illustrations, podcasts and graphics published in The New York Times – all for free.”  Let’s look at what The Learning Network offers that would be useful for parents, either when working with their kids on a project or when encouraging their kids to do an activity on their own:

Student Opinion — News-related questions that invite response from students age 13 and older.

Word of the Day — Vocabulary words in the context of recent Times articles.

Test Yourself — Questions based on Times content that aim to strengthen academic skills.

6 Q’s About the News — An activity in which students answer basic questions (Who, What, Where, When, Why and How) about an article.

News Quiz — Interactive daily and weekly news quizzes on current top stories.

On This Day in History — Listings of historical events and more for each day of the year.

Student Crosswords — Topical puzzles geared toward teens.

Teenagers in The Times — Monthly collections of the latest Times news, features and multimedia about young people.

What’s Going On in This Picture? — A weekly feature done in collaboration with Visual Thinking Strategies in which we publish a Times image without a caption or any other clues about its origins, then invite students to write in to discuss what they see in it. Full information about the image is posted 24 hours later.

Poetry Pairings — A weekly collaboration with the Poetry Foundation in which we feature a work from its American Life in Poetry project alongside content from The Times that somehow echoes, extends or challenges the poem’s themes.

While any of these could prove truly educational, I love Poetry Pairings.  As I might say, “Someday, your kid is going to need to write something about a poem, maybe linking it to another text or to something in real life.”  Well, here is your answer.

My favorite entry is a Poetry Pairing from September, 2015 (I have saved it for a year, waiting to have an opportunity to praise it).  It is a pairing of William Wordsworth’s “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” and the article “My London, and Welcome to It” by A. A. Gill.  It is perfect for anyone who loves poetry, especially Wordsworth (and who doesn’t?), and for anyone who loves London (and who doesn’t?).  But, in fact, this pairing is also perfect for people who are not too crazy about poetry.  The poem and the article are suitable for high school students and interested middle school students, too.  Fortunately, the poem and the article do not need over-interpretation; they are evocative, lyrical, and straightforward (in the best possible way).

Parents of middle school and high school students, do this now:  Check out The Learning Network to see what online resources it has to offer.  Someday, your kid will need to write about a great English poem…or something else.

The Death of Reading Logs

The Death of Reading LogsMaybe “The Death of Reading Logs” is an optimistic title for this post.  Maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

I wrote several posts this summer about summer reading—the joys and the sorrows, the good and the bad, the important and the irritating.  But, I think we can all agree that it is a good thing if kids read in the summer—whether for enjoyment or for skill improvement or for both.  I think we can also agree that it would be great if kids did summer reading because they wanted to and not because they were required to.

With that in mind, let’s look at reading logs.  If you have had a child in elementary school in the past three decades, you undoubtedly know what they are.  Each week, your child’s teacher hands out a form on which your child is supposed to record the title of the book and how many pages or minutes per day he or she reads at home.  Likely as not, you have to sign it before it is turned in.

As a parent, I hated my children’s reading logs.  I spent many evenings looking for a book that would be quick to read (or, honestly, that my child had already read) so that she would have something to write down—because it was already well into the evening and we had just gotten home after three hours of ballet and character dance classes.  My excuses were not nearly so good for my two sons—one who actually liked reading and one who never met a book he liked (except for Way Out West Lives a Coyote Named Frank—thank you, author Jillian Lund).

Reading logs turned whatever reading my children might have enjoyed into drudgery, and they turned me into a bit of a—I might as well say it—fibber.  I would have been glad to see those reading logs spontaneously combust.

All these years later, I am relieved to know that researchers have found that reading logs can actually dampen a kid’s enthusiasm for reading—almost the exact opposite of what they are designed to do.  In an excellent piece last June in The Atlantic, Erica Reischer explained it this way:

“As a psychologist (and a parent), I have long opposed reading logs because of abundant research on the negative effects of external controls (such as rewards, deadlines, and assigned goals) on intrinsic motivation. In other words, when motivation to do an activity comes from outside, via rewards or mandates, it tends to undermine people’s interest in doing that activity for its own sake. This decline in motivation ultimately affects enjoyment, creativity, and even performance….

This research would suggest that reading logs have a similar effect on children’s reading habits, especially their desire to read for fun, making reading less of a pleasure and more of a chore. Imagine telling your child that she must draw pictures for at least 20 minutes daily—and also record how much time she spent drawing and how many different colors she used.

Until recently, however, there were no formal studies testing whether or not reading logs were actually promoting reading. A study published a few years ago, to surprisingly limited attention, in the Journal of Research in Education found that, indeed, reading logs can have a detrimental effect on students’ interest in and attitudes toward reading.”

You should read her article to find out more, if you have any lingering doubts.

If you are reading up on the subject, you will also find some intriguing takes on reading logs from teachers who have published their own ideas about how to know if kids are reading without having to resort to reading logs.  Jessica Lifshitz, a fifth grade teacher at Meadowbrook Elementary School in Northbrook, Illinois, posted several good ideas—including signs on each kid’s locker, showing the name of the book that kid is currently reading—in a guest post she wrote for the Reader Leader blog for Scholastic.  You should also check out what she had to say.

Parents of elementary school students, do this now:  If you feel the way I did and are persuaded by what experts are now saying, look for the right way to intervene if your child is bringing home reading logs as this new school year gets started:

  • It might be a talk with your child’s teacher to voice your concerns.
  • It might be a talk with your child’s principal, especially if reading logs are required throughout the grades and there are a number of parents who want to weigh in.
  • It might be a talk with your PTA officers to see whether reading logs should be a topic of discussion at the next meeting so that parents and teachers could talk together as a larger group.
  • It might even be a question to take to your school board.

Just do your homework first.  Read what the researchers are saying.  (And don’t forget to let your own children see you reading.  That should do more good than those reading logs.)


Read About Something

Read About Something

Summer reading—you just can’t get away from it.  It seems as though I have been writing about it nonstop.  And still, on my way to tour Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill estate yesterday, my master’s-degree-student daughter read aloud a digital sign outside the super-lovely Oyster Bay High School as we sailed by:  “Enjoy summer reading!”  She smiled—with relief, I’m sure, thinking that is no longer her problem.

I wrote recently about the value of focusing kids’ summer reading on books they choose for themselves and about why reading for enjoyment rather than for skill improvement gets better summer results (and better lasting results once kids go back to school).   Now I want to share some facts from an article I just read by Lisa Hansel and Robert Pondiscio in Education Week Teacher.  I have known these facts for many years, after seeing it all firsthand while working with teachers on curriculum projects all over the country.  You might know these facts, too, if you are paying close attention to what your own kids are being taught in school.  Here are a few crucial quotations from the article:

  • “A nationally representative survey found that in grades K–3, just 19 minutes a day are devoted to science and a mere 16 minutes to social studies.”
  • “The situation is not much better in grades 4–6, where just 45 minutes a day are devoted to social studies and science combined.”
  • “Worse yet: Research indicates that schools serving our neediest students spend even less time on these important—and inspiring—subjects.”
  • “A child does not become a strong reader by learning to sound out words and practicing reading alone (though these are important). Reading comprehension—the ability to make meaning from text—is largely a reflection of a child’s overall education. Good readers tend to know at least a little about a broad range of things.”

So, why the short shrift given to social studies and science?  One reason is that teachers in some school districts are actually being asked—or required—to devote more and more minutes to teaching reading each day (often, though not always, to improve reading test scores).  Another reason is that some teachers, especially in the primary grades, feel more comfortable teaching reading than social studies and much more comfortable teaching reading than science.  But, whatever the causes, the effects can be disastrous.

Authors Hansel and Pondiscio work on Knowledge Matters, a campaign designed to solve the problem, according to their website:

“Nearly every major educational goal—from improving reading comprehension and critical thinking to problem solving and creativity—is knowledge based. Without a solid foundation of content knowledge built from the first days of school, higher academic standards and better student outcomes will not be achieved. Fifty years of research definitively [show] that knowledge is vital to language comprehension—the starting line for all other learning and analysis. Broad, shared knowledge is vital to citizenship, too, yet the curriculum of many schools has narrowed. To address this challenge, we must ensure that history, science, geography, art, music, and more are generously taught to all students, especially those least likely to gain such knowledge outside school.”

Maybe we can work on summer reading and the unfortunately missing subject matter content in elementary schools at the same time.

Parents of elementary school students, do this now:  Look for some great summer reading books that contain subject matter content.  Let your kids choose from among them.  Here are a few great series in the arts and sciences (I cannot emphasize strongly enough how good these books are):

  • The Adventures in Art series (published by Prestel Verlag) offers drop-dead gorgeous books about artists and their works, with fantastic illustrations, probably most suitable for students in grades 3 and up. Parents, you will find them lovely and enjoyable, too.  Choose from a huge variety, including Paul Klee: Animal Tricks; The Mad, Mad, Mad World of Salvador Dali; Frida Kahlo: The Artist in the Blue House; Marc Chagall: Life is a Dream; One Day in Japan with Hokusai; Edward Hopper: Summer at the Seashore; Claude Monet: The Magician of Color; and many more.
  • The Getting To Know the World’s Greatest Artists series (written and illustrated by Mike Venezia) offers easy-to-read artist biographies, with funny illustrations as well as reproductions of works of art, probably most suitable for students in grades K–2 (though, believe me, I have learned plenty from them myself). Choose from Vincent van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keeffe, Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso, Dorothea Lange, Pieter Bruegel, James McNeill Whistler, Rembrandt, Diego Velázquez, and many, many more.
  • The Giants of Science series (written by Kathleen Krull) offers super-entertaining, not-at-all-dry biographies of world-famous scientists, probably most suitable for students in grades 4 or 5 and up (and for all parents—like me—who are not science geniuses themselves). Choose from Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud, and more.

So, as the sign outside Oyster Bay High School said, “Enjoy summer reading!”

Summer Reading: Yuck!

Summer Reading Yuck

Yes, yuck (an interjection used to express disgust)!  And this from a former English major.  Who likes summer reading lists?  Not the kids, who have them hanging over their heads all summer; not the parents, who have to persuade their kids to read all of the books in the last two weeks of summer vacation; not even the teachers, who can barely make themselves check in the fall to see if the reading ever really happened.

How did summer reading go so wrong?  And isn’t it important for kids, especially for low-income kids who, according to research, lose more reading skills over the summer than other kids?  If you have some time on your hands, take a look at an article by Anne McGill-Franzen, Natalia Ward, and Maria Cahill, cleverly titled “Summers: Some Are Reading, Some Are Not! It Matters” (in the April 27, 2016, online edition of The Reading Teacher, published by the International Literacy Association).  It tells you more than you will ever need to know, as a parent, about summer reading, but here are a few simple points worth considering:

  • According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the majority of our public school students (51 percent) are from poor families—for the first time ever.
  • Many of these students do not have access to books to read in the summer. They don’t have them at home, and libraries are not easy and/or safe to get to for too many of them—both in urban and in rural areas.
  • When school programs give books away to kids to read in the summer, those programs typically get fantastic results.
  • When kids are allowed to choose the books they are given for summer reading, those results can be even better.
  • When summer reading is approached as a way for students to enjoy themselves rather than as a way for them to improve their reading skills, those results can be better still.

As a parent, I am sure I did a hundred things wrong when it came to my own children’s summer reading.  Just ask my daughter.  For example, once they got to middle school, I thought they should be reading only great books; time was a short, I used to say.  Too many classics, too little time.  Perhaps if I had seen the research then, I would have known that reading for enjoyment was likely to produce better, longer-lasting positive effects both on their attitudes toward reading and on their actual reading skills.

Perhaps I should have remembered what fun I had going to the library as a child and finding the next little orange-covered fictionalized biography of some great American historical figure—you know, baby boomers, the ones with the silhouette illustrations.  (By the way, originally published as the Childhood of Famous Americans by the Bobbs-Merrill Co. in the 1940s and 1950s, they have been republished without orange covers or silhouettes—more’s the pity—by Patria Press.)

Maybe it’s not too late for you to remember.

It is time to take a look at the position your school and your school district takes about summer reading:

  • Ask your school board to discuss its summer reading policy. It has one, doesn’t it?  Does it state the purpose of summer reading?  Does it focus on enjoyment or skill improvement?  Does it include a position on summer reading lists and what kinds of books should be on them?  Does it include a plan for giving away books to low-income students in your district?  Shouldn’t it?
  • If your school board doesn’t have any policy, what is your school doing about summer reading? Elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools all have a part to play in encouraging summer reading for their students.  Talk with your principal and teachers about playing the right part.  Talk with your PTA leaders about what the PTA can and should do.  Parents’ voices should be heard on this topic.  Is your voice loud enough?