Still Time To Give Thanks

Still Time to Give Thanks

If you haven’t been properly thankful this November (and there could be a lot of reasons for that), I can solve your problem.  My solution deftly combines November’s two important holidays:  Veterans Day and Thanksgiving.  My solution is a way to say thank-you to our nation’s military families, whose loved ones are serving away from home during this month when the rest of us can be together.

It will take you only a few minutes to go to the website for United Through Reading and see what I am talking about.  UTR is a nonprofit organization that has figured out a simple, but powerful, way to keep military families better connected during a mother’s or father’s long deployment.  At 262 locations around the world last year, UTR set up the technical facilities to record videos of military service members as they read books aloud to their kids at home.  Once recorded, the videos were emailed or mailed home.

What could make more sense and be any easier or cheaper to do?  While everyone knows intuitively that this idea would absolutely work, here are some statements about the program’s impact, as quoted from UTR’s website:

Children’s anxieties fade.
Service members become part of daily life at home.
Spouses are supported because parenting is shared.
Homecomings begin with children welcoming a familiar parent, not a stranger.
Children learn to love books and reading.

And, in case you were wondering, UTR is the recipient of the 2016 Community Service Hero Award from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and the 2015 American Prize of the Library of Congress Literacy Awards Program.  So, UTR is doing something right.

Parents of kids of all ages:  If you are thankful that your family was together on Thanksgiving, if you are grateful that there are military service members following in a long tradition of protecting and preserving, if you are proud that you had a family member in the military, or if you believe that hearing a bedtime story from a faraway parent is something that all kids deserve, then go to UTR’s website.

First, watch a video or two of families telling about their own experiences with UTR, if you need any more persuading.  Then, donate.  I did—in honor of my mother and father, my father-in-law, my uncle, and my cousin, who served with honor.  This is one great way to give thanks before November ends.

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.)


Why Not School Libraries in Summer?

Why Not School Libraries in Summer?Can you stand one more piece of advice about summer reading?  It’s one that could have long-term results for your school districts, if you parents get on board.  This post is in honor of my father-in-law and sister-in-law, whose lives have been devoted to running college libraries, including those at Bowdoin College, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia University (before my father-in-law went off to head a library foundation and offer advice to libraries around the world).

I bet that all students who love their college libraries started by loving the ones in their elementary schools.  I actually remember my own elementary school library a lot better and a lot more fondly than I remember the ones I should have perhaps spent more time in at Cornell University.  I probably took the Merion Elementary School library for granted—just as I did the community library where we stopped off in the summer whenever we felt like it to pick up a new book or two (that was before you could get them all electronically).

But, as I have said previously, every kid in the U.S. does not have such easy access to community libraries in the summer, and every kid in the U.S. cannot afford to buy whatever books might make the long summer days a little more enjoyable.

So, that brings me to a variety of articles in the education press lately about school libraries that are opening up in the summer to provide books and programs for kids who want them—and need them.  At Education Week’s Time and Learning blog, Marva Hinton wrote an intriguing story about one such school district effort in New Hanover County Schools in Wilmington, North Carolina.

In an interview, New Hanover County Schools librarian Jennifer LaGarde talks about three features of her school district’s summer library program:

  • Staffing by a school library media coordinator, so that kids can get the help they might need to select suitable books and get excited about them
  • Offering other programs at the library, so that kids can come and explore other ways to have a good time—in addition to reading
  • Opening up school libraries in neighborhoods where many kids can easily walk to them (or be walked to them by older siblings), so they don’t need transportation they might not have available

It couldn’t be simpler.  And it couldn’t be cheaper.  What would a school district have to pay to run such a program?  The school district would have to come up with funds to pay for the librarians’ time (just part time for the hours the libraries are open—maybe half-days, maybe only certain days of the week), for keeping the buildings open, and maybe for bringing in some special programs.

Would the investment be worth it?  Yes, according to the research I have been reading and writing about for the past month or two.  Kids cannot read in the summer if they don’t have books, and too many kids don’t have books.

We are lucky, as a society that cares about kids and literacy, that the problem is so fixable.

It is time to take a look at what your school district’s libraries will be up to next summer—if you aren’t fortunate enough to know already.  Parents, especially elementary school parents, do this when school opens again for 2016-2017:

Ask your school board to talk about whether it has a policy on the use of school libraries in the summer.  This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity first to meet with the superintendent about the reasons for and history of whatever that policy is.

If there is a policy, congratulations!  Ask for the data on how many students visited the libraries and how many books were taken out in the summer of 2016.  Compare those data to data from previous summers, if available.  Ask whether there are plans being made to continue or to expand the library program for next summer.

If there is no policy, perhaps it is time to advocate for one—especially if your school district has elementary school kids who do not have access to a variety of books at home in the summer.  When would school libraries be open?  Which school libraries would be open?  Who would staff them?  How much would it all cost?  Where could the money come from in the school district budget?

By the way, parents, school libraries are a great resource that all kids need, even kids with plenty of their own books at home—unless maybe you have a librarian around the house.

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!”