Sometimes, Less Is More

How technology has transformed the art of teaching, and things from our “past” we should keep with us today and carry forward to tomorrow…

Technology is amazing, and teaching has come a long way because of it, especially since this pandemic. A year ago, who would have thought we could simultaneously teach remote and in-person students simultaneously through livestream technology? Not many of us, and definitely not me! But here we are. We can do hard things.

And while I have done everything in my professional mindset to embrace the new technology (and I have…I’m its biggest advocate!), lately I keep going back to the golden rule from my tech-ed classes in college: Technology is a tool to enhance instruction, not a tool to replace it. So I write this post not to deter those of us who are all-in with the technology during these unprecedented times, but to softly and gently remind us of the best practices that we know are still best practices. And to caution us to not let those best practices fall into the abyss of nostalgia as we suddenly and ferociously navigate this new territory.

Here’s my short list of tried and true practices that I am begging all teachers and parents to remember as we adapt to these new times:

Books. Kids need to handle books. Printed, bound, and published books. REAL BOOKS.

I cringe hearing about schools who are not distributing books due to the pandemic. I get the germ factor, but relying solely on e-books and virtual reading activities is detrimental to an emerging reader’s development. Especially the littlest – kindergarteners and first graders. Don’t get me wrong, publishers and educational companies (well, most of them) have been nothing but helpful and generous in opening up a lot of their books and resources in a remote capacity for teachers to take advantage of. But there is no way to replicate true concepts about print that emerging readers need to learn in an e-book. (Or if there is, I haven’t rationalized it yet…). Let me illustrate with an example. One of the early concepts about print kids begin to pick up is text directionality. Text directionality has several components. Some of those components don’t change with an e-book, like the fact the we read left-to-right on a page. Other components of text directionality DO change, or are absent all together. Like the fact that a book has a cover whose open end is on the right and bound end is on left, like the idea that we turn pages when we get to the end of a page (not scroll up or down like some online programs or e-books!). I’m not saying that e-books, online subscriptions, or online libraries and databases are bad. I’m saying they shouldn’t take the place of print books entirely. They should be supplemental.

Learning is socially constructed. Kids should still be interacting with the teacher and interacting with each other.

I’m really trying to let go of the past and embrace the present in order to come to terms with the future. But guys, there’s a reason teachers used easels and chart paper for MANY years. There’s a reason teachers and students share the pen, the real, physical pen, in interactive writing. There’s a reason kids come to the big book and use the teacher pointer to practice 1:1 correspondence. The safe learning community that is established when a teacher gathers her/his students together at the carpet and invites them in to enjoy a big book in front of them is 1000 times more effective than presenting a big book on the Smartboard and asking kids to interact with the text from afar. The literate brain connections that are established through kids actually using a marker to try it out on chart paper, use fix-it tape when they make a mistake, and write it correctly when they gain new knowledge, are light years more concrete (and developmentally appropriate, I might add) than asking kids to type a story on a computer. I know the mitigation strategies surrounding COVID prevent a lot of this from happening right now, but I promise you there are ways to do this still, without having to resort to hands-off learning from a distance, even for the kids who are learning at home! Two simple, quick tricks for doing this are getting real books in their hands, and getting real paper and pencil/marker/crayons in their hands.

Sometimes, less is more.

Things look so much cleaner when we use a computer to create everything we need for teaching. Yes, it looks cleaner when we type up a worksheet to use for writing. It looks cleaner when we have kids publish their story by typing it up and adding clip art. Yes, it looks cleaner when we use a publishing program to create a poster or a brochure or a flyer as part of a school project. Yes, it looks cleaner when we buy a phonics game from Teachers Pay Teachers (definitely nothing against Teachers Pay Teachers here…lots of blood, sweat, and tears go into the resources teachers decide to share with others on that platform). But let me ask you this. It looks cleaner, but is it better? Does cleaner work mean deeper learning? I’d argue no, at least not always. Sometimes those fancy, typed up worksheets are a crutch for students…do they really need to fill in the blank? Or could they have written the whole sentence all along? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for scaffolds when kids need it. But not all kids need all scaffolds, all the time. That becomes extremely limiting and in fact constraining, inhibiting a student from reaching their full potential. It’s like asking them to stay inside the box, rather than think outside of the box, or rather than telling them there’s really no box at all. Of course, there’s a time and place for fancy and published – if the purpose calls for it, it is needed. But I’m telling you, I’ve noticed some AMAZING student work hung in classrooms and hallways in the school I work that came from a piece of paper and a pencil, and that’s it. (Take a look at some of the pictures! I mean, come on! How good are these?!) Let’s take the artist metaphor and run with it. You wouldn’t give an artist a half started canvas and expect them to come up with a masterpiece, right? Because then it wouldn’t be their masterpiece, entirely. Instead, you give an artist an empty canvas to create a masterpiece.

Sometimes we have to give our students an empty canvas too. I think we’d be surprised at some of the masterpieces they come up with.

Pumpkin Party!

(Yes, I know my front stoop needs work. Just haven’t gotten around to this project in the 2.5 years we’ve lived here.)

We spontaneously painted pumpkins yesterday because I had paint pens lying around and I wanted my usual seasonal pumpkins for above the front door. And while we were painting, it got me all nostalgic for all the ways I’ve used pumpkins in the ten years I’ve been teaching and in the four years I’ve been a mom. You see, celebrating holidays in school doesn’t really exist anymore (for the right reasons, I might add). BUT that hasn’t stopped me from utilizing high-interest, engaging SEASONAL learning tools and pumpkins fit the bill perfectly for fall. I figured I’d share all the pumpkin activities I’ve ever done with my home kids (own kids) and my work kids (school kids), in case pumpkins are your jam too.

*Full disclosure: I never realized I’d be an amateur (ok even that’s stretching it…pseudo? imaginary? in-my-dreams?) blogger so I haven’t taken pictures of these along the way. So I scoured the internet to find pictures that would match the activities I’ve done. Hearty thanks to anyone who comes across this page and realizes I stole their photo.*

The Perfect Sensory and Fine Motor Tool!

Pumpkins are one of the most sensory driving tools you could utilize with your kiddo. Seriously, there are so many opportunities for sensory play using pumpkins. Think pumpkin guts and you’ll get what I’m saying. But with sensory comes lost of fine motor opportunity too, and what I love about pumpkins the most is how EASY and MESS FREE (ok, ok, once you gut the pumpkin obviously there’s a mess) and NO PREP some of these activities are. And remember how important fine motor skills and practice are for toddlers!

  • Rubber band pumpkin gourds: The grooves on those little pumpkin gourds are perfect for stringing rubber bands around them. This helps with finger and hand dexterity, which are an important part of fine motor skills that aid in writing – think pencil control and letter formation.
  • Painting with pumpkins: I’ve seen and done this many ways…first using mini pumpkins as paint brushes (the bruises have a fun time making “pumpkin butts” [the groove at the bottom of a pumpkin leaves an imprint that kind of looks like a butt print if you use it to paint]. I’ve also had my students take pieces of a pumpkin that has been carved and used them like sponge painting shapes.
  • Pumpkin puzzles!: This one’s fun, especially if Halloween is over and you’re looking for a fun way to get rid of the weird shaped pumpkins you’ve passionately gathered on your front stoop. Simply cut each pumpkin in half and spread out. Toddlers have a fun time putting the pumpkins back together again by matching each pumpkin half.
  • Pumpkin cleaning/Pumpkin seed separating: My younger bruise loved this last year. He sat and picked the seeds out of the goo from the top of the pumpkin for a LONG time when we carved pumpkins last year. Not only did it take a lot of persistence, pincer grasp practice (which we were working on in birth to three at the time), but it also exposed him to the major sensory feel of pumpkin guts/slime, which he loved!
  • Pumpkin beading: The adult pushes a bunch of nails into a pumpkin and the child stacks beads on each nail. We have fun making “pumpkin hair” or “porcupine spikes” on our pumpkins. Hand-eye coordination and pincer grasp on point with this one once again.
  • Pumpkin painting (different than painting with pumpkins): A classic, but less mess if you stick to pens instead of actual paint and paintbrushes. Use water based or chalk paint pens if you want the rain to wash it away. Why would you want the rain to wash it away? Well, makes it the craft that keeps on giving! You can keep decorating over and over again if the rain washes it away. If you want it permanent, use acrylic paint pens and a finishing spray so it sets.
  • Pumpkin hammer: Guilty…have never actually done this one, but came across it from a blogger I follow (completemomsense – check her Instagram out) and loved the idea. The bruises would die for this, but also really good for hand eye coordination too!
  • Pumpkin seed sorting and counting: Best to do when they’re still slimy or fresh, but my oldest bruise has some funky sensory *fears* so he was really resistant to do this last year. Once we dried them out he happily counted, sorted, and used them as counters or game pieces whenever he wanted.
  • Pumpkin shape sorter: So many shape sorter toys on the market…who knew you could just make one of your own with a pumpkin! Why not start the conversation about shapes with your kiddos while you have fun popping the matching shape through the hole in the pumpkin? Easy and fun, works on visual-spatial reasoning, and builds some math talk into the activity without even realizing it.

Pumpkins are for math and literacy too!

  • Pumpkin diagram: Awesome way to softly encourage scientific drawing, labeling, and writing. Although the picture has typed labels the student clearly glued on, I’d suggest encouraging your little one to write the words, or tell you the words to write and you write for them, so they make the connection between spoken words and print.
  • Pumpkin sorting: Gets kids noticing the features of a pumpkin, but also encourages language and vocabulary development through the specificity of categories and features. How are the fibers different from the seeds? How is the flesh different from the fibers? Great conversation starters that will get kids using specific describing words to talk through similarities and differences.
  • How to carve a pumpkin: How-to books or recipe writing encourages kids to call on past experiences (things they know how to do or have done before) and write about it in a structure way. By listing steps, and encouraging language like first, next, then, finally, after that (etc.) helps kids develop sequencing vocabulary.
  • Pumpkin math: Measuring circumference, height, and weight starts to build understanding around obvious mathematical concepts, and kids have a blast doing simple stuff like this. Using non-standardized units of measurement (i.e. ribbon instead of measure tape for circumference, linking cubes instead of inch ruler for height) eliminates concepts that are too abstract for toddlers, but lets them still get the measuring part done. It’s a lot easier for a little to understand the pumpkin is 14 blocks tall than 14 inches tall (Inch? What’s an inch?).
  • Pumpkin seeds: One pumpkin yields hundreds of seeds. And dried out pumpkin seeds become the perfect toy or manipulative. They can be counting tools, game pieces, dramatic play toys, crafting tools, sensory bin fillers. The list goes on.

I sprinkled some of my favorite book titles involving pumpkins (careful not to confuse with Halloween!) because, you know, my love of books. Thematic books are always a favorite in our household. And I try my hardest to sprinkle in fall books and pumpkin books this time of year, not just purely Halloween books.

Ultimately I think pumpkins are extremely underrated. So. many. ways. to. use. If you’re a fellow pumpkin lover then I want to hear your ideas too! What other fun and creative ways can I use my pumpkins? Because let’s be real, I purchase way too many every year anyway!

It’s Rhyme Time

Ever wonder why every baby and toddler song under the sun rhymes? Or why there is a whole genre of music called nursery rhymes? It’s not JUST because they are catchy and fun (or annoying…). Believe it or not, hearing and making rhymes is part of a set of foundational language skills that form the building blocks for conventional reading later in life (google phonological awareness for more info).

Kids typically begin to understand and experiment with rhyming around age 3 or 4. And once they can rhyme, it opens the door for experimenting with words and language in other ways, including manipulating sounds and words. Here’s how you can ensure your kid is loving all the rhymes in life just as much as you do:

  • PICTURES, not words. Rhyming is an aural skill, especially at first. Talk rhymes all you want. DON’T write rhymes…actually write rhymes all you want if that’s your jam…just not for your toddler to see. Writing words or even writing words under pictures are one of the biggest mistakes I see adults make when teaching kids to rhyme. Letters and words strung together don’t have meaning to toddlers, and you don’t want to confuse them. Remember, rhyming is an aural skill.
  • Sing. Sing all the darn nursery rhymes in the book. Make up your own songs and nursery rhymes and sing them. Sing them until you and your kid know every darn word. Sing your favorite pop culture songs together, especially ones that rhyme. The more aural exposure, the better.
  • Use “sounds like” instead of “rhymes with” when teaching rhyme. Say, “Cat sounds like bat!”. Don’t say “Cat rhymes with bat!” You can say “Cat rhymes with bat!” ONCE you’ve spent lots of time and practice with “sounds like” and you’ve introduced and taught the vocabulary word ‘rhyme’.
  • Give kids the chance to hear rhymes before you ask them to produce them. Initially, it can be really hard for kids to produce a word that rhymes with cat. It’s much easier, and more appropriate to have them differentiate between words that do sound the same and words that don’t. Instead of, “Tell me a word that rhymes with cat!”, say, “Which two words sound the same? Cat, bat, truck.” Or, “Does cat sound like pup? [no] Does cat sound like bat? [yes]” Think of it this way: multiple choice is an easier question than open-response. Start with multiple choice.
  • Make sure you have plenty of books with rhyming patterns in your home libraries. Read. Read them as much as you can. Kids are engaged when something sounds interesting to them, and the rhythmic sound of books that carry a rhyme are like music to a child’s ear.
  • Play games that involve rhyme. Especially matching games. Letting kids manipulate picture cards (matching, memory, etc.) and pair together picture cards that rhyme builds in a kinesthetic piece, which, we know already, helps secure schema as they form in kids’ brains.
  • When you hear it, acknowledge it and name it. Pointing out when your kid says something that rhymes or sounds the same, and drawing attention to it, not only defines what it is in context, but it teaches them how to notice subtleties in language and words. In the education world, this is loosely referred to as cuing and/or reinforcement. We draw kids’ attention to the things we want them to notice, the things we want them to pay attention to, the things we want them to keep doing. We do this in parenting too…think: “Oh my gosh look at how well Luca is cleaning up his toys by putting them back in the bin!” [trying to get Dominic to clean up] or “Wow, Dominic, look! You ate all your carrots! That was a great, healthy choice!” [trying to teach the importance of eating healthy] or “Nice job using your words to ask for that toy” [you get it, right?].

You can thank me later for helping you see the glass half full next time you have “Did you ever see a sheep in a jeep?” or “The Ants Go Marching” stuck in your head. Instead of banging your head against the wall (been there!), find your baby and see how many verses you can come up with together. It’s silly and fun and linguistically helpful to embrace the rhyme!

Top Tips for Teaching Toddlers LETTERS!

A little while back I wrote a post about using your child’s name to introduce letters. That post was called “It’s In The Name”. Think of that as the relative starting point for your toddler’s “learning letters” journey. Think of this post as the sequel to that post. Like an “adding on”, for what to do after you begin work with your child on their name.

I’m telling you…in fact, I promise you…that learning letters is more than just memorizing symbols and regurgitating songs. Learning letters is making connections between the spoken word and the written word. As a parent, it is one of your proudest moments. Or maybe in my little teacher heart at least I’ve convinced myself to believe it is one of your proudest moments. If it’s not, flatter me and just say it is!

And GUYS. There are so many fun things you can do with your child to make learning letters FUN. Yup, I said it. To make learning letters FUN. And no, it doesn’t involve flash cards and letter drills or spelling tests and literacy worksheets.

I’m about to list my top ten tips for making learning letters fun and meaningful for your child. But remember, it’s not a one size fits all model. Kids will learn at different speeds, in different ways, and with different tools. What I suggest may not work for your child. And that’s OK! It’s not failure. I will never say I have all the answers. I simply have suggestions.

So here goes:

Start with simple exploration…grouping and sorting by features. Getting kids to notice things like letters with sticks and letters with curves or letters with little curves and letters with big curves helps to teach them the language needed to talk about letters and their features. Talking about letter features helps kids better differentiate and distinguish between letters that may be very similar (like X and Y or b and d).

Meaning makes it stick. Teach in conjunction with letter sounds (and talk about letters and the sounds they make in context when encountering them naturally and authentically in print during reading)! I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. It will take longer (and be more confusing!) for kids to learn letters if they are learning them in isolation (think old school flashcards) than if they are learning them in conjunction with the sounds they make and in the context of books they read.

Recognition then formation. Recognition usually comes before formation, but it is ok to teach them simultaneously (i.e. if you have a letter of the week, it would make sense to focus on both recognition AND formation during that week). Teaching formation is also a great opportunity for you to use the “letter language” you established through exploration (go back to the first tip if you aren’t sure what I’m talking about!). If you are using “letter language”, then try to use the same verbal path every time too. For example, to teach D, you might say “Big stick down, back to the top, big curve to the bottom”.

Uppercase before lowercase. Teach all uppercase letters first, especially for formation. Once uppercase letters are mastered (or most of them at least), move to lowercase. There are some letters whose lowercase is the same as uppercase, so some of that comes easy once uppercase are learned. And it IS appropriate for kids to be writing in all capitals first before they learn lowercase letters – that’s why you see my son’s name in all capitals on all his work.

Models. And scaffold when needed. Have letters around you, in your environment, as models for your child to look at while attempting to form his own. Whether it’s letter puzzle pieces or magnetic/foam letters or a simple handwritten letter on a sticky note by yours truly, having a model for him to refer to is extremely helpful. And when your child gets frustrated or stuck, jump in to help without doing it for them. Go back to the verbal path, or pull out the model, or hand-over-hand.

Make and build, not just write. Deep learning occurs via the process of doing. Take riding a bike for example. You could tell your child how to ride a bike. Or you could try to explain it. Or you could even show them by riding a bike yourself. But the only way they really learn to ride a bike is by doing it. This is called kinesthetic learning, and it applies to letters too. Providing tactile, sensory letter activities (rather than paper and pencil practice every time) will move your child’s learning process along (and they’ll probably enjoy it more too!). Along these same lines, practice, practice, practice…and once a letter is mastered, don’t forget to revisit from time to time for maintenance (go back to the bike analogy if you need to: if you learn to ride a bike at age 5 but never get on a bike again until age 36, chances are you will be a little bit…or alotta bit…rusty – same goes for letters).

Lastly, FUN. Make it fun. This is a rule for learning in general. But really. It’s easy to go to the bookstore and pick up a few workbooks, or to search the internet for a printable worksheet. Or invest in a deck of letter flashcards. But easy does not equal engaging. Go the extra mile to make it fun when you can, and you’ll see the payout sooner (cost benefit analysis for all my business people out there). For the record, engaging doesn’t always mean complicated either, take the sticker letters below for example. No prep needed, simple materials. Done!

I’m sure I missed some other tips, but this is enough to at least get you started! Do you have any good ideas or activities for letter recognition or formation? Send them my way…I’m sure the bruises would love some new and creative learning tasks thrown into the mix! Happy letter learning!

It’s In The Name

This post is a little tricky for me because it’s hard for me to paint the whole picture of literacy when I start talking about things in isolation. As in, I would never want someone to think activities I suggest are random and disconnected. All of my activities have context, and are done as a piece of a bigger picture. Think of the literate child as a giant puzzle. There are lots of pieces that go into that puzzle, and those pieces work together to create the masterpiece. Each individual puzzle piece doesn’t have a lot of meaning on its own, and they don’t have a lot of meaning if they aren’t put together correctly.

One of the pieces of the literate puzzle is letter recognition and formation. (I’ll do a different, more detailed post on this later and I’ll also do a separate post on language development and the foundations of reading.)

One of the ways I’ve begun work on letter recognition and formation with my own kids is through their name. In fact, I’ve done and still do a lot of informal and casual work with my toddlers around their name. Why? Well, two reasons. The first is more philosophical, the second more practical.

  1. As you begin to teach toddlers letters, you want the letters to mean something. Think about it. Toddlers are in an extremely egocentric stage of life. There is NOTHING more meaningful to a toddler than their name. And you don’t just want them memorizing symbols with no understanding of what they actually mean. As toddlers get older and pass through the stages of emergent reading, they’ll build a foundational understanding that letters (graphemes) are the symbols we use to represent sounds (phonemes) in our language, and sounds are put together to form words or chunks of words with meaning (morphemes).
  2. As a parent, god forbid my kids are ever in a situation where they’d need it, I want them to know their personal information. Start with first name (recognition and formation), then move to last name, then address, town, phone number, etc. Remember though, all of this takes months and years of work – you’re not just teaching a kid his first and last name, address, and personal information in the span of a week or two. Go slow. You want it to last.

Where To Start

Not sure where to even begin? Start with talk, start with modeling it, start with environment, start with recognition. Talk. Talk about your child’s name with him. Talk about the letters in his name, talk about the sounds the letters in his name make, especially the first one. Show his name to him, write it for him. Point out when you see his name, point out when you see the letters in his name…around the house, in the car, at the grocery store, anywhere! Noticing print in the environment is fun and peeks curiosity, and also helps kids begin to understand that letters and words have meaning. Once you make this type of talk more of a habit, you’ll notice it just kind of embeds itself into your daily conversations and play, making it a naturally occurring part of your child’s life. And as your talking about it, casually help your child begin to recognize it.

“Oh my gosh, I found your name on your art project! Let’s look. Do you see any place with letters? What letter do you notice? L? I notice L too and I know Luca starts with L. Yup, you found it, that’s your name! Now let’s read your name. Oh my gosh you can read! Look at that, you just read your name. Do you know any of the other letters in your name?”

The best part of name recognition activities is kids don’t have to know the other letters in the alphabet yet. Here are some examples of some more formal (but not very fancy!) name recognition activities.

Before you write it, build it.

Once you’ve noticed your child more successfully finding and recognizing both the individual letters in his name and his name as a whole, you might start building the bridge between recognition and formation. Before you jump to formation, consider the middle ground. Provide lots of opportunities for your child to build his name before he’s forming it independently. There are so many good toys and tools out there that allow for this type of work. But you don’t need anything fancy either. Most of the time either I make the materials we use for name building or the kids help me make the materials. We’ve used everything from painted rocks to popsicle sticks to cut up squares of paper to foam or magnetic letters. I’ve been dying to get my hands on some letter beads lately too! (And these are all the same things you might use for word building later on down the road.)

A couple things to keep in mind when helping your child navigate the building phase: At first, provide a model. Have your child’s name written and displayed in a place where they can see it while they work their way through building it, matching and checking each letter as they go. As they get better and better, you can remove the model slowly so they are building it on their own. Also consider only giving them the letters from their name at first (i.e. if I want Luca to build his name, I’m only going to give him an L, U, C, and A first – I’m not going to mix in any other letters of the alphabet yet). Each time they build their name, have them tell and touch each letter in order, and then run their finger under the entire word while saying it. (L, U, C, A, Luca.) “Tell and touch” and “Run your finger under it and say it” become good strategies down the road for reading other words too, not just one’s name.

One At A Time

When you’re ready to move from building to forming, aka writing, go slow. Introduce one letter at a time, beginning with the first letter and going in order. Provide lots of different opportunities for your child to practice that same letter again and again over multiple days and even multiple weeks. Scaffold for your child if needed. Scaffold means to provide your kid with a just-right amount of help (not too much so it’s too easy, and not too little so it’s too frustrating) for them to be able to start connecting the dots on their own. Examples of scaffolds for letter formation include providing a model for them to refer to, doing hand-over-hand letter writing, tracing, giving start dots, and using the same verbal path every time when describing how to write the letter (the verbal path for L might be “big stick down and little stick across”). Make the opportunities as kinesthetic as possible – don’t just use pen and paper every time. Use chalk, paint, play doh. Write with your finger in sand, in play doh, in shaving cream, in dirt. Write with pencils, write with crayons, write with markers, write with sticks. Be creative. It doesn’t get boring if you’re changing it up constantly, and the research behind kinesthetic writing is SOLID.

Maintenance

It’s so important to not just “one and done” it. When he’s mastered a letter or he’s mastered his name, you’ll want to revisit it often. Like the saying goes, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.” [Side note…is that how the saying goes? I’m not sure I got that right and if I didn’t, well it’s my saying now.] And also don’t be surprised if, as you begin to introduce other letters, you see regression. (N?! That doesn’t look like an N and you were just doing N’s perfectly last week!!!!) That’s ok! Think of how many things that little brain is trying to keep track of. As you add new things, other things get squeezed and moved around. Everything needs ongoing practice to not get rusty or smushed out! Lots of ways you might do maintenance activities, from quick rainbow writes all the way to fun crafts and art projects involving your child’s name.

Accountability

Once you’ve considered a certain letter or word (in this case, your child’s name) mastered, you now should hold them accountable for reading and writing it regularly. In a sense, accountability is just another strategy for maintenance. And remember, you only ever hold a kid accountable for something you KNOW he knows and can do easily. Right now, I hold my 4 year old accountable for his first name because he knows it and has mastered it, even if each letter isn’t formed perfectly every time. I don’t hold him accountable for his last name yet because he hasn’t mastered it. He has mastered the first letter, but still sometimes mixes up other letters and has trouble remembering proper formation of all the letters. So if he has to write his full name, I hold him accountable for writing his first name, then I jump in and write his last name for him. We’re at the point now where I’m beginning to hold him accountable for the first letter of his last name, then I fill in the rest from there.

Ultimately, you should be able to see how a lot of these suggestions go for any letter learning. You might see some of these things show up again in future posts. If there’s one thing you remember, it’s that we start with names because names have meaning. If you’ve ever taken a biology class or a cognitive psych class, you may remember Bartlett’s famous experiment. Anyone? Bueller? Anyone? Well, long story short, Bartlett helped us (or maybe just me) understand “schema”. Schema are a set of preconceived ideas that your brain uses to perceive and interpret new information. While schema are better known in terms of how one views the world, they apply to learning too. Your toddler is literally being pummeled by a million bits of new information on a daily basis. How your toddler’s brain decides what sticks and enters his schema and what bounces back (to be absorbed hopefully on another day) is based on what has meaning to him. How do we begin to make letters stick? Start with a name because NAMES HAVE MEANING!

In case you’re ‘masking’ about it…

School’s around the corner. As in teachers go back next week, and kids the following week. EEK! Our district is currently following a hybrid model, like many others around us. That means teachers go back in person full time, while cohorts of students cycle in and out of the building in a weekly rotation: one week in, one week out. Everything back-to-school is so politicized and sensationalized right now that the way I’ve kept my family grounded and myself rational is by preparing logically. One of the many topics up for debate has been masks. I won’t (and this blog never will – it’s not the point) get into the politics surrounding our communities, but I will share how I’ve been finding the fun as best I can in all the chaos.

When I realized masks were here to stay, I made a decision to embrace them regardless of how uncomfortable, scrutinized, and debated they are. Who knew masks would be fall’s hottest accessory? We’ve had a whole summer…and even some of spring…to get used to them, and I think we’re ready for it. Want to get your family ready for it too? These 5 tips and tricks just might help!

  1. Build a collection. Buy or make a lot! If you’re working in an environment that requires non-medical grade masks all day long, every day of the week, you quickly realize one or two masks hanging from your rearview mirror just isn’t gona cut it. So I invested. Planned for two masks a day, five days a week, knowing each mask would have to be properly laundered before wearing again. That’s 10 masks a week if you don’t want to be doing mask laundry every day! For me, I’ve hit up Old Navy and Kitsch, and I’ve been lucky to have my Aunt Cathy who’s been mass producing masks for our family personally. For the boys, I invested in Crayola’s SchoolMaskPack too and I love them. They even came with a mask laundry bag so you don’t lose them like socks in the wash!
  2. Have fun with it. My necklace thingy became my mask thingy and I’ve had fun making sure I have enough of a selection of masks to match whatever outfit I might choose. And Aunty Cathy even made Tessa and I a matching mask and bow set! The bruises’ have fun prints and patterns and they get to pick the mask they want to wear each time they need one. Different styles and types help too, and lately I’ve even found that some of mine are better for really hot days than others based on how thick they are.
  3. Normalize it. Even if you disagree with masks, save those conversations or hot-headed remarks for adult time. If kids hear you speaking negatively or fearfully or anxiously of masks, they will internalize those same feelings. Point out other people wearing masks, and look for others you like. (“Mommy I want a dino mask!!!”) If it’s normal to you, it’s normal to them, and really they won’t think anything of it.
  4. Practice it. Build a mask tolerance. On our very first outing once lockdown was lifted back in the spring, we ventured down the road to the garden store on Mother’s Day weekend. It was a 15 minute trip, if that. Just enough time to practice mask wearing and see how the kids would tolerate it, and they totally surprised me! Since then, our kids wear them any time we are out in public. We’ll take them off if we are far enough away from people (we’ve only ventured to outside places – my kids still haven’t been back inside any stores or inside any restaurants), but as soon as we’re close to people it’s MASK TIME! (Like MAIL TIME…Blues Clues anyone?) Also super important to have them practice putting them on and taking them off – if you do it for them they won’t know how to do it once they’re at school on their own.
  5. Survive it. Remember, this is temporary, even though it feels like it’s already been forever. Temper the storm. We will go back to mask free days. And sooner rather than later if we all do our part!

Building Math Muscles

Tara, this one’s for you!

First of all, I kind of feel like I’m a big cheater with this post. Cheating on my books and my literacy passion. Cheating on my soulmate. I guess that means I’m a pretty faithful and loyal woman, right? Nonetheless, I’m gona cheat, and it’s gona be ok.

I’d also be a fraud if I only ever talked about books and reading and writing on the “books” section of this blog because my roots with math go deep. Way deep.

When I was a little girl, math was HARD. I was the little girl who absolutely loved school – woke up on weekends disappointed it wasn’t a school day, played school with my fisher price chalkboard and stuffed animals (I even stole my first grade teacher’s chalk holder – I guess that makes me a thief, so yeah, there’s that.). But every day, when it was time for math, my heart sank and my stomach did somersaults.

I fell victim to the whole ‘women in math and science’ conundrum. Elementary school turned into middle school and high school, and by high school I was just trying to get through algebra and physics memorizing every formula. I still did well because formulas were rote and as long as I memorized I did ok enough to at least pass. I was never stellar, and despite AP and honors courses in humanities, I was much slower with math. And any time I had a novel problem that required me to think about what was needed to solve the problem rather than just apply a formula I had memorized, I failed. Epically. I cried and I stayed after and I doubted myself and I gave up. I HATED math; I’d never be a math person.

Looking back, I was so concerned with doing well in school that my strategy for memorizing only got me so far. I (nor my teachers) never took the time to actually help me understand what it meant. I didn’t have the number sense to make sense of numbers! I’m still the type that will pull out my cell phone calculator to figure out tips at restaurants or use my fingers for simple addition or subtraction.

Luckily I married a math guy so I don’t think my kids will have it too bad. Needless to say, I swore this off for my own kids. I wouldn’t let them fall victim to my own shortcomings, especially Tessa. I’m a mom on a mission with this one.

So we do math. We do math a lot. Not like “Hey it’s math time get your whiteboards ready!” But lots and lots of conversations and games and play based activities involving math. By golly these kids will have number sense if I kill myself trying. (And funny enough these activities have all helped me build my OWN number sense at 32 years of age..shh don’t tell anyone.)

I went back into my archives and pulled anything and everything math related with my kids that I ever documented. I organized it all into the math standards via Common Core, plus some add-ons. It’s not perfect…I’m much less confident in my math brain than I am in my literacy brain! (And I also know that making mistakes – mommys included – is ok, so I’m not afraid to be imperfect.) Hopefully I get your math brain going, and give you some ideas for what you might want to try with your own littles.

Counting and Cardinality

Operations and Algebraic Thinking

Measurement and Data

Geometry

Math Talk and Math Language

(Honestly, ALL of what I do includes math talk and math language – I could have put every single photo in this gallery.)

Patterns

A couple odd notes because it’s Friday night and I can’t really organize my brain…

I try my best to incorporate executive functioning and fine motor practice into many things we do. Executive functioning is a set of mental skills that refers to one’s ability to organize, be flexible, plan, recall, and maintain self control. As adults, we use executive functioning skills subconsciously as we manage, plan, and monitor the many tasks that we must accomplish each day. It doesn’t come as naturally to kids – they need to be provided with experiences that help them struggle (in a good way!) through challenging tasks with the appropriate help and encouragement from you along the way.

Similarly, I think in today’s day and age we often take fine motor skills for granted. Fine motor skills are the coordination between smaller muscles. Think pincer grasp, cutting with scissors, threading beads, writing, buttoning, zippering (on the contrary think of gross motor skills like walking, running, throwing…). Therefore, I try and build these into as many activities as I can as well, especially and most importantly for the 2 year old.

Lastly, most (if not all) of what I do with the 4 year old is adaptable in some way to the 2 year old. That way I’m not planning double the activities, and they can use/benefit from the same materials. I tried to include the 2 year old in as many of the photos above so you can see how I tweaked activities slightly to match his developmental level. If anything, I ALWAYS let him participate even if it’s just free play with the same materials his brother is using. The brothers are each other’s biggest motivators, so I play on that as much as I can!

If anything, I hope this can be a good resource for you to come back to when you’re in need of something to do. Bookmark this page now so you don’t have to come digging later!

Taking a Toddler Through the Stages of Writing

So writing. Yeah. Probably the most hated subject by kids in elementary school. For lots of reasons – it’s hard! It takes lots of executive functioning to transform an idea into a plan into a draft into a revised draft into a published version. Not to mention the mechanical side of it – the physical act of handwriting (or typing if your kiddo is older!). It takes a lot of effort and a lot of patience.

But I LOVE writing (duh, blog!), and I LOVE to teach it. And I absolutely love to teach it to the kids who struggle with it the most.

And writing is for all ages…looks more like language development and storytelling for babies and morphs into pictures and drawings for toddlers and finally transforms into conventional writing as kids move up the grades in elementary school. And it has such a reciprocal relationship to reading, that when you see a reader fall in love with writing or a writer fall in love with reading, your little teacher heart just melts.

I’m so happy that my own kiddos have taken to drawing and writing so much. My 4 year old is my little artist, and my 2 year wants to do everything he does. So it works. We do “drawing lessons” most days, and we’ve done quite a few full on books, whenever the 4 year old asks to!

This is my first foray into vlogging/visual blogging, so enjoy watching the stages of writing through the mind of a toddler!

No age is too young to start. His little brother is his shadow, so of course I incorporate him into our activities too. And since big brother is doing it, he usually eats it right up!

Like I said, there are so many other ways to encourage writing in young kids too – you don’t have to co-write big long books all the time. We do interactive drawing and writing all the time, and sometimes even directed writing too. Here’s an example!

And lastly, no need to just stick with fiction. Can do nonfiction too! Here’s an example!

(Still working on left to right directionality with that one!)

HAPPY WRITING!! 🙂

Inquiry with Toddlers

Purposeful and authentic learning is good for the soul. The mama soul AND the teacher soul AND the kid soul.

Parent-supported remote learning is hard. Really, really hard. It’s hard for me, and I’m a teacher. I can’t even imagine how hard it must be for working parents not in the field of education. Some of the best times with my bruises this past spring stemmed from learning experiences driven solely by them – their curiosities and questions (rather than the purely academic and pre-created tasks, activities, and/or worksheets). During these times, they were learning and growing and engaging in “school” without even knowing they were engaging in school. That’s the best kind of learning, and I’m here to hopefully give you enough info and background knowledge to at least get your brains wrapped around it, so you can hopefully try it out too.

First, let’s understand inquiry, in it’s true sense of the word and in relation to the educational world. Here’s dictionary.com’s definition of inquiry:

What does this tell us? A few important things. First, it stems from questioning – and how many questions does your toddler ask per day? If they are anything like mine, it’s 39084094857450 billion. And lots of times toddlers especially can get fixated on topics that they don’t quite understand, but are trying in their brains to organize and sort information to help them understand it. (Right now my 4 year old is trying to understand death/dying/dead….need some advice on this one [perhaps a future post] so help a sister out if you have any ideas!) How amazing is it that I’m telling you, instead of you trying to answer these questions and not really knowing what to say, there’s a way you can turn it around on them and let them discover it themselves? Second, it requires investigation. It’s not just straight to google. Kids learn to answer their questions by doing – and ‘doing’ in all sorts of ways. Reading, writing, researching, experimenting, building, revising, reflecting.

Now, simply put, here’s the inquiry method as a teaching philosophy:

Kids go through a series of stages in order to investigate and answer their own questions. Ask and investigate are self explanatory. The creating stage revolves around finding some way to share work publicly. The best questions to investigate are purposeful – the answer to the question helps you DO something with it. And when you DO something, you get to share it with the world. This is extremely motivating for kids of all ages, but especially toddlers. Think about how proud they are of that massive lego tower or that painted self portrait. Discuss is important because we know as educators that kids learn best when they are able to socially construct knowledge – i.e., two brains are better than one mentality. And lastly, reflect is so important, now more than ever, because it signifies to kids that just because you may have ‘finished’ you project or ‘answered’ your question, it mostly likely will lead to more questions, ideas for how you might make it better, or how you might replicate it in bigger or better ways.

Sounds great, right? Well, sounds more like something you’d see in a high school or college classroom. Wrong. We use this model in the elementary classroom too (not like traditional school – way different than what you and I remember from when we went to school). I’m going to show you a few examples of how our family has made it work for a 2 and a 4 year old, and I think you’ll begin to see it better.

Exhibit A: Our Vegetable Garden

This one launched naturally and has been a larger project that has continued over time. It was around March, and we started to see the first daffodils of the season pop up. Dominic would see it in our driveway and scream “LOOK AT THE FLOWERS!”. And Luca would follow up with “Mommy how did those get there? Where did those come from?” Because he’s 4 and he asks questions about everything. Teacher brain kicked in, and over the next several days we researched flower and vegetable gardens, decided which one we wanted to try, and got to it. This part was amazing, because it required us to read and to watch and to write (literacy!), and measure and plan and price (math!). And it’s ongoing, with daily opportunities to engage in literacy and math in order to move forward – we’ve had to ask and answer more questions along the way. Like why our first ripe strawberry mysteriously went missing overnight (animals!) and what we could do to keep them away (coffee grinds!). Or how we keep tomato plants from bending and snapping due to their own weight.

Exhibit B: Hearts for Healthcare Heroes

This one came out of left field one day, in the early days of shutdown due to the pandemic. And it was shorter – only took us one morning to complete from start to finish. We had been watching the news at night, and Luca and Dominic would pick up on a lot of it. So we ended up having kid-appropriate conversations with them about what was going on with COVID (there’s a bad sickness spread easily by germs right now, school’s canceled and we have to stay home so other people don’t catch our germs and we don’t catch theirs!). One random day Luca asked what we could do to help people get better and feel better. A BIG question coming from a 4 year old, and I didn’t have any answers in my back pocket lined up. So we talked a lot about how there were heroes that were working really hard to help people get better and feel better while the rest of us stayed home. And he said, “Like doctors?”. Yes buddy, exactly. And nurses, and hospital workers, and lots of other people too. You should have seen his eyes when I asked, “Do YOU want to help too?”.

“But Mommy, I’m too little to help!” No, sir, no you are not. Enjoy the progress photos below to see what I mean. 🙂

Hands down, the best part about these projects? The pure JOY that radiates from these kids’ faces when we go out every morning to see if we have any fruits or veggies ripe for picking, or that moment they turned around outside and looked at our front door full of hearts for the first time. And can you imagine the excitement they had when they then noticed hearts appearing in our neighbors’ windows?!

Epilogue

Guys, I get it though. I really do. These moments described above are amazing. But also remember they aren’t every day. There are plenty of days where we did discrete academic activities or tasks, and days where I didn’t know what to do at all. And days where we actually did do NOTHING AT ALL. I did find some resources that helped me come up with some fun science and engineering investigations that I thought would be interesting and engaging for the kids, so of course I’m sharing them below. Click on the photo to be taken right to Amazon to fill your cart. Happy shopping!

For the Love of Reading

If you’ve read my introduction you know I’m a K-4 literacy specialist by trade. I love all things books, but one of my favorite things in the world is seeing little kids get lost in a book, jump up and down on library day, or laugh out loud and follow along as you read to them. Reading is magic, at least to me (and many others I think!), because it’s both therapeutic and informative, it’s both entertaining and educational (for life…not just when you’re little).

One of the single most important things when it comes to developing literacy skills in young children is encouraging and helping kiddos develop a love of reading. And this post will PREACH that. I mean legit PREACH it, because I’m about to offer 20 tips for encouraging the love of reading in your own kids. And if you even do some of these 20 things, you’ll be well on your way to creating an authentic reading environment for your kids to grow up in. And that environment is what will mold them and shape them into literate adults.

I’m not going to go into detail on all 20 things, because, well, you can read. but I will elaborate on a few that I believe are some of the most important.

  1. Reading aloud to your kids as much as possible and surrounding them with books is single-handedly the most important thing you can do. Not only will this help them develop a love of reading, but it will result in leaps and bounds in terms of language development. Not to mention it will establish sacred family time detached from screens and technology. And it’s NEVER too young to start!
  2. Don’t force it. This is especially hard for me with the boys. Because I want so badly for them to occupy their days pouring through books, transporting themselves to make-believe land or learning new facts to answer their wonderings. But the more you force it, the more you’ll create a combative culture around reading. And once you have a combative culture around reading, that can be one of the most challenging things to break. It’s also one of the things that can impede them from making normal progress in learning to read conventionally in school. Reading engagement is key.
  3. Choice. Kids need the freedom to choose what they want to read so they can wonder and explore and learn on their own time. But giving them choices also means you have a responsibility of showing them what all the choices can be. Expose them to different genres, different authors. Nobody wants to be pigeonholed, but sometimes it’s easy to get pigeonholed if you don’t know what else is out there.
  4. And it’s NEVER too young to start. I’ll say it again. It’s never too young to start! I know this isn’t in the top 20, but just a reminder that there’s lots of research that suggests that even babies in the womb benefit from hearing mom or dad read to them. Starting early (a) helps you create a habit and (b) let’s a baby experience allllll the sensory aspects of reading, like touching and feeling and hearing and seeing (your facial expressions as you read).

Here’s what my kids are currently reading. Bruises on the left, when I asked them to pick their favorites from our current display in the playroom. Bow on the right – her current nightstand pile – the ones we read to her at bedtime.

I’m going to press pause for a second and give you some real honesty, because I can preach all I want but you also need to know reality. I did everything right with the bruises. We started reading to them straight out of the womb. And as babies and even in the early stages of toddlers, they ate it up. Loved reading. I would catch them knee deep in book baskets that I keep scattered around the house, all on their own.

As both boys have gotten older, they are starting to take more after their dad than me when it comes to reading. My husband’s facetious claim to fame is that he made it through high school with Spark Notes. “I’ve never finished a book in my life,” he brags. (Really something to brag about, huh?) Nowadays, they’d rather wrestle or run or play with PlayMobil over reading a book, and I’m lucky if they wander over to the book shelves and baskets on their own once a day. Now, who knows. It could be just a phase and they’ll come around again – I’m still doing all of the things I’m preaching in the most authentic way possible (without putting pressure on them). Or maybe they won’t, and that’s ok. Not everyone grows up to be a book lover. My husband’s doing just fine personally and professionally, even if he is a self-proclaimed anti-reader. I’ll never tell him this for the sake of his ego (albeit facetious), but he actually IS a reader. He just doesn’t realize he’s a reader – it’s just that he doesn’t read traditional things like books or magazines. But you can find him on his phone or iPad for hours, reading blogs or sports stories, or googling biographical information on Lin Manuel Miranda after watching Hamilton.