International Ask a Question Day: Tricks to Try at Home

Befittingly falling on Albert Einstein’s birthday, International Ask a Question Day is meant to encourage inquiry. As parents, you know how curious and naturally inquisitive children can be.  Asking and answering questions is the best way to quench that thirst for information. So besides the go-to, “How was school today?” how else can parents encourage children to practice questioning and answering at home? And, why is the simple practice of asking questions so important to academics?

Depending on your child’s age, he or she may have a smartphone or tablet. These technologies are sometimes seen as distractions when it comes to academics. However, the educational apps available now are greatly beneficial when it comes to asking or answering questions. Apps such as VideoNot.es and Notability allow users to interact with digital or video content while taking notes on a split screen. This is especially helpful if your child struggles with handwriting; instead, children can easily type questions or observations while working through the material. These VideoNot.es will automatically save any notes or questions into a Google doc, as well, keeping all of your child’s questions saved and organized.

Encourage dinnertime questions by discussing a new topic of interest, something that will spur conversation and curiosity. Ask questions like, “If you could travel anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go?” But, don’t just stop there—prod for more information like, “Why that location over somewhere else?” “Who would you take with you and why?” “What types of items would you need to pack?” These questions not only give your child an opportunity to share his or her personal preferences, but they also encourage a higher level of reasoning and explanation.

Another dinner table game is the well-known party game “just questions” in which everyone is only able to communicate using interrogative statements. This improv theater exercise encourages children to practice consciously phrasing and rephrasing questions. Participants must think on their toes and apply knowledge of appropriate word choice and sentence structures in order to continue the conversation.

After a bedtime story prompt your child with broad questions like, “Who is the main character in the story?” Then, elevate the level of inquiry from there. Kick that question up a notch by adding another component or more complex level of thinking. For instance, you might change the original question about the main character to, “What does the main character say or do that shows us his personality?” This practice subtly adds a layer of deeper analysis to the initial, more general question.

There is no doubt about itinquiry is a lifelong practice that spans far outside the realm of the classroom. The ability to ask questions, gather relevant information, and formulate answers is an exercise that will benefit children and teens, not only as they navigate through their schooling, but as they enter adulthood and the workforce, as well. It seems like an obvious and simple skill—especially since children are so eager to ask questions—however, elevating the exercise of asking and answering questions is something that can steadily enhance engagement and learning.  

Tips to Improve Reading at Home

The benefits of fostering a love of reading at home are seemingly endless. Not only will this hobby have an inevitable positive effect on learning and academics, but strong readers also experience other lesser known benefits.  Avid reading builds study habits and improves linguistic skills, vocabulary, comprehension, analytical thinking and writing. Reading is also beneficial for reducing stress and strengthening memory. With such a vast array of benefits, reading at home should definitely be part of the regular routine.

Turn nightly reading into an adventure by making it something that your family looks forward to. Create a “special spot” for reading, such as a fort or comfy cove in the family room. Allow your children to help with the process of constructing and decorating the reading area. Be sure to include pillows, blankets, and stuffed animals to make it extra cozy. Bring flashlights and something healthy to nibble on while the family reads together. Take turns reading aloudand don’t forget to get into character!

Keep reading time consistent. Whether you are reading nightly or weekly, be sure to maintain the routine. Reading each night or weekend can be a quick, 20minute activity. The key is to keep it enjoyable, not laborious.

Casually ask questions before, during, and after reading. This should not take the form of a spit-fire question and answer session. The book talk should seem just like that—a casual conversation in which the family discusses interesting aspects of the story.

Have a cause for celebration or a reward? Treat your children with a trip to the library or bookstore. Allow him to select any book of his choice as a means of rewarding good behavior, hard work at school, or helping out around the house. Reading as a reward is a great way to associate reading with something pleasurable or gratifying.

Read your child’s book ahead of time, prior to her starting the book. Then, mark up the story with your own comments, cartoons, or questions. As she starts the book, she’ll have your special messages to build inquiry from page to page. These little notes are also a great way to introduce children to annotating and note-taking as a close reading strategy.

Take the books on the road with tablets, iPads, or audiobooks. With the prevalence of technology, eBooks make it possible to incorporate reading wherever the family goes. These technologies can be especially handy during long road trips or flights. Have your children discuss their books with the family as they finish a chapter. You can also set reading goals for the family vacation—something such as each person trying to finish their book before returning home.  

For older kids and teens, motivate with an added incentive for finishing a novel. If your teen has finished the most recent Harry Potter novel, rent the movie for him to enjoy. Then chat about which was better—the book or the movie? Finish the whole series? Plan a Harry Potter themed family dinner, complete with butter beer and boogie-flavored jelly beans…ok, maybe not!

 

How to Broaden the Social Circle: High School

One major aspect of schooling that helps to promote a teen’s development is the socialization that school provides. In no other realm would adolescents have hours of interaction with diverse groups of peers and adults on a daily basis. Learning alongside peers also benefits the development of teens’ social skills—not only do teens learn appropriate interactions at school, but they also learn other vital skills such as compromise, collaboration, perspective-taking, empathy, etc. So, recognizing that social skills are critical to education, how can we encourage building and maintaining strong social circles at the high school level?

Encourage acceptance. This may sound simple, but building acceptance and understanding among peers, especially teenagers, can be a tricky undertaking. Have open discussions about the importance of diversity, individuality, and differences among friends. The more accepting high schoolers are, the more open they will be to befriending someone new. Not only are these conversations important for families to have with their teens, but rather they also help to teach young adults the value of acceptance and compromise—two vital qualities for college and career readiness.   

Remind your high schooler that popularity should not come at the price of making genuine friends. Again, easier said than done. However, hard lessons about friendship often revolve around the supposed need to be “in the right crowd.” The adolescent years are difficult in terms of willingness to stray from the group. However, teenagers can only benefit from making connections with others. The idea of “the more, the merrier” certainly applies here. Being friends with others does nothing to take away from core friendships. Remind your teen that it is normal to have different or varying social circles. He or she should feel comfortable having family friends, neighborhood friends, sports friends, and more. Furthermore, remind your teen that to have a good friend, one must be a good friend.

Branch out when selecting or joining new extracurricular activities. Encouraging your teenager to try new things will not only broaden his or her horizon, rather it can also broaden his or her number of friendship groups. Your adolescent may want to try developing a new skill or hobby. Perhaps he or she could participate in a new art class, dance class, swim club, or tennis camp. These opportunities allow your teen to interact with and get to know new peers—peers he or she may not get to meet otherwise.

Discuss your own memories of friendships with your teen. Talk about how some of your friendships have stood the test of time, while others may have dissipated. Explain that it is normal and somewhat likely that some friendships will be fleeting. Depending on circumstances, friends come and go; some are relationships of convenience, not true compatibility. While discussing your own experiences with friends, model what it looks like to be a truly genuine friend. Puberty, confidence, self-consciousness—all of these transitional moments can make it difficult for teens to foster strong, authentic friendships. The more your teen understands what it looks like to be a good friend, the easier he or she will be able to meet new peers and maintain strong friendships. Ask him what he looks for in a “good friend.” Explain how he can take these positive traits and apply them to himself to ensure that he is treating his peers the way that he would like to be treated. Talk about the importance of honesty and loyalty. Make sure that your teen knows how to keep someone’s trust, be a good listener, and offer support when his friend needs him.

Avoid putting too much emphasis on the term “best friend.” Often times, teens can become caught up in the terminology. It may be because of a competitive desire to be “the best friend,” or because of the “cliquish” atmosphere that occurs during the teenage years. But, either way, a friend is a friend. Remind your teen that, just like she has other friends, her own friends have other friend groups as well. This does not mean that she should feel threatened or left out.

Increasing Motivation at Home

Dinner table questions about your child’s day may occasionally allude to the idea of motivation, but how often is motivation put at the forefront of the discussion? Since motivation is not something that we can readily teach, measure, or initiate, we may focus our attention more directly on grades, athletics, etc. However, one could argue that motivation is a major key to academic and extracurricular success. While motivation is not a one-size-fits-all skill to be acquired, there are ways that parents can encourage motivation and the strategies to boost it.

So, how exactly can parents teach the concept and importance of motivation to their children? One way of introducing the conversation is to discuss the future. This may sound cliché, but many adolescents and teens are very much focused on the here and now. Prompting thoughtful consideration of the future can be a great way to open the door on the topic of motivation. Asking questions like, “What is one sport, skill, or activity that you would like to try at some point?” Or, “What can you see yourself NOT doing as a career after school?” These questions not only encourage an interesting conversation, rather they also facilitate follow up questions directly related to motivation. For instance, if your teen says that she would love to travel abroad at some point in her schooling, talk about realistic steps that she would have to take to allow that to be an option. Is there a specific program that she has to qualify for? Are there GPA guidelines? How much money would she have to save to put towards the trip? Can she qualify for any sort of scholarship to help pay for the trip? All of these questions stem from one consideration that your child has mentioned. Yet, that one topic—traveling abroad—opens the door to discuss how your child is going to achieve that opportunity.  Having any sort of end goal in mind acts as a wonderful motivator. Likewise, teens can begin to see that much of their goals are directly related to the effort or steps that they take. They have control over the process and the achievement.

Similarly, the notion that “No one is going to do it for me, so I had better make sure that I do it for myself” is also an important motivational message. Other questions to ask your adolescent could be, “What did you accomplish all on your own today? What made you strive to achieve that goal?” Discussing motivation as a means of controlling one’s own destiny is another way to begin the conversation. In a world where adolescents and teens believe that many of their decisions are made for them by parents, teachers, or other adults, this mindset and idea of autonomy allows young people to see themselves as rulers of their own future. They must realizelike we all have at some point in our livesthat they have to make a conscious choice to “show up” in their everyday activities. They have to be willing and open to hard work and growth.

Engaging in positive self-talk is another great way to build motivation. As people, we engage in self-talk continuously and subconsciously. To ensure that teens’ inner dialogue is more positive and motivating, ask your child to jot down any self-talk that he recognizes in the moment. Try this for one day and discuss the types of things that each family member said to or about themselves. Discuss where the negative talk comes in and how it can inhibit motivation and success.

Build motivation at home and empower your child to chart and achieve his or her own destiny.

How-To Stay in the Know: News for Middle Schoolers

With the prevalence of smartphones, middle schoolers have almost constant connectivity and sources of information. Today’s middle schoolers may not be 100 percent enthralled with current events; however, with the current state of affairs for national and global news, it is important that preteens are receiving accurate, appropriate information. As much as we want all kids to be properly informed, they must be careful with what they are watching and the information that they are receiving. Much like the qualms with social media, middle schoolers are equally vulnerable when it comes to today’s current events. Below are important pointers and suggestions for staying up on current events with middle school-aged students.

Be cognizant of the inevitable biases present in news media. Middles school is right around the time that students begin to learn about performing sound research, obtaining evidence, and citing sources.  Whether reading articles, watching national or local news outlets, or simply receiving social media updates and tweets, adolescents need to be aware of the fact that nearly every news story contains some thread of subjectivity or bias. Of course, people in the business of reporting the news go to great lengths to simply report—with total impartiality. However, the human component of news just inevitably does not allow for stories to remain 100 percent neutral at all times. For this reason, students should know how to identify bias in anything they watch or read involving news. Questions to ask include: What is the purpose of relaying this particular story, i.e., who will benefit from knowing or learning about this? Who might this news story be targeting? Is there a recognizable tone in the story or clip?

Know the difference between credibility and unreliability. Again, this is likely a newer concept for middle schoolers. When it comes to news stories, news media is so prevalent these days that accurate stories can easily be spun or altered and quickly posted to a pseudo-reliable news source. Fact-checking is something that middle school students can do in order to double check a source that may seem unreliable. Today’s school libraries and media centers have wonderful resources that help with providing credible sources. Whether primary or secondary sources, schools purchase multiple paid forums, anthologies, and online databases for students to conduct research or investigate specific topics.

Middle schoolers should utilize age-appropriate outlets to ensure that the news is something that they can understand and appreciate. Many issues or headlines are not only disturbing or violent, but confusing as well. Discovery Channel, Channel One, Scholastic, Time Magazine, and CNN all provide student-friendly episodes, articles, and other resources so that current events are academically accessible and appropriate for middle schoolers.

How-To Stay in the Know: News for High Schoolers

With the almost constant connectivity and media availability for today’s adolescents, high schoolers have the option to remain in the know at all times. Especially today, while major national and global news stories are constantly rolled out, students should have no issue staying informed. However, like all technology and social media, students need to be careful with what they are watching and the information that they are receiving. Below are important pointers and suggestions for staying up on current events with high school-aged students.

Be aware of the inevitable biases present in news media. Whether reading articles, watching national or local news outlets, or simply receiving social media updates and tweets, teens need to be aware of the fact that nearly every news story contains some thread of subjectivity or bias. Of course, people in the business of reporting the news go to great lengths to simply report—with total impartiality. However, the human component of news just inevitably does not allow for stories to remain 100 percent neutral at all times. For this reason, students should know how to identify bias in anything they watch or read involving news. Questions to ask include: What is the purpose of relaying this particular story, i.e., who will benefit from knowing or learning about this? Who might this news story be targeting? Is there a recognizable tone in the story or clip?

Know the difference between credibility unreliability. Hopefully, by high school, students have experienced and completed enough research assignments to identify credible sources. However, when it comes to news stories, news media is so prevalent these days that accurate stories can easily be spun or altered and quickly posted to a pseudo-reliable news source. Fact-checking is something that high school students can do in order to double check a source that may seem unreliable. Of course, Wikipedia, every high schoolers favorite resource for “research,” can be helpful, but only if students fact-check the links and sources at the bottom of the Wikipedia pages.

Teens should utilize age-appropriate outlets to ensure that the news is something that they can understand and appreciate. Many issues or headlines are not only disturbing or violent, but confusing as well. Scholastic, Time Magazine, and CNN all provide student-friendly episodes, articles, and other resources so that current events are academically accessible and appropriate for high schoolers.

How-To Stay in the Know: News for Elementary-Age Groups

For elementary students, the topic of news or current events may likely be met with confused faces or outright groans of boredom. I can certainly remember my eyes glazing over when Nightly News occupied the television in my house growing up. And today’s elementary schoolers are no different—they may not be 100 percent enthralled with current events. However, today’s technology means that current events are not only readily available, they are also available to all levels of readers and viewers. For the elementary age group, news events and stories shared with children must be age and reader-appropriate. Below are important pointers and suggestions for staying up on current events with elementary students.

Be sure to preview all news stories, articles, and broadcasts before having students participate. Thankfully, today’s technology and vast number of children’s programs ensure that current events and news articles can be easily assessed for age-appropriate content. Several educational news outlets do this work for us by categorizing material by age group and Lexile range. While it is important that students understand what they are reading, it is equally, if not more important, to be sure that the material is suitable for children. Many issues or headlines are not only disturbing or violent, but confusing as well. Discovery Channel, Channel One, Scholastic, Time Magazine, and CNN all provide student-friendly episodes, articles, and other resources so that current events are academically accessible and appropriate for elementary schoolers.

Keep the news relevant but light. Of course, we want students to be aware of some of the important events happening around them. But, at the same time, we must be sure not to expose them to anything that is too jarring or upsetting. News stories for elementary-age groups should involve topics to which students can relate. Make sure that the information they are getting connects to something in their own lives. This is a great way for students to begin to connect to the outside world, as well as recognize their place in it.

Encourage questions. Questions to ask include: What is the purpose of relaying this particular story, i.e., who will benefit from knowing or learning about this? Who might this news story be targeting? Is there a recognizable tone in the story or clip? How does this story or event affect the people around me? How do I benefit from knowing about this story or current event? Again, these questions prompt students to consider what they have just learned.

Know the difference between credibility and unreliability. Again, this is a new concept for elementary schoolers. When it comes to news stories, news media is so prevalent these days that accurate stories can easily be spun or altered and quickly posted to a pseudo-reliable news source. Fact-checking is something that elementary school students can begin to do in order to double check a source that may seem unreliable. Today’s school libraries and media centers have wonderful resources that help with providing credible sources. Whether primary or secondary sources, schools purchase multiple paid forums, anthologies, and online databases for students to conduct research or investigate specific topics.

Homework Ideas for Teachers to Try

Too often, homework assignments get a bad reputation for being tedious, repetitive, or unnecessarily lengthy. As educators, we aim to provide work that is rigorous, purposeful, and engaging. The last type of task we want to assign is an irrelevant or disconnected assignment used solely as “busy work.” Homework is meant to allow time to practice and reflect on the skills or concepts that we have been teaching in class. Of course, assignments cannot always engage every student on every level. However, a few different strategies can ensure that, as much as possible, students bring home tasks that hold their attention, assess their skills, and promote reflective practices concerning their learning styles.

Provide opportunities for student choice as often as possible

This could mean that students are given the option to choose from a list of assignments, all with the same objectives or learning goals. The idea behind this is simple: the manner in which students exhibit their learning is not what matters. Providing options that boost engagement can often enhance learning. Assignment options can range from a paragraph or collage to a PowerPoint or Adobe Spark page. With a wide range of possibilities, students are able to play to their strengths. A tech-savvy student and an artistically-inclined student can both exhibit knowledge of the content or skill, but produce different representations of their knowledge. This allows students to focus on the same learning goals and participate in the same instruction, while allowing them to differentiate the product that they create.

Permit students to opt-out of homework they have mastered

Along with student choice should be an opportunity to “opt-out” of certain assignments—for instance, a student that aces an algebra practice test may be given the option to opt out of the night’s homework involving the same concepts. This idea supports the notion that busy work not only lends itself to boredom, but also has the potential to lower motivation and determination. If a student has proven mastery of a concept, rote or redundant practice is unnecessary.

Create a weekly or monthly calendar of assignments

This not only helps teachers with their planning, it also assists students with organization and proactivity. The calendar acts as a visual or digital reminder of assignments that are coming down the pike. Be sure to include the date that the task was assigned, as well as the due date. Double check that a week’s worth of assignments is balanced and reasonable—i.e., something that students can realistically accomplish in the timeframe given. Encourage students to cross off tasks as they are completed. Also, allow students to submit work prior to the due date. This way, students that struggle with disorganization or misplacing papers can rid themselves of the assignment before it disappears.

Hold a homework session during lunch

This can be as frequent as needed, but once a week is a good start. Allowing students to have a quiet place to work is a benefit to them and you, as well. By working through an assignment with students, teachers are better able to gauge the effectiveness of their instruction. A lunch session also allows students to ask questions or voice confusion over a particular homework task.

Homework Strategies for Easy and Effective Practice at Home

Now more than ever, students are experiencing astounding amounts of work outside of school. Instead of an hour of homework per night, many students and parents are now seeing an hour of work per content area each night. Depending on grade level, this may mean as much as 5+ hours of homework on any given school night. With so much time going to homework, it is important to make sure that work time at home is as stress-free as possible. So, how can parents help to alleviate homework woes? It is as easy as 1-2-3.

Praise effort. Much of the stress affiliated with homework revolves around the ideal of homework perfection. Yes, correctness is important, and students need to be ready to exhibit mastery when it comes to major projects and assessments. However, the everyday homework assignments that come home are likely for practice—not perfection. Instead of hours of struggling to arrive at the correct answer for every question on every assignment, encourage the honest effort put forth. The importance of homework is to provide opportunities to practice and seek clarity for new concepts or skills. Students should feel allowed to make blunders or experience difficulty when completing homework so that they are prepared to ask questions, analyze errors, and reflect on their practices when they arrive back in the classroom.

So, if you find your child in tears or stressed over the presumed need to arrive at the correct answer for every homework assignment, remind him that practice involves making mistakes. Errors not only help young learners to develop grit and determination, but they also allow students to begin to understand themselves as critical thinkers.

Speak with teachers about homework issues—and encourage your child to do the same. When homework, projects, and exams seem to be weighing down the dinner table, chances are the stress is weighing on your child as well. When this happens, reach out to your child’s teacher(s) about your concerns. Send a quick email or a note to school expressing how hard your child worked on the assignment, but that is was not possible to fully complete the work. Again, effort is the key—and teachers will understand that the student truly attempted the work. Homework is meant to be a scaffold or support, one which provides students with opportunities to practice skills. But, if the assignments are too lengthy, redundant, or complicated, students are likely to shut down or break down at home—neither of which is beneficial to academic success.  

Remove distractions—all of them. Parents must set the tone for effective homework time. Allow children to choose a comfortable, quiet area to settle in and complete assignments. Make sure that their workplace is well-lit and contains everything that they will need to work in terms of supplies and work space. Remove distractions such as iPads, cell phones, television, etc. Parents can set a good example by picking up a book and reading quietly while children complete homework.

Providing short breaks between assignments or lengthy projects will help as well. Energy and focus start to lag when working for long stints of time. Encourage your child to take a short 5-10 minute break every 45 minutes or so. Eating a little snack and grabbing a bottle of water while taking a brisk walk around the block will help to rejuvenate and refocus a child who has been working steadily.

Creating a checklist adds to the gratification of completing assignments at home. Much like the to-do lists that we all create, children can also benefit from the checklist in multiple ways. A checklist ensures that children know exactly what must be completed in a given block of time. It is a studious practice—one which helps to keep youngsters organized and promotes self-advocacy. Not only that, but creating a list of assignments is a simple method of boosting intrinsic motivation—crossing off tasks as they are completed is a great way to acknowledge the hard work.

Teacher Hacks to Use at Home Part I: Behavior Management

Teaching is often more than a job or career pathit is something that we educators practice even when we are outside of the classroom.  Much of what we do in class, while content-oriented, is meant to be translated to the real world. From study skills, to organization, to behavior management, teachers have a whole repertoire of strategies that could be of major assistance at home. So parents, what can teachers teach besides their subject area? A lot!

First-year teaching has sometimes been compared to bringing a baby home for the first time. It is terrifying, overwhelming, exhausting, stressful, emotional, and exciting—basically a whirlwind of significant moments strung together. While teaching is not as dramatic as raising a newborn, it is a profession that involves constant giving. So, with regard to giving advice to parents struggling with behavior issues at home, first things first—we know your struggle. We too have had moments (probably many) when it seems as though we may never have a breakthrough with a particularly “feisty” child. But, there are certain keys to remember:

  • You are the adult. When it comes to those knock-down, drag-out tantrums or battles, remember that this is a child that you are dealing with. There is no negotiating unless you open that door. When kids push back, keep your head and say something like, “I’m sorry you are upset, but I gave you my answer. This conversation is over.” This lets them know that you are in charge and that no amount of effort on their behalf is going to change the decision you have made. Once you have made your decision, close the door on negotiating, begging, guilt-tripping, etc. Be sure to stand your ground—the second that you go back on your word, you’ve lost. Explain that no amount of disrespect or anger is going to help their cause, regardless of how much they argue, question or try to manipulate you.
  • Once you have stood your ground, you must try to remain calm and keep cool—even when the child is not. Easier said than done, I know. We teachers know all too well that emotionally engaging in an argument or tiff with a student is never beneficial. Again, you are the adult. The conversation ends when you end it; no need to fuel the fire.
  • Frame every decision so that it is in the best interest of your child. Show your child that you are not making decisions just to assert control or power. They need to understand that parenting is a decision-making role. Yes, they will have plenty of opportunities to make their own choices, but for now, they need guidance from the person who cares about their well-being above everything else. They may not show it, but they will eventually understand your sound reasoning.

Finally, gauge the emotions and recognize triggers for your child. After years in the classroom, teachers are masters at recognizing behavior patterns, trends, and triggers for different personalities and age groups. Of course, you know your child better than anyone. So, take mental note of when he or she begins to exhibit frustration. Isolate the root of the emotional response and act on that—they may be whining about homework, but the frustration may stem from a lack of confidence, knowledge, or patience.