Monday, February 28, 2011

When Tutoring Math Do Not Take It Personally

I am continuing my math series for parents with this message. I have had this conversation with parents who love math and those who are math phobic. When tutoring your child in math, never take their problems or your challenge in working with them personally.

Working on math can be hard for parents who love math and those who fear it. Anyone who falls on the spectrum between those extremes may have also felt challenges in working with math with their children. Homeschooling and parents who send their kids to school may have these moments.

One issue that arises is communication. People process math differently. When working with kids it is important not just to reflect on your own processes, but to learn how the child is trying to process the material, too. This is where breakdowns often occur. What is logical for some people is not for others. What is a simple way "to see" a solution is actually more complicated for another person. This can be frustrating to the person who is attempting to help and the person getting help. This leads me back to my original advice do not take it personally. This is not a rejection of you or a reflection of your intelligence. This is about learning to communicate differently.

Even for people proficient in math, I suggest getting some math resource books to develop a common language. I like the Great Source series because they are visual and written which appeals to different styles of learners. They cover a range of learning levels to help students and parents through the various stages of math. Scholastic also publishes books that can help. Programs like Everyday Math often come with a math resource book that some schools send home. Make use of it if your school provides one and learn new ways to approach the material with your child. This is no reflection on your ability to do math. This is about learning a new way to communicate to help your child also be confident about his/her math skills.

Do not be afraid to use manipulatives. Some people express fear that Johnny will be carrying around linking cubes when he is thirty. While some programs fail to help Johnny make the connection as well as he should between traditional math and using manipulatives, using them should not hinder independence. In fact, they should help develop understanding, not provide a crutch to avoid learning math facts. When Johnny understands place value, fractions, geometry, and math concepts using manipulatives it is easier to help him make the connection to traditional written forms of recording these problems.

It is important to realize that not all manipulatives work for all kids. While some kids do well with linking cubes for addition, others do well with coins, stamps, coloring, or other methods to manipulate numbers in order to "see" how numbers function. One advantage tutors or homeschooling parents have over a teacher with twenty students is experimenting with manipulatives to find the one that works for a child. Fractions are another hurdle for children. Pattern blocks, circles split into pie sections, and squares with fraction labels are traditional manipulatives. However, parents have found lots of other methods using cooking, tools, and other methods to teach children about fractions that are not easily available at school. Finding the right "tool" to reach your child is mostly trial and error. Try your favorites, but again do not feel rejected if your child needs something other than what worked for you.

Friday, February 25, 2011

School Attendance a Parent Primer

I have seen several posts lately on school attendance crack down at schools and questions about how to handle the problem.

The first step is to understand why the crackdowns are starting. New federal and some state laws have increased the pressure on local communities to report and mandate attendance or risk losing federal and in some areas state funding for local schools. Now, this is a different issue than the one that has caused problems in homeschooling communities that some have dubbed "Dollars for Scholars." This puts pressure on parents to enroll their children in the local public schools to prevent lost funding to the district. Homeschooling parents have complained this has led to harassment and unnecessary investigations into their actions as homeschoolers. That is a different issue.

The old rule actually in some senses is responsible for the new rules. Under the old legislation the issue was getting children into the seats to qualify for federal funding and where appropriate state funding based on numbers. This has created some issues. For instance, Jane would enroll in Public School A. Public School A qualifies for funding and Jane moves out of district enrolling in Public School B. If the world works the way it is supposed to, Jane is only funded by federal and state resources at one school. If the paper work is not properly filled out a few possible scenarios can happen. Both schools receive funding for Jane. One school or both school looses out on funding depending on how badly organized the schools are when it comes to financial paperwork. Sometimes there is fraud and sadly, sometimes it is just incompetence.

Under the new guidelines, districts are forced to demonstrate that Jane is attending school in order to qualify for funding. If Jane is not in school, they are required to demonstrate a plan of action to show they are trying to bring Jane back to school or they will not be funded for Jane's attendance at school any longer.

How does this trickle down to parents who are asking questions on message boards? These laws were designed to address two issues fraud and truancy. Most parents asking these questions are not engaged in helping school districts commit fraud and their children are not guilty of truancy. The problem is that these laws were designed more as criminal law than civil law. They are focused on crime and punishment, not trying to negotiate contract and payment. As a result, we have many parents stuck in a conflict between school and government.

The first step is to read and understand your local school policy. If this is not given to you by the school, get a copy of it. Check with the school board to make sure that the school's policy complies with the district's policy. Schools have been known to make up their own rules as they go along. It does not make them legal when it comes to attendance.

I would suggest doing this before you have an issue with the school. It is can be dull reading, but this information is important to understand. While your child is healthy now, issues can come up and it that is not the time you want to be researching the attendance policy.

Keep a folder or binder for each child. Some people think this is over kill, but it can make your life easier. Keep school policies, teacher requirements, copies of relevant notes, e-mails, and papers related to each child's school issues in this folder. I would not suggest you use this as your child's portfolio of school papers you want to keep, etc. If you have school papers you want to keep for a meeting or referral, this would be a good place to store them. However, try not to let this become too cluttered.

If your child has health related issues start keeping a calendar of dates missed and copies of notes sent. Do the same for any other attendance related issues. There are many computer calendars you can download and print to help keep track of the dates. Schools are not prepared for organized parents and documentation can be the difference between winning and losing one of these battles.

My advice to parents is to start a conversation with the expectation that a mistake has been made. There is nothing to be gained by starting a war. However, be educated about your rights as a parent. If you are called about an attendance issue, have the documentation ready and know the school policies.

Know the chain of command at your school. It varies from district to district and state to state. Here I always suggest you start by talking with the child's teacher. However, in matters of attendance, they are not always the record keepers that matter. If a mistake has occurred, it may be at the administrative level. Keep that in mind when talking with the teacher and find out what the school thinks is wrong. The next level up here is the principal. From a parent would request a meeting with the superintendent, and then appeal to the school board.

As parents, realize that attendance systems have changed. While many of us hail technology as a great time saver, it is only as accurate as the people entering the information. While great time and care used to be taken doing attendance by hand and more respect given to a parent's word that a mistake had been made regarding attendance, parents are being asked to fight against the word of a computer. Our culture has become dependent on believing their infallibility. While we would have believed a busy secretary might have marked Mark Jones instead of Mary Jones absent, we find it incomprehensible that while doing data entry a teacher did not enter Mark Jones instead of Mary Jones absent. Somehow, if the computer states the record as accurate, we fail to acknowledge the human error is still possible.

This is why documentation is so important.

Another issue to consider however are laws that continue to be passed that punish the innocent in an effort to control fraud and force parents to address the issue of truancy. Do you support being punished for schools that are not accurately reporting attendance in order to get federal or state funding? Do you think that the federal government getting involved in truancy is the right approach? If not it is time to contact your local, state, and federal officials and tell them about your experiences. While local officials can handle this issue with more respect for parents, these laws are going to get more restrictive not less. With the calls for merit pay for teachers, expect teachers unions to demand more emphasis on attendance, too. Logic dictates that if your pay is based on children showing up at school, you are going to want some control over those children's attendance. This will get worse as we put more control over our children in the hands of the government.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Beyond the Prairie The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder

I finally had time to sit down and watch Beyond Prairie: True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder before it is due back to the library. A week flies by fast and I did not want to renew it.

The reviews of this had left me with questions about how I would enjoy it. Some hated Disney's The Little House on the Prairie because it dared to contradict Michael Landon's Little House on the Prairie: The Complete Television Series. Never having been a fan of Landon's series I went into watching the Disney version of Laura's early life with an open mind and it inspired me to research and read more about her life.

I was hoping that this second movie would be equally as good. Sadly, while I disagree with many of the reviews I read, this was not equal to the first movie. Many of the reviews took issue with the color of Meredith Monroe's hair because she is blond and Laura was a brunette. They also were upset that Barbara Reams, a red head, played Mary instead of a blond actress. While many claimed to be Ingalls’ scholars, what confirmed ignorance of the subject to me was many complaints about the failure to include Nellie Olsen in the story. While the TV series kept the Olsen and the Ingalls families in Walnut Grove together, those who actually have studied Laura's life know that the two separated when Laura's family moved to DeSmet. Nellie was never a part of Laura's adult life.

I saw a few problems with this movie. First, it falls far short of being the true story of Lara Ingalls Wilder. The movie adds details and episodes that are not included in Laura's books or in any biographical information commonly known about Laura and Almanzo. The second fault is the timeline. The book starts during The Long Winter (Little House). I was interested in seeing this done as a movie. Unfortunately, this is where the problems started. All movie writers have to select scenes from the material they have available to write their screenplay. What never made sense to me is what was selected and what was left out. Why did the writers feel a need to supplement, when so much wonderful material was left on the cutting floor because there was simply not enough time in a mini-series to include all of her adult life?

I thought the writers did a great job in capturing Pa Ingalls and providing Richard Thomas with material to bring Charles Ingalls to life for the first time. While many love Michael Landon's version he is no reflection of the Charles Ingalls of Laura's books or any biographical information that exists about the man. Unlike many of the reviewers, I also liked Lindsay Crouse as Caroline Ingalls. Again, many look to the Little House TV series, but if you read the books, you realize Ma was not a wallflower. She did have an influence on her husband. By the time, they had settled in DeSmet she and Pa did discuss his desire to move even though he had promised her they would never move again. After Laura married, with a blind adult daughter and two young daughters to consider Carline's concern is reasonable and even expected. Whether the scene would have happened as demonstrated in this movie is questionable. However, having the scene open to the audience did make the couple more real.

I liked Meredith Monroe as Laura. She showed an adult Laura that Melissa Gilbert never seemed to achieve. The problem I had with Laura's character is the writers felt a need to supplement her story. She and Almanzo had an interesting relationship, romance, and marriage. Yet, somehow, it was deemed not interesting enough so the writers sought to add details that did not exist and splice events together to make things happen in an order that did not seem natural. In doing so, they lost the chance to present the true story as promised.

One constant complaint I had while watching the movie is I always felt I was walking in on the end of a scene. I do not know if it was edited after filming or written that way, but there are scenes that seem to make no sense because it feels like you missed a scene. Laura goes off to teach school and Almanzo picks her up and asks her to marry him. In fact, Laura goes off the first time to teach school in Little Town on the Prairie. However, unlike the movie presents it that is not the only time Laura teaches. Almanzo does not marry her after her first teaching job. She returns to school and actually teaches again. The author creates an elaborate outdoor honeymoon for the couple and then we meet Rose. We never see them as a couple and the struggles that first year brought them. Before we know it, Laura is delivering her second child, just as we realize she is pregnant again and the story is changed to a stillbirth.

While the movie does mention Laura and Almanzo's bouts with diphtheria, no mention is made of their moves from De Smet to live first with family and then to Florida to see if the climate would help Almanzo regain his strength. Instead, the movie condenses the story, leaving out the moves. This leaves Laura and Almanzo in De Smet for the entire time. They only leave to head to Missouri where they would make their final home.

The movie was divided into two parts. The DVD I had had both on one. The second part focused on the time period after The First Four Years (Little House). With Almanzo too ill to work the homestead, Laura and Almanzo have decided to relocate. Of course, the movie ignores the fact they have already moved several times. If you read biographies of Laura, you discover Almanzo had read literature on Missouri and hoped that apple growing in Missouri would be a better situation for them. The movie implies Laura was constantly working at becoming a writer. Nothing in her biographies suggests that. In fact, Laura was working on helping Almanzo support the family. Laura helped earn the money that provided the income to buy the property in Missouri. That fact the movie ignores completely. Laura did keep a journal about their wagon trip to Missouri. Her journals were edited and published after her death.

The movie spends a great deal of time on the Wilder's hired hand and hints at a relationship between Laura and the man. We are told the sad story of the man's life and the loss of his wife and child as a means of connecting to Laura's loss of her son. There is a focus on Rose's trouble in school and an incident where she is lost in a cave and Laura and the handyman find her. During all this time Almanzo is nowhere to be found as he is struggling with continued side effects of his diphtheria exposure. This was a problem for me. Almanzo did struggle with reduced physical abilities for the remainder of his life. However, there is no indication that he disappeared from farm life completely. There is no evidence he would have left Laura to negotiate and consult with the hired help. This just kept leading me back to what the writers chose to include and all the MANY incidents they left out that could have been included in the time allowed.

I do not regret watching the movie. It was worth it to see a good portrayal of Charles Ingalls and not to see Mary married and teaching at the school for the blind. While this version played with the truth, at least some facts remained. I was glad to see they did include Laura's final trip home to see her father, mother, and Mary before they died. There are many complaints that the Ingalls family was not included more in Laura's adult life. However, travel was not inexpensive. With Almanzo's physical challenges, leaving him could not have been easy. Rose paid for Laura's expenses when she went to California to see her and Laura worried greatly about Almanzo while she was gone. Instead of making up stories about how Laura got interested in writing, it would have been wonderful to see Laura as a farm writer working from home to help pay off the mortgage on the farm. If the writers eliminated the farm hand stories, there would have been time.

I hope that someone will do film justice to the adult story of Laura Ingalls Wilder one day.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens

I had hoped I might disagree with the reviews for Alcatraz Versus The Shattered Lens. Unfortunately, I have to say I do believe this was the worst book in the series. While I felt Alcatraz Versus The Knights Of Crystallia was weaker than the first two books that were wonderful, it is a strong book when compared to this last installment.

On a positive note, there were some interesting parts to the book. I loved the latest Smedry, Aydee who has a talent for being bad at math. For children who struggle with math, the way her talent turns out to be helpful is rather amusing. The progression of the war in Mokia has some interesting turns. Alcatraz has a revelation about his parents that shakes his perception of good and evil, as he has understood it until now. This plot was included to carry over into the final book not yet been picked up for publication.

The positives do not balance the negatives. The author destroyed much of what made this series strong. Grandpa Smedry one of characters who carried the series is almost absent from the book. If this were a TV series, you would wonder if they were contract negotiation issues or the actor was sick. The absence leaves holes in the plot that end up with contrived plot tricks to cover his missing time. The author attempts to create growing adolescent tension between Bastille and Alcatraz, but instead just makes Bastille into a flat, dull, character. She has finally lost the energy, strength, and personality that made her so interesting in the first two books. While the author is trying to create a final plot twist for the last book with Alcatraz's parents, the premise is weak and not supported. Finally, while Alcatraz has been a funny storyteller up to this point his voice is lost in the last book. Many reviews have complained about the constant use of the word stupid. That was only a minor annoyance compared to the loss of his voice in the story. When reading the first three and then hearing the first one on CD the attraction has been Alcatraz's narration. There are many fantasy adventure stories on the market. What was appealing about this one was the narration.

As I came to the end of the story, I did have that momentary conspiracy theory wondering who wrote the final book. Either the author had a few bad months of writing, or he farmed this one out to someone with an outline. It lacks the style, voice, and structure of the previous books. This book has the feel of someone trying to write in the style of another author to finish a book. As I said, it was a moment, not a full-blown research project. I have no idea what happened after the author completed the second book. I can only say the quality has decreased dramatically to the point I do not recognize the style in the last book.

I hope Sanderson does get his voice back and finishes the series in the style his readers deserve. Alcatraz deserves better.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House in the Ozarks

While I enjoyed all the books I have read about Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Ozarks: A Laura Ingalls Wilder Sampler : The Rediscovered Writings was especially interesting to me as a freelance writer. This book is a collection of her published articles she wrote for a farm paper. The topics range widely. They are based mostly on her personal opinions, experiences, and advice. Previous biographies indicate she made some decent money on these articles comparable to our current pay structure for WAH writers. In some cases, she made even better rates.

Her topics are not unfamiliar to me as they sound like conversations I had with my father's mother prior to her death. Her writing style is typical of other articles I have read from the time. What has inspired me was her goal. Her focus in writing was not a main source of income. The focus of this writing was not the same as the books she became famous for writing. She wrote to create a supplementary income that would help pay off the first farm mortgage and then later notes taken on the property. This has been my goal as well. I have not found my niche in writing that will make this a primary income source. However, I am pleased to see our home mortgage decrease more each month as I can apply writing income against principal. The rest goes into emergency savings. From the biographies I have read, that was another of her goals, too, emergency savings. Farm life was never secure. In this economy, nobody can guarantee jobs are secure. Paying down debt and saving money for a rainy day is not a wasted effort. While I hope I find my niche that provides me with a full time income, I feel encouraged to know I am not in bad company with my current goals.

The library obtained Beyond Prairie: True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder for me and I checked it out Saturday. This is a movie version of Laura's adult life. I have read varying reviews. I am interested to see it for myself after having read several biographies of her life. The Disney version of her early life was mostly accurate. I am interested to see what Paramount did with her adult life.

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Friday, February 18, 2011

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

I had English teachers in high school that encouraged us to read and write our own alternate versions of classic literature. At the time skeptics felt it was a waste of time. However, the genius was the focus on themes, characters, and motivations. They wanted us not just to remember the book or play until we could forget it after taking our exams. They wanted us to make a connection to the work.

Some parodies of stories are better written than other ones. When I read the reviews for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Quirk Classic Series) I wondered where this book fell on the scale. It seemed people loved or hated the book. I decided to borrow the CD book from the library and listen to it while working on some writing projects. I started laughing during the first CD. I was incredibly disappointed when appointments delayed my listening experience.

Living with four brothers, I was always made fun of for enjoying romantic stories or movies. As I listened to this story, I could see this as being a compromise. They would get their zombies and I could have had my classic romance.

I do understand the arguments of those who were horrified that zombies have entered a classic Austen novel. Some science fiction fans failed to appreciate the quality of the zombie literature and were bored by the classic Austen literature. As someone who loved Austen and has had a long appreciation for alternate versions of stories this was an amusing story.

I have the CD version of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters on request from the library. It will be interesting to see if it is an amusing version as the first.

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder

Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend (MISSOURI BIOGRAPHY SERIES) is written in a more traditional biographical format. The other two books I read are based on Laura's writings and what can be drawn from reading them. In this book, the author still uses Laura's writings and historical documents, but puts them in a more traditional biographical style of writing.

One of the things I found helpful is the author creates a more structured timeline for Laura's life using historical documents, family letters, and other materials to trace Laura's life. He explains how and sometimes why Laura lumped events together in her books and why some items were left out, like the death of her younger brother. After I watched the biographical DVD of her life, I was confused about the timeline with her living in the Big Woods and in Indian Territory. The author explains the timeline and even some of the reasons for writing the story she wrote it.

The author also addresses the controversy of who wrote Laura's books. I really knew little of Rose Wilder when I read the books as a child. I learned that she was a well known writer long before her mother took pen to paper only as an adult. There are biographers of Rose Wilder who wish to push forth the case that Laura's books were in fact Rose's work. However, this author returns to sources. He uses letters between Laura and Rose discussing editing of the books to continue the argument that Rose and Laura did work together. Rose had more publishing experience and understood what would be published and how to edit. Her work on the books as an editor is clearly documented in Laura's letters to Rose and Rose's to Laura. One has to ask if Rose was writing the books, why would Laura need to be writing drafts for Rose to edit? The author makes a compelling case that Laura's farm style of writing is not vastly different from the story telling she does in her books. However, Rose's stories about pioneer life do not have the same flavor at all.

The author does not shy away from the challenging mother-daughter relationship. It was actually quite compelling and made Laura a more real person in my mind. There are many people in the world that can relate to a challenging mother-daughter relationship. Instead of making me think less of the woman, I found it easier to relate to her as a human being. What was interesting is that no matter how challenging the relationship they seemed compelled to keep trying. Rose continued to help her Mom with editing her work, even though as a writer she needed to focus on her own work to eat. Her parents also continued to reach out when they could. Laura and Almanzo put a note on their farm to bail Rose and her husband out and by all accounts never got the money back. While other biographers have focused on Rose as the victim/heroine in the relationship, I suspect there is a personal motive. I see neither as heroine or villain. The more I read about these two women, the more I get the impression of two strong women with very different ideals clashing.

I also did find out more about Mary. Mary did not marry, but her crafts did bring in some money to help support her parents during hard times. Laura mentions a hammock they took with them to Missouri that Mary made for them in one of her journal entries. After finishing her time at the school for the blind Mary stayed with her parents, continuing to live with her Mom after her father's death. After her Mom's death, she lived with both Grace and Carrie until she died in 1928.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Little House Traveler

After watching the biography The Little House on the Prairie
on television, I reserved some biographies at the library to read about the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I wanted to know more about the life of the woman who wrote one of my favorite series of children's books. After watching this program, I realized I had spent little time getting to know the historical woman. A Little House Traveler: Writings from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Journeys Across America was the first book I read. This book chronicled three of Laura's adult journeys. The first trip was followed using Laura's journals kept during her move from De Smet, South Dakota to Mansfield, Missouri. This journey relocated Laura, Almanzo, and Rose away from her family permanently. The second journey follows Laura's letters to Almanzo as she takes a long trip to visit Rose and cover the San Francisco Expedition for the local farm papers in 1915. This was the first I ever heard of Laura Ingalls Wilder reporter. She wrote under the pen name Mrs. A J Wilder. Some of her stories were submitted under her husband's name, according to various biographers to give the stories more credibility.

As a writing freelancer, myself this is likely one of the most interesting pieces of information I have learned about the woman. The third book I am reading about her actually is based on her farm paper articles she wrote and they are quite good.

The last trip discussed is one she and Almanzo took to revisit De Smet in 1931. This returns to Laura's journals as well as letters to Rose as a means to document the trip and their experiences while on the visit. One of the things that struck me as I read this book was how long and active a life she lived. She was born in 1867 and lived until 1957. The changes she and Almanzo saw in their life times were amazing. In 1894 Laura and Almanzo traveled by wagon from De Smet to Missouri. In 1931, Almanzo and Laura returned in a car. They had lived through one World War and both would survive the second. It never occurred to me, that they lived that late into the twentieth century.

What I really enjoyed about this book is it is based heavily on original sources. The three biographies I have read have focused on what can be proven, not on gossip, speculation, and what seems like would make good book sales. Other resources I have looked at have wanted to focus on other issues that I will discuss in my next review.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Laura Ingalls Wilder the Adult

I was a big fan of the written series of Little House books. One of my favorite Christmas presents was The Complete Little House Nine-Book Set. My friends and I read and reread the books, sharing our favorite scenes and coming to know the characters. This was before the Michael Landon's butchering of the books with Little House on the Prairie: The Complete Television Series. Yes, I said butchering. I think he could have written a pioneer show that centered on himself with a focus on morals and values without ruining the series for a generation of children. I am still amazed when I hear people upset that the books or biographies of Laura Ingalls Wilder get it "wrong" because it is not the story they remember from Landon's version. It is sad when people fail to remember television is not known for historical accuracy.

I caught the end of an ABC biography The Little House on the Prairie that detailed the time period around the first two Little House books. Unable to locate a second showing on my cable system I borrowed the DVD from the library. One issue I have discovered with borrowing both DVD's and now book CD's from the library is they vary in condition. Sadly, this one had a tough life. The scratches made it challenging to watch. However, it left me with more questions I wanted answered. I had not done much biographical research about Laura Ingalls Wilder. I knew from reading other autobiographies that people can write more about how they felt than from historical accuracy. Details and events are not always written about in a manner a biographer will take. That is why some have taken to calling Laura's books historical fiction. She has moved and manipulated events in her books to suit her writing.

For instance, the trip from the Big Woods was actually two trips, not one. The family did return after the first trip and removal from Indian Territory prior to setting out again. Laura's account compiles all the events into one book about her family's experiences in the Little House in the Big Woods.

Watching the DVD left me with more questions than answers. However, as with many things, time gets in the way and my questions were postponed. There were things I wanted to know. For instance, what happened to Mary Ingalls? Sadly, Google searches keep bringing up references to the show and the life of the actress that played her. Not the information I wanted to know. I was curious about the real Mary Ingalls. I knew she would not have had the fairy tale ending Michael Landon gave her married and teaching at the school for the blind, but there was still a story. What happened to Laura and Almanzo after The First Four Years? I knew they eventually ended up in the Ozarks. Why did they go there?

Over the next few days, I will share the biographies I read and some of what I learned.

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Monday, February 14, 2011

Alcatraz Smedry meets Percy Jackson

I found the Percy Jackson and the Olympians Hardcover Boxed Set (Percy Jackson & the Olympians) at a discount book store several years ago. Recently in my quest to find audio CD's to exercise with I borrowed The Lightning Thief: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Book 1 from the library. I am always looking for ways to distract myself from how much I dislike exercising. As I found myself getting lost in the reader's voice, I realized that listening to a good reader inspired some interesting thoughts. As I listened to the opening of a story I had previously read, I was making connections I had not made when I had just read the books.

One of the exercises I used to do when I used literature circles with my students was asking them to make connections with other books. How would the characters in this book relate to characters in other books they had read? It has been a while since I helped students create questions for literature circles. However, as the reader described Percy Jackson and his experience at school, my mind immediately made the connection to Alcatraz. I wondered how these two boys would have dealt with each other. What would a story be like if the two attended school together prior to setting off on their adventures? Would they have been friends? How would their powers have interacted? Would they have been allies or enemies? Would they have understood each other's worlds?

When I taught students, these were questions many did not have experience with answering. While they eventually got used to exploring these types of questions, in the beginning it was challenging to get students to think beyond traditional expectations. Sadly, many only are taught to read the book, answer the questions and move on to the next book. If reading a series of books by genre or author there might be some expected questions. However, most of my students had little experience thinking out of the box about literature.

It would be interesting to see what kids would say about Alcatraz and Percy. There is no right or wrong answer. There is enough supporting material to suggest they could be friends or that their issues would end up having them choose not to be united.

I will be exercising to Percy Jackson while reading Alcatraz Versus The Shattered Lens. I will have more time to think about how these two characters would have interacted. This is a great activity to try with your own children as you read to them. Choose age appropriate questions and this kind of reading comprehension practice can be started with even young readers. Children can find ways to compare and contrast their favorite characters learning valuable skills in a fun way.

Why is there a sea creature picture? Well those of you who have read Percy Jackson will know.

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Supplementing Your Child's Math Program Part 2: What Does Your Child Know

If you followed step one, you have researched what program the school district is using. You have some idea of the material that your child will be expected to master during the year.

Now I want you to work against your instincts. I do not wish you to focus on that curriculum, yet. I want you to look back and make sure the foundations are in place so these challenges will be met with success.

Please do not assume that because your child has always zoomed through every math challenge that he/she understand the process. Memorization and understanding are not the same practices. As children progress into upper elementary grades this difference starts to emerge. As they move through middle school and high school, the lack of understanding can create huge issues in math. On the other side of the coin if your child has always struggled, do not believe all is hopeless. This is a time to build foundations using different methods. However, first you need to discover what they know and what they do not know.

I always suggest starting with place value. When I work with kids who struggle with addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division one of the primary reasons is a lack of understanding of how numbers work. When working with subtraction we have called it a number of things borrowing, regrouping, and other names to describe the process. Over the years, there has been a belief that if we change the name kids will understand the process in a more meaningful way. I have long believed vocabulary has never been the issue. The methods we use to teach kids why we "borrow" or "regroup" have far more to do with their ability to understand how to do the function than any vocabulary choice.

There are many ways to evaluate what your kids know. I do not recommend drill and kill. One way to make sure your kids rebel against improving their math skills at home is frustrating and boring them. There are practical life skill ways to see what math skills your children have mastered. Can they count change? When you are playing games that require addition to keep score, can they handle column addition? Have them help you work on real life problems that require the use of math. These will help you evaluate their math skills and provide them with the chance to see we do actually use math in "real life" not just in the classroom. If they can demonstrate an age appropriate knowledge of place value, addition, and subtraction, move on to other skills. In the beginning, your goal is to make sure the foundations are solid. Many parents push ahead without checking the foundations. As anyone who builds anything knows, without a solid foundation no structure is sound. Once you have given kids proper foundations you will be able to build higher level math skills.

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Friday, February 4, 2011

Supplementing Your Child’s Math Program: Step 1 Researching the Math Program

This issue is more of a concern for those who send their children to school than homeschooling parents. However, I have heard from homeschooling parents who purchase canned programs and then question the issue of how or when to supplement the program. I decided to write a few blogs about how parents can get information and use it to help their children.

Schools and teachers can be split on the issue of how parents can help their children with math. However, when parents see their children failing they do have a responsibility to be active in helping them to learn the material. Some publishers sell the schools on the idea that they are a complete package and interference by using outside materials will only confuse the students. This contradicts a foundation of modern education. Students learn differently and we should make sure our students receive instruction that meets their educational needs.

As a parent, you should be working with the child’s teacher to find the best methods to help your child. I do not challenge that idea at all. However, many students arrive to the upper elementary grades lacking math skills with assurances from teachers that students will eventually “get it” because these programs are designed to be cumulative. If they do not achieve mastery in this unit, it will be gained in the next visitation. Again, this works for some children. I would not suggest any parent run up to the school in a panic because a child does not master a math process immediately. However, diligence is required. What did your child not master and why? This series is not going to focus on the parent/school relationship. I have written a few articles to help with those issues. These articles are going to focus strictly on parents helping children learn math at home.

One thing all parents can and should know is something about the math program the school is using. This is not a deep dark secret. Some districts are much better than other school districts are about educating parents regarding the methods used in the district. If you are not in one of those districts, I have some suggestions.

Find the title, publisher, and date published of your child’s math book. Even if they use a workbook, this information is important. The date is only relevant in that it tells you how old the text is that your district is using. When researching, this may or may not be relevant. I recently looked at a program that is virtually the same program I used a decade ago. Only the format looks updated. However, programs can change so the information you find may not apply if you have an older version of the publisher’s text.

People often forget to give me the publisher when they ask me for information. The publisher is critical. There are a couple of math series with distinct titles. However, several are generic. After all, there are only so many exciting ways to talk about a math book and publishers repeat them frequently. Also, be aware that publishers do change names. I recently researched a program with a title that sounded like a series I knew, but I had never heard of the publisher. It was the same program, under new management. The title was no help because the title has hundreds of math books published under the same name.

Google and Yahoo are your friends when searching for information. Most of these textbooks have websites. They are designed for teachers, but smart parents can also access information about the programs, material covered, and goals by grade level. Some even offer sample pages to provide you with an experience of the program. Do not expect answer sheets. Yes, I have been asked that question.

My next article will focus on what to do with this information once you have gathered it.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Snow Treasure

I have been doing lots of book reviews lately, but one of the reasons I taught was I loved children's literature and introducing great books to kids. Snow Treasurewas a book that was handed down to me by my older brother. He originally got it for $.50 from a Scholastic Book Club order. The book has been in and out of print over the years. I have bought it new when I could for presents and given used copies when that was the only option available.

When I read it the story was printed as a factual story of children in Norway helping the adults remove gold from Norway's banks to boats for shipment before the Nazi's could seize it. Later research could not confirm the student's participation. The story was then labeled historical fiction. Either way it is an interesting read for children about facing challenges in a hostile environment. Children who have read more modern realistic fiction might wonder why the author is not more explicit about the physical and emotional challenges faced by the children, but I still find that a plus about the book. Those who understand the history of the time do realize the risks the children and their families are taking. Children with less exposure to the history of the time can enjoy an adventure story.

The story takes place as the Norwegians are preparing to move their gold out of the reach of Nazi Germany during the invasion of Norway. The Nazi's clearly have arrived quicker than the Norwegians had feared and now the plans must be altered. Here is where the children are employed. Adults would clearly be noticed and potentially treated as spies or saboteurs. Children out sledding could perhaps pull off a daring feat and transport gold bars to an area where the gold can be loaded on to a ship. Adults and children find clever uses for snowmen and must find ways to keep the children out of school long enough to finish the gold transport before the Nazi's discover the purpose of all this outdoor activity. Still one of my favorite WWII adventure books for kids.