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education

How to Foster a Relationship With Your Child’s Teacher

Ever wonder how to get your child’s teacher to communicate more frequently? It all starts with laying the groundwork for a positive relationship.

If it ever seems like your child’s teacher does not contact you enough think about this:

Teacher’s of elementary have 20-30 per class; if all families are “conventional” (2 married parents) each family is a 3 person unit for the teacher. If a family is “non-conventional” the family unit could be made up of 5. The total number of people, per  20 pupil class, the teacher may need to communicate with (including the child) ranges from 40 to 60. Single subject teachers in higher grades increase this ratio because these teachers are seeing well over 100 children on a daily basis bringing the numbers to a possible 400 (including the child).

Teachers typically don’t play favorites, but they’re much quicker to communicate with parents who’ve made it a point to be positive, show interest and show kindness. No one wants to listen to an irrational rant by a dissatisfied individual, and everyone wants to be praised-teachers included.

As former middle school teacher (and a child of divorce), I have 3 tips to help you get your child’s teacher to reach out:

  1. Reach out early and kindly offering your assistance and understanding. Own up to your child’s imperfections in this first communication. And ensure the teacher you are part of your child’s educational team and that you’ll listen before reacting and refrain from attacking when you don’t like something. An example of a way to make this clear is: Thank you for all you do for my son. He really likes when you do projects in class. I know he has lots of energy. I wanted to reach out and let you know that we are here to support you. I’m sure you’ve noticed that our son is full of energy; we often try to give him tasks at home to release it before doing homework, we find if he unloads the dishwasher he can sit for 20 minutes.  If you have any tips for us, please share them; we are eager to learn other ways to help our son excel and feel good about himself. And we’re here to support you; please let us know if his energy is ever a distraction to others and we’ll happily work with you. 
  2. Call a few times a year to compliment the teacher- tell the teacher you don’t expect a call back, you just wanted to share how much you liked a recent unit of study, project or assignment and you wanted him/her to know you’re there anytime and you hope he/she has a great day
  3. Let go, and allow your child to be the main line of communication.  And even allow your child to fail. It’s hard, I know, but failure leads to better learning and satisfaction from one’s own achievements. Plus, your child’s teacher will appreciate that you take a step back and let it happen; kids can only learn if we let them and too much assistance (running home for the forgotten homework, complaining if your kid was caught cheating rather than allowing for a teachable moment, or doing their homework when they struggle) is counterproductive because kids learn they’re incapable, above the rules or don’t have to try because you’ll step in rather than learn how to be learners. . Any educator will tell you that the most successful learners know how to recover from setbacks. While those who have mom and dad preventing failure struggle both emotionally and academically. True Story: My son forgot his rain coat at school; he’s in kindergarten, it’s his first week. My mom instinct was to pull over, unload both kids including my starving, screaming preschooler and head back in to get it. But I refrained, instead making it a teachable moment that I hope sticks with him, allowing him to accept consequences and serve as a reminder to be responsible for his stuff. So, rather than tiger mom it, I calmly and kindly reminded him that he’s responsible for himself and his stuff, and since he left his coat at school he’ll just have to wait until he goes next week to get his rain coat (my fingers are crossed we get no rain over the long weekend). It’s a small failure, but it bothered him enough for him to be show concern, and hopefully it’s a building block towards greater responsibility in the future (because I don’t plan to have my kids living with me forever).

Reach out, infrequently and kindly, throughout the year. You’ll be surprised how often the teacher reaches out to you with positive feedback and any concerns about your child.

-Just one mom who remembers what’s it’s like being on the other side of the classroom, Jess

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Handmade Animal Magnet Tutorial

I recently attended the wedding of my childhood neighbor (Congrats Kayla & Steve!).  I truly enjoy going to a wedding or event that has every little detail thought out and presented in a unique way and this couple did not disappoint.  The theme was whimsical woodlands meets fairytale love story.  They did an amazing job and their wedding was really a true representation of their personal style.

One of my favorite details of the wedding was the seat card holders for the guests.  Each seat card was displayed upright in between a mini animal toy figurine which was cut in half with a magnet attached on the inside of each end.  I guess my kids found these little figurines just as enjoyable as I did since I woke the following morning to a screaming match over whose new toy it was. Since I only had one to spare, the only solution was to make my weekly trip to Michael’s a little early and get the supplies needed to re-create these little woodland gems.

Here’s what you need:

  • Plastic mini animal toy figurines (I got mine at Michael’s)
  • Sharp knife
  • Fine sand paper
  • Non-toxic paint or spray paint
  • Magnets
  • Clear glue (I used gorilla glue as well as hot glue to really secure in place)

Picture 1

Step 1:

Picture 2Take the plastic animal of your choice and vertically cut the animal in half.  If you notice that the edges of your animal are a little rough after the cut, take a fine grain sand paper and sand the edges so that they are nice and smooth.

Animals with magnetsStep 2:

Connect 2 of your magnets together (its easier to work with them already connected first).  Take your gorilla glue and dab a little on one end of your magnet as well as a little on the flat side of the animal.  Hold the magnet in place on the animal until dry (30 seconds – 1 minute).  Repeat this step on the other half of your animal.

Step 3:

Start hand painting or spray painting both sides of your animal and let it dry completely before moving to the next step.

Step 4:

Animal Seat Card HoldersOnce the paint has dried on your animals, use a glue gun to seal around the edges of the magnet.  This adds some extra adhesive to make sure that your magnets stay in place.  Once the glue has dried, your magnets are ready to use.

This is a quick project that will add some whimsical fun to your home or next event.  The magnets are a unique idea for seat cards at your next dinner party, a perfect way to display photos or décor for a birthday and they also look great on the fridge (just in time for all the lovely artwork your kiddies will bring home from school).

Animal Magnet Card HoldersTry this project next time you are stuck in the house with your kids on a rainy day.  Complete steps 1 and 2 on your own and then let your kids use their creativity to paint the animals the colors of their choice.  It is a great way to educate your children on their animals or dinosaurs, they get to explore their creative minds with some crossbred species of animals and you will have some pretty cool magnets to hang all their beautiful artwork with.  Picture 8

Just one wedding guest who appreciates the little details that make a stylish wedding, Thia 

Share your kids creative animal masterpieces with us via Facebook: Amazing Matriarch, Instagram: amazingamtriarch or Twitter: @AMatriarch;  Tag us on social using#amazingmatriarch

Back to School Buying Guide: 3 Tips for Seamless Shopping

We’re well into August and let’s face it, you’re practically being hit in the face by back to school ads; in fact they started about a week after your kids got out of school if you live in the North East. As a former teacher, I loved this time of year; it signaled a new beginning, but as a parent I’ve come to find it to be among my most stressful times of the year.

I’ve been around the back to school block quite a few times and although I have not mastered the balance of enjoying this final month of freedom, I know a lot about how to make the leg work for the first day relatively seamless. If it’s your first go-round with the back to school shopping extravaganza or you could use a few tips to keep sane read on.

1. Stick to the list your teacher sends home

Seriously, buy what’s asked for and nothing more; you’re teachers know what your kids need and there’s no extra credit for extra stuff; in fact it may be prohibitive to your child’s organization as  more stuff = more mess and more mess means more chances of important items falling by the wayside.

So, put that cute package of Hello Kitty crayons back on the shelf, along with the really cool erasers for the pencils your kid does not need and move on.

2. Think practically & long term

Do not purchase expensive items covered in your kid’s favorite character. Today, my kindergarten age son loves Star Wars before that Super Heroes . Today, one of his best friend balked at taking his Ninja Turtles back pack to camp while my son insist the sports back pack that’s in perfectly good shape only be used for sports. Notice a trend, they are fickle little beings who commit to trends for short periods before moving on to the next super cool “it” thing.

Instead stay neutral, let your child choose a color, skip the flashy prints and buy a quality product with a great warranty. This way you won’t have to replace what they refuse to use because it is no longer cool come December; maybe it will even last more than one year.

And speaking of the following year… I’m a big fan of LL Bean: free shipping, fast product delivery and they offer hassle free returns if need be. Avoid the junior or x-small backpacks- nothing fits inside especially if you’ll need room for snow pants and boots.

3. Hold off on replenishing the wardrobe

Back to school is the worst time to buy clothes for your kids. You’ll find stores packed with fall attire that’s pretty much a month or more ahead of what your kids will need to wear. Wait until post Labor Day (or if you can Columbus Day) when prices fall before stocking up on cool weather wear. You’ll save and your kids will be wearing their new clothes when the weather is in line with the styles. My kids are still in summer clothes through most of September, so if you need something new and cute for the first day choose something summery that’s on sale because you can get it super cheap and they can still show off their new school clothes.

Then mix yourself a cocktail because you’ve mastered back to school shopping with 3 simple tips.

-Mastering the back to school mayhem, Jess

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A Teacher Talks High Stakes Testing

IMG_4104The American public schools, the place where every child is given free education and high stakes exams. The quality of said schools varies greatly by outside forces-home life, neighborhood dynamics, and income levels. Teachers, who have no say in who enters their classroom, what baggage they bring, or what learning styles they’ll be accommodating, are dumped on for the inability to make every kid pass an exam they’ve never seen. No matter the circumstances, every student is given the same test.

Why has American public education removed real learning from the classroom and replaced it with a focus on high stakes testing? Are kids better prepared for life now than they were 15 years ago? My journey as an educator says they’re not.

I started my career as an eighth grade English teacher in 2000 and MCAS was just beginning to sink its fangs into the classroom. I was 24; it was my second career and I was so excited to leave the world of business to teach; I planned to make a difference. I met my kids annually with homework on night 1. They moaned and groaned, but the letter they wrote me that first day was my way into their heads. I not only learned about their writing ability, but I instantly had ways to connect (if Marcus liked baseball I’d incorporate it into a lesson), I saw their strengths, they told me their perceived weaknesses. I stayed up all night pouring over these letters, commenting and grading them, all the while excited to help these kids gain the confidence and academic skills needed for high school. The mandated, high stakes tests don’t take these kids, their weaknesses, their likes or dislikes into account, they just focus on whatever facts are deemed important.

For 180 days a year, I “performed” 4-5 “shows” each day; all centered around English- reading, grammar, writing, and speaking; each customized for those kids who gave me insight into their heads from their letter on day one. I met with students, by my suggestion or of their own desire, during my 42 minute prep period; often forgoing bathroom use, lunch or any actual prepping for upcoming lessons. I met with students after school whether or not my contracted time was up. Often I used this time for academic support, other times I was just a trusted adult ear to listen to friend or family problems, discuss a great book they’ve read or give feedback to budding writers on the novels they had begun penning. This small group time built trust, and helped the kids who came to see me thrive academically. Smaller classes would make more difference in tuning out future teachers, doctors, lawyers, builders, artists, politicians, custodial engineers, than any exam.

Every night, for the nine years I spent teaching, even when I was started out and was saddled with student loans and making a mere $32,000/yr.  with a Master’s Degree, I brought home a bag filled with assessments, books to introduce, and ideas for plans to create. Assessments created by me or co-workers ; or pulled from teacher resources that paired with books we used in class were what I used- teachers are professionals trained to create curriculum after all. I tailored assignments to meet IEP (individual education plans) requirements and even for the kids without IEP’s who I saw had deficits, and I did this in stealth mode so no kids felt academically inferior. I worked late into the evenings, full days on the weekends; grading, revising, and creating materials that suited the learning styles of the learners in front of me. And I loved it!

In nine years I saw a mixed bag of society come through my door. My students came from varying family structures as well as economic and racial groups. Some wanted to learn each and every day, some had outside issues preventing them from learning that day or many of the days I saw them, some were simply apathetic and nothing I could say or do would motivate them, but they all got my best attempt to support them.

I gave my 100+ students all I could to help them become first and foremost independent thinkers and fervent learners. Second to that I hoped they’d let me guide them through the rich curriculum the school had in place; so they’d leave me ready for high school. And they did, often returning to tell me that my expectations helped them manage high school classes. In nine years, not once did they return to mention how well the MCAS prepared them for high school.

As time went on, standardized testing took up more and more valuable classroom time; the results becoming more and more important, with annual improvements in scores taking over for actual improvements in the kids independent thoughts. Preparing for my kids was replaced by analyzing test scores. Teaching became about parroting rather than connecting. I decreasingly had time to connect with kids and I increasingly dreaded the 180 school days. I also dreaded the professional development set-up for us; no longer was it about reaching students; it became about driving test scores. So, when my son was born in 2009 I took a year leave then decided my kids would be my only students; I resigned the following spring.

The more I read about high stakes testing the happier I am with my decision to walk away. In Massachusetts, MCAS is suddenly old news and PARCC is on the upswing. Adding dollars to the pockets of companies creating, selling and processing test scores. Cutting back on teaching and assuming every person is the same. Contradicting what teacher’s are trained in- differentiating learning.

In a recent Boston Globe article, Sarah McKeon, Framingham public school teacher and co-president of the Framingham Teachers Association sums up standardized testings shortfalls in this quote, ” How can we be told to differentiate learning for our students, but then give them a standardized test? Each student is unique and cannot be standardized”. I couldn’t agree more. Some kids will excel in areas others don’t, just as adults move along in varying career paths. We’re all wired differently and we all have strengths and weaknesses. I believe that we can improve our weaknesses, but we should let our strengths shine. And a standardized test, that does not account for any of that, should not be the end all be all of our educational system.

Colleges and employers agree that those leaving high school are not prepared for the real world. They have unrealistic expectations from years of scoring well on standardized tests and getting medals just for participating. Why continue the standardized test-based classroom culture that turns out adults who can’t hack it, often enlisting their parents to call professors and employers when things don’t go their way?

-Just a passionate, opinionated educator seeking better for her kids, Jess

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Full Day Kindergarten- For a Fee

Deciding between full and half day kindergarten can send any level-headed adult into a tailspin. And I’m one of those who went off the deep end.

When the thick envelope of forms required for enrolling my son into our public kindergarten arrived I got giddy. Truly giddy. He loves school and I know he’ll be the king of kindergarten.  But let’s be honest, mostly I was excited because I’d avoid the expense of preschool for two (which would clock in somewhere around $10k, for 3 hours, a few days a week).

When I looked at my “options”  I was slapped in the face by figures as outlandish as those of our optional private preschool. My first thought, how can they charge for public school? Our school system, like many others, has found the loophole (a full day option is a requirement of the No Child Left Behind Act), and offers full day kindergarten as a choice, so the system does not have to cover the full cost of the additional time. Saving them lots of money while parents are forced to shell it out.

Did I want to pay for public school to gain a few extra classroom hours that clearly are not that important in our district since they’re offering a choice and not transitioning to a full day only model like many area schools?

My head began to swirl with questions:

  • Is my frugality a bad reason to choose half day?
  • Will half day kindergarten mean no chance at going Ivy?
  • Will my son feel like he’s not as smart because he doesn’t go to school all day and some of his friends do?
  • Will he have friends he already knows in his half day class?
  • Is the transition to a full day in first grade going to be a struggle?
  • Will he be on par with full day peers the following year and for years to come?

Once I stopped downing copious amounts of wine and ranting to my husband about the injustice of the paid public school. When I stopped fantasizing about writing a bill, starting a charter school, or asking who we sue to eliminate such an income based inequity in our public education system, I began to explore the difference between the two programs.

A former teacher myself, I started with my teacher friends, all of whom assured me that if I were working full time that full day kindergarten would be ideal. But I’m not, so their thoughts were all the same: do what worked best for my son and our finances.

Then I consulted the educational expert on my son- his preschool teacher; she has taken the time to get to know, nurture and love my child. This woman is my hero; her opinion the gold standard in my eyes. When she talks, I listen because wisdom pours from her mouth.

She knows pre-k kids better than anyone I’ve ever met, and she’s honest.  A kick ass combination in a women who influences kindergarten plans. Honestly, I often think about calling her for advice on weekends.

So, when we sat down to chat about the possibility of the impending academic doom I was associating with half day preschool, I found myself calm for the first time in days.

We talked about my son, and his needs. He’s a good student, social, without any identified special needs. He could listen more and talk less; he often rushes through his work; he needs constant feedback to feel he’s doing ok; he likes hands on activities and he loves to play outside; he’s almost reading. He’s ahead of many peers.

Pacing is the prime difference between full and half day kindergarten, and he picks things up quickly, and does not require a slower pace.

What I held onto from that chat was this, he’ll be fine, no matter what choice I make.

I’m 99% sure he’ll head off to free half day kindergarten in the fall, along with many of his friends who have a parent at home. I’m 95% sure I’m ok with half day kindergarten, and 100% sure my family is happy to hold on to the more than $4k for the few additional hours he’d have in the classroom. I know he’ll thrive as long as he puts forth the effort needed to succeed.

I’ll use the extra time to let him do things he loves after school for this one last year. He’ll have time and energy for skiing, skating and swimming; he can try something new, have playdates, and just run around outside. He can be a kid and enjoy it, because let’s face it, we’re cooped up and on a clock most of our lives, why rush it if you don’t have to?

Even though I’m doing what works for my kid and my family; I still believe there’s an inequity associated with paid kindergarten. I believe public school systems should not offer extras for those who can pay, but rather only one choice that’s covered by our taxes. Strong unions are needed to push for funding of full day programs, and eliminating paid options in general education.

Although I partially pick half day out of principal, ultimately, I come to this decision as a stay at home mom/freelance writer with no need for traditional hours of childcare.

“Learn as if you were to live forever.”-Mahatma Gandhi

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