21 September 2015

Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning Book Review

I don't know about you, but I'm one of those parents who has been reading books for every stage of my children's development. It started with The Birth Book and then The Baby Book both by Dr. William Sears and Martha Sears, R.N., and then The Successful Child: What Parents Can Do to Help Kids Turn Out Well by the same authors, and then The Five Love Languages of Children by Gary Chapman and then Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson.

From the time my children were born, I relied not only on intuition but also on books and blogs written by other parents. When my sons started school, there were no books to help me understand how to parent school aged children in public schools. I was a teacher and so was my husband. Surely, we had this covered. Not so fast. Parenting school aged children and teaching teens are two different things and when your personal views on education conflict with the current status quo, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and frustrated with the school system. Thankfully, we can turn to one another for advice and encouragement, and we can share our ideas via blogs and other social media.

Even more incredible, now we have a new book written by parents available to us. Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning by Bonnie Lathram, Carri Schneider, and Tom Vander Ark, provides tips, resources, and encouragement for parents like you and me who want to be involved in our children's learning. The book isn't only for parents--it's for anyone who wants schools to recognize children as unique individuals with individual learning needs.

The authors snagged my attention as early as the preface when they wrote about schools preparing our children for the future in a world of expanding innovations of the Digital Era. The focus on student-centered learning further pulled me in as I continued reading about how I, as a parent, can be informed, inspirational, intentional and involved in advocating for my children. As an educator, I'm an advocate for student choice in learning, and as a parent I want the same for my children.

Personally, I'd also add empowered because that's how I felt when I read this quote about valuing the uniqueness and unique smarts of each and every child.
"We must expect and require our school systems to figure out how to help each child use his/her smarts to live a happy life and achieve at the highest levels possible (p.46)."
The focus on helping our children learn at high levels and be happy runs throughout the text in both informative and inspiring segments. Various frameworks link out to other resources and stories relevant to topics such as social and emotional learning, deeper learning, and growth mindset.

"In front of our children, how we model our own ability to persevere, set goals, work through challenges and continue to try, despite failure or success, proves critical (p.46)."
Key ideas early in the book include inspirational and informative thoughts about smart parents and smart students. You'll find school spotlights from schools in California to schools in Kentucky and parent perspectives along with links to the parent toolkit, which makes up the entirety of part 2 of the book.

While I'm a huge fan of student choice in learning and intentional personalized learning, my biggest questions arose in chapter two of the book with all the talk about digital personalized learning. Don't get me wrong here, I believe in student-centered learning focused on interests and needs of students, and I think when intentionally and carefully pursued, our students have the best chance possible to succeed in school when offered choices about how they learn. The authors answered my questions about personalized learning not being a "put a student in front of a computer and walk away" approach when they wrote--
"students become actively involved in designing their own process and take responsibility for how they learn. They also have authentic choices about what they learn (p. 72)."
In fact, as described by the authors, an individualized learning plan provides students more than another task to mark off in the computer lab before they graduate from high school. It's actually a learning plan created by the students together with their parents and teachers and includes a vision statement, goals list, specific projects list, and tasks. Personalized learning is not one size fits all. It's blended and includes providing students a chance to learn at their own pace as they achieve competencies in skills and subjects.

We also learn in Smart Parents that students can learn anytime, anywhere. Using ideas from mobile learning apps, maker clubs, blogging, and mobile maker apps, parents can even take their children on the road without worrying about required "seat time." Imagine the opportunities to travel and vacation at times of the year when it's off season and less expensive and not interrupt learning for our sons and daughters!

If you want to feel empowered as a parent to create a demand for change in our schools or if you are an educator wanting to understand how to encourage parents to be involved in powerful ways, read Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning.

***Note: All opinions expressed here are mine and mine alone but I'm thankful to Getting Smart for providing me with an e-book version of the book to review***

13 September 2015

How Do You Make Time to Read a Book a Week

When I began my book a week journey a little over 18 months ago, my commitment to myself was to enjoy more time for myself doing something important to me--reading. People have asked me over and over how I find the time because they don't have time to read much at all let alone a book a week. Really, it's the same as anything else you wish to devote time to. I prioritize time for reading. Some people enjoy cooking or baking or training for a marathon or hiking or playing music or making art or gardening or _______(fill in the blank). People make time for what they find important.

Here's how I make this one important part of my life work

1) I read what I'm in the mood to read. 
Instead of joining a book club and feeling obligated to read a particular title in a given week or month, I read what I feel like reading each week. Some weeks (in fact, most weeks) I read nonfiction. I'm inspired by the lives of other people, especially the stories of women who work hard or who overcome obstacles in their lives. Sometimes, I'm in the mood for professional texts and I let myself read and count those texts as part of my book a week goal too. Other times, I'm in the mood for fiction, especially fiction that transports me to another place (because I love to travel).

2) I always have reading material with me.
Last year I surprised myself by learning to read e-books like I never had before. While I still love a great paper book, e-books are just so convenient. I have multiple e-reading apps on my iPhone which is also connected to my i-pad. Most of the time my e-reading happens on the iPad, but if I don't have it with me when I'm waiting at the school to pick up my sons from cross-country practice, then I always have my phone with me and can access whatever book I'm reading there.

3) I let myself stop reading books I'm not enjoying.
Gone are the days when I must power through just for the sake of finishing a book. There are too many great books in the world to make myself finish reading something I'm not enjoying. Granted, I always give books the benefit of the doubt and I finish the majority of books I start, but if a particular title looked better by reading the cover, the back of the book and the reviews on Goodreads than it does when I read the first few chapters, I'll let it go. Sometimes I'll return to it in another year or month when it's of more interest to me. Other times, I just move on to a new title I like better.

4) I don't watch much television.
Television isn't very important to me like it is to so many others. I will watch some T.V., but I'm not one of those people who can't wait for the next episode of a favorite show (with the exception of the time I binge watched all of House of Cards in a single month). That month I fell behind in my reading, but I caught back up once the series was over and I re-committed myself to making reading top priority in my free time.

5) I don't give myself a hard time if I do fall behind.
At times, life happens and I do fall behind. Instead of stressing out or giving up, I commit to catching up as I can. Sometimes I catch up by giving myself one entire day on the weekend to avoid household chores and social outings. Other times I catch up by staying up too late to finish books I can't put down. Most of all, I don't beat myself up over falling behind because doing so would hinder my enjoyment of reading and my personal goal of reading an average of a book a week throughout the year.

6) I find ways to be active and to keep my brain stimulated.
Walking and reading have to be two of the best activities for the mind. Mentally and physically, I'm on top of my game and am a better mom, wife, employee and person when I make time to be active. Walking and hiking are my two favorite ways to be physically active. Reading provides an outlet for reducing stress in a way similar to walking and hiking, but the actual movement is necessary to me too. Exercise and reading have at least one thing in common. Both are good for us.

As a mom who also works outside the home, I not only balance home and work life but also community involvement and time for myself. By modeling the importance of balance and taking time to do what I enjoy I show my sons the importance of finding this balance in their own lives.

What about you? What's important in your life and how do you make time for what matters to you?

07 September 2015

Using Creativity for Inspiration in the New Year

Over at National Blogging Collaborative, bloggers are encouraged to consider their "New Year's" resolution for the blog a month.

This fall marks the third year I've taught a course at the local university, and just as I did as a high school teacher, I took time over the summer to reflect on what worked and didn't work the previous time I taught the course, and I thought about how I want to improve. Naturally, I looked at course evaluations, weighed the recommendations from students, and considered what I know these young adults will face when they enter middle school classrooms as English language arts teachers.

On our first day of class last week, I asked the students to write about what English language arts means to them. What is it we teach when we teach students English language arts? While a couple of students focused on the skills they will teach (language, grammar, writing), many of the explanations also included thoughts on critical thinking, creativity, communication, and personal connections to text that create life-long readers. Our syllabus is full of ideas for what we will read, discuss, and learn. I vow to focus on what my students need.

Even as I help students learn what they need to learn, my "New Year's" resolution for the 2015-2016 academic year is to encourage more creativity in myself and my students and to help these future teachers understand the importance of creativity in teaching middle school students.

Inspired by my reading of Transforming Schools Using Project-Based Learning, Performance Assessment, and Common Core Standards by Bob Lenz, Justin Wells, and Sally Kingston and a recent phone conversation with Justin, I am resolving to make this year better and more creative than the last. We will focus on creativity and all the non creative acts required for us to be creative. We will focus on deeper learning, more authentic assessment, and engaging learning.

"...for learning to be meaningful and long lasting, it should culminate in the creation of something that never existed before."

"...creativity is what excites and engages us, forging an emotional connection to our learning that is as critical to the process as the content of learning itself."

~~quotes from the book by Lenz, Wells, and Kingston~~

What about you? Do you have plans to be creative this academic year? To encourage creativity in yourself and your students? Do share your ideas, please!