Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Lessons from home form solid learning foundation

From Saturday's Briefing:

This is the absolute best season for list-makers.
Backpacks, lunch boxes, new shoes.
Single serving chocolate milks, juice boxes, cheese sticks.
Wide-rule, 200-page, red spiral notebook with pockets.
Proof of residency, student physical, PTA directory order.
So many lists! So many potential checkmarks! (So much money!)
After a year of teaching and a summer of prepping for my second year, I have a few additions to the traditional back-to-school lists. (In no way does one year of teaching make me an expert. But it has heightened my awareness of what I can do at home for my own children.)
Background knowledge: Learning is a lot easier when you have a basic understanding to build upon. Some background knowledge comes from classroom lessons in prior months and years. Some comes from independent reading and curiosity. And parents can play a big role in building background knowledge by continually exposing their children to ideas and experiences.
Last year, when teaching key events of the American Revolution to fifth-graders, children who were often most engaged were those who already had an interest in war and those who had visited Boston or read previously about the colonies breaking from British rule.
You don’t have to travel or spend lots of money to help build your child’s background knowledge. You can read books and watch documentaries together, go on nature walks, visit museums, plant seeds and then watch vegetables grow — all while talking, asking questions and seeking answers together.
Rich vocabulary: Students are often challenged to use context clues and inference skills to understand difficult vocabulary words while reading. That’s a simpler task if the context clues are easy to understand, which is made possible by a strong vocabulary.
That means, again, that there should be lots of talking at home. Don’t shy from employing resplendent words — and defining them. Download a word-of-the-day app and challenge family members to learn along with you. If you’re reading aloud, pause at difficult words and talk about them.
Reluctance to rescue: If your child leaves his homework at home, try with all your might to let it stay at home. Don’t drive the forgotten assignment to school. Let your child live through the natural consequence of forgetting.
He may have to work a little harder during the school day or even lose some points on the assignment. But he will be more likely to remember to pack the homework next time if you refuse to rescue.
The same applies to snacks, lunches, water bottles, jackets, musical instruments and stuffed animals on stuffed-animal day.
Positive attitude: Grumpiness and optimism are equally contagious. Those mornings at home when I’m feeling frantic, no doubt my own children feel a little stressed. And then I feel awful for dampening the moods of the entire house. It’s a gloomy cycle.
Bubbly mornings, though — they’re the best. There’s little to no discord. We listen to music as we eat breakfast. We laugh on the drive to school. We each enter our classrooms with smiles to share and confidence to spare — even if we left a lunchbox on the counter at home.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

One reason I'm thankful for blogging

Last Saturday we were finishing our weeklong vacation. We drove back from Kennebunkport, Maine, to Boston, waiting for our 7:20 p.m. flight. We spent most of the day wandering the streets of downtown Boston.

Our first stop: the ducklings in the Public Garden. (The bronze statues were installed in 1987 as a tribute to Make Way for Ducklings, the classic 1941 picture book by Robert McCloskey.)

In May 2006, we spent a few days in the Boston area. Our family was complete then -- Steve, me, 4-year-old Cooper and not-yet-1 Katie. We spent some of a day wandering the streets of downtown Boston. And we visited the ducklings.

In 2006, Cooper climbed on a duck and we took a photo. And we placed Katie on a duck and took a photo. But in 2014, I couldn't remember exactly which ducks.

So, last Saturday, in the middle of the Public Garden, I pulled up our family blog and found a post about our Boston trip. I couldn't find Cooper on a duck, but I did find baby Katie on a duck. Using the photo as a guide, Katie found the same duck and sat on it again. More than eight years later.

This time without Steve. That's worth an entire post by itself. I'm weeping now, just thinking of our 2006 experience and last week's.

Sigh.

Soon I'll write about the missing Steve piece. Until then, here is tiny Katie and a little bigger Katie -- on the same duckling.

May 2006
August 2014

Before church this (very rainy) morning


Saturday, August 09, 2014

Let's bring the vacation vibe back home

Goose Rocks Beach, Kennebunkport, Maine
From today's Briefing:

We’re wrapping up the best week of the year — our summer week away.
I love everything about this week. Navigating unfamiliar roads. Discovering new-to-us restaurants. Experiencing in person what I’ve only read about before.
Most of all, I love escaping our daily routine.
In the past week we have not once run errands to the bank, pharmacy or dry cleaner. No one has been ferried to and from a music lesson. No one has practiced an instrument. No one has attended a meeting.
In the absence of busyness, I’ve been more acutely focused on our little family — not just the logistics of us but the actual us.
I’ve been reminded of Cooper’s deep well of patience and tolerance. Every day of vacation, we’ve been at the beach. And every day, he draws tiny fans who admire his ability to dig giant holes and tunnels in the sand. My six-foot 13-year-old answers question after question.
“How long have you been digging? Why is there water down there? Why is that tunnel not falling? How old are you? Where do you live? Can I help?”
He always lets them help.
I’ve seen how confident Katie has become. Some of our adventures have presented opportunities for climbing. Katie hasn’t been scared of a single tumble of rocks. She considers all the pathways then forges ahead, leaping when necessary.
She’ll eventually turn and find that I’m still standing, still staring, still not certain that I’ll cross without falling. She leaves no man or woman behind.
“Put your foot here, Momma,” she coaches. “You can do it!”
All three of us are reminded of how very little we actually need.
The cottage we’re renting is dated yet comfortable, with huge windows facing a river. It’s significantly smaller than our Frisco house, and it holds a lot less stuff.
We’ve not once felt deprived. In fact, there’s freedom in managing less of everything.
Here’s the challenge: When this blessed week is over — it’s always over too quickly — and we’re back at home, 1,900 miles from our cozy cottage, how can we better escape the busyness?
It’s an essential question, especially with two weeks left before school begins again. How do we keep connected when we’re running in different directions? What can we prune from the busyness so that we’ve got some protected downtime?
Our family calendar is already filling with dates — band orientation, curriculum night, Scouting events. We’re only weeks away from homework, guided reading and sectionals.
Already the most protected time of day is dinnertime. On school nights, we eat dinner together at home — even if that means eating at 4:45 to make a meeting on time. It’s the one guaranteed daily moment for catch-up, reflection and venting.
Can we be bold enough to say no to some expected events — and do so without guilt? Can we skip a meeting or two? Politely decline a party invitation?
It’s easy to say yes now, but in real life, we get sucked right back in. We live 51 weeks at a hectic pace, knowing that at week 52, sometime in the heat of summer, we’ll escape and reset before leaping back in.
The three of us are leaving Maine a little more relaxed, a little more freckled and a little more inclined to carve out some lazy Saturday mornings at home — no beach necessary.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.
Katie, Cooper and Tyra aboard the Pineapple

Monday, July 28, 2014

Times can be tough, but gratitude moves us forward

From Saturday's Briefing:

It’s been kind of a crummy week around here. The kind that tempts you to wallow in woe.
Schedules didn’t align exactly as I’d hoped, so my children have been gone for 13 of the past 14 days.
In the middle of that, the air conditioner stopped working — not during the blessed dip in temperatures but just after, when real summer returned.
A dear friend is in the middle of a crisis, one without an easy answer.
Grump, grump, grump.
After a middling amount of complaining, there’s not much to do but move on and seek a grateful attitude.
Last week, Cooper and Katie flew by themselves to Washington, D.C., to visit their uncle so that I could attend an education conference in San Antonio.
I’m thankful that they felt comfortable flying without an adult. That their uncle joyfully takes a week of vacation to care for them. That they were able to ride roller coasters at Hersheypark, explore Gettysburg and visit multiple museums in our nation’s capital.
We all arrived back in Frisco in time to spend a day together, and then they were off again, this time to a weeklong sleepaway camp in East Texas.
I check the camp website daily for photo updates, and from what I can spy, Cooper and Katie show no signs of homesickness. They appear independent and engaged. That’s the whole goal of parenting, right? To help grow little people into secure big people who can handle daily life on their own?
I’m thankful that they have found a camp that they enjoy and want to return to every summer. I’m thankful that they are gaining new skills and meeting new people, without the aid of a single electronic device.
My big plans for this week centered on massive, long-overdue house projects. My closet is a disaster. The playroom needs organizing. I’m behind on filing. The garage needs some serious pruning.
I woke Monday ready to attack. The house had other plans.
The thermostat at 7 a.m. showed 79 degrees. Upon further investigation, I discovered the giant air-conditioning unit behind the house wasn’t running.
The trouble — the expensive trouble — was diagnosed late Monday. The inside temperature was 85 and rising.
No amount of determination will help overcome sweltering inside conditions. My big decluttering plans were begrudgingly put on hold.
It takes some work to find gratitude when you’re hot, facing a giant bill and letting go of goals.
And yet, I’m thankful for my savings account, which allowed me to pay cash for the repair. I’m thankful that I have plenty of friends who offered cooler shelter. I’m thankful that while I was escaping my house I was able to watch two movies in a blissfully air-conditioned theater, renew my driver’s license and finally deliver the minivan to the dealership for a safety recall.
I didn’t meet my original goals, but time wasn’t wasted.
I spent some of that time on the phone with a long-distance friend who’s facing the biggest struggle of her life. I’ve listened as she debriefs, formulates steps for moving forward and somehow finds humor in despair.
I’m devastated for her. But I’m thankful that even with distance we can connect. That she’s found the strength to wake up each day. That we could talk about the value of a human: You aren’t defined by your spouse or your children or your job. Your value is independent of all others, rooted in your faith and in your character.
I needed that discussion as a gentle reminder that character includes how you react to disappointment and to plans that change. That character includes expressing gratitude all the time — especially when instinct pushes toward discontent.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Imperfect youth is a useful experience

From Saturday's Briefing:

I spent a great deal of my childhood imagining an ideal childhood.

My parents would still be married. We would still live in our North Dallas ranch-style home. Mom would stay home, with lots of time for cooking, baking, cleaning and volunteering at school. Summer would include sleep-away camp for me and fun road trips for the whole family.

My vision was influenced by sitcoms, by the novels I devoured, by disappointment in reality, by my suspicion that every other family around was more normal.

I didn’t often consider that my dream world probably didn’t exist anywhere. And I sure didn’t spend any time imagining how my actual circumstances were preparing me for adulthood and eventual parenthood.

I find myself thankful all the time for some of those nontraditional experiences. My mom, despite her personal struggles, offered valuable lessons about acceptance and creativity, friendship and responsibility.

I know that it’s OK — preferable even — to be countercultural. I don’t consult popular opinion for decisions on video games, social media, music and movies.

I try to support my children if they choose a path outside the norm. This time last year, Katie started considering a vegetarian diet. She eventually settled on pesce- tarianism — vegetar- ianism with seafood — and has been loyal to her decision since. I know that my mom would have embraced a similar choice from her own children.

My mom also taught me the value of a messy space, someplace in the house where it’s acceptable to doodle, cut, paste, paint, sculpt. It’s the reason our kitchen table is rarely clear, why there are constant projects in process around here, why I’m forever buying spools of ribbon. The mess can irritate me when I’m seeking clutter-free peace. That’s why we keep the family room as tidy as possible, as often as possible — I can escape there and avoid eye contact with glitter glue.

My mom is why I root for the underdog and why my children embrace them, too. She was often underestimated, and she reached out to folks in need, even when she didn’t have much to give. She didn’t gather friends because they were popular. She built relationships because it was the right thing to do.

This week our little family has been talking about Central American children who are risking their lives to travel to the United States. About five minutes into our conversation, Katie asked if she could make stuff to sell to raise money for those children — a legacy from my mom, no doubt.

My chaotic childhood taught me the value of responsibility — often because it wasn’t modeled or because it was forced on me and my sister. We took charge of many meals and loads of laundry because someone had to. I learned early on that no one was going to double-check my homework or keep track of when projects were due. That was my job.

My own children are learning responsibility differently, portioned out because they need to learn, not for survival. I constantly remind myself to not shield them from work but to teach them how to work — and then to let go gracefully. I’ve got a whole lot of letting go still to accomplish.

It’s tempting now to shelter my children from disappointments, to maneuver around situations, to hide the fact that folks make bad decisions or use hurtful words. I’m forever cautious about what they see, hear and experience. I want to protect them as long as possible.

And yet I want them to learn to cope with disappointments, to feel the weight of an unavoidable situation and know that they can endure and emerge stronger.


Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.