positive self-talk

This paper my nine-year-old brought home made me smile:


“Where did you get your ideas for these?” I asked.

The first was a fortune he had read in a Big Nate book, I learned. The others he came up with on his own, more or less.

Way to go, Caleb.

Isn’t this an exercise we could all use once in a while, to rehearse positive self talk?

Way to go, Mrs. Otto.

a stack of letters

This week I visited my son’s third grade classroom for a special STEM story time, complete with a demonstration of the Bernulli principle and a book give-away.

The kids each got three brand new books to take home, thanks to Aerospace Industries Association and First Book.

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Mrs. Otto pointed out, “These are really nice books, new books. Some of you are holding like 50 dollars worth of books in your hands right now.”

That day my son brought home thank you letters from all his classmates (and from him). They were precious notes, every one of them. One said the experiment was awesome. A number of the letters extended an invitation for me to come to their class again. Several of them thanked me for reading So You Want to Be an Inventor. Jace got a copy of that book, and wrote, “I also like pushing buttons and toggling with levers and switches,” in the words of author Judith St George.

Sundus wrote, “I like the Wright brothers page,” which told about the accidents they survived in their test flights, apparently maintaining a good sense of humor all the while.  Many of them told me they like STEM. “When I grow up I want to become an inventor. And invent something that will change the world in a strange way,” Sabrina wrote.

I read the whole stack of letters and then I reread them. It reminded me of how well we can get to know students by reading their writing. I miss that. I hadn’t realized just how much I miss that. I was touched by the things they chose to share in their letters. Many of them were about my son:

“I’m one of Caleb’s friends.”

“Caleb is very kind and always gets his work done.”

“Caleb is always focused on his work.”

“Caleb is a good friend. His is very kind and respectful.”

“I hope Caleb gets a lot of presents! He is a very good kid. He is also very smart.”

“Caleb is very smart and athletic. I like playing soccer with the boys, and I always go against Caleb.”

“Your son can run across the gym about 35 times and I can run 46 times. Your son does pretty good in school. I see that he is into soccer like me.”

I get very few personal letters anymore, so this stack of twenty plus was a gift. I am thankful for teachers like my son’s who are working to keep the art of letter writing alive – and to those who are reinforcing the value of saying “thank you.”


Tips to Get Your Kids Talking about School

The following is an article I wrote for my sons’ school newsletter.

One way parents demonstrate the importance of education to their children is by talking with them about school. Some children volunteer information about school readily, while others need a bit of encouragement to get them sharing. Following are some suggestions for getting the conversational ball rolling. It may only take one question, or it may take a few, but once your child gets started, hold off on additional questions for the moment and let him or her direct the conversation. You may be surprised by what you learn.

Sometimes it can be as simple as asking your children to tell you about any artwork or take-home papers that come home in their backpacks. I often ask my kids to reread Scholastic News (ignoring any protests about already having read it) and then we use that as the basis for a discussion.

Use books as conversation starters. Pick up a book about school from the public library and read it together. Even upper elementary learners benefit from being read to. Picture books are “everybody” books – don’t let your bigger kids tell you otherwise. Some good books set at school that we’ve read recently include Hannah’s Way by Linda Glaser and A Letter to My Teacher by Deborah Hopkinson.

Model talking about your day. Tell them something that happened to you today and then give your child a chance to share. By talking about your interests, challenges and joys, you are providing models of what you’d like your kids to share with you.

Ask specific, open-ended questions. Try out some of the ones below if you’re looking for new ideas:

What book did your teacher read aloud today?

Whom did you sit by at lunch?

What was the nicest thing you did for someone today?

Who made you smile today?

What is your teacher’s most important rule?

Which person in your class is your exact opposite? How or why?

Tell me something you learned about a friend today.

What did you do at recess?

How would you rate your day on a scale from one to ten? Why?

What was the hardest rule to follow today? Why?

What is one thing you hope to learn before the school year is over?

Whom do you want to make friends with but haven’t yet?

When did you feel proud of yourself today?

What challenged you today?





why you should read to your kids even when they can read for themselves

In honor of “I Love to Read” month, here’s a slightly condensed version of an article I wrote for our school newsletter. 

Most parents understand the benefits of reading to their preliterate children, but too often neglect this important pastime once their kids start reading for themselves. In The Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease asserts that reading aloud helps increase a child’s attention span and improve his listening skills.

A child’s listening level tends to be higher than her reading level, which means that you can and should be reading fifth grade books to a child in third grade, for example. By doing so, the third grader can enjoy a more complicated plot than she can read for herself, something she’s ready to hear and understand. Slightly above-level books tend to be motivating for kids – they want to see how the book ends and want to grow in their own reading skills in order to enjoy more complex material.

Reading aloud to kids is also a nonthreatening way to grapple with difficult issues, Trelease suggests. Through the story, your child can experience a certain kind of challenge – with you at his side – and there’ll be an opportunity for you to talk about it together. You can use the story you’re reading as a starting point for a conversation, asking questions such as, “Do you think the boy made the right choice?” and turn it into a coaching session, which will probably stick with your child much longer than a lecture would.

Besides, reading aloud is a great way to spend quality time with your kids. I find that the conversation about a book we’ve read may continue for days after we have read it. It becomes part of our family’s shared experience.

how it feels when your kids hold up a mirror for you

At bed time, I closed the door behind me as I left my two-year-old’s room. He started crying at full volume. So I reentered his room to find out what the problem was. “I was talking to you, mommy,” he said, meaning, “Why did you leave mid-sentence?”

So I let him finish his statement. It was something about how the fan was blowing my hair. I had known what he was saying the first time and walked out before he finished his thought.

I get it now. He needs me to listen and hear him out. Even when I believe I already know what he’s going to say.

Kids are pretty good at giving their parents feedback. Here’s another example.

“I don’t want to be a daddy when I grow up,” my five-year-old said today as he was finishing his lunch.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because my children would disappoint me,” he said.


“Did you know that mommy and daddy are more often pleased with you than disappointed with you?” I asked. He laughed a little, relieved. I went on to list some of the things I like about parenting, including playing with my children and helping them learn new things.

Since that conversation I’ve been thinking about how to make sure I balance the reprimands and reminders he receives with affirming statements.

the beauty of a (mostly) wordless book


My sons and I first “read” this book last week. We studied the pictures and came up with what we thought was a suitable interpretation for the watercolor illustrations, most of which are not accompanied by any words.

This morning the boys were reviewing the book with their daddy, who interpreted a few of the pictures somewhat differently. A fair amount of discussion ensued, with both father and son supporting their views from the text. Then, the younger one wanted to keep turning back to one certain page asking, “What happened?” He needed to hear that part of the story again and again.

A wordless book offers lots of opportunities to talk about the “text,” to extend the conversation and to introduce new concepts and vocabulary.

Have you got a favorite wordless book?

modeling gratitude: appreciating the small things

Since I’ve read Growing Grateful Kids by Susie Larson a few months back, I’ve been trying to be more intentional about modeling gratefulness and helping my kids to express their own gratitude. Here are some of our reasons to be thankful within the last week:

Wild blackberries on the edge of our garden and yard

The holiday, which meant additional time for the boys to play with their daddy

A spontaneous invitation from friends for a pontoon ride on the river

Central air to help us maintain our sanity during this heat wave

A new writing assignment

A visit from my sister, niece and nephews (the boys enjoyed playing with their cousins)

Flourishing tomato plants

What “gifts” have you enjoyed this week?

help your preschooler develop narrative skills

The ability to tell a story well is a foundational pre-reading skill. Here are a few fun ways to help your child develop in this area.

Provide children with costumes, puppets, stuffed toys, action figures or flannel boards for story making. A library we frequent has a wonderful collection of puppets and toys children can use to create their own stories or act out stories they have read. Sometimes we make our own puppets for creative play.

Before reading a book, look at the cover and ask your child what the book will be about. Preview the pictures throughout as well.

While reading, stop at key points and ask, “What do you think is going to happen next?” before turning the page.

Ask your child to retell the story after you have finished reading it. Often this is a good question to ask with favorite books, or at least with books you’ve read several times.

Create a chain story. Several members of the family can play along, if possible, but it even works with two people. Each turn, a person  adds one sentence to the story. Make it as silly as you like.

What other story telling games work well with preschoolers?

time to unplug?

According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, American preschoolers spend an average of 32 hours a week in front of a TV, computer screen and/or hand-held electronic device. For older children, it is even more. This pattern has been linked to attention problems, poor school performance and obesity.

During Screen-Free Week, which starts today, families are encouraged to make some adjustments to their routine to reduce time spent in front of a screen. Ideally, this will serve as a catalyst for long-term changes. For one thing, it could free up a significant amount of time.

So, what should you do if your family cuts back on your media intake? Consider the following suggestions for quality “unplugged” time.

Get moving. Enjoy the outdoors by taking a walk, kicking a ball around, learning a new sport, gardening, playing tag, biking or simply hanging out at the playground.

Reconnect face to face. Invite grandparents, cousins, or friends over and cook a special meal. Then, clean up together. Many hands make light work.

Volunteer. Pick an organization that your family would like to support and find out how you can get involved. Serving in your community offers rich dividends. Often, it provides an opportunity to interact with people of different ages, races, classes, languages, and religions.

Read aloud. Even children who know how to read for themselves enjoy hearing a good story read aloud. Choose an age-appropriate book to enjoy as a family. If it’s long, try reading a chapter each evening after dinner.

Make music. I lived for a time in Mongolia, where the entertainment was provided by the guests. A common dinner party activity was to give everyone a chance to sing a solo or duet. You could include the option of playing an instrument. If this isn’t something your family has done before, it might feel awkward at first, but give it a chance. You might be surprised by how making music can lift the spirit and bring people together.

Tell stories. Give each person an opportunity to tell a story of their choosing. Last year my sister held a pioneer party and one of the activities was storytelling. Many of us told stories from our own lives. One person told a folk tale. Some were rather short. All were entertaining. And we learned new things about each other.

Create something. Pick out a project that everyone can participate in, collect the needed supplies and then get busy crafting.

Rediscover your library. With more than just books, libraries offer hours of mind-enriching activity. (Yes, even if you bypass the computers.) Find out whether your library offers any special programs – some libraries offer a wonderful array of book talks, workshops and/or special events. Or simply find a cozy spot to read something new. (Near the magazine racks is often a good bet.)

Play games. Card games, board games, word games – whatever your like. Pick an existing game or make up your own. With so many choices, it shouldn’t be hard to find a game you can enjoy with family or friends or by yourself.

Whether it is one of these ideas or something else your family enjoys, hopefully, you’ll find an activity or two that you’ll want to continue because they improve your family’s quality of life.

In our home, I’d like to make everyday “turn off the TV” day. We typically limit our boy’s screen time to less than a half an hour per day, and I try to keep our toddler away from it completely. But once they’re past two years of age, my husband firmly believes “no exposure” is not the answer. I have to admit it is better to teach them to make careful choices about what to view. Still, this week we’re aiming for less screen time than usual. That translates into more time for creative play.

What, if anything, are you going to differently this week?

six ways to celebrate poetry month with your preschooler

Children love playing with language. Reading or chanting poetry together is a way to reinforce concepts such as rhyme and rhythm while spending quality time together. Take advantage of the remaining days of national poetry month by doing some or all of these activities

1. Visit the library and check out some children’s poetry books. Skim the titles in the poetry section of the children’s department for new titles, but also try to find a poem you enjoyed as a child. Ask your child to pick out a few books and you  do the same.

2. Play a rhyming game. Say a one-syllable word like “trail” and take turns listing words that rhyme with the stated word

3. Pop some popcorn and enjoy popcorn and poetry. Make it a family affair and encourage all the readers in the home to read at least one poem (from one of those books you checked out above). My sister, who teaches elementary school has made “Popcorn and Poetry” an annual tradition at her school and the kids enjoy it. (They’re fascinated by watching her hot air popper as well since most of them never knew you could make popcorn anywhere besides the microwave.)

4. Put a poem in your child’s pocket. Concrete poems (shape poems) are good for this because even though your preschooler may not be able to read, she’ll be able to extract some of the meaning from the shape.

5. Write a limerick about your child/children (one for each). Use the poem as a way to highlight one of the child’s special talents or a memorable event from the past. Your child will feel special being the subject of a poem. Review  limericks by Edward Lear if you’ve forgotten how the rhyme and meter of this form goes.

6. Teach your child a new nursery rhyme or finger play. Use something with words and actions, if possible, and turn it into a game. I’ve recently learned this finger play, which both of my boys think is a lot of fun:


(Hold up a fist)

Here is a beehive

Where are the bees?

Hidden away where nobody sees

Watch as they come out of the hive

(Put up one finger at a time as you count)

One, two, three, four, five

(Buzz fingers all around)

Oh no, they’re alive!

How do you or would you like to enjoy poetry with your kids?

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