Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Let’s Play!

My son asked me to play this week. Now I am good at playing games with them. I can read aloud and color, do puzzles and shoot hoops. But play? He was asking me to engage in his imaginary story and become part of that world. And I froze. I am embarrassed to admit that I truly didn’t know how to respond. It was so easy to play along when they were little–have a tea party, drive big trucks, rock the baby doll… But as they have aged and their stories have become more complex, I realized that I had stopped playing with my kids. Is our imagination like a muscle? Can it atrophy? I was truly lost when I only had my imagination to lean on. Needless to say, this bothered me terribly, and after our rousing time of bomber planes and army soldiers ended, I began to contemplate the value of knowing how to play.
In a world of screens and noise, imaginary play often takes a back seat. This great gift, that is always with us and doesn’t require batteries, is often not exercised to its fullest potential. I realized that because I had not been using my imagination, I didn’t have much of one to use. My children on the other hand, can fill hours with a story line based on trains, animals and houses (like the one that covered my living room floor not too many days ago!). Is this something they could lose? A skill that can be forgotten?
I recognize that the way they play and imagine will change as they grow, but I cannot help thinking about some of the great creators in our world- authors, designers, problem solvers…are they good at what they do because they have not stifled their ability to imagine? They can imagine a solution, imagine a story with amazing characters, imagine a design to meet a need. They use the same creative muscle to do these things, that my children are using when they play. I want to encourage and develop that ability as much as I can…even when it means that I have to learn to play all over again.

Ponder a Picture

I have a challenge for you–stop and look, look around you. What do you see? So often we are in such a hurry that we do not actually see what is right in front of us. This was driven home to me this week, in the dentist’s office of all places. Our family was visiting a new dentist for our six-month cleanings and I spent a good bit of time in the one room as he worked with both of my children. Near the end of the visit, my son had to cooperate for an uncomfortable procedure that would last for two minutes. As I was scrambling to distract his mind from the large piece of equipment in his mouth I blurted out, “Hey, bud, look at that picture! What story does it tell you?” Now, I had been ‘staring’ at that same picture for the past hour, but as we actually looked at it and I pointed out unique elements of it for him to think about, it dawned on me that I hadn’t really seen it at all.

How often does this happen to us? Maybe it is a teachable moment or a memorable experience; perhaps it is a beautiful view or my daughter’s smile…what “pictures” am I staring at every day, without really seeing them? Not only do I often miss what is right in front of me, but I have not been intentional about teaching my children to “see” life either. Things are not slowing down; life is not getting simpler. I want to train my children to see past the busyness and pause to ponder what is right in front of them. Several ideas have come to mind as I thought how to do this. First, I want to demonstrate through example. I want them to see me gasping in awe at a beautiful sunset, or relishing the view of the snow on the hills. I want to point out unique architecture and the intricacies of God’s creation. I want to look them in the eye and hear their inflections while they speak to me. I want them to learn from me. But I think we can tangibly teach this skill of “looking to see” as well. Challenge your child to study a photo or painting for one minute and then discuss what he/she notices about the picture. Encourage him to write a story about that moment which is frozen in time. (Norman Rockwell’s paintings are perfect for this!) When driving, ask your children to list five adjectives or adverbs that describe the sky that day. Have them close their eyes in a busy room and describe what they hear. Play a game where you have them walk into a room, look around for a moment, and then leave again. Remove an object from view or move it to a different location. Can they spot the difference when they reenter the space? (This is especially fun to do in a room of your own house where everything becomes so common we tend to overlook it.) There are many ways to teach our children to “see” what is before them. I challenge you to stop and look, and train your children to do so also!

As Different as the Snowflakes

It is snowing today–a lazy, slow snowfall, with tiny little snowflakes. The last time it snowed the flakes came down as huge, wet globs, quickly coating everything in sight. Not only are there many different kinds of snowfalls, but each individual snowflake is different. This scientific fact has never ceased to amaze me! How creative God is to design millions and millions of different flakes.
Yet, how often do we stop and think about how each person–each child–is different as well? God has designed each of us with unique interests, learning styles, abilities, and purposes. Even within the same family, siblings can be very different from one another. My son is a verbal/kinesthetic learner; whereas my daughter tends to be more visually driven. One is very social; the other craves solitary time.

Many wonderful books and internet articles have been written on the variety of learning styles and how to incorporate those styles into our teaching. It is easy for me to fall into the rut of teaching my children with my own personal learning and communication styles. Although some good can come from this, I must determine how their minds best process information and utilize those methods also.  It is important as we work with our children to remember these unique characteristics exist and find ways to incorporate them into our teaching times.

Falling in Love with Books Though Our Ears

I was reading aloud to my children at breakfast this morning and one of my favorite things happened. As my son was munching on his cinnamon toast, the plot built to a suspenseful climax. As I used my voice to express the tension of the moment, I happened to glance across the table. There sat my nine-year-old boy, as still as a statute, with mouth gaping and toast hanging from his fingertips, completely enthralled with what was happening in the story. I continued to read, but my heart smiled and shouted a huge “Gotcha!” He was hooked.
One of my favorite things about oral reading and audio books is the way that our minds engage while we listen to the story. The characters and settings come alive as we hear them being described, hear different character voices, sense the speed and tension changes of the plot and hold our breath until the climax comes to a conclusion. Although much of the same can be said for silent reading, it often seems that involving more of our senses allows us to imagine the story in a deeper way.
Because of our family’s ministry, we are on the road a lot. We have all come to love audio books. Often one of the first questions our children ask when we get in the car is “What story do we get to listen to this time?” Not only do these books help the time to pass quickly, they generate great family discussions, expose our children to people, situations and places outside of themselves and  provide hours of fun and entertainment.

There are so many great resources available for audio books, I cannot even begin to name them all. However, I would like to share some of my favorite sources with you and encourage you to provide this style of book for your children. Whether it is at home or in the car, audio books can open up a whole new love of stories for your family.

  • Your public library- We have enjoyed using this resource ever since the kids were little. From picture books to chapter books, your public library will have many options for you to choose from.
  •  Overdrive- This is a resource that is also available through your public library. I have used it with my kindle for a long time, but I just recently discovered that I can download audio chapter books onto my kindle too. This has been great for long trips!
  •  Zeezok.com – We offer many of our books in audio format (both CD and MP3), including the Great Musicians Series and The Shining Sword. One great way to use these (especially with a reluctant reader) is to allow them to follow along in the books as they listen. 
  •  librivox.org – This is my husband’s favorite source for audio books. Although there is a fee for some of the books offered on this site, all public domain books are free. Many of the wonderful classics are available to download.

History in the Making

As I contemplated the coming election and the events surrounding it, I realized that the last time a new person was elected to the office of president, my daughter wasn't even born and my son was only 2 years old?!? Somehow it seems impossible that life could go by so quickly! 

This election season provides us with a great opportunity to teach our children so many things- the privilege we have to vote for our nation's leaders, exploring the election process,  learning the story of other U. S. presidents, tracking the election results... the list is endless. So often these conversations are much more meaningful when the events are actually taking place. This election will become part of our children's life history - let's make it memorable.

Learning Through Exposure (Appreciating Classical Music Part 2)

Some people say that classical music is archaic and has no relevance for the youth of today. Is this true? Are we wasting our time exposing children to this age-old genre? I would like to encourage you to recognize the value of classical music, regardless of the age or interests of the listener. Classical music has the potential to engage both the heart and mind of a child and propel them towards a greater interest in the things around them.  
In our last blog we discussed introducing our children to classical music through EXAMPLE and EXPERIENCES. This week we will talk about introducing our children to classical music through EXPOSURE.

Expose your child by using all of the senses to incorporate classical music into his environment.

1.  There are many wonderful CD collections with a variety of composers and musical selections. Look for ways to incorporate them into your daily life. Allow classical music to be part of your child’s environment–something they are comfortable with, something that is normal. They will absorb more that you realize!
  • Have the music playing softly in the background while your children are playing, coloring, reading, or even during handwriting or study time.
  • Choose a specific song to play during cleanup time or while everyone is getting ready for bed. Can they be done before the song finishes? Have fun and do it playfully

2.  There are also a wide variety of DVDs available that encourage classical music enrichment. (Your local library is an excellent source for these.) 
  • Baby Einstein is a good resource for introducing little ones to classical music,
  • Little Einstein is a favorite at our house (although I am selective about which ones they watch). I was listening to some classical music one day and my son (who was six at the time) got all excited. “Mom, that’s on Little Einsteins! You know the part where they….” and he was right. He recognized the melody and it stuck in his mind because he had a memory link to it.

3.  Another idea that might make you chuckle (but you will realize I am right) is watching the old cartoons (Tom and Jerry, Road Runner, Bugs Bunny etc…) and westerns. The sound tracks for these old shows were often classical music scores. Children will begin to sense tempo and musical mood changes as they listen to the music communicate the stories. Another example of this is from the Lone Ranger. When my children were small, I would bounce them on my knee and hum the theme song to the Lone Ranger (which is actually The William Tell Overture). Whenever they would hear that music played, they would get all excited “The horsie song, Mama! It’s the horsie song!” Again, they had a point of reference for remembering this music. It was familiar to them. It was part of their world! 

4.  One of the most powerful ways you can create an appreciation for classical music is by taking your children to a live concert. There is nothing that can compare to the feeling you have as the music plays around you. The way you want to stand to your feet as the music crescendos. The feast for your eyes and ears as you watch the orchestra members perform this musical feat. Many larger cities have a professional symphonic orchestra. Often times these orchestras will host a children’s concert geared primarily to the little ones in the audience, but a regular concert is a special treat as well. Open air concerts or symphonic band concerts are often a more relaxed atmosphere, great for little ones with lots of wiggles or those just being introduced to classical concerts. You may not have a regularly performing orchestra where you live, however, there are other options. 
  • Do you have a local college with a music program? Student musicians are required to have a senior recital, which is a great opportunity for families to enjoy a concert.
  • Perhaps you could schedule a concert performance into your next family vacation?
  • Many times local churches will host classical concerts. Do some research in your area and see what is available. You might be surprised.
  • There are many books and DVDs that will expose your child to the symphony orchestra, classical music performances, ballets and operas, as well as performers and instruments. Contact your local librarian for these resources. (The internet can also be a tremendous resource for songs, movies, and classical music information.) Take advantage of all the resources you can.

5.  You could use upbeat music to help your child use up some extra energy. 
  • Have the kids move to the music. If it is a slow song, the kids move around the room slowly, stomping, twirling or stepping in slow motion. Then when the music tempo speeds up, so do the kids. They love to run around the room as fast as they can, jumping, skipping, racing, and just being active. (You could also do a version of this with drawing or painting. Have the child draw what they hear. Should they color fast? Slow? Jagged lines? Circles? What colors do they “hear” in the music?)

Learning Through Example and Experience (Appreciating Classical Music Part 1)

It has been said that
A love of classical music is only partially a natural response to hearing the works performed, it also must come about by a decision to listen carefully, [and] to pay close attention...”1
As teachers and parents, we need to be intentional about teaching our students to love and appreciate this unique genre. Let us share some creative and practical ways to introduce your students to classical music.
This week we will talk about introducing our children to classical music through EXAMPLE and EXPERIENCES.
The main way that children will begin to appreciate classical music is by watching you enjoy it.
Do they hear it playing simply for your pleasure? Do you have a classical music playlist on your MP3 player?  Do you ever hum a classical song or mention that you recognize what’s playing at a restaurant or store? It is very important that our children know we have listened to these songs and enjoy this style of music as well. I like to turn classical music on while I am doing housework (it gets me moving faster J). The Piano Guys are my dish-washing friends; my mother-in-law likes to play it when she is exercising. I will often have the public classical radio station on when we are driving. Even if one of the children asks me to put “their music” on (children’s songs), sometimes I will say, “Well, Mommy is enjoying this song right now, and I will put the other songs on when it is finished.” Our positive approach is very valuable to our children’s perception of anything—even music choices! Just as in everything else, the best way we can teach is through example.
Another way I would like to encourage you to intentionally engage your child in classical music is through interactive experiences with the composers. There are many great resources available both online and in book form to accomplish this goal. I would like to suggest several key components for you to consider as you present the composers to your child.
1.      Keep the information age-appropriate. Some wonderful biographies about the composers have been written, but one of my favorites is Zeezok’s Great Musician Series and the accompanying activity book. These books have been written in an engaging storybook form, but contain accurate details and are very personable. Children respond well to the pictures and book layouts, as well as the hands-on activities. This is very important as you introduce your children to the life stories of these men. Young readers need to be able to understand the information and be interested in what they are reading.
2.      Help the child relate to the information by connecting it to modern day experiences.
·         Handel’s Blindness: As Handel entered his mid-sixties, his eyesight was so badly weakened that he could hardly see the notes without a magnifying glass. In order to sense what Handel might have experienced as he lost his sight, complete one of these commands:
o   Close your eyes and write your name, address, and phone number on a piece of paper.
o   Close your eyes and try to tie your shoes or zip your coat.
o   How did you feel? Did it make these tasks feel more frustrating? Imagine how Handel felt as his sight was slipping away.
3.      Give the “behind the scenes” story of the songs you play for your children. Some of the reasons why these songs were written are quite fascinating.
·         Handel’s “Water Music”—Handel had obtained leave from the Prince to visit England, promising a quick return, but he was actually gone for almost a year.  The Prince made a trip to London, and Handel, who was concerned he would be in trouble for being gone so long, decided to write a special song to please the Prince while he sailed along the river Thames “Water Music” was the result of his efforts. (The King was pleased with the song and pardoned his court composer for being away.)
·         Paganini was challenged by the Princess to compose a song for just one string. Paganini wrote a song for the G-string alone. He called it Napoleon’s Sonata and presented it in time for the emperor’s birthday.
·         When the musicians in Haydn’s orchestra had been separated from their families for almost a year, they became restless and asked him to convey their displeasure to the Prince. Haydn wrote his Symphony No. 45, nicknamed Farewell. As he was conducting, the musicians slowly got up and left the room. The Prince took the hint, and preparations for a trip to Vienna were started the next day!
4.      Share interesting facts about the composers themselves (where they lived and travelled, what they liked to eat, family facts, timelines of their lives, popular songs they wrote, other jobs they held, etc…)
·         Did you know that Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart were all alive at the same time? (Mozart and Haydn were very good friends.)
·         Did you know that George Handel was in a sword duel?
·         Did you know that Franz Schubert was nicknamed “Little Mushroom” (Schwammerl) by some of his friends?
(All of these practical application samples are from Zeezok Publishing’s Great Musicians Series and Music Appreciation Student Activity Book 1)
Exposing our children to and developing a love for classical music is a very valuable endeavor and can have a lifelong effect on our children’s learning and outlook! Join us next week for a discussion on how to encourage our children to love classical music by exposing them to this amazing genre.
[1] Charles Rosen. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/c/charlesros204205.html

Tending Our Gardens

This summer we have become gardeners. My children planted vegetables with their grandfather- tomatoes, lettuce and onions- and we are now reaping the benefits of our labor. As we have watered, weeded, worried, and worked for this crop, I have often marveled at the similarities between gardening and teaching. As Papa built the garden box and we placed the seeds and sprouts in the ground, enthusiasm ran high. The kids were so excited, grand dreams of a bountiful harvest running through their minds. Our school year starts the same way- we are all excited about new books, new subjects and our new schedule. Just as they regularly checked for weeds and dry soil the first few days, so too do my little students approach each lesson with enthusiasm and diligence.
As the summer progressed however, our plants held less appeal. Weeding and watering became mundane chores.  That is, until fruit started to appear. All of a sudden they wanted to check their gardens each day, counting and watching each new piece of produce. So often in teaching we see this same thing demonstrated. What was once new and exciting, becomes routine, mundanely  normal. Although we all recognize the value of these things (weeding and watering), there is also a time and place to add in something new and interesting. Plan a field trip for that topic, rearrange the order of lessons for a day, have school in a tent under the table, start a new read aloud book... the options are endless. As teachers, we need to remember how important it is to not get stuck in our comfortable easy school day ruts, but rather find ways to keep our children's delight of learning alive and strong.
Halfway through the summer, our tomatoes fell prey to blossom end rot. Who even knew there was such a thing?!? When six of their tomatoes turned black and rotten, my littles were devastated. What went wrong? We went from having bright, healthy fruit to this? Come to find out, it had started slowly, but because it occurs on the bottom of the tomato, we were completely unaware of its presence until that one glaring moment. I spent hours on the internet, called every gardener I knew and visited two stores until I found a solution to our problem. Once again, our tomatoes are thriving. There have been times with my children that I didn't realize something was amiss- a lesson they didn't understand, a skill we overlooked, a concept they couldn't grasp - until one glaring moment. What are we to do? Throw our hands up in despair and scrap the whole crop? No! We prayerfully research a new approach, tap into the resources we have available, perhaps even invest in remedial materials, until our students can succeed in that particular area.
We now have tomatoes coming out of our ears, delicious lettuce salads and onions for supper and two very proud and excited children. In the end, we all recognize that the effort we put in was completely worth it! We are reaping the benefits of our labor. Teaching can be exhausting, sometimes we don't feel like putting the time and energy into lessons. Sometimes we wish we didn't have to "garden." But just like late night waterings and hot afternoons weeding helped encourage our bountiful harvest, all of the time, sweat, energy and effort we pour into our children will be harvested someday- not just academically, but also in their habits and character. So, my fellow gardeners, I encourage you not to give up! Keep tending your darling "plants" and know that all the effort you are putting in is definitely worth it!

Lessons Learned

A few weeks ago, I walked by my first grade daughter’s bedroom door and heard her reading aloud to herself. What caught my attention was that she was reading with great expression. As I stood outside her door, listening with delight, I found myself marveling at how she was reading—full voice inflection, volume changes, even some character voices. Our whole family enjoys read aloud time: the children (and Daddy!) as listeners and myself as the reader. I love bringing the story to life with my voice. I intentionally draw them into the plot and introduce them to the characters through volume differences, verbal speed changes and voice inflection. Reading with expression is a skill we should encourage in our children. Beginning readers are naturally slow and stilted when they read, as they try to process each sound. Often their voice will be monotone and drawn out. As a child improves in his/her reading skills, we must not overlook the sound of their voice while they read. Not only will the meaning of the story come alive as they speak with more expression, they will also feel more confident when reading out loud in front of others.
There are many ways to implement good expression skills, but modeling is probably the most helpful. First and foremost, try to demonstrate expressive reading whenever you read aloud. This is not always easy, but look for places in the story where you can enhance the word pictures with your voice. For example, when the plot becomes suspenseful, slow your words down and speak in softer tones. When something exciting is happening, speak with a heightened sense of urgency and volume. Allow yourself to have fun with the characters and plot progression. It is also helpful to have your child mimic your inflection when they are reading aloud by reading a sentence to them and having them say it in a similar fashion. Punctuation provides a great way for a child to know what expression to use. When reading a question, raise your tone at the end of the sentence. Speak loudly with excitement whenever you read an exclamatory sentence. Pause slightly after commas and periods. These simple techniques can completely change the way your child reads the words he or she has worked so hard to learn.
Reading with expression is a learned skill and takes a while to master. It adds variety and interest to a story and can provide a great form of entertainment for your family. I challenge you this week to choose a familiar story and read it aloud as a family, adding meaning and feeling to a beloved tale.

Art, Art, Art...

Art. Why does the very word conjure up scenes of mess and mayhem in my mind? Why do I feel anxiety in the pit of my stomach every time my children want to paint, glue or (gasp) glitter?!? Do not get me wrong, I am a huge fan of the arts, I want to encourage my children in the appreciation and creativity art produces, I think art should be a regular part of their lives. But it is very hard for me to swallow my “This is going to make a huge mess and take me hours to clean up” words and let my budding artists have at an art project. Several weeks ago, our small town hosted an Art Walk. Many different kinds of artisans and mediums were represented. We toured a local art gallery, watched painters and sculptures at work, participated in some hands on art ourselves, and overall had a wonderful time. The kids were so inspired that they spent two hours “crafting” after we got home. Through this experience I realized some things that were not clear to me before. Art provides an opportunity for a child to create something that they can take pride in. It allows them to express their own individuality, and because they are not inhibited by the same insecurities as adults, they are not afraid to try new things or learn new skills. They delight in the colors, textures and methods, and they love sharing their creations with others.
 We are now the proud owners (and users!) of acrylic paints and oven baked clay. I have ordered an art series for school this year. Although I still swallow hard when they get practically every art supply we own out on the kitchen counter, I have a much different motivation for encouraging their love of all things art. How do you respond when your children want to get creative? Does anyone have any good suggestions for this still hesitant art mama?