Avoid the “Summer Slide” with Creative Academics

Summertime Learning is Key to Next Year’s Success

by Joyce Sibbett, Ph.D., President, Dancing Moose Montessori School

Did you know that as your child soon begins the lazy, hazy days of summer that they’re also very likely to slip behind academically?  It’s called the “summer slide” and it’s a real phenomenon.

Research suggests that students lose a month or more of skills and knowledge over the summer break. In fact, a recently released survey from the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) confirms that teachers spend a significant amount of time re-teaching material due to summer learning loss.  The survey, which was based on answers from 500 teachers, found that 66 percent of teachers have to spend three to four weeks re-teaching students course material at the beginning of the year, while 24 percent of teachers spend at least five to six weeks re-teaching material from the previous school year.

That’s a lot of learning lost, but creative planning can make a huge difference.

What follows are three fun ways to incorporate creative learning time into your daily or weekly schedule, and they will add an academic boost for next year’s school progress.  Additionally, you’ll be giving your child some great boredom busters so you never have to hear, “Mom, I’m bored. There’s nothing to do.”

Reading, Reading, and more Reading

If your child does nothing else this summer, make sure he or she is reading!

Make visiting the library part of your summer plan. You can join reading clubs where your child earns points for the number of books read (or minutes spent reading); you can attend story hours or book readings, which may include arts and crafts events.  Most importantly, your child should practice reading daily, and reading with your child is a perfect prime time activity that yields prime results.

Another fun way to incorporate words and reading into your summer routine is to learn a new word each week.  Have your child write it down, draw a picture about it, hang it on the fridge and see who can use it the most times throughout the week.

On longer car trips, listen to audio books and watch your child’s imagination come alive. Discuss characters and let your child anticipate what the characters might do next.  Let your child share opinions about choices the characters make.  Become a news reporter, and let your child role play one of the characters in an interview.  Artwork can be a nice addition to the reading experience to make the story come alive.

Books about superheroes are fun for summer reading, particularly when your child has more time to identify positive and negative traits of his or her favorite superheroes, to make costumes and masks for art projects, and even to act out the storyline for friends and family. Children can also explore a variety of non-fiction books and learn about many places in the world they’d like to someday visit, or even to just dream about.

Gardening and Cooking with Math

Plant a garden. Children enjoy responsibility and take pride in watching their plants grow and thrive.  And you may even be able to turn your children into excited vegetable eaters, knowing they played a part in growing their own carrots, broccoli, and green beans.  A great math component to a garden can be measuring and comparing the growth of a few plants on a weekly basis.

At Dancing Moose, children love to spend time tending garden plants throughout the growing season.  One of the children’s favorite garden projects was a pizza garden, including lots of vegetables that taste great on a pizza.  At harvest time they enjoyed a vegetarian slice of pizza, and all agreed that it was the best pizza they’d ever tasted.

Cook with your children. This is one of the best ways to integrate math, reading, and following directions. Measuring quantities is a natural part of the cooking process.  Let your children design the menu too.  Help them gather their favorite recipes throughout the summer and then create their own cookbook.  The cookbook’s cover is a perfect opportunity for an art project, which could become a thoughtful gift for grandparents and others.

Taking it a step further, a fun math (and economics) project that Dancing Moose children did last summer was to survey members of the school community to learn their favorite cookies, create graphs to represent their surveys, and follow up by taking cookie orders.  Children then baked cookies to fill the orders, collected money, graphed profits, distributed profits, and finally, analyzed results. This could be done in your neighborhood or just with family members and extended family.

Summer Camp Ideas

Here’s a fact worth paying attention to:  Studies have shown that children enrolled in summer programs are two years ahead of their peers by the time they reach fifth grade.  That’s a significant advantage!  Whether you choose a part-time or full-time summer program, summer camps can—and should—provide a balance of learning and fun.

First, enroll your child in a quality summer program that’s been around for a while and will provide your child with opportunities to build critical thinking skills.  Second, look for active programs that will keep child’s mind and body active.  And third, find a program with an array of creative choices.   A quality program will contribute to happy memories of summer as it helps your child maintain academic achievement levels for the new school year.

You can find camps of all shapes and sizes—science camps, acting camps, dance camps, music camps, sports camps, computer camps, and just about anything else that your child might be interested in.   A summer camp is a nice time to help your child enhance his or her skills in an encouraging and fun atmosphere.   And if you have a preschooler who is scheduled to start school in the fall, summer day camp will give him or her an “introductory” period to prepare for a full-day of school.

Here are some additional things to consider when making the summer day camp decision:  Do you share the philosophy that the camp/school follows?  Is there an emphasis on community, helping your child fit in with others?  Does the curriculum include an element of choice?  Does the camp/school communicate often and openly with you?  Is the staff well qualified?

As summer approaches, consider the many ways that you can help your child avoid slipping down the academic summer slide.

Are Spelling Tests Really Needed These Days?

I have had parents ask me about whether or not children really need to practice spelling words on a regular basis with the spell-check feature on computers.  They have also asked whether or not writing skills have become outdated with the commonality of keyboards.  Technology certainly makes writing a lot easier; I wouldn’t want to be writing this blog with pen and paper.  Nevertheless, the skills of spelling and writing are foundational skills that remain important.

The process of writing out words leads to an understanding of how to form letters quickly and efficiently, and even the slower pace of writing out a word by hand lends itself to the process of sounding out and blending letters to become familiar with word patterns.

Similarly, blending sounds and memorizing word formations that are part of the weekly process of preparing for spelling tests are important for children’s self-reliance in writing.  As young children practice and re-practice writing out spelling words, they enhance their levels of confidence for skills mastered.

I appreciate the work of former teacher and author, J. Richard Gentry, who emphasizes the importance of spelling instruction that helps children break the code of English.  He states that “when conventional spelling is taught in balance with developmental spelling and writing for meaning, students are on track for proficient reading and writing by the end of first grade. In the beginning phases, the processing of spelling, reading and writing are nearly one and the same in terms of activating reading circuitry in the brain.”

Literacy skills build upon one another, and practice with the art of language in every form has value.  The benefit of writing out spelling words is not an isolated skill; it is part of the complex process of becoming proficient with literacy.  Writing and reading are skills that require practice and yield huge benefits.  Technology is a tremendous tool to bolster literacy opportunities, but the spell-check feature is certainly not a substitute for the practice of regular spelling tests and the practice of writing out words by hand.

Hop Up the Reading Hill at Home

Phonemic awareness involves recognition of letter sounds.  Before children ever associate letter names or recognize what letters represent, they can simply learn to listen to the sounds of letters.  Initial letters sounds are the first ones that children can learn to distinguish if parents and teachers simply emphasize similar sounds.  For example, in the phrase that introduces this short blog, you might emphasize the sound “huh” as you say, “hop up the reading hill at home.”  Which three words start with the “huh” sound?  To further emphasize the “huh” sound, you can place a thin napkin in front of your mouth and say a variety of words that start with “huh,” demonstrating that the napkin moves as you begin to say each word, e.g., hop, happy, home, hill, hurry, hair.  This is also a good way to help young learners say the “huh” sound correctly.

Phonemic awareness can be part of your conversation as you drive down the road with your child with statements such as, “we are going down the right road, not the wrong road.”  You would follow with the question, which words begin with the ‘rrrr’ sound?”   Remember, this exercise is designed to help children distinguish sounds, not identify letters.  You want your child to hear the “rrrr” in right, road, and wrong.

Creating games such as picking out the two words that sound alike is another great way to engage children.  For example, you can ask which of the three words—can, bike, carpet— have the same beginning sound?   When you emphasize the “k” sound, children will begin to distinguish the words with that initial sound.

One of the fun Montessori games that Dancing Moose teachers like to engage in involves having children hunt for items around the classroom that correlate with a learning activity.  For phonemic awareness you could identify an object such as a table that begins with the “t” sound, then challenge your child to find items around the house that begin with the “t” sound.  Playing games is a great way to make learning fun.

Phonemic awareness is an important pre-reading skill, and helping your child recognize sounds is the first step in reading.  Once children begin to isolate sounds, they readily associate them with letters when they are introduced.

Positive Social/Emotion Preschool Paves Way for Productive Future

It’s hard to imagine that just a generation ago early childhood education usually began at kindergarten, and many families actually opted out of kindergarten for their children.  Sadly, the loss of educational opportunities for our youngest population can have lasting long-term effects.  By educational programs I’m referring to children having ample time to develop relationships, converse with peers and adults, and understand that they are valued as bright and capable individuals.  As Jack Shonkoff, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, recently wrote, “The healthy development of young children in the early years of life literally does provide a foundation for just about all of the challenging social problems that our society and other societies face.”

The science of brain circuitry indicates that when children experience positive social and emotional relationships, their being is literally shaped with a foundation to continue to have positive experiences in the future.  This healthy social/emotional development correlates with cognitive growth.  In other words, when children feel comfortable and supported by peers and adults, they are able to learn more effectively.

This brain development is precisely why Dancing Moose curriculum appeals to the whole child.  Healthy relationships, positive self esteem, active bodies with ample nutritious food are all components of healthy brain development that fosters academic learning.

As Shonkoff goes on to argue, a child’s development is optimally flexible at a young age, which makes it an essential time to develop healthy social/emotional patterns rather than try to fix problems later.

Early childhood education is the small window available to parents to help children develop healthy happy relationships, socialize with peers and teachers, and dance and sing as they learn new concepts.  With a quality early childhood education, children will be well on their way to productive future growth and learning.

Happy Children

“Happy Children” is the theme of our September Back to School night.  It sounds like an obvious goal for children to be happy at school, but it is too often overlooked as a component of effective learning.  Most teachers recognize that children need to have their physical needs met and their academic capacity challenged, but some may overlook the importance of smiling faces and truly happy children.  Teachers at Dancing Moose understand the significance of the social/emotional aspect of teaching and learning.  In fact at Dancing Moose, being happy is the heart of the classroom for teachers and students.

Teachers refer to children as friends because they are just that—friends.   Of course the teacher is the guide, the facilitator, and a figure of respect in the classroom, but the most significant identifier is that she is a friend to students, and students are friends to the teacher and one another.  The concept of being a friend is an inclusive, respectful, and necessary ingredient for feeling happy at school.  Each child deserves to feel like an important part of the classroom community, and when children connect to the teacher and one another, their mood is elevated and their mind is ready to explore, concentrate, and achieve.

Creating and maintaining a happy classroom is a goal that deserves regular attention.  If a child feels unappreciated or perhaps even devalued by anyone at school, his or her ability to feel the calmness necessary to discover and absorb new information is compromised.  The effect is detrimental to all of the classroom goals for teaching, learning, and feeling good about oneself.  We will continue to emphasize ways that children can respect and support one another to keep a healthy pulse on learning at Dancing Moose.

The Student-Centered Teacher

Educators like to use the words “student-centered” teacher, but that means different things in different contexts.  I’d like to explore what being student-centered means at Dancing Moose.  First of all, you’ll notice that there is no teacher desk.  Teachers are not situated at a central place in the room; they are at various places around the room with children.  They are working with small groups, sharing lessons with a few students at a time.  Teachers are constantly observing students without interrupting and making notes about what they need to reteach next time around.

Teachers want to make sure that children always have an opportunity to think, create, and move around the room.  Instead of constantly filling students’ minds with information, teachers think of great questions to stimulate students to make connections and come to new and brilliant conclusions.  Of course, teachers still guide their students:  they provide many opportunities to share new information, allowing children to contemplate the information, talk about the information, and formulate opinions about the information.  This is the essence of learning; it is the essence of student-centered teaching.

Teachers maintain a calm and interested demeanor.  They provide a model for children to focus on their own projects.  By providing an abundance of interesting lessons in a calm, yet stimulating environment, children are relaxed enough to concentrate and let their personalities shine.  Reprimands are not needed in a stimulating environment where children are engaged in thinking and learning.

One of the essential components of this effective environment is a small student-to-teacher ratio.  Small ratios are essential to maintain a focus on learning rather than maintaining control of large groups of students.  These small ratios provide an opportunity for teachers to listen to, laugh with, and truly enjoy their students.  A student-centered environment makes a joyful learning experience for everyone.

Factors to Consider when Choosing a School

Developmentally appropriate practice is a phrase often used to describe Jean Piaget’s focus on children’s stages of development, which emphasizes the importance of matching instruction to children’s readiness to learn. The difficulty is the educator’s ability to understand when a child has reached a developmental stage that requires new strategies and materials to challenge the child.
This educator awareness is a critical factor in choosing an early childhood center. To accomplish goals that are developmentally appropriate, the following features should be in place:

• First, teachers are well prepared with academic and classroom management skills that nurture and support all children. (In addition to academic credentials, teachers should participate in on-going educational development.)
• Second, ratios allow for individual attention as well as one-on-one and small group instruction.
• Third, teachers are aware of each child’s development, serving the purpose of persistent, informal assessment. (This teacher awareness creates opportunities for teachers to present materials at individually challenging levels.)
• Fourth, curricular materials and activities provide opportunities for children to explore independently and socially with peers. (These materials should span the academic disciplines including core subjects as well as the arts.)
• Fifth, a school is an emotionally appealing place to learn. (Children deserve to discover in classrooms with ample space and natural lighting.)

Each of the above factors is important when evaluating appropriate learning opportunities. Without effective teachers, ratios that support personalized learning, and an inviting learning environment, children’s opportunities are compromised.
Developmentally appropriate practice is a phrase that carries profound meaning. Dancing Moose is committed to follow through with all of the basic tenets that allow children to maximize their learning potential.

Our Lives in Color

Red and yellow and pink and green, purple and orange and blue—these are the first words in the Rainbow Song. Our Dancing Moose children sang the words to the song, dressed in rainbow colors, to usher in the first day of spring.  (YouTube Video of the Rainbow Song) 

I watched in awe as the children lined the Dancing Moose hallway and sang the rainbow song together. They were part of something bigger than themselves, and they inspired all of us who listened to their song. That inspiration might be articulated in different ways, but for me the rainbow song signified that our differences, like the colors of the rainbow, are necessary to make a beautiful whole. Children are learning about the unique gifts that each individual brings to school each day. I love to hear them see each other across the parking lot in the morning or afternoon and enthusiastically call each other by name as they say hello and goodbye. Being recognized by name is a welcome sound to all of us.

The garden outside is just beginning to sprout new growth with the green breaking through the brown soil, and soon the rainbow will be visible in the many beautiful spring flowers in the garden. It is a beautiful time of renewal for all of us.

We hope to encourage Dancing Moose children to pay attention to the changing seasons and the beauty of nature. They will soon be planting seeds and watching them sprout with grow lights. These seedlings will then move to the garden where children will nurture them to maturity, and then harvest and enjoy them. One of the goals of this curriculum is to help students see and enjoy the rich products of nature, and the wonders that each season holds for new hopes and dreams.

Learning the names of colors is a goal for young children, but seeing, feeling, tasting, and enjoying the colors of nature has restorative properties. I hope that we will all reserve a little time to breath in the colors of the rainbow.

The “E” Word is Enticement, Not Efficiency

Active learning begins with curricular ideas that entice and intrigue children. Maria Montessori understood that in the early 1900s, yet enticement is often missing in children’s educational experiences. One of the reasons for this is curriculum driven by mandates that have nothing to do with what intrigues children—not because anyone intends to turn children off to learning but because policy-makers’ goals are driven by efficiency (which is especially true in a strained economy). Large classrooms and quantifiable results are conducive to efficiency.

Efficient classrooms lack choice, exploration, and instruction that is based on children’s interests. These educational qualities are neither efficient nor easily quantified, but they are the qualities that capture and maintain children’s intrigue.

To accomplish these important educational goals, Dancing Moose limits class sizes, and two teachers always work together to provide one-on-one and small group lessons that allow children to have choice and flexibility, and to work at their own pace.

Dancing Moose faculty members attended the MEPI (Montessori Education Programs International) to share project-oriented curriculum that is differentiated to meet varied developmental levels of children at Dancing Moose. State core standards are incorporated into this curriculum; yet with a limited number of students in each class, teachers are able to adapt lessons with built-in choices and levels of learning. As a result, every child can be led by his or her interests and proceed at the pace that is best suited to the child. Dancing Moose prides itself in enticing curriculum and is eager to share ideas with MEPI schools that share their values.

School and Family Connections

Connecting school and family is a great way to help children feel invested in their education. Children thrive when they know that they are valued members of an educational community. This sense of belonging contributes to a solid foundation for current and future success in school.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently published a report entitled, School Connectedness: Strategies for Increasing Protective Factors Among Youth. This report emphasized the importance of family and community engagement in school as a measure to keep students invested in education. When families stay connected to their children’s school and regularly engage their children in conversations about school, children are more likely to feel connected and enthused about their role as a member of the school community. This engagement cannot begin too early as positive attitudes toward school begin as early as a child initiates his or her school experience.

Children are able to identify school as an important part of their life when their parents take interest in their school work and their teachers. Involving families in school events is an important part of that commitment, and Dancing Moose enjoys the opportunities to host school-wide events that can foster relationship-building.

Munch and Mingle is an early-morning event that Dancing Moose will launch next week to encourage families to get together for a warm drink and a sample of Chef Rene’s great muffins. We appreciate all of our families and hope that this event will provide an opportunity for parents to get to know one another a little better. We want to make sure that all of our children know that we are on the same team for making school a great place to be!