Teachers & Parents: Who Deals with the Pressure of Mandates?

“I just don’t know what to do. He has zero interest in the paper books that come home to practice sight words.”

Anxiety. Fear. Worries about falling behind. It was like I was looking in a mirror from several years back when I was stressing about my reluctant kindergartner.

Only this time, as the kindergarten teacher (and as a somewhat-less-neurotic parent than I once was), I was able to offer all the reassurance that I wished I had received for my kindergartner.

I told the parent, “If he is expressing disinterest in those practice books, please don’t push them. It means he just isn’t ready yet, and that is perfectly ok.”

That precise concern was what made me hesitate in sending home those books to begin with. They are part of a program that pushes reading faster and earlier than was ever expected of kindergarten even a few years ago (our state now has standardized testing even for kindergarten that expects them to be reading by the end of the year).

Schools here must comply with these standards in order to keep their doors open. And so, cushioned by as much developmentally-appropriate play as possible, we engage in guided reading, word study, shared/independent reading and writing, and sending home these paper books to practice sight word recognition, in order to coax literacy along.

But just because I’m feeling the pressure of the latest state standard, does that mean I should transfer that pressure to parents, or heaven forbid, to the children themselves?

There are those who believe that warning parents of the growing demands–that if they don’t push, the kids will fall behind–is a kindness; I can see why they would feel that way. They do not want parents to be blind-sided by the increasing pressures from grade level to grade level.

But we can equip parents with tools without alarming them, or putting them in a scarcity mindset with their young children that will only make children hate learning before they’ve even really started. It may be the teacher’s role to shoulder the pressures from educational mandates, but I don’t believe we need to push that on parents. Rather, we can focus on our shared roles as teachers and parents on nurturing a lifelong learner, on preserving and cultivating the innate curiosity we all inherit.

Which is why my weekly emails now include this reminder about those paper books:

“Thank you so much for doing your best to read these with your children at home. These are meant to help your child retain our sight words throughout the year, but of course the most important reading is the kind that makes your child love reading! Stories they choose, text you guys identify as you drive or look at restaurant menus, and other forms of reading are all so beneficial.” 

As I often try to point out, capital “S” struggles–such as developmental delays, disability, and profound lack of access to resources–these are all caveats that should never be dismissed when making decisions on the timing for and types of interventions that might be needed. But barring these extreme circumstances, most children will flourish at their own developmental pace if given the space and resources to do so.

It just so happened that that readiness was closer than either I or my student’s parent thought. Not 2 weeks later, this parent returned and told me, “I don’t know happened! I did what you said and stopped pushing those practice books. And now suddenly he is excited about trying to read everything! It’s hard to keep up!”

And I just smiled to see this beautiful & familiar pattern unfold yet again: when in doubt, go with the child.

5 Useful Leveled Texts Resources

We can drill comprehension strategies all day, but until students are given opportunities to grow their knowledge base through reading accessible texts, they will continue to struggle. That’s why I’ve searched out some level-able texts online you might be able to use with students! Meanwhile, I want to make it clear that this should not be a substitute for a diverse classroom libraries that provide students with plenty of choices. But as a supplementary resource, or perhaps while we’re working on building one, here are some resources that may be of use:

#1: Time for Kids: Accessible journalism for kids. Also available to be read aloud, or in Spanish!

#2: Newsela: Connects with Google Classroom to be able to assign reads to students. Some include a quiz or writing prompt as well, and many are available in Spanish.

#3: Wonderopolis: While this resource is not exactly level-able, it’s still made extremely accessible through features such as audio, highlighted vocabulary to look at definitions, a quiz, and just sheer interesting topics that kids are wondering about around the world!

#4: Dogo News: Search by grade or interest, and access assignments & audio. Some of the features do require a Pro account.

#5: ReadWorks: Similar features as elsewhere. I like that there are fiction and poetry options available here.

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All The Books I’ve Shared, Gathered In One Place (plus 5 recent favorite nonfiction reads)

I just wanted to write a quick post to share that I’ve (finally) created a page where one can find all the book recommendations on this website. With how much I enjoy writing book round-ups, I’m surprised I did not do this sooner!

While you’ve stopped by, here are a few more reads we have enjoyed lately. I was surprised to realize when I made the above page how few nonfiction round-ups I’ve written, so here are our recent favorites from that genre:

Round byJoyce Sidman, Taeeun Yoo. Beautiful illustrations that get us thinking about what is round and why. An excellent inquiry text.

Birthdays From Around the World by Margriet Ruurs, Ashley Barron. Great text for helping kids comprehend similarities and differences across the globe.

Where’s the Baby: A Spotting Book by Britta Teckentrup. Really cute rhymes and even cuter illustrations. All of my kids (ages 2-8) delighted over finding the babies.

Living Things & Non-Living Things: A Compare & Contrast Book by Kevin Kurtz. Most accessibly nuanced approach to living vs. non-living that I’ve ever seen. “Not even scientists have a perfect answer.”

Power Up by Seth Fishman & Isabel Greenberg. My 8 year-old can’t stop musing about the power of her pinky ever since reading this illuminating book. Fascinating introduction to energy.

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What We’re Signing Them Up For & Why #TeacherMom

Is it bad that as I attended a training meeting for an online preschool, I was:

1) reading Free to Learn by Peter Gray, and,

2) internally rolling my eyes while the trainer extolled promises of kindergarten readiness and motivation tips for consistent use from our 4 year-olds?

I probably didn’t earn any gold stars at any rate.

But I’m not in it for performance anyway. I’m in it because my son has started to exhibit interest in letters, and I wanted to see whether this program might further his interest. It is not to replace or even complete with our story time, library trips, or casual chats related to literacy.

If he’s not motivated, it’s not because I need to do more to motivate him — it’s because he’s not developmentally ready for it.

If he’s not “performing” on later tests, it’s not because I didn’t do enough to drill ABC’s with him in PreK — it’s because standardized tests are an inherently poor measure of authentic learning.

These are truths whether we face, as Kristine Mraz put it so eloquently,  lowercase “s” struggles (ordinary variation of learning pace) or uppercase “S” STRUGGLES (systemic barriers that disproportionately impact families and students of color).

However, when we look again at this program with the lens of STRUGGLE, it becomes clearer why we might hope it will aid in closing socioeconomic achievement gaps. After all, it’s free, home-based, and equipped with personal consultants for each family to support their children.

But even so, I would caution all users against being overly dazzled by promises of future academic performance. I would probably be more enthusiastic if the introductory folder (full of opt-in sheets for motivational texts and tips for establishing user routines) also included information on the local library and tips for establishing meaningful literary routines. (I’d like to be clear, I am grateful for the resource to be able to help my son investigate his growing curiosity about letters in a new way; I just don’t attach the same weight to it all that the program seems to expect).

No matter our background, and no matter our kids’ ages, books > programs. Connecting with a good book is much more likely to produce readers than drilling skills.

For other parents worried about kindergarten readiness, here are some other posts you might enjoy based on our experiences with my now 3rd grader:

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“A” is For Captain America: Following Their Lead for Learning

Despite my commitment to follow my kids’ lead when it comes to their natural developmental learning pace, I still find myself worrying at times. What if they never indicate readiness? What if I miss the signs? What if I wait too long before possible interventions might be needed?

Once again, it has proven to be unnecessary worry. Over the last few months, my 4 year-old has started to indicate interest in identifying letters. This began with, “A is for Captain America!” He began identifying “A’s” everywhere, connecting both to the shape of the letter and its sound.

When he started to add others, like “B is for Black Widow,” I decided to turn to our environment help build this growing interest. We put some vinyl sticker letters to use, reinforcing both superheros and household objects that begin with each letter. How many can you name?

While this was a simple exercise, we’re already seeing him make even more connections beyond the home environment. It stands as a reminder to me that building early literacy does not need to be very complicated. Following the child’s lead is more powerful than we might think.

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She Just Asked Google To Remind Her to “Read All the Books On the Bottom Shelf” #TeacherMom

A few days ago, I overheard my 8 year-old adding her day plans to our shared daily to-do list (more on that here). Using the speech-to-text feature, amid other typical tasks, I suddenly heard her say, “Read all the books on the bottom shelf.”

Teacher mom that I am, of course I was delighted. 

But then I turned to reflect once more on our journey of her literacy:

The pressures I felt to ensure she memorized the ABC’s before kindergarten.

The way I felt like a failure as a teacher when she would not cooperate with my beautifully laid-out magnetic letter play.

The constant tension I felt between whether I should let her choose her own books or drill her on-level basal reader or sight-word flashcards to push her to the next reading level.

The nagging worry that I was denying her opportunities by turning down programs with the label, “proven to be successful in improving the reading skills of every student who participates.”

The way I wondered if I was wrong to yield to her book-making efforts over any worksheets that came home.

Yet amid all the angst, here we are to nearly the start of 3rd grade, and not only is she a fantastic reader and writer, but she’s adding items to her to-do list like “read all the books on the bottom shelf.”

It makes me wonder. Had I pushed all those academics and level advancement on her from my place of stress and worry, would she be making such choices for her summer? My suspicion is that had I pushed my agenda on my strong-willed child, she would want little to do with books today–especially on her “time off.”

It seems that those of us raising kids today are given every reason to believe that to trust our kids’ autonomy over their learning is tantamount to negligence. We are constantly bombarded with ads that offer promises of confidence in our children’s future success. We are so stressed by questions on whether we’re doing enough for our kids, that there is little room left for noticing the learning that quietly and naturally unfolds each day.

This is where I’ll share and re-share this quote from Brene Brown (see it also on Preschool, Kinder-Prep, & 3 Things Kids Need Most):

There is an abundance of learning and growing happening within our kids each day. Recognizing, embracing, and celebrating that from a place of love will always outperform operating from a place of not-enough stress and fear. Not because it will guarantee some future Harvard acceptance or a job on Wall Street, but because it will cultivate a lifetime of joyful learning.

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21st Century Literacy Opportunities You Probably Overlook #TeacherMom #IMMOOC

I’ve decided to join this year’s #IMMOOC as I finally read George Couros’ book, Innovator’s Mindset. I’m looking forward to making new connections with teachers around the world and to finding ways to push my thinking and comfort zone over the next 5 weeks!

Here’s a passage that has stood out to me most for this week’s reading:

“We are spending so much time telling our students about what they can’t do that we have lost focus on what we can do. Imagine that if every time you talked about the ability to write with a pencil, you only focused on telling kids to not stab one another with the tool. What would you really inspire in your students? Creativity? Unlikely. Fear? Almost certainly.”

It seems that the older my kids get, the more often I hear about the dangers of screen time, online predators, and cyberbullying. Rarely if ever do I hear parents share the amazing ways they are engaging in technology with their kids.

Apart from this being a missed opportunity to build positive associations with the possibility tech affords, it also misses out on some serious opportunities for literacy (both traditional and digital).

As rare as it is to hear about the positive examples among parents, I actually observed an impromptu example just this weekend as my mother-in-law sat at the computer with my nephew. They were searching out some fun gadgets together on Amazon, but what quickly caught my attention was the language my mother-in-law was using with my nephew. As they looked at new products, she helped him scroll down the page, saying things like, “When I’m looking at something I think I might like to buy, I look first at the 1-star reviews. That helps me find out what I might not like about it.”

I listened as they read the reviews out loud together and then discussed whether they thought those would be relevant issues. And as they navigated new products, it was clear my nephew was quickly becoming more discerning about what he was viewing.

Who would have thought Amazon could be rich soil for literacy? But I guess if we’re paralyzed by fear, we’re not exactly on the lookout for ways we might invite our kids to join us in our screen use.

Now, to be clear, if our kids’ device use is also limited to moments we “give in” due to begging or boredom, that’s also a missed opportunity. The key is in how we are engaging with our kids, and in positive, practical ways. I’m looking forward to finding more ways we can show kids what they can do with tech, both as parents and as teachers.

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