Tag Archives: parenting

Helping Your Middle School Student with his/her failing grades [FULL TEXT]

Originally published on March 30, 2017 in On Parenting, the Lifestyle section of the Washington Post. It needed trimming for WaPo but I wanted to put the full text on my site. It was really well received and even tweeted by the National Council for Teachers of English & Dad 2.0 Summit. 

Treat your middle schooler like a rattlesnake.

So it’s the end of March and your middle schooler’s grades are still unstable. And, to make matters worse, poor performance at school is eroding your child’s self-esteem. I know a few students who feel like their academic life is happening to them. Furthermore, parenting a middle school student is complicated. Questions about when you are helping or when you are helicoptering loom large.

But there’s still last quarter/trimester and that means there’s still time for improvement. I’ve taught English at secondary level, tutored middle school students in writing, and I’m a parent myself. Below I offer practical suggestions for helping your child become more self-directed and advocating for him in a way that’s not *gasp* helicoptering.

First, gather as much information as possible. There is so much lost in translation between the classroom and the home. Here’s what you need to know:

What are my child’s grades in each class? What are the consequences of failing a class?  How can I monitor those grades in between progress reports and report card distribution? Many schools use an online grade book where teachers, students, and parents have access to scores. This makes for fewer surprises when report cards are distributed. Find out what the consequences of academic failure are. Most schools address failing grades by removing students from extra-curricular activities. This policy is usually explicitly stated in the school handbook. If your child is highly invested in the musical or soccer team, this policy can be an effective motivator to improve those grades.

In each class, how is the final grade for a marking period computed? Not all grades count equally. A quiz usually counts for far less than a test, project, or research paper. This information was probably outlined at the beginning of the school year. And while it’s likely that each department calculates grades differently, it’s unlikely that your child will remember how the grading in each class works.

What units will the teacher cover last quarter/trimester? What are the big assignments? Many teachers already know due dates for projects or can approximate dates for tests. Teachers plot out each marking period with learning objectives and assessments.

 Does the teacher have his/her own website where students and parents can access information? When I taught English, I had a simple website powered by Google sites. I uploaded PDFs of short stories, assignments, graphic organizers, and informational handouts. I updated my site regularly with homework assignments or “housekeeping” items (i.e. field trip money due). Browsing teacher websites is a good way to keep yourself informed about what’s going on in the classroom without having to email the teacher multiple times and wait for replies. Moreover, you can synthesize the information on the websites along with your child. This makes for teachable moments about web literacy at home.

Where does my kid lose the most points? Is she crumbling on tests? Does he hand in essays late? As a teacher and tutor, I can usually identify the defining factor in a student’s failing performance. For some it is time management. For others it is lack of study skills. Some come alive when we read aloud in class but have problems reading at home. If you want a full picture here, this conversation with your child’s teacher is best done over the phone or in person. Email works perfectly when your questions require concrete answers. But when a situation is emotionally charged (like one about your child failing at school), email fails because it requires too much nuance.

Second, make a plan with your child. I realize this is easier said than done and will require an unremitting amount patience and energy.

Choose what to focus on. If you get answers to the questions above, you can use them to help your child budget her time. If your child knows what big assignments are coming up, he can focus on tackling one task at a time.

Get extra help. You don’t have to hire a tutor or pay tuition at a learning center (i.e. Mathnasium). Those are viable options, sure, but many teachers offer extra help. Encourage your son to ask when and where extra help takes place. It’s usually after school but sometimes teachers give extra help during unscheduled periods. And extra help is typically a smaller group. There’s more opportunity for your child to build rapport with her teacher and get questions answered.

Incentivize good grades. From sticker charts for chores to promotions with larger salaries at work, reward systems work regardless of age and stage. The key is identifying the right incentive. Set some challenging but doable goals with your middle schooler. Then establish something worthwhile to motivate your child. Be explicit in your conversations about both the goals and the rewards.

Invest in a planner. Transitioning from one teacher in elementary school to 6-7 teachers in middle school is jarring to students. Moreover, assignments have longer lead times. When I taught freshmen, I spent some time at the beginning of the year going over the school’s planner (a combo handbook, calendar, weekly organizer). Most adults keep some form of calendar. But maintaining an organized planner is not intuitive to most adolescents.

Teach your child how to email his teacher(s). Speaking of skills that are not intuitive, your child might be well-versed in new apps, but in sixth grade, she probably doesn’t know how to compose a good email. Writing polite, focused emails is necessary for success today. A few weeks ago, as my tutee Owen and I discussed his current English project, I realized he didn’t know enough about his teacher’s timeline or expectations. Instead of aimlessly circling the issue, we spent part of our session that night sending an email to his teacher. Owen asked questions about email etiquette like why does it need a subject or how do I write the salutation and closing. He was amazed at how quickly his teacher replied and how easy it was to get clarification. He’s a confident and capable adolescent. Knowing how to write an email is going to give Owen more agency in his academic life.

Third, work the plan. Consistent and clear dialogue is key as you move forward. I’m willing to bet that once you have the necessary information and a plan, you and your child will feel less anxious. Less anxiety will make conversations with your child go more smoothly. I’m a believer in frontloading: invest a good amount of time in the beginning and you’ll be able to pull away the scaffolding as your child builds his/her own study skills. Good luck!

 

 

 

Comments Off on Helping Your Middle School Student with his/her failing grades [FULL TEXT]

Filed under education, freelance writing, motherhood

Morning snuggles…sort of

People enjoy me on social media too.

People enjoy me on social media too.

Earlier this week, in an effort combat the longer summer days and make sure my kids sleep in (purely for my own sake), I taped cardboard on their window behind the blackout curtains. See the screenshot from Facebook. Judging by the emojis, other moms are in the same boat or were when their respective children were small ameba-humans like mine.

The results have been inconclusive. Darcy is coming down with a cold so who knows what’s going on in her little dragon brain all night. Or who knows why she got up at 5:13 this morning after a long day of pool play time yesterday.

Here’s my morning inner monologue for your entertainment…

(Hold on. It’s 8:16 am and we’ve already had breakfast and danced in the kitchen to The Village People. But my writing is interrupted by the sounds of rage from the play room. And indeed when I walk in, they are locked like two rams, heads butted against each other, over a new set of Legos. I’m not kidding. The image you have in your head should be of two kids on all fours, legos on the floor between them, tops of their heads touching. I marvel at how strong both of their noggins must be and see veins popping from reddened necks. Then I intervene.)

Back to your regularly scheduled programming.

5:13am: I look at the clock but it’s still pitch black outside. I lie to Darcy who is standing eerily silent at my door. “It’s still night-night,” I say and change her diaper. Then I put her back in her crib.

5:38am: I hear a soft thump. No doubt this is Darcy getting out of her crib. Her ninja skills are good until the landing. The monitor shows the empty crib and closed door. She’s up in her brother’s bed tryin’a get comfy. She must be stopped. Jackson can sleep through an atom bomb but not in the early morning hours. I grab her and she is mercifully silent. “Want to lay with mommy?” “Okay,” a tiny nasally voice in the dark.

5:39 am: She lays facing me, eyes closed and smiling. To the victor goes the spoils. She looks cute in the early morning light peeking through the sides of my blackout curtains.

5:42 am: She moves away, now perpendicular to me. And the toe digging in my side begins. I’m reminded to cut her toenails. They feel like small razors. And her feet are surprisingly strong. It’s the worst shiatsu massage ever. Between this borderline torture and her ability to deprive me of sleep, she has a career in the CIA ahead of her.

5:50 am: Sitting up. Playing with both of her lovies.

Lounging like a boss at 10am.

Lounging like a boss at 10am.

5:51 am: I pretend to sleep and Darcy notices. I must needs the lovies. In an expertly executed role reversal, she puts the lovies on my forehead and gives me her blanket. “Night-night, Mommy,” she whispers coyly. Her chance at escape. I clutch the lovies while I decide whether or not to care. The lovies are surprisingly comforting. I spend the next few minutes working through a business plan for adult lovies, ignoring the toddler altogether.

5:56 am: She is at my door fussing with the childlock. No CIA yet for you. Foiled by a piece of plastic around a doorknob.

5:57am: I weakly attempt discipline and then, research be damned,”Want your iPad?”

5:59 am: I doze to the horrifying sounds of children’s programming. My half-dreams while the Yo Gabbas sing are the closest I will ever get to an acid trip, I believe.

6:25 am: Jackson slams the door open. Take that, childproofing! I’m six! He rubs his eyes. “I went potty, Mommy. I slept later too. See, I tried to help.”

Comments Off on Morning snuggles…sort of

Filed under family

Christmas Reflection

Dec. 27th…

This may turn into a 2014 reflection. In which case, I apologize in advance for the long-windedness and waxing sentimentality. This post will also be rambling and slightly incoherent. It’s 6:02 here in Austin. I’ve been up since 4:09 when my 4yo Jackson busted in our room in tears because he had a bad dream. Zombies again, I think. At 4:34, my 11-month-old dragon baby stood yelling at the corner of her crib and pointing at the red lights on the dropcam. On the monitor itself, Darcy looked like she was pointing at me, eyes glowing fluorescently with camera’s night vision. So I can’t promise anything too profound in this barely caffeinated state. Perhaps “reflection” was a bit of a reach.

So…reflecting on Christmas. This was something I tried in vain to do on December 25th but with all the cooking, cleaning, unwrapping, playing, talking, drinking…well, you know how it goes.

For the second year now, I hosted Christmas. This was something I’ve always wanted to do, even before kids, even before marriage. I alway envisioned my fully decorated home filled with good people, good smells of food cooking, and lots of laughter. That tableau is the Norman Rockwell version.

The saner among us (perhaps those who have hosted Christmas before) know that hosting Christmas is not all its cracked up to be. It is an endless “to do” of menial tasks and endless stress about budgets and whether or not your food will suck. To Do Before 12/25: cookies, cards, decorations, gifts, more cookies because you ate the first batches, menu planning, food shopping, cooking, freezing, defrosting, cooking. And somewhere in there, everyone gets sick and you are somehow supposed to make it to church. I totally failed on that last one. Christmas was most definitely an “Xmas” for us this year save a few reminders to Jackson that “IT’S JESUS’s BIRTHDAY!”

Last year’s Christmas was a blur. I was 36 weeks pregnant with Darcy. Unable to bend too much or stand very long, I can remember sitting on a step stool in my kitchen mired in recipe cards and dirty dishes and suffocating from the heat of the oven. I was just waiting for it to be over.

This year was much different in that regard. I made the conscious effort to accept any offers of help, to split up tasks and accomplish them throughout the month, to plan a menu that was simple, and to take lots of deep breaths. The result was one of the most enjoyable Christmases I’ve ever experienced and yet we had more food, more guests, and more wrapping than ever before.

They say many hands make light work. And mom, dad, my mother-in-law Karen, and C.K. did not disappoint. My mother-in-law, in addition to bringing several side dishes and desserts, helped everyday in the kitchen doing too many tasks to enumerate. By Monday we had basically a full Thanksgiving dinner to serve as our lunches and dinners leading up to Christmas. On Christmas day, she stood there washing and trimming mushrooms for about forty five minutes while I pulled together the other dishes and tried to hide my terror. She did so much in the kitchen that I looked at the dishes last night and thought “Oh, I have to do those?” She left early yesterday morning. Yes, Kristin. You have to do your own friggin’ dishes again.

And it was so nice to have her with us this year. This was the first Christmas we combined both sides of our family and I can’t even begin to express how lovely it was to see my children showered with attention from their grandparents.

My parents got here on Christmas Eve…just in time to take everyone out to a delicious dinner at Truluck’s. Last year, I made the traditional seven fishes dinner. And no, I don’t miss it. Dinner out on Christmas Eve for the win! On Christmas day, my parents arrived with three bags of gifts for us and then spent the day juggling an overtired sick baby girl, drifting in and out of the kitchen to clean and help with any extra tasks. Things just get done when my parents are around. A child is bathed. Clothes are folded and put away. A high chair is wiped down.

My husband, like my parents and mother-in-law, does too much to list here. I just give two examples of how generous a heart he possesses. First, he spent 2.5 hours putting together this Marvel Lego battle station thing at the end of Christmas day. When Jackson finished his bath, he strutted out in his Christmas pjs and promptly started taking it apart. C.K. didn’t complain at all. We did take a picture of him with the finished product for posterity though. And second, my husband, in addition to all his support of my “Christmasing” (especially the parts where I go over budget,) he got me basically everything on my Amazon wishlist.

Today we will celebrate Christmas with my little sister Maggie who spent her holiday working in the ER. She will never say it aloud but she is a fantastic physician whose medical knowledge is only outweighed by her compassion. I can’t wait to see her today, exchange gifts…and do more eating and drinking!

So Christmas was great. It was Darcy’s first. She killed it in her red velvet dress and despite being sick, she handled all the hoopla like a champ. And Jackson seems to enjoy it more every year. He is the best “gift-getter” I’ve ever met. Really, if any of you ladies out there don’t want to open all your bridal shower gifts in front of your party guests, Jackson will stand in. Upon opening his yoga mat, Jackson exclaimed, “A yoga mat! Finally! I’ve wanted one for so long. Thank you so much.” Every gift, toy or otherwise, was met with the same enthusiasm and gratitude. When I asked Jackson at dinner what his favorite gift was, he responded matter-of-factly, “my new jeans.”

Aren’t you lucky I didn’t go through the entire year? It’s late now but I hope you all had a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, a Happy Kwanzaa, and/or a Merry Feastivus/long weekend. And may your 2015 be filled with joy.

Comments Off on Christmas Reflection

Filed under C.K., family, food, motherhood