Monday, June 9, 2014

Surviving Days of Whine and Poses: Learning with the Kids Over Summer

My teenager son and his nearly-there sister are a little beyond the water and bucket type of activities that used to entertain them during the stretch of summer between school sessions. I am currently a stay-at-home parent, and previously was a classroom teacher, so for the past eight years I have had the inglorious duty of corralling them home or taking them to the beach. We're not wealthy but we are blessed enough to be able to afford some activities - like camp and classes -  during the summer, both to entertain and to broaden their horizons.  Other than that, much of what we do to minimize their learning loss during the summer has to be free or nearly-free. Some of what we do may not work for someone else's family because a key component for us is that I have had summers free, which makes some of the follow-through on academics a little easier than for families with two working parents.

Personal Interests and Community Volunteerism
It's important to not be strictly concerned with standard learning, like math and writing, even if your child needs it.  That's potential burn-out. Stretch their minds a bit by offering choices of alternative subjects. For example, my daughter is taking American Sign Language and Beginning Guitar this summer. My son is taking Ukelele Lessons, Basic Lifeguarding, and attending a week-long Leadership Camp which assures me he will learn group management and, well, leadership skills. Our local library also needs youth volunteers, so I might pursue that, too. For my teenager son, when he pouts or bemoans the loss of an afternoon, I remind him that he is building up a repertoire of skills for that future summer job interview. Mama ain't going to buy that car, you know.


Due to my son's less than stellar performance recently, I have made an agreement with him that he must review his Algebra course this summer. He didn't fail, which would mean that the school would require him to attend their summer course program. He scraped by. Therefore I do not have the intimidating letter that would make my case for him. I had to convince him of the necessity of this.
I am not a Tiger Mom, but I know my son, and I know he should have done better. His future career options mean he has to become better at math. He wants to be scientist or become a videogame designer. Those are math-based careers. He saw the logic of it.

I should note: this wasn't a peaceful 10 minute talk one sunny afternoon. This was culmination of a series of talks over the past year, as I noticed his grades were inconsistent. There were periodic meltdowns. As a parent, you might say: well, ground or punish him until he gets an A. That's not so effective for an older child - at least not mine. It only creates shutdowns, meltdowns, showdowns, just an overall "downer" situation. I want my son to support these decisions for himself more than because "mommy says so".  At fifteen, I want him to see that his future can be shaped by his choices. It's perfect, in theory, but in practice, it is a challenging path.

I found a few FREE online courses for a self-review. I prefer the ones with actual online tests. If he wants any free time on his beloved computer this summer he'll have to demonstrate progress on one of these sites.

Core Algebra1
Saylor Academy
West Texas University

I'm giving him the choice of either paper based - I have an algebra course book at home - or online, and we'll go from there.

My daughter has to review - typical sixth grade gap - fractions, decimals and percents specifically but I am planning on using a few of these online math sites to review general math skills overall.

Cool Math 4 Kids
Math Playground
PBS Kids Math Games

One of my all-time favorite sites for multiplication is TimezAttack. It's a very effective, very inexpensive program which helped my daughter when she struggled with her multiplication tables.
Also, as a parent and as a teacher, if you have child who is struggling with their multiplication tables, in my personal experience, simply writing them down, each fact five times each, was the best breakthrough method for both my kids. Flash cards are not useful for everyone, and neither are online games. Sometimes you just have to buckle down and bite the repetition bullet. By the way, repetition is the reason that TimezAttack works so very well.

I am requiring them both to read at least four books this summer, of at least 100 pages each. They can "prove" they have read the books by drawing a picture, creating a ten question test for me (the parent) to take, or orally reviewing the book for me.

Because my daughter fights the idea of reading, I have to be careful not to make my expectations too stringent. "As long as she is reading something" has been mantra for a couple of years now, and it's worked best for us. My son reads so much he walks into walls when he's holding his book, so I am not too worried about him.

I am taking a more serious approach with writing this summer. I haven't been impressed with my son's high school writing assignments, so I want to make sure he is prepared for college essays.
My daughter has shown good improvement under the tutelage of her sixth grade teacher, but I want to stretch it out just a bit. I am trying out something new this year for both of them.
I have designed writing "assignments" which are either short and silly or completely useful. For example, I am having my daughter write about  the differences between fairies and pixies (compare/contrast) or write about the mythology and possible origin of the unicorn (expository). My older one needs to write about the path to becoming a video game designer, including job outlook and income levels (research).  Additionally, last summer a friend introduced me to the idea of creating a "summer journal" (creative/personal), where they wrote a few sentences every few days about either their summer days or travels or response to a question like, "What's more important, time or money?"  We might do that again, too.

Consequences, and Consequences in Disguise
How do I get my kids to complete all this? There are consequences if they don't meet my generous deadlines. No television, no internet, no friends. I also think it's important, though, not to be too dictatorial about all this. I really want the academics to be fun, so I will settle for gentle resignation.

Besides, summer is Summer. It has to be fun. Regardless of the intensity of our culture which insists on breeding doctors out of six year olds and touts computer programming classes over art appreciation, I still want my children to have those Classic Summer Memories. I mix up the summer with beach trips, overnight stays with friends, and dollar movie days. I reward them with ice cream sundaes for dinner. I "surprise" them with Pajama Days - and pancakes for lunch. In a pinch, these little spots of joy can become treasures to hold hostage unless something is fixed or finished.

Stop... Take the Time
Also... my one big "trick" for success with these academic goals is giving them time. If they feel rushed, they become ornery and resistant. I don't get angry about something that isn't done; we'll just pick it up the next day or in a few days.  I break up the math into small chunks, say, five problems at a time, or one concept per week. For my children, insisting on a quick finish has never been the start of a great day.

Give Them a Break
Their favorite "gift" this year ? The first week after school is out, I am not bothering them about any academics or extensive chores. It's "Pajama Week". They have one whole week of all-day pajamas, hot pocket sandwiches, cold cereal, chips, popcorn, chocolate milk and hamburgers. All they have to do is make sure they put away the laundry. If they start a craft, they have to put away their stuff when they're done. They can hole up in their room with their iPod or iPad for a few hours at a time. My daughter can burn out on Disney television. It's teenaged bacchanalia at its best.

I am already seeing what I hoped would happen. My daughter is a little bored with TV already on the first day, and asked me to help her drop off a gift for a sick friend (I took her) and is planning to ride her bike later. My son is wondering when his dad is coming home. I am letting them revel in their delicious media-rich freedom for now, hoping that when we do gear up for the activities and academics, it'll be a welcome reprieve and not "because mom says so".

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