Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
My kindergarten-aged daughter had brain surgery at the beginning of the school year. Due to this, we had a slow start to distance learning. She is reading at grade level and excelling at math, but because of our home situation (she is the oldest of four), school has been inconsistent for us. She is always present for her class meeting, but not consistent with getting work done because at this age it takes my being there to teach/explain/supervise, and with four kids, I am just not always able to. Because of the inconsistency in her work this year, her teacher has recommended she attend summer school. I am torn. I want to respect her teachers’ insights and experience, but I also feel like my daughter is burnt out and needs a break. I would appreciate any advice.
Since the teacher has recommended summer school, I’d encourage you to investigate the program and see how it’s designed. In our school district, for example, kindergartens spend two hours every morning in a program that includes music, art, physical education, and outdoor play. A program like this—if done in person—might be just what your daughter needs after a year of distance learning.
But if summer school is also virtual, or if the day is long and/or absent of the things that make school joyous for children, my suggestion is to allow your daughter to stay home and enjoy her summer off. This has been an incredibly challenging year for students and teachers alike, and I think that your daughter deserves a break from the grind of school and should have as much fun as possible over the next couple months.
I realize that I offer this advice knowing only that your daughter is reading at grade level and doing well in math, but honestly, had you told me that she was struggling in both subjects, I still would’ve suggested the summer off if the summer school program was not fantastic. If it were my daughter, I would absolutely keep her home if the summer school program failed to impress at all.
This isn’t to say that your daughter can’t spend her summer learning. Commit to reading lots of books. Visit museums. Watch educational television on rainy days. Grow some bean plants in different places around the home and talk about why some are growing faster than others. Teach her to cook something. Play board games. Write together. Listen to music. Paint and draw and sculpt.
You certainly don’t need summer school to give your daughter a vacation that keeps her mind active while giving her a much needed break from this challenging and imperfect school year.
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What is the appropriate way to let your child’s teacher know you’re going through a divorce? Should both parents tell the teacher together? Just one? By email? By phone? At what point do you let the teacher know—when you separate? When things are farther along? I’m struggling with how to break this news to my child’s teacher. We are planning to tell our children imminently, and are on the verge of (amicable) separation.
—Cusp of Change
The method of communication is not terribly important. Email or phone are both perfectly fine ways to inform your teacher of the news, and it doesn’t really matter if the news comes from one or both parents. The important thing to note is the timing: Let the teacher know as soon as possible.
Separation and divorce—even under the best of circumstances—is a profound change in a child’s life, and it’s not uncommon for teachers to see the repercussions of these changes in school. If a teacher knows about these changes, we are in a better position to support your child.
Many schools also have support groups for children of divorce, and social workers and psychologists can often recommend strategies to help your child navigate this challenging time of their life. Even simple questions like “How do I tell my friends that my parents are getting divorced?” are hard to answer for both children and parents. Teachers can be very helpful in this regard.
Teachers will also need to know about any changes in custodial rights, transportation to and from school, and other alterations in living arrangements. When I know that a student splits their time between two homes, for example, I try to provide books and other supplies for both homes to mitigate the stress of keeping track of what is where.
Ideally, I would let your child’s teachers know before your child knows, so that they are prepared to support your child from day one of this change in their family life.
For a variety of reasons, my 9-year-old son and my 14-year-old daughter will be staying home this summer, with my daughter looking after my son. I am out of the home for work 60+ hours per week, and my husband is gone about 40-45 hours a week. My daughter entertains herself by reading, crocheting, and playing animal crossing. My son is obsessed with Fortnite. Left to his own devices, he would play Fortnite or watch YouTube videos of people playing Fortnite from the moment he wakes up to the moment he goes to bed. We are able to temper that right now with him being in school and after school care most of the day and with us being around when he is home. And while I can count on my daughter to keep him safe, being a taskmaster for her younger brother 40 hours a week is a bit outside of her capabilities.
I want to come up with a summer curriculum to keep him occupied with something other than video games and YouTube. He is a good student, and I am not concerned about him backsliding over the summer, and I do want him to have an actual break. But I don’t want him to have complete control over how he spends his time. He is stubborn, and it’s already difficult to get him to complete non-preferred activities and homework, so the more fun and interesting the curriculum the better. My job is pretty high stress, and the hours are long, so I really don’t have a lot of bandwidth to create lesson plans, though I know it will be up to me and my husband to enforce consequences if my son doesn’t complete assignments. All the ideas I’ve found online applies to parents who are at home with their kids, not for kids working on their own. So far, all I’ve come up with is a family book club where we would all read and discuss a book, and possibly enrolling my son in some sort of virtual engineering class. I am not as worried about my daughter, though she would probably benefit from some structure as well.
Do you have any suggestions for resources or tools to help me come up with a plan that allows me to feel good about what they are spending their time on, while still allowing them to mostly enjoy their summer?
—NOT Working From Home
Dear Not Working,
I believe in encouraging kids to make stuff, regardless of what stuff that might be. For example, I recently showed my class a series of videos in hopes of spurring their creativity, including:
We’ve also made lists of areas that my students might be interested in, including gardening, baking, the setting of World Records, writing and filming short movies, launching podcasts, writing and illustrating books, building ant farms, sculpting, and more.
We’ve also discussed launching small businesses as another way of “making something.” In the past, students have sold handmade goods and garage sale acquisitions on Etsy and Ebay for a profit, operated lemonade stands, made and sold slime, started lawn care companies, written and produced live performances, and made and sold art. Years ago, one student bought large LEGO sets, assembled them, glazed them so they wouldn’t fall apart, and then sold them online for a profit.
Kids like money. Kids like earning money. Kids like the independence that comes with earning profits. Starting a small business is a great way to inspire a child’s entrepreneurial spirit and keep them busy for hours at a time.
My suggestion is to explore your child’s interests beyond Fortnite. Offer him lists of possibilities of things he might make. Incentivize him by investing in his business idea, offering to match profits, agreeing to rent him a booth at a farmer’s market, or pay someone to assist him in setting up an online store.
The barrier to entry for a kid to launch a small business is often a couple hundred dollars and a few adult-sized hurdles. Making that initial investment might incentivize him to spend some of his summer engaged in making things, solving problems, learning new skills, and understanding the value of hard work.
My son is going to be in third grade this fall. I don’t really support standardized testing, but almost all the kids in my son’s school take the standardized tests that the school issues. While he is an OK test taker, he is much smarter than the test will probably reflect. He will also get the test prep whether he takes the test or not. Should I opt him out on principle, or just let him take it and not make a big deal of the results?
—Opt Out or Opt In?
I would allow your son to take the test. While I certainly see problems with standardized testing, the data that teachers receive is invaluable, and assessment is a critical component to meeting a student’s specific academic needs.
It’s true that many students don’t perform their best in testing environments, but as teachers, we know this. We have all seen many of our most capable students fail to do their best on a test for any number of reasons. Your child’s standardized test score will not be the sole indicator of his academic potential but just one of many data points that teachers will use to assess learning and guide instruction.
If your child will be subjected to test prep anyway (one of the worst aspects of standardized testing in my opinion), you might as well allow him to take the test and make that data available to teachers who know how to use it judiciously.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
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We have a conundrum. Our daughter excels in her eighth-grade science class, and her teacher seems to like her. What’s the problem? The teacher is horrible. For example, once when I was in the classroom, the teacher put on a video without any context to the lesson. The video was far too advanced for the children watching it (heck, it was too advanced for me). My daughter says this is the norm and not a one-time thing. What should I do?