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 email@example.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
Do you have any advice for how to help my kids adjust to a new school? We’re planning to build a new house a few towns over, but the house will not be complete until November or December. My sons will be in sixth and second grade. Academically, I have no worries because they’ve been in-person five days a week all year, and the place we’re moving to hasn’t offered more than two in-person days since last March. I do have social concerns. I’m not so nervous about the younger one, he’s pretty outgoing, but my older son is quite shy and quiet. He won’t be leaving any close friends behind, and part of why we’re moving is to be in a neighborhood with sidewalks and lots of kids. When I first decided to move to this town I thought it would be a good year to move because sixth grade is the first year of middle school, and he’d be starting with everyone else. Now I’m nervous he won’t make any friends. Will kids be mean? I’d love any suggestions.
Here’s the good news: Kids move all the time, so although it can feel upending and frightening to children and parents alike, teachers and students are very accustomed to new students, and in my experience, new students are often an exciting addition to the classroom in the minds of their classmates. He will likely be greeted with enthusiasm.
Will kids be mean? It’s possible, but in my experience, there are far more friendly, kind, and helpful children than mean children in this world. To help your son make friends, I would try to involve him in outside activities where he has a chance to interact with kids beyond the classroom walls. Sports are an easy way for children to get to know one another, but organizations like The Boy Scouts, church groups, and other after-school activities can also be helpful.
You can also ensure that your son has the tools needed to facilitate friendships. Help sign him up for popular activities or get him the equipment he needs to participate in neighborhood play, like a skateboard if local kids skate at the park. This can tougher when it comes to items like phones and video games, depending on your level of comfort with these devices. My son’s classmates were all playing a video game called Among Us, but he was not. Eventually my wife and I agreed to look into the game, set limits on how often he could play, and allowed him to join his friends because we understood the value of being in the loop. (Conversely, our seventh grade daughter still does not own a phone, even though it means that discussions about TikTok and Instagram sail over her head. )
Helping your son settle into the neighborhood culture will enable him to establish strong and lasting friendships.
Best of luck!
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
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My soon-to-be five-year-old is so close to reading, but now she’s resisting it. For about two weeks, she was sounding out letters and even digraphs, identifying sight words, and showing off her skills, and then it was like a switch went off and she is refusing to do any of it. She’s even claiming not to recognize letters. (We will be out and I’ll point to a sign and ask her about a letter and she’ll say, “I don’t know.”) What do I do to get her back to working on building this skill?
This may seem counterintuitive, but I think you need to take your feet off the gas. Your child is already ahead of developmental expectations for her age, and it seems like that “switch” is probably behavioral, rather than academic. Kids have very little autonomy. At her age, she controls when and where she poops, when and what she eats, and that’s pretty much it. There is so little independent choice in her life, it sounds like the “switch” that went off was the realization that she could simply refuse to do something that you want her to do. It’s one choice she can make that you cannot change. Even for the most permissive, child-centric parents, kids are always going to look for a way to assert control over their parents because that’s how they learn autonomy, executive function, decision making, etc. She’s flexing those mental muscles in a way that is probably frustrating for you, but ultimately much easier than other refusals kids go through at that age.
I don’t mean to say you shouldn’t help with reading anymore. Reading to or with your child is one of the best things you can do. But at this stage it’s more important that she associate reading books with a positive experience than that she learns all her vowel sounds. Kids who want to read become better readers more quickly. You can also set up situations where she might need to gain information, such as cooking together using a kid-friendly recipe (large text, simple language, some pictures), sorting tasks, or even small chores. You could write a shopping list and see if she can read and find the items on it, and if she refuses to read or needs help, you can model how you would expect her to read (i.e. sound out the word) rather than simply reading it as an adult would. Then, instead of her feeling like she’s being quizzed, you introduce the concept that reading has a purpose. That is ultimately a more useful skill, and may help her move beyond refusing for the sake of refusal.
—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)
I am going back to school as a middle-aged white woman. So far, I am taking classes online through my local state school. Before the pandemic, I myself was teaching online graduate classes, so I’m aware of how much effort it takes to teach well virtually. My math professor is excellent (engaging, responsive; well-paced); I’m taking my second class from him this semester.
I began entertaining myself last semester by keeping track of his targeted ads (he often switches platforms while screen-sharing)—He’s a Francophile! He loves to bake! He likes magic tricks. But now, things have taken an odd turn—he frequently has pop-ups, which go “bing!” and draw attention to themselves; he immediately shuts them, but I nearly always see the content. They are ultra-conservative; like, Newsmax, etc. What is troubling is not so much the source, but the content of the headlines. Today, for example: “Minneapolis shootings up 91 percent” (an article seemingly implying that violence has risen as police are justly penalized for their criminal behavior); this is in addition to previous conspiracy-theory type stuff around Biden’s presidency.
I wish I didn’t care. I am learning difficult math easily through his instruction; this is a state school, and of course I am wary of any kind of political silencing (like what’s happening in primarily southern states, i.e. NC and FL). But … it’s pretty distracting, especially since he is an older white man. Should I do something? Email him after the semester is over? Contact admin? I am potentially dependent upon him for a recommendation for further schooling, so I don’t want to penalize myself for speaking up. FWIW, I am a white, middle-aged, fairly privileged person. What, if any, is my obligation here?
—Keep Your Pop-Ups to Yourself
Dear Keep Your Pop-Ups to Yourself,
I don’t think it’s necessary to alert the administration. Now, if you had said that the professor was biased against black students or was using class time to promote conspiracies, that would be different. But he isn’t; it seems his only crime here is not mitigating online distractions.
Based on your description, it sounds like your math professor cares about being an engaging, effective educator. Therefore, if you tell him that the pop-ups are distracting you during class, he will surely be motivated to fix the problem by disabling notifications. If he doesn’t know how to do that, you could offer to show him. You’re uniquely situated to help as someone who has taught online classes yourself. I don’t think this would jeopardize your ability to get a good recommendation since he appears to be an otherwise great teacher. If you feel uncomfortable speaking with him directly, this is feedback you could include on the end-of-course evaluation survey.
Personally, I wouldn’t mention the news he’s reading. Because he isn’t actively trying to promote conspiracy theories in class, you have nothing to gain from talking to him about them but you risk souring your relationship and jeopardizing a potential recommendation.
I have colleagues who hold political views that differ drastically from my own. While I vehemently disagree with them on certain issues, they are excellent educators who I respect professionally and care for personally. I am not suggesting that teaching is apolitical nor am I saying that current events are irrelevant to education. I am saying that it’s possible for your professor to be both an ultra-conservative and a caring, competent math teacher.
—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)
Do you have any recommendations for good books for middle school age children on economics, government, our monetary system, etc.? I have a curious kid, but I’d love something better than a textbook and am searching for a series or good author on these topics.
—How Things Work
Dear How Things Work,
Great question! It’s never too early to learn about and discuss these important topics. As a middle school teacher, I (unfortunately) haven’t run across many books covering these subjects (certainly none I have been so smitten with that I filed the titles away for later). But I reached out to a librarian friend who has worked in middle schools and high schools, and here are a few she recommends:
Hope these hit the mark!
—Ms. Scott (high school teacher, North Carolina)
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My daughter is a freshman in high school, and she recently got an assignment in life sciences that seems inappropriate. The assignment is for the kids to identify someone in their family who died of cancer, and then students are supposed to research that kind of cancer and create a poster presentation to display for the entire school. This seems like a terrible idea, and an invasion of privacy. Should I talk to the teacher?