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28: Tips for Helping Your Child Do Better in School 
This piece first appeared in Tidewater Women,
a publication in Norfolk, Va.
The editor threw out the title as part of a question:
could you write something like this? I didn’t think so.
But over a few weeks, all these points surfaced.
So I’m grateful for a title and an interesting challenge.
There are ten sections, that can be read in any order.

 

28: Tips for Helping Your Child Do Better in School


I went to some great schools (e.g., Norfolk Academy, Princeton, the Army) but I can assure you that even the best schools do not hit all the right notes. I’ve been writing and thinking about education for decades, trying to pinpoint what tactics work best, especially for students who are not all that eager to be students. And let’s face it, some schools don’t try as hard as we might wish. Here are some ideas that can serve as occasional First Aid:

1) GEOGRAPHY, MAPS, SCALES OF MILES

Geography is the stage on which events happen. Nobody can study History, Politics, World Civilizations or Social Studies without first knowing Geography.


Every classroom and every home ought to have a map of the USA and a map of the world (but not the Mercator kind, where Greenland looks as big as South America). Or a globe of the world. Keep them handy, turn to them whenever it’s natural to do so--for example, a story on the news.

Start local. Get children to look closely at their own state and work outward. Trace the shape and cut it out--then children can place this shape on other areas and quickly get a sense of sizes and distances.

Nothing is more important on a map than a scale of miles; and to learn to compare distances on the map to distances you know in the real world. Let’s say a child has traveled by car from New York to Washington, D.C. Encourage the child to compare that trip with various trips one might take on the map. (Point out that super highways are one thing, mountainous wilderness another.)

Maps are great but the best maps of all are the ones that show elevation--often called “raised relief maps.” Then you can see and feel the terrain. Terrain shapes history.

The one “toy” I got the most out of was a jigsaw-puzzle map of the USA. Made of wood; each state a different color. I learned the shapes and locations as I learned the names. Years later, I made myself memorize the few states I didn’t recall, so I can start in Maine and name all 50 states. I believe that every American student should know this, as part of being a citizen. If schools would start in the first grade with the closest states, and then work outward in subsequent grades, this task could be painlessly achieved by sixth or seventh grade.

Google makes it easy to find a map of anything. Just enter, e.g., map Paris (be sure SafeSearch is on). Here’s a huge and interesting portal: Geography.about.com

(Note to teachers: maps, diagrams, charts and schematics are conceptually the same: a picture stands in for something else. I’d think that even first graders could grasp entry-level variations--e.g., a precise diagram of their own classroom. Children would learn to orient the diagram, then to find their own desks and other objects. It could be treated as a game.)
 
Also see "12: Map Alert" on this site.

2) LITERATURE, READING, POEMS

Reading is crucial. Without it, nothing else is possible.


I still suspect the age-old methods are best: start with nursery rhymes, doggerel and other fun and dramatic stuff. I loved “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” the first time I heard it; I still love it. I’ve seriously argued that “I’ve never seen a purple cow” is one of the great moments in English literature. I’ve written some kids’ poetry myself, and my favorite opening salvo goes: “A goosie named Lucie fell in love with a moosie named Brucie.” Ah, isn’t that sublime? Point is, go for the amusing, the memorable, the silly. I’d say comic books are okay. What children read is not primary; that they read is primary. There are only two things an adult reads for: entertainment or information. Why would it be different for a child?

The average adult doesn’t want anything deeper than a thriller. Why would a child want deep lit? Beware of adult pretension. Letters in the local paper debated the wisdom of placing “The Mayor of Casterbridge” on a summer reading list. Personally, I’d rather spend the summer sleeping in sand than have to read this book. You read a novel like this after you’ve read three hundred more entertaining novels. Whom was the teacher trying to impress?

Here’s a huge reading site: Bibliomania.com. About 2000 books, all the big names out of copyright. Just to test the technology, I read two whole books on my monitor. It’s nice. You don’t have to hold a book. You turn pages with the mouse.

The best rule of all for kids: if you don’t know a word, look it up. Dictionaries--small, large, and specialized--should be stuck around the house. TheFreeDictionary.com is excellent. Or place a dictionary widget on your desktop.

Here’s some Big Thoughts you can throw around: did you know that only English has a thesaurus? Because the vocabulary is so big--almost a million words. We have 5 words (synonyms) for almost everything. Most long words come from Latin. The short violent ones are from Anglo-Saxon. Plus words from almost every language on the planet. The history of the last 2000 years is contained in the English language.

Older students should know that English has many hundreds of pure Latin words, words that Julius Caesar spoke, such as: exit, bonus, area, forum, alibi, etc. (See “3: Latin Lives On” on this site for more such words.)

Even adults confuse it’s and its, whose and who’s. To clarify some of the common mistakes, I wrote an article called SPELLING FOR BUSY EXECS (Google the tile).

In the last 10 years, phonics made a roaring comeback, but there are still here and there spots of sight-reading. Often, if children learn to memorize shapes, they will have trouble with sounds. Children may not be able to explain why they are having problems. Schools casually throw around the term “dyslexia,” implying that a child is defective when, in fact, the reading pedagogy may be defective. I interviewed a reading coach in Canada, and she said: “Perhaps I should mention the best all-purpose indicator: the flipping of words like was and saw, and felt and left. These are examples of whole-word memorization gone wrong. Simple phonemic awareness or being taught the alphabetic principle would tell children that was could not say saw."(For more background, Google "Interview with a Reading Coach." Also see my video on YouTube.com titled “Phonics vs. Whole Word.”)

3) HISTORY. AND A SENSE OF TIME

Gilbert Highet, one of America’s legendary teachers, said it this way: “No one ever knows enough history.” (Highet also said: “No one knows, no one can even guess how much knowledge a child will want and, if it is presented in the right way, will digest,” which is pretty much the premise of all my work and of this article.)

I think the secret in history, and most other subjects, is to start with only a few facts, the most important ones. And then go over them at another time, adding more facts. Then again, and again. It’s like painting furniture--if you want a deep lustrous shine, you need about five coats of paint. (Conversely, the worst way to teach anything is to start at the very beginning, and work your way methodically to the end. Students forget the beginning before they reach the end. We learn quickest when we see the Big Picture.)

The second secret is a massive reliance on visuals: maps, pictures, art, film clips, Hollywood reconstructions, anything that will let a child of today see what another time and place look like. (Note: in Google Images, you can quickly find a picture of just about anything: Liberty Bell, Spartan warrior, Aztec city. Show your child how this works.)

Secret three, for the student: always start studying any new subject with the shortest summary or description you can find (a dictionary, for example). Growing up, I loved the one-volume Columbia Encyclopedia (Browse www.bartleby.com/65). I’d start there, then go to World Book. If I wanted more, I’d look up the same thing in Britannica (when I got to college) or find a book. Nowadays, there are so many great tools--Wikipedia.org, for example.

The History Channel is one of the best things on TV. Also great is HistoryChannel.com. Wait for a child to ask a question or have a project, and then show them how to navigate this huge resource.

Have you ever wondered why the 18th century refers to the 1700s? This is confusing for kids, and even many adults, Think about the first years AD--25, 78, etc. These are necessarily in the FIRST century. Years such as 123 and 178 are in the SECOND century. And already the numbers are out of whack. Extrapolate forward, and the year 1865 is in the NINETEENTH century, the year 1980 is in the Twentieth century. Make children try to explain this back to you. If they can, they are way ahead.

THE WEEK magazine ran one of the most oblivious remarks I’ve seen recently: “And as every American schoolchild learns, King George III hired 30,000 Hessian mercenaries to try to crush the American Revolution.” What percent of American children do you think actually learn that?

(If you want more along this line, please see “26: How To Teach History, Etc.”)

4) SCIENCE. AND A SENSE OF AWE

I’m writing an essay now called How to Teach Science, and the basic idea is simply this: emphasize curiosity and wonder.


Why is anything the way it is--a hand, a worm, a shell, a wave, a tree? Why does it work the way it works? Why does it work at all? Isn’t everything marvelous and almost beyond belief? Look up at the starry sky. You’ll never explain it but you can always feel wonder.

Some teaser questions: did you know there are more than one billion galaxies, each with a billion stars? Galaxies are so big that light, to travel from one side to the other, might take 100,000 years. Wow! That’s big.

Just teaching a child to distinguish animal, vegetable and mineral is a good place to start thinking scientifically. Or how about the difference between ice, water and steam. Most people know all this, but they don’t stop to think that gold, lead and almost every other element goes through the same three stages (solid, liquid, gas).

Exploratorium.com is a great science portal.

I tend to think every kid, at some time, would enjoy a big magnifying glass, a microscope and a telescope.

Perhaps the most amazing thing to me about my own education is that nobody (in family or school) ever made me learn the names of this region’s most common trees. The trees are standing there, in the yard, waiting to be noticed!

Also see "32: Teaching Science" and "17: Understanding Robots." 

5) COUNTING, NUMBERS, MATH

Next to reading, the most crucial thing is arithmetic and feeling comfortable with numbers.
Numbers, it should be stressed, are fun. But as with learning a foreign language, some of it is just, well, memorizing something so you always know it.

Here’s something that I made myself learn, as an adult, because none of my schools did the job. A thousand thousands is a million. A thousand millions is a billion. A thousand billions is a trillion. Put another way, a million means 6 zeroes, a billion means 9 zeroes, and a trillion means 12 zeroes.

So now, if I read that the human body has 50 trillion cells, I know that means 50,000,000,000,000.

The bottom line is real obvious: how can anyone discuss the budget or nature or anything really big or small without knowing what million and billion mean?

I recently ran into somebody at a party who said they had to memorize the multiplication table up to 20 by 20. I’d be happy if children knew the table up to 12 by 12. (Simply because it saves a lot of trouble, I made myself memorize 15 times 15, which is 225 and easy to recall.)

Here’s a simple way to travel into the dark heart of multiplication. Use a chessboard (or square-tile floor). Cover up all the squares except for an area 4 by 5. Let the child see that 4 by 5 means five rows of four, or four rows of five. Doesn’t matter. The total is still 20. Go ahead, count the squares. But explain there’s no way to do this simple math other than as an addition problem--4+4+4+4+4 or 5+5+5+5. It’s so much easier if you just memorize the common situations....Do the same routine with 6 by 7 squares....Then tell the child, okay, now you pick a rectangular area and explain to me what I just explained to you....Little by little you walk them through through the multiplication table--but now they really know what it means.

One of the odd things some schools do is to hand calculators to children without teaching them any computational sills. So the children, if a calculator isn’t handy, are helpless. Furthermore, calculators are a problem when the operator doesn’t have a ballpark number in mind. In other words, if you know the answer is around 45,000, you instantly know that 500,000 means you didn’t punch in the right numbers. You start over. The child without any sense of numbers accepts 500,000.

So much nonsense has insinuated itself into math education. I highly recommend a video on YouTube.com called “Math Education: an Inconvenient Truth” by M J McDermott. Or see "36: The Assault on Math."

6) FACTS, MEMORY, AND THE MNEMONIC

It’s safe to declare: “FACTS ARE FUN.” Why else do people love Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuits? I suspect that humans are hard-wired to collect miscellaneous information. You never know when a single tiny fact will help you find something (e.g., food in the jungle), or solve an emergency, or realize that something is amiss in your kitchen or backyard--and you had better act quickly.

Conversely, an amnesiac is always starting over. Young people without any information in their heads are always at a disadvantage.

Starting a century ago, some educators argued that children didn’t need to bother memorizing much of anything, which might be a good idea if you want to dumb everybody down. But if you want children to do well, I’d say the trick is to subtly encourage them to acquire as much knowledge as possible. The Greeks and Romans were fanatical about devising techniques for retaining, organizing and presenting information. A man who couldn’t give a good speech was not highly regarded. To this day, a gimmick for memorizing anything is called a mnemonic device, after the Greek word for memory.

I was charmed to read about schools in England where children in sixth grade are told to devise first-letter mnemonics for the planets (in order from the Sun). The demotion of Pluto changed the game somewhat, prompting Stephen Colbert to concoct this solution: My Very Educated Mother Just Said "Uh-oh! No Pluto!" With this sentence in mind, most people could rattle off Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune.

As a kid, I tried to invent mnemonics for anything annoying. For example, concave versus convex lens. The concave lenses are the one that cave inward. Stalactite and stalagmite are really annoying. The syllable “mite” made me think of “might,” such as a fortress, which is definitely going to be on the ground. So stalactites must hang from above. The mnemonics you think of yourself are going to work best.

It’s handy to know the powers of 2. Here’s the verbal formulations I use to remember the two easy ones: “2 to 6 is 6-4. 2 to 10 is 10-2-4.” (Which provides all sorts of useful information, e.g., 10 generations back, and that’s only about the American Revolution or 1800, there were 1,024 people who contributed equally, from a genetic point of view, to what you are today.)

I remember as a teenager thinking that alliterations were fun. And palindromes. And oxymorons. If your child is home sick, mention Fun-with-words.com, which features all kinds of word play.

Basically, my notion is that if we don’t remember something, in what sense can we be said to know it? To dramatize that some schools had gone too far in downplaying memorization, I created The Quizz, which is 100 simple facts that every high school graduate should know. Older children might enjoy testing themselves against this list.(See “20: The Quizz” on this site.)

7) THE ROLE OF QUESTIONS

Teachers tend to ask questions that only they know the answer to...I’ve ruminated on this a lot.


Adults, in normal conversations, never use questions this way. Adults ask a question because they don’t know the answer and they genuinely want to know, e.g, “What time is it?” Conversely, adults asking questions they know the answers to would tend to be thought of as show-offs.

I suspect the most useful questions with children would be ones you don’t know the answer to, e.g. “What’d you learn today that surprised you?”; “What’s your favorite subject?”; “Which historical figure do you find most interesting?”; and many others.

Gilbert Highet touched on this in a different way. He said he thought teachers did a disservice to their subjects by suggesting that the big questions were all answered. And, therefore, for students, there was nothing new to be done. When the reverse is usually the case. Most fields are wide open. Teachers should encourage students to think they can ask original questions and discover new truths.

Similarly, I always think the mainstream media do a great disservice to the public when they present a collage of theories and guesses, and package it all as some big ball of ultimate truths. You have to read these articles carefully. You’ll see a lot of weasel words: could, maybe, might, possibly, may, in a few years. Encourage your child, somewhat like Diogenes, to search for an honest sentence.

8) RECESS, EXERCISE, SPORTS

I don’t hesitate to call myself an intellectual but nobody believes in the importance of sports more than I do, for all ages.
The idea that schools can eliminate exercise is just fatuous. There was actually a blurb in the local paper about schools that curtail recess to make room for “more academics.” If children are restless and agitated, they won’t learn more of anything. Better to let them run around outside for a half-hour; the time is not wasted. Then maybe the teacher can accomplish something. And maybe there can be fewer prescriptions for drugs to keep them docile.

9) CREATIVITY, ART, CRAFTS

There’s a big debate now in educational circles about what is called a creativity curriculum. The idea is that children, in order to be ready for the complex world of the future, must learn to be more creative.
 
I’m an artist (both novelist and painter) so I think I am entitled to point out the problems. Really creative people usually have a thorough grounding; they know lots and lots of facts and information. Often their creativity springs from rearranging all this stuff, and seeing things in a new way. Educators sometimes seem to be describing a world where empty-headed children will somehow tackle grand problems and pull solutions from empty air. If a so-called creativity curriculum is a pretext for downplaying academics, be suspicious.

I met a woman at a party who teaches Art to sixteen-year-olds. Not Art History, which might be quite useful. But painting in a studio. What is being replaced, that’s my question. I always think that children, at all levels, are better off learning something substantial. After all, there’s only so many hours in the day. The most obscure bit of Chinese history, or something really insignificant from astronomy--well, that’s exactly what might inspire a young artist or poet.

It always seems to me that the most creative person in the 20th century was James Joyce. He was educated in a very restrictive setting--Catholic Ireland during the Victorian Era. Nuns were rapping his knuckles from an early age. He was made to learn Greek and Latin. Etc. Etc. But he became a very volcano of creativity.

Even at the college level, if a future artist asked me for advice on what to study, I’d say, “For the most part, anything solid, anything unknown to you. History. Biology. Philosophy. Literature. Math. Things that will bend your mind into new shapes, and make sparks in your head. Art will find you.”

For more, see “23: The Creativity Question.”

 

Related articles are:

32: Teaching Science

26: How to Teach History, Etc.

13: Precision Worth Preserving (about grammar)

20: The Quizz (about basic knowledge)

39: How To Teach Physics, Etc. 

47: Teach One Fact Each Day

28: Tips For Helping Your Child Do Better In School
Ergonomic education, ergonomic teaching.
© Bruce Deitrick Price 2008-11