Many tools are needed to create a Masterpiece

It frustrates me to think how not mastering a small skill in school stopped me from pursuing my dreams. I worked hard to graduate with a degree that demanded strength in sketching. Unfortunately, after graduating with a bachelor in architecture, I went on to do something different; feeling inadequate in the area of design without this skill.  Fifteen years later, I went back to the classroom to take a drawing class. It turned out I had a natural ability.

My experience taught me that for my kids to feel that they could choose to be anything they wanted to in life, they also needed to know that they could master any subject.

Early on we figured that if we introduced them to a variety of subjects at home, we could help avoid future frustrations.  We read books, which helped broaden their language skills, played games using math, drew and painted for their appreciation of the arts, introduced them to history and geography (my husband’s strong subject) in a fun way, and slipped in the occasional science concept when possible. In other words, we tried to give them a foundation in all subjects so when they were exposed to new areas of study, they at least had an idea on the matter.

By doing this we also increased their possible career choices. For example, how can you decide to study medicine if you feel uncomfortable with math or science?  What if your son / daughter wanted to be a writer, or an architect, or perhaps a teacher? Every career has specific subject matters that are strongly related to them. A child’s future is like a clean canvas. If you spend time teaching them new tools to use, you will find that they are empowered to create their own masterpiece.

Introducing our kids to an array of subject matters at home, their first classroom and safest space, we gave them a better chance to really find and appreciate their future calling.

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The message on the refrigerator

Many years ago, I opened my daughter’s daily folder only to find a crumbled worksheet with a large checkmark in red ink. While it was only Kindergarten then, and I understood it did not reflect where my daughter would go, the checkmark reminder me of my own average performance in school, and how unsatisfying that was. I also recalled the pride I felt when I received the ultimate “plus mark”.

At this time, the only thing that I did know was that I wanted my daughter to have a positive experience. This was only the fifth time that she brought back work like this, but sending my first child through school, feared mediocrity would turn into a pattern. Nevertheless, I placed the worksheet under a magnet on the refrigerator door like we always do.

Shortly thereafter I went to my daughter’s school, knocked on the classroom door of Mrs. Doak, and asked her if she had a moment. Being the supportive teacher she was, Mrs. Doak welcomed me to her classroom and heard my concern. She informed me that the problem was not that she could not do her work, but rather that she was not caring about it. We both agreed that the homework objective was not a matter of always getting a plus sign, but feeling good about putting forth her best effort. Taking to heart the thoughts of Mrs. Doak, I listened intently as she went through her plan.

The next two nights when I open the daily folder I again found “not too clean”, crumbled, average work. This time I put Jessica’s work on a stack of papers on the counter.

On the third day I found a very nicely done worksheet. This one was clean, wrinkle-free with a large plus sign on the front. I picked it up, praised my daughter for her clean, nice work, and placed it in the refrigerator door. This continued for a few weeks.

I never criticized my daughter’s average work; I just praised the better work.

A few weeks later I was cleaning and found the stack of papers on the counter. I realized the stack had stopped growing a while back. Mrs. Doak’s plan of highlighting the positive and ignoring the negative had worked flawlessly.

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Was it a lesson or a game? – Jessica at 18 months

Magnetic letters

I am in front of the stove cooking dinner when I see her come around wearing a big smile. She hands me her last find and says, “Mami need A”. I put my spatula down so I can help her find what she is looking for. She points at various letters and asks: “A?”. I say, “not that one, that’s an R.”  This goes on for a little while until she points at the right letter, the coveted A. I say, “that is the one, very good Jessie.” She grabs the magnetic letter A with her little fingers, runs back to the living room and hands her treasure to my husband while screaming “Papa A”. I hear applause and giggles. Carlos says, “Good job! Can you find me a J?” The hunt starts all over again.

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My kids were my experiment and the theory proved right!

The idea of teaching my kids to enjoy learning happened in our lives completely by luck. Our daughter was 6 months old when she was taken care of for the first time by Becky, who through the years became a good friend. A couple of weeks after she became Jessica’s babysitter, I arrived to pick her up and found Becky with her son Jacob and my daughter in her lap, reading a book.

I was fascinated. Reading to a baby? Really? Becky explained that reading to kids early on would help them become good students. You see, both my husband Carlos and I were born and raised in Puerto Rico and we had not been read to as kids. In fact, reading to children is very uncommon in our culture.

We loved the idea of helping our daughter become a good student in the future, so quickly embraced the concept of reading to her.  We soon realized that there were other benefits to reading to Jessica as well, such as: the closeness that it brought between us, the calming effect in transition from an active day to bedtime or naptime, and the helpfulness in keeping her engaged the times that we needed her peaceful.

In a few months she was constantly bringing us books to read and repeating many of the words she was hearing. I could tell she not only was learning from the experience, but loving it.

This made me wonder what else we could teach her. Why stop at just reading when we had a captive audience and were having so much fun with it? What about teaching her other things such as: letters, shapes, colors and concepts? How far could we go? I intuitively knew that if we were to teach her at home it had to be in a fun way that would cause her to ask for more, just like what we witnessed with her reading. My theory was that if we could teach her that learning was fun, we could break the cycle of a disinterest in education that both Carlos and I experienced as kids.

We started using materials that we had at home; plastic containers for shapes, magazines for concepts, anything that we had several pieces of for counting, etc. There was never a set time to teach them. We just simply took each opportunity that arose to teach them throughout our daily lives.

Throughout the course of their early years, all three of our kids enjoyed these learning games very much. In fact, it made them feel so good, that they began to see learning as a positive experience. So what we end up doing was teaching our kids the joy of learning.

We’ve had lots of people tell us how lucky we are to have three outstanding students. I think that where we got lucky was in discovering early on that we had the power to create a positive attitude about education in our kids.

What started as a fluke ended as one of our family’s core values.  Education became a unifying factor between us.

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Beginning of the year from a teacher’s perspective

The beginning of the year is a tiring and stressful time for a teacher too. It takes a lot of work for a teacher to create the right environment so that her class becomes the right community for their students to thrive.

Beginning of the school year is challenging for teachers too by marroig

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Conversations with Amie

Through the years, Jessica and David, our oldest children, excelled in school.

During those years I did what I felt was best for them but struggled to put into words the systems that I had developed. My intuition was my guide.

In the Summer of 1998, Dr. Amie Beckett, or Amie for us, entered our lives. She walked into our home one day and instantly felt in love with a 3 year old that was eager to share animal crackers and show her some of his books.

Amie and her daughter moved next door a few weeks later, and we all fell in love with them shortly thereafter. Almost immediately after they moved in Amie became our kids’ adoptive “aunt,” and to me, “my other sister.”

We spent hours conversing about education and she would constantly help me put into words what I was doing with the kids. You see, Amie had a doctorate degree in Early Childhood Education.

Having Amie in our kids’ life has been a miracle. It has been incredibly reassuring to have an expert constantly revise my methods of dealing with the kids as students, their teachers, administration, and everyone involved in their education. Ironically, Amie was the first to suggest that I write about our experience.

So, a few days ago she came to visit, and my son David and I had one of our long conversations with Amie about education. I hope you enjoy these excerpts:

Fostering a successful school year

The beginning of the school year was always a much dreaded time when I was a little girl. About a month from D day, I would start getting anxious about who my teacher would be, would I do ok this year and hoped something magical would happen that would make summer go on forever.

As my kids grew, I knew we could do something to avoid that stress and help them transition between summer and the school year with a positive note.

Through the years we developed some rituals that helped them through that transition, made our lives easier, but mainly; set the pace for a successful school year.

What these rituals had in common was that they gave our kids the tools they needed to walk into a new situation by giving them lots of information on what to expect and a sense of control of the situation.
Introduction to how what you do at home can lead to success in school by marroig

I. Reading, which they had been introduced as babies, was kept through the summer. This was the time we found reading related activities at the local library and put an effort on finding books that met their interests.
Being read as infants and Summer reading help our kids succeed in school by marroig

II. Bedtime Countdown – Through the summer we were very relax about their bedtime. A couple weeks before school started back up, we started a bedtime countdown. So, if they were used to staying up until midnight, we moved their bedtime up thirty minutes for a couple days and kept repeating that until they were used to going to bed at the appropriate time for school.
Bedtime Countdown – transition between summer bedtime and school year by marroig

III. School Supplies Shopping was a family affair. We took them to the local stores, gave them their list and help them find their supplies always allowing them to choose their own styles and colors as long as there were no specific requirements. This gave them a sense of ownership and control.
Bedtime Countdown – transition between summer bedtime and school year by marroig

IV. “Teacher Background Check” – A couple weeks before the school year’s start, we would start driving by the school looking for the list that the school posted with the teacher’s name. As soon as it found it was posted, we would bring the kids back so they could “find out” who was going to be their teacher. We proceeded to ask around and do a little bit of a background check on the teacher. All we wanted was for our kids to be as informed as possible on what to expect.
A little of research on who the teacher was gave our kids stress relief at the beginning of the year by marroig

V. Seeing from the teacher’s perspective – And last but not least, we talked to them about what we perceived the teacher was going through. For example, we explained why teachers had to be “more extract” at the beginning of the year to set boundaries.
Through conversations we defused school stress while making our kids look at their teacher’s side by marroig

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Starting with the right foot

My first day of school was one of the worst in my life. I remember watching my mother leave through the classroom’s French doors while sobbing inconsolably. Some of the kids around me seemed to be happy being there while some of us were in complete shock. I had no idea what to expect of attending school, and just wanted to go back to what was familiar, home. You see, my parents had not thought of preparing us for what to expect.

Remembering this day made me realize that there had to be a better way. I wanted my kids to feel good on their first day, and strongly felt that their initial experience would set the pace for their education.

I talked to my kids early on about school and what to expect. We made sure that they had visited the school, seen the classroom, library and playground. We packed their lunch box with familiar foods and a little note. But what I believe made the biggest difference was we had taught them the basics, had spoken positively of school and had assured them that even we were in a different place, we were right behind them.

Twenty seven years later, I watched my daughter enter the classroom with confidence, not a tear in her eyes. It was the same for my two sons. As I watched them enter the school I knew that they had started their school days with the right foot forward.

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