Saturday, September 3, 2016

September 2016

Welcome to the September edition of Partnership, a series of monthly essays I’ve committed to write this year, exploring the relationship between the culture we’re working to achieve here at Veritas and the culture of your family and home. (This may look familiar to you if you've been at Veritas for a few years; I wrote monthly Partnership essays during the 2013-14 school year.) 

The overall conviction lying behind everything I’m planning to write is this: classical education will be most successful in the life of your child when there is a strong match between school culture and family culture. In other words, there are many choices that you as parents can make about the culture of your home that will have a direct impact on your child’s academic progress and success here at Veritas.

One of the places in which school culture and family culture overlap most explicitly is homework. So here's my challenge to you here at the very beginning of the school year--take some time before Tuesday to sit down with your kids and make sure you're all on the same page about how your family will approach homework this year. 

Here are two of the important questions to discuss: 

Where? Will your child do her homework in her bedroom? On the family room floor? At the kitchen or dining room table? There are pros and cons for each of these settings, and you certainly don't have to stick with the same place all year long if it's not working for some reason. But having a place agreed upon and set up beforehand will make that first homework session go better than it would without a plan. 

The perfect homework spot will combine independence and accountability, which can be quite a challenge. We want our kids to learn to study effectively without a parent standing over their shoulder and forcing them to work, but we also want to know that they're spending their time wisely rather than procrastinating. We'll explore this challenge in a later edition of Partnership, but it's worth beginning to discuss with your child this weekend. 

When? Will homework be completed immediately after your child gets home from school in the afternoon? After some time for unwinding and some outdoor play, but before supper? Between supper and bedtime? Once again, there are plenty of pros and cons for all these arrangements, and it's a matter of parental wisdom to determine when your child will be able to do his best work. Compare notes with your child about what worked best for him last year, and ask him about the best ways that you can support him when the time is right. 

I found an interesting resource this week--a couple of sample "homework contracts" that will be very useful to you as you make plans with your child to make this year a successful one. Click on the link below and you'll see a contract for younger kids and one for older kids. Take a look and consider using this great tool this weekend to help you and your student plan for a great year of homework.  

http://tinyurl.com/hnlcose

I don't always enjoy the feeling of the end of summer slipping through my fingers, but I always love being back at school with my colleagues and your kids! I'm counting on God to do great things among us this year, and Im looking forward to serving you in any way I can. 

Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns about your child's experience with homework this year, or with any other aspect of Veritas culture. I'm eager to hear from you!  

Yours, 

Todd 


--
Todd R. Harris
Head of Lower School
Veritas School
Newberg, OR
http://www.veritasschool.net 

“What a well-designed course in Latin provides is a training and development of the mind and character to a degree of excellence that no other mental or physical activity can come anywhere near to bringing about. Specifically, it trains these: the ability to concentrate and focus; the use of the memory; the capacity to analyze, deduce, and problem-solve; the powers of attention to detail, of diligence and perseverance, of observation, of imagination, of judgment, of taste. In fact, it trains the mind and character to the utmost extent in everything human that is valuable. It does all this as no other academic subject (other than classical Greek), or other activity of any kind at all, can come remotely close to doing.” N.M. Gwynne

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

May 2014

Dear Veritas parents,

One of the best things you can do for your kids academically can happen in your car. I want to encourage you to make the most out of all the time you spend driving with your kids. The ride to school, a trip from town to town, and a long vacation road trip are all great times to listen to great literature read excellently on your CD player or iPod.

Our public libraries have hundreds of excellent audio recordings of excellent books read by excellent readers, and they’re all free—if you return them on time, at least. There are also more and more ways to download excellent literature online. Parents committed to academic excellence and the love of learning should be utilizing these resources as much as possible.

It’s common for our family vehicles to include a screen or two inside, allowing our kids to watch DVDs during a drive. But I want to urge you to keep the screen off more and more often, and just let them listen.

And a ride in the car isn’t the only time our kids can listen to excellent audio, of course. Find times during the days at home this summer when your kids are listening to something worth listening to.

Why is it important to have your kids listen more than they watch? It’s because listening is simply better for them—better for their attention and language skills.

Modern kids increasingly struggle with attention difficulties, and, as we’ve discussed this year, a major culprit is all the screens in their lives, with their fast-moving images—TV, movies, computers, and video games. When a child becomes too accustomed to always having moving pictures in front of his eyes, something like an addiction can take hold. It’s difficult for a child to sit and listen to his teacher and his classmates—or his parents, or his pastor!—when his brain craves the kind of visual stimulation that only a screen can give.

But if we provide our kids with excellent listening material and teach them to love it, they’ll be much more ready, willing, and able to give their full attention to the words being spoken by their teachers and their classmates.

Timing is important here, of course, so start as early as possible. If your kids are used to listening to literature while they’re still buckled into their car seats, there will be no adjustment period! The DVD player is fine once in a while, but make sure your kids are being taught to love the spoken word and not to depend too greatly on visual images for enjoyment.

Listening to recorded literature will also greatly increase our children’s language skills. A well-written novel will naturally contain longer sentences and more complex language than the dialogue of almost any movie. (Film versions of Shakespeare are an obvious exception, and should be watched often!) For the most part, a movie will contain conversational dialogue, the kind of speaking that won’t stretch our kids much or teach them anything new. But an excellent book will teach our kids to understand (and love!) the more sophisticated language patterns that are possible only for the written word. Remember that our kids are always able to listen to a book several reading levels above what they can read for themselves.

Most of us are probably familiar with the kind of radio theatre represented by Focus on the Family’s “Adventures in Odyssey.” This kind of thing is excellent, and it does a lot of what this article is encouraging—it teaches our kids to sit and listen and enjoy, and not to need moving, visual images. (And even better than Odyssey are the Narnia stories, also from Focus on the Family. It would be impossible to listen to these too often!)

But remember to also include recordings of excellent, professional readers simply reading a great book, with no sound effects or musical accompaniment. There are deep pleasures here for the kids who have learned to sit, listen, and imagine. In all of this, we’re teaching our kids to love the very way God has revealed himself—through a Book.

Please write me back and let me know your family’s favorite audio books. Do you listen more at home or while driving? I’d love to hear from you.

Have a great summer, full of reading and listening!

Yours,

Todd
April 2014

Dear Veritas parents,

Here’s a goal you’ve seen a few times in Partnership over the past few months: Make sure that reading for pleasure is a bigger part of your child’s life than anything with a screen.

And here’s a related goal: make sure that screen time is completely separate from reading time, homework time, and study time. In other words, when your kids are doing their homework, studying for a test or quiz, or reading for pleasure, they shouldn’t also be texting, watching TV, or using the computer. No multitasking!

I’m not sure whether this sounds controversial to you or not, but the research is unambiguous—when our kids are “media multitasking” during learning, their learning is far spottier and shallower than if the work had their full attention. They understand and remember less, and they have greater difficulty transferring their learning to new contexts; information learned while partially distracted is often quickly forgotten.

Here’s a thorough explanation from one helpful article:

"Distractions can inhibit a child from learning new facts or concepts," says  Russell Poldrack, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at UCLA, who has been using brain-imaging techniques to study what happens when we try to learn more than one thing at a time. "Even if he learns something while multitasking, his ability to remember what he learns later or use it in other contexts will be diminished."

That's because the brain takes in information in different ways. Very simply, when you're learning new facts ("What is photosynthesis?"), you rely on declarative memory, which is stored in the hippocampus. Memories in the hippocampus are easier to recall in different situations. For instance, once you solve a geometry problem, you'll be able to apply that same principle to a slightly different problem in the next chapter.

However, when we're distracted, the brain bypasses the hippocampus and relies on the striatum, which is really designed for recalling how to do tasks you have done so often that they've become second-nature, such as which route you need to take to walk to school. Information stored in the striatum is tied closely to the specific situation in which it is learned. (We remember that geometry principle only if it's presented in exactly the same way on a test.) What's more, while it may seem as if we're doing many things simultaneously, the brain can really only focus on one thing at a time, unless the other skills involved are purely automatic.

"The brain is a lot like a computer," says William R. Stixrud, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist in Silver Spring, Maryland. "You may have several screens open on your desktop, but you're able to think about only one at a time." When a child is doing homework for two minutes, then answering instant-messages for another two, then shifting back to homework, and so on, the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (the brain's administrative assistant) must choreograph all those conflicting moves. The result: he works more slowly, less thoroughly. For those struggling with attention disorders, the problems may be magnified.

What can we as parents do to help? Take charge. Have your kids hand over their cell phones before doing their homework, and make sure that all other screens in the vicinity are turned off. Even better, help your kids create study and reading spaces in your home that are 100% screen-free.

If your kids are too young for much of this to sound familiar—if they don’t own a cell phone yet, for example—talk with your kids right away, even before it becomes a specific temptation for them. Before they receive a cell phone or tablet of their own, make sure they know that they’ll always be required to keep them powered off (or handed over!) while they are studying, doing homework, or reading for pleasure.

Make sure they understand that this isn’t a punishment of any kind; we’re helping them keep their brains free to learn, think, and enjoy deeply.

And if your kids are already enmeshed in bad habits in this area, don’t ignore it. Help them understand how important all this is, and help them learn to engage in the activities that are best for them with depth and excellence—one at a time!

Please let me know what your family is doing to help your kids in this area. I love hearing from you.

Yours,


Todd
February 2014

Dear Veritas parents,

In the December issue of PartnershipI encouraged Veritas parents to make sure that reading for pleasure is a bigger part of their child’s life than anything with a screen.

Easier said than done, right?

I know as a dad that this vision for how my kids choose to spend their free time is much more easily typed into a sentence than achieved at home. So here’s some encouragement.

It really is up to us. Reading for pleasure is not instinctual,” as Asi Sharabi writes in an article I’ll link at the bottom of this email. Reading for pleasure is a learned behavior, an acquired skill. Learning to read is hard work, and becoming good enough at reading for it to become a pleasure is a process—sometimes a long process. It takes time and effort.

But the screen is different, isn’t it? How hard do our kids need to work to enjoy a TV show or the latest app? A screen is more “instantly alluring” than a book, and our kids will naturally tend to choose the instant gratification of colorful, moving images and exciting sound effects over the deeper, more satisfying pleasure of a beautifully written story. 

Therefore, the only way our kids will learn to read for pleasure is if we encourage and nurture (and sometimes enforce!) this habit as they grow up in our homes. A love of reading will almost never happen for a child whose family is not intentionally making it happen, and this involves an attitude of constant vigilance against the ways the screens in your home want to command your kids’ attention and affection.

It’s worth the trouble. In parenting we sometimes must “choose our battles,” but this is a battle we simply must choose to fight and win. (I’m speaking, of course, of a battle in which you and your kids are on the same side—working together to resist the temptation of the screen, choosing to spend free time wisely, and learning to love books. I hope that it rarely feels like a battle between you and your kids!)

It’s a battle we must fight because the development of our children’s minds and intellectual abilities is closely connected to the habits we allow them to develop when they’re young. If we allow them to establish a habit of choosing the screen over the written word, their academic progress and success at school will be much, much more difficult for them.

So how do we fight this battle? Here are some important tactics and strategies.

·       Tell your kids clearly what you’re trying to achieve as a family. Explain to them that it’s important in your family that reading for pleasure is a bigger part of their lives than anything with a screen.
·       Make sure they understand why reading is better for them than screen time. Tell them that you want them to love books because you love their brains!
·       Make sure you are modeling a love of books in how your kids see you spend your own free time.  
·       Set specific times in your home for both reading and screen time, and make sure reading time gets a bigger chunk of the schedule. Unplug the internet for extended periods in your home and devote that time to reading—privately or all together, snuggled on the couch.
·       Avoid allowing your child to turn on a screen whenever he feels like it. We want our kids to turn to a book when they’re bored and looking for something to do.
·       Consider keeping all screens in public areas of your home so that you’re able to easily monitor who’s on and how long they’ve been on.
·       Beware of multitasking! Studying or reading while also interacting with a screen (Facebook, texting, etc.) wreaks havoc on our kids’ attention spans, so have your child hand over the cell phone and keep all screens off during study and reading time.
·       Beware of games and apps that require your child to check in and do something every day. You want your child to be able to leave the screen off for extended periods without feeling stress!

Please let me know what has worked best in your home. 

Here’s the article I mentioned above:


Todd 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

January 2014

Dear Veritas parents, 

Here’s the thesis: Humanly speaking, the most important thing you can do for your child’s success in school is to make sure he or she is a good reader outside of school.

And here’s the competition: the screen. I’ve used the singular, but most of our homes contain plenty of screens: TVs, computers, tablets, and cell phones. And it’s not as if the screen itself competes for the attention and devotion of our kids—it’s what the screen brings in front of our eyes and into our minds: TV shows, movies, games, the internet, social networking, video chat, texting, etc. (I am not addressing the question of screen-based reading devices like Kindles and Nooks here at all.)

But why speak in terms of competition? What’s so dangerous about the screen?

I’m going to let Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise provide the answer to this. Here is an excerpted portion of their wonderful book about classical education, The Well-Trained Mind. They are addressing the question of using the screen in education as well as in leisure time, so their words provide a great explanation of both why Veritas rarely uses the screen in the classroom and why you as parents should be extremely careful about how much time your child spends in front of the screen.

The short version: Books are better for your brain! 

But please read Bauer and Wise carefully:

Reading is mentally active. Watching videos is mentally passive. Writing is labor-intensive. Clicking icons is effortless. Print that stays still and doesn't wiggle, talk, or change colors makes the brain work hard at interpretation.
All children prefer ease to effort. It seems reasonable to us to limit their exposure to the easier way until the harder way has been mastered.
The brain activity created by reading and writing is significantly different from the brain activity created by image-based technologies. Jane Healy, Ph.D. in education psychology and the author of Endangered Minds, points out that while reading and writing depend on left-hemisphere brain development, children’s television programming depends almost entirely on right-hemisphere stimuli—quickly changing visual images instead of stability; noises (booms, crashes, single-word exclamations) rather than complex sentences; bright colors, rapid movement, and immediate resolutions rather than logical sequencing of actions.
In the early grades, the brain develops more quickly than at any other time. Connections are made. Neural pathways are established. The grammar stage is particularly crucial time for verbal development: the brain is mapping out the roads it will use for the rest of the child’s life. It is vital that the child become fluent in reading and writing during the elementary years—and the brain development required for this fluency is markedly different from that used for comprehending video and computer images.
Software programs and videos are image-centered, not word-centered. Word-centered education requires the student to interact with the material—to comprehend it, interpret it, and talk about it. Videos and software don’t engage the brain in the same way; they are designed to entertain, not to engage. They promote passive, not active, learning.

Should you ban all videos and computer games? No, of course not. You should limit their use to half an hour per day or only on weekends. You should supervise content. As much as possible, steer away from highly visual, quickly changing programs with a constant barrage of sound effects. (Yes, this means Sesame Street.)

Always ask yourself: What am I giving up? If I didn’t put this on, would the kids go play basketball out back, or drag out Chutes and Ladders out of sheer boredom? Would they read a book? If my twelve year old doesn’t watch this movie, will he go build a model? If my ten you old is told she can’t play this computer game, will she wander off and read fairy tales?

It’s hard work, but the more the student reads and writes, the more natural reading and writing become. Unfortunately, the same is true of TV viewing and computer game playing. The brain becomes expert at whatever it does most of during the formative years.

Our goal as parents is to make sure that our kids’ brains become expert at the right things! 

Please let me know what you and your family are doing to help your kids choose to spend their time at home in the best ways.

Yours,

Todd 

December 2013

Dear Veritas parents, 

As you know, Partnership is based on this overall thesis: Classical education will be most successful in the life of your child when there is a strong match between school culture and family culture. There are many choices that you as parents can make about the culture of your home that will have a direct impact on your child’s academic progress and success here at Veritas.

This fall we’ve been exploring a second, more specific thesis, focusing our attention on one important aspect of family and school culture: Humanly speaking, the most important thing you can do for your child’s success in school is to make sure he or she is a good reader outside of school. The love of good books is central to the culture we’re trying to encourage at Veritas, and it ought to be central to the culture of your home as well. When it is, one of the many benefits it will bring to your kids is strong academic performance.

But what if your child seems uninterested in reading for pleasure? What are the steps you can take as parents to turn your reluctant reader into the booklover he should be?

The first step, of course, is to make sure that reading is an important part of the life of your family as a whole. Do your kids see you reading for pleasure? Are you reading aloud to your kids? The presence or absence of these two practices in your home has a huge impact on your child’s relationship with books as he grows up.

The second step is to introduce your child to books at his level about something he likes. The local library is one great resource for this. If your child doesn’t yet know his way around the children’s section, take him right away! And don’t be shy while you’re there—ask the children’s librarian to show you and your child around. Specifically, ask her for recommendations on books about the specific topics your child is interested in.

Make sure to expose your child to both fiction and non-fiction in the children’s section. Some kids will gravitate to one, and some to the other. (Our oldest daughter, Laurie, wasn’t very interested in reading fiction on her own at first; it was an early interest in astronomy that motivated her to begin reading independently.)  

But the library isn’t your only resource for great recommendations, of course. Talk to your child’s teacher. Talk to other parents in your child’s class, especially the parents of the kids who are strong readers. (Even if you don’t know which kids in your child’s class are strong readers, your child will.) We’re not in this alone, and the parents of your child’s classmates will be more than happy to share what has helped their child love to read.

But what if your child needs a bit more incentive than this to actually sit down and read the book he has brought home from the library (or received as a Christmas gift)? Here are some ideas. 

Trading paragraphs. Sit with your child and take turns reading aloud to one another, paragraph by paragraph. This is a great practice for the earliest stages of your child’s reading career.

Cliffhanger. Find a book whose first chapter will make your child want to keep going. Read the first chapter aloud to your child and tell him that if he wants to find out what happens, he needs to read the next chapter for himself.

Priorities. Make sure that reading for pleasure is a bigger part of your child’s life than anything with a screen! Consider requiring reading for a certain amount of time or a certain number of pages before your child is allowed to indulge in the inferior pleasures of the TV, computer, or video games. (Let’s plan to discuss this important topic more completely in a future edition of Partnership.)

Book club. Help your child recruit a few friends to read the same book individually, and reward them with a pizza party when they’ve all finished. Make it happen once every month or so. One of the best things that could ever happen in the life of a Veritas class is for groups of kids to be reading the same series of books, loaning and borrowing personal copies, sharing what they’ve enjoyed while being careful to avoid spoilers.

The book before the movie. For movies based on books, work together as a family to make sure everyone reads the book before seeing the film.  

But what about your kids? What has worked for you and your family? I’d love to hear from you!

Yours,


Todd

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

November 2013

Last month in Partnership, I introduced two theses. The first is general: Classical education will be most successful in the life of your child when there is a strong match between school culture and family culture. In other words, there are many choices that you as parents can make about the culture of your home that will have a direct impact on your child’s academic progress and success here at Veritas.

The second thesis is much more specific and focuses our attention on one important aspect of family and school culture: Humanly speaking, the most important thing you can do for your child’s success in school is to make sure he or she is a good reader outside of school. The love of good books is central to the culture we’re trying to encourage at Veritas, and it can be central to the culture of your home as well. When it is, one of the many benefits it will bring to your kids is strong academic performance.

So let’s discuss application. We’ll begin with furniture. Bookshelves, to be exact.

A recent study has found that the most reliable indicators for the success of a child in school is the presence of full bookshelves in that child’s home. Seriously. Here’s a summary from an article about this study: “In the U.S., kids from homes where there are more than two full bookcases score two-and-a-half grade levels higher than kids from homes with very few books.”

I’m sure you’ll understand the point here. It’s not an encouragement to buy bookshelves and fill them with books, as if their mere presence in your home will turn your kids into readers and straight-A students. Instead, it’s an encouragement to make sure that books and reading an important part of the life of your family. Families who own this many books are families who love books and are likely to pass on this love to their kids. “The relationship from bookcase to A-student isn't causal, it's symptomatic. Books at home are the single most important predictor of student performance in most countries.”

Here’s how it works. A child first learns his values from his family, especially his parents. When a child grows up in a home with lots of books—not just sitting on the shelves, but also in the hands of his parents being read—he learns that reading for pleasure a normal, enjoyable part of human life. This kind of thing is contagious.  

Even better, of course, if a child grows up in a home where there are not only books on a shelf and books being read by his parents for their pleasure, but books being read to him for his pleasure, while snuggled up on the couch together, he will learn to associate reading with some of his happiest experiences. He will learn that reading is not only normal, but a deep and satisfying pleasure, one of the finer things in life.

But owning a bunch of books and bookshelves is not the only way a family can encourage and pass on a love of reading, and it’s not the only way to have books that are good for snuggling with. All the best books are available to us absolutely free. Veritas families should be some of the local library’s most frequent customers.

Does your child have a library card? There’s something empowering about having one of your own, and I would encourage you to bring your child to your library as soon as possible and let him get one.

The next step is for your child to become acquainted with the children’s section of the library, find the kinds of books he loves the most, and check out a stack of them. Why not choose a day of the week and make it library day? Head for the library right after school or right after supper every week, turn in the books your child is done with, and help him check out the next stack!

As your family develops this habit, I’d love to hear about what he’s reading; please encourage him to bring whatever he’s in the middle of to school to show me. 

Next month, let’s discuss steps you can take if your child seems uninterested in reading for pleasure or is having trouble finding something he loves. 

Yours, 

Todd