Notes From the Classroom: Part 2

An Emphasis on Learning

Let your kids see you learn. It’s also okay if they see you struggling in the process.

The father of a student in my seventh period class switched jobs and had to learn several new computer programs. Each night after the kids went to bed he spread out his manuals on the table and struggled to make sense out of the computer programs and processes.

At first he said he was afraid to let his five children see him flounder, so he studied late at night. “Then I realized,” he remarked at parent teacher conference, “it didn’t matter. For several weeks they watched me drown in new software. It was interesting stuff, but I was slow. Finally I started to conquer the software wars. My kids would tiptoe around me, maybe giving me a supportive pat on the back. Several times my son brought me milk and cookies.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a positive experience for them. They learned that it’s alright to struggle, as long as you keep going and have a positive attitude. Now, whenever I have paperwork, I do it at the kitchen table as my kids do their homework.”

One of my students, Bill, had gone from a C- average to nearly straight As. “It was a breath of fresh air,” his mother commented as she took a seat in my office so we could review her son’s progress. “Being the mom of four is sometimes a struggle. Still, I always try to be positive about school. I do pretty well most of the time, but Billy fought me at every step. I wondered if somewhere I missed something in his development. My other children are excellent students. Anyway, Bill did poorly in school because his attitude was negative. He’s a smart boy.”

She smiled, adjusted the toddler on her lap, and continued. “I noticed a big change last October. It happened almost overnight. His grades have gone up dramatically since. My parents who are in their seventies started to study Spanish every afternoon. My husband decided to have Billy go to their house after school so he could study with less interruption. After a couple of weeks of hanging out with his grandparents and watching them do homework when they didn’t have to, something clicked.”

Watching his grandparents was all it took to validate learning. It made all the difference. His grades went up, and he learned to like learning. 

As one first grade teacher told my wife, “I’m not really concerned about how much a child knows or doesn’t know when he or she walks into my classroom; give me a child who loves to learn new things, and I’ll teach that child in half the time.”

Answering Questions and Listening Patiently

Few parenting skills are more important than answering questions with patience and listening to your child when he or she talks to you. According to Elizabeth Wahlquist, a children’s literature specialist at BYU, we should look for teaching moments and capitalize on them. An effective way to find teaching moments is to pay close attention to what your kids are saying.

Often, teaching moments come in the form of a question. Parents need to foster an environment where kids can ask questions freely. Questions must be answered respectfully, no matter how repetitious or silly they may seem. “If your daughter or son wants to know what’s in salsa,” says Professor Wahlquist, “take the time to explain it. Better yet, make salsa with your child.”  

How to make salsa seems silly (unless you live at my home where we take salsa very seriously), but to a child it may be important; it may be something he or she really wants to understand. To a young mind, there’s no difference between making salsa, counting, or the alphabet. It’s all learning. A child’s questions stem from the same core of curiosity.

I was in the Orem, Utah library last week with my little girl Abbey, looking at storybooks. A young mother with two little boys was trying to do her college homework while her children entertained themselves in the stacks.

After tugging on her left for a few minutes, the three-year-old said, “Mommy!” A long pause. “Mother, how does choo-choo trains work? How does trains work? Can you tell me?”

“Gee,” she said patiently. “Guess I don’t know. I need a break from this math anyway. Besides, I’ve studied for at least five minutes without an interruption. I’m sure we can find a book that will tell us what we want to know.”

I don’t know if she got her calculus completed that afternoon, but she did something more important. She fed her child’s love of discovery and helped teach him to learn how to discover. She took advantage of a wonderful teaching moment by becoming interested in the things in which her son was interested.

Adopt a “no question is a stupid question” policy (or at least pretend). It gets tough on a parent when life’s other demands are staring you in the face, or you had a hard day at the office and all you want to do is vegetate in front of the TV for a few hours. It takes energy to be a good parent. It takes super-human energy to be a great parent.

Dignify Learning by Your Example

I grew up in a learning family. Educational activities didn’t end at 3:00 p.m. or during the summer. In a non-threatening way, my parents modeled that learning was fun. I never realized how clever they were until I became a classroom teacher, and later, a parent. Learning at the Rutter house, on our small farm in Gold Hill, Oregon, was never a burden—it was an adventure. Most of the time, we never realized we were learning. We were having too much fun.

We wrote reports, collected butterflies, and reported to Dad on nearly every book we read. Every Tuesday was library day. One summer morning before work, my dad sent us out on our small acreage to see who could find the widest selection of indigenous grasses. Then he instructed us to sketch and watercolor each in our field notebooks.

My father was a master at making us feel important. It always seemed that what we were doing was of keen interest since it was our job to teach him about our discoveries. One day in the middle of winter, BYU Education Day came to our small town of Medford, Oregon. Dad informed me that Laura and I would be going, too.

After scraping off the snow, we loaded into the pink station wagon and headed down the mountain for town. He furnished us with new pens and notebooks. Since he couldn’t attend all the concurrent courses, it was our job to take notes and report what we’d learned that evening. When we shared what we learned, he took notes on our presentations and asked us many questions. We went to bed feeling very important.

It’s important to teach children that learning is fun, as well as a life-long process. Never forget that you are their greatest example.

Educators in Training

Here are a few more things to remember as you strive to make learning a regular and enjoyable part of your home.

Don’t Be Negative

I used to be a dog trainer, and I have to admit I learned more about teaching children from training dogs than I did in any education class in college. The first rule is no matter how frustrated you get, you must never allow yourself to speak negatively or become negative.

Training dogs, or children, you’ll get better results with praises and a cheery outlook.

What Did You Learn Today?

Get in the habit of asking your child how his or her day went at school. Then ask, “What did you learn?” Until a child is in the habit, you might hear a “Nothing.” Gently push the issue. Try, “What fun thing did you learn today?” Then have them explain what and why. This does several things. First, it shows your child that you are interested in his or her education. Second, it’s a daily reinforcement of important lessons. Third, it shows you are concerned with that child specifically.

Family Trips and Outings

Have fun with learning activities (you don’t have to tell them it’s educational). Visit zoos, museums, national parks, historical places of interest—make the trip fun! Talk about what you are going to do. Involve your children in discussions. Take pictures for future reminiscing. Talk about what you’ve seen. Learning doesn’t need to be painful. Don’t make it that way.

Be Creative

Last of all, and likely the most important, look for ways to foster learning right at your feet. I still remember how I learned about the Renaissance when I was ten. One day after school my mother told us we were going to Italy to study the Renaissance. She showed us pictures from a big picture book and told us about sculpting and Michelangelo. Next, she took us to the back porch and handed each of us a chunk of clay and told us to sculpt something Renaissance-like. That night we ate spaghetti and meatballs while we looked at our sculptures on the table. This was my first and last trip to Italy.

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