Let me guess, your child hates to write.

So you clicked on this post for a reason. Either yes, you agree, you have a child that hates to write, or you thought to yourself, “wait a minute, my kid loves to write. She’s completely wrong here!” Either way, by the end of this post, I hope you’ll have learned something new or I hope I’ve offered something you can take away.
I love to write. I’m a writer. And I say that as confidently as I say I’m a triathlete. Meaning, I haven’t really won any awards for it or haven’t really received any accolades with some special meaning, but I do it, and I love doing it. I don’t know when this love started. I remember taking an undergraduate course, I believe it was called Creative Writing.  Anyway, in this course we just wrote. We weren’t asked to write about a certain topic. We were told to simply write. We wrote about things that were important to us, things that changed us or  things that meant something to us; I loved this. Now that I think about it, I think I just pinpointed the exact place where I learned the love of writing.
Children learn to write very early. In preschool, they are taught to simply write letters. This is no easy feat. In fact, the art of forming a letter is quite difficult, but in the task children learn to love the act of using a pencil on a piece of paper. They’re creating something that wasn’t there before. It starts as lines smashed across a blank space and slowly turns to circular shapes that resemble the alphabet. They start writing their name, they love this. With exuberant chants they scream, “Mom, Dad look what I can write!”

Then slowly they learn how to write more words, and they write them. They write them all the time. This is fascinating to them because this is something they’ve accomplished, and they love it. But at some point writing becomes a chore. It becomes exhausting. It becomes something a child dreads doing.  It could be because in school we expect a lot more of them. The more they learn to write, the more we asked them to do it. And, in this task, kids become disillusioned. They become frustrated. They become the opposite of writers.
Why does this happen?  I mean, think about your child They love to talk, right? I can think about a million times I asked my own daughter to stop talking. I mean, I think I even offered her money to stop talking. I’m laughing as I type this. But the point here is, she loves talking. She loves talking about herself. She loves talking about her interests. She loves talking about what she’s going to do this weekend. She loves her friends and she loves going to Great Adventure. She loves Disney World. But, if I were to ask her to write about these things, there would be an audible groan. Her eyes would roll back in her head and soon enough, she would actually stop talking about these things in fear that I would say “why don’t you write about that?”
So this is what sparked my interest in this post. How can we teach our children the joy of writing? How can we get them as excited about creating something on paper as the day they finally wrote their name? I believe the answer is simple. Just let them write. Who cares what it says or what it’s about, the point is we have to start the exercise of physically writing and get them over that hurdle, or fear of the task itself. Their writing doesn’t have to look traditional either. If your child loves Disney World, have them simply write those two words in the center of a piece of paper and write down every other word they associate with Disney around it. It can say things like Dole Whip, happy, Main Street, Minnie shaped apples…ok I should stop here, my mouth is watering and these are all my Disney happy words. Anyway, the point is that writing doesn’t have to look like words that form sentences that form paragraphs, it just needs to be something authentic. Something born in your child’s mind that makes its way onto something you can see. If your child loves to draw, have them create a comic strip. If they love to read, have them take their favorite book character and write a new ending to a book they loved or, even better, have them write a story about hanging out with their favorite character.
The summer is coming and, as an educator, I always say to my parents, just make sure your kid reads; but, I’m going to suggest the same thing about writing. But don’t have rules about either. Let them read what ever they want and let them write whatever they want. Freedom is key. They have been tasked all year to write about things their teachers told them to. Let the summer be about what they want. You may find that this freedom is just the motivation they need. But just in case the ol’ “hey write about anything” doesn’t work for your little munchkin, here are a few ideas that may just help.

1.) Buy your child a journal. Some have lines, some don’t.  For the really resistant writer, buy the ones with no lines. Lines can freak kids out, they look at them and think they need to fill them up. Encourage them to draw, create word art, illustrate characters or sketch squares for comic strips. Tell them to take their journal to the beach or keep it in the car and have them “journal” as you drive.  Encourage writing more about how they feel and less about what they did. I always say to my students, I don’t care about what you did at Great Adventure, I care about how you felt.  This sounds harsh but I’m simply saying, kids think the point of writing is to tell people about the time they went on El Toro or the time they lost their first tooth.  I try to explain that the story lies in how they felt while they did those things.  Feelings are beautiful.  They make for a far better story.

One of my little meatballs writing about Disney.

2.) Start a blog for your child. Blogs are totally free and I think kids would get a big kick out of writing them. Show them a few so they get the point. Hey, you can even show them mine (insert wink emoji here). Kids can write about their favorite tv shows, food they love, restaurants they’ve eaten at. They can write a movie review or anything their little heart desires. What I love most about this idea is that you will love reading their posts and sharing them with your family. Blogs are totally safe too. You can set the privacy setting so that only people with a password can access it. Just google kids blogs or how to write a blog for kids and you’ll find a million different options.

My other, older meatball, is a typer.

3.) Apple products are a beautiful thing. If your child has an iPad or iPhone or iPod, let them open up the Notes app and just type. I have to admit that I am actually typing in my Notes app now. I don’t know if it’s because we are in the age of texting or what the reason, but I find typing on my phone easier than typing on a computer. We need to stop resisting how kids are developing too. I know there are people who hate the abbreviations kids use when they text or the slang that has become the new vernacular for most kids, but the bottom line is, kids are not the same as we were and we need to adapt. Resisting how kids develop or trying to teach them the way we were taught thirty years ago is not going to work. We need to reinvent to keep up with them not the other way around. So if your kid loves texting and is an ace at the two thumb typing, let them keep their journal on their Phone.
4.) Let them speak it, instead of writing it. Most phones come with a microphone that when spoken into will dictate and translate what they’ve said. I love this option. I love to physically write but I will admit that the top two paragraphs of this post were orally dictated into my iPhone. It works pretty well and I would say that 90% of what I said was translated correctly but, that which wasn’t, was manually edited by me and I think that’s such an awesome experience for kids too.  With some of my most reluctant writers, oral dictation worked for them. Anything we can do to get their brains working and thinking about formulating stories works for me.

Well, that about does it for me. I’m sure there are a million other vehicles you can use to spark a love of writing in your child, but please take the rules away. Kids love themselves. They love the world around them and the people in it. Kids have a story to tell. Let them be the ones to decide what that story is.

Relax. Your neighbor’s kid isn’t really “reading” Harry Potter.

I read my first book when I was 20.  It was Wally Lamb’s, She’s Come Undone, and when I got to the last page I read it so slow as to avoid leaving this world and character that had become such a part of my life.  It was 480 pages of pure magic.  I was taken away every night into someone else’s life and managed to fall in love with people who only existed in text and who resided inside this soft covered paperback that lay in my hands.Sure, I looked at books over the years.  I read words in books. I answered questions on sheets of paper my teachers would hand me in order to assess my comprehension. But to truly read a book, now that is something that happened to me much later in life.

I am an educator. I am a lot of things, but educator is the one part of me that is so engrained in everything I do.  I have Masters degrees in education and it has been a big part of my life for years. When I started teaching, my love of reading, and helping my students achieve in that area, had become an obsession.  All children can learn to read. Of course, there are varying degrees of this, but essentially all children can learn.  But to think deeply about a book.  To question motives of characters and read in between the lines, that’s a whole other ball game.

When I taught, I found that most parents and even teachers would assess these children by the book they were holding in their hand.  “Wow, Lucy is reading Harry Potter! And she’s only 6!”  I hate to burst your bubble, but Lucy is not reading Harry Potter.  She is looking at the words, she is connecting the sentences, but she is not truly reading that book the way JK Rowling intended her to.  And it’s not little Lucy’s fault, not by any stretch, she is simply not ready to dissect a book of that caliber at such a young age.  This is where you come in.  For years, teachers have given out the dreaded assignment of “Read for 20 minutes every night”.  Kids hate this.  Trust me, even the ones that do love to read, hate this. You are assigning a chore.  Most kids will go home and when asked to do their reading, they’ll grab a book, open it, and stare at the clock for 20 minutes until they are allowed to close it. Reading should never be looked at like it’s a duty.  It is a gift and we need to be a part of showing children this.

I first realized how integral my role in all of this was when I read a book aloud to my class.  With every word read and every page turned my students stared at me with mouths gaped open.  When I had closed the book to signify that we were done for the day, there would be a roar of groans and “please, just one more chapter?!!”  This wasn’t just a few kids, this was all of my kids.  And so it went like this for years, I would read to them, and they would yell at me not to stop reading.  What was it about being read to that was so different? What was it that made kids that hated reading by themselves love stories and characters so much they actually raced to the carpet to hear the next chapter?

Reading is hard.  For children, it is almost as hard as exercising.  They learn words at a young age and slowly string them into sentences and by the third grade we are handing them chapter books and saying, “here you go, have fun!” What we have failed to do by that age is create and lay the foundation for good thinking.  We haven’t taught them to read in between the lines because, frankly, they just started to read lines! Taking the chore of physically reading a book and just focusing on the comprehension will do more for a child and for you as well.

The world needs thinkers.  They need people who question things around them; who look at problems and say “I can fix that, I can make that better”.  Thinkers are more important than readers.  Thinkers will become readers. Be a part of making this happen for a child.  Whether you are a parent or an educator, take the time to read to a child.  Read one chapter at a time and then have a conversation.  Talk about the characters, talk about what they did and why they did it.  Talk about the scene and setting, why did the author write a certain scene the way they did?  Make your child think.  This is what reading is all about.

My advice for all of you is take the book out of your child’s hand and put it in yours.  Enter that magical world with them every night.  Turn that 20 minute chore into 20 minutes that your child sits next to you and hangs on every word that comes out of your mouth.  We have become so obsessed with our children become geniuses that we aren’t really aware that the measure of a genius is not the level of their reading, but the content of their conversation. And one day, they will read a book properly; even if it happens when they’re twenty. So try to relax and take pressure of yourself when you see little Lucy from across the street running over to tell you she just finished the last Harry Potter. We all know better now.  Run along little Lucy, run along.

Mama’s Top Ten Read Alouds that Evoke the Best Conversations

1.) The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo.

2.) Wonder by RJ Palacio

3.) The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

4.) The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

5.) The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm

6.) Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

7.) Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

8.) Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson

9.) Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

10.) Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner

**These are just the books I love personally.  I have read these books and have had conversations with an 8 year old that have been deeper than many adult conversations I have been in.  Feel free to choose your own or have the child choose.  The point is to be a part of it.**

What lies inside: The dreaded report card.

I remember walking home from school, knot in my stomach from the report card that lay in my backpack. I knew what it said and I knew what would happen when my mom saw it; what I didn’t know was what to do about it. Back then, report cards were on several sheets of thin paper and for each class, the teacher gave you a grade and some checks and stuff, and it was all hand written. Of course, when my teacher handed us the envelopes that held these reports inside, they were given with the ubiquitous saying “don’t open these, give them to your parents”. Oh sure Mrs. Welsh, no problem ma’am. Of course, like any other kid, we ripped these envelopes open on the walk home and quickly skimmed for any letters that could induce rage in our parents. And there it was, an “F”, in all its red inked glory, and it was on my report card. The worst part was, it was in health…in fifth grade!!! What in God’s name could I have been doing to get an F in health in the fifth grade? Obviously I was doing nothing, but now I needed a plan. It seemed brilliant, the health page was the last one stapled on my report card, if I simply tore it off, no one would be the wiser. I’d rip off this thin sheet of paper, crumble it up, and toss it in the back of my already cluttered closet. Brilliant plan I thought. This plan was also hatched by a ten year old girl who failed health, so you can see where this story is going.

Anyway, my mom got home later that day and my nerd ball sisters quickly ran to her with their Manila envelopes dangling from the eager fingers, “Here Mom, look at my report card!!”  These geeks were so excited and proud that I hoped their enthusiasm would distract my mother long enough to not even realize she hadn’t gotten the third envelope placed in her hands yet. “Where’s yours?” I think she even said it in a way that sounded sarcastic. Like, I know you’re trying to avoid it and I know that nothing good is in it. I hesitantly got up and handed her mine. She scanned all three of ours and seemed happy. Now I’m sure my sisters grades were better than mine, and the letters that were scattered on theirs were likely the first two letters of the alphabet, but all in all, things were going smoothly; and then she noticed. Now I can’t recall exactly how she noticed, maybe she saw my sisters had an extra piece of paper attached to theirs or, it’s not out of the realm of possibility, that my sister would’ve said “hey Ma, do you like my Health grade?” while shooting me a side smirked evil grin. But however it happened, she noticed, and I had to give up the goods. The goods being a crumpled up slip of paper that revealed my inadequacies in a course that should’ve been my “easy A”. My mother was instantly disappointed in me.  I don’t remember much after that. I don’t know if I was punished. I don’t remember if that grade ever got better over the year. All I remember is that grades and report cards came to be the days that I dreaded the most.
As an educator I was responsible for providing grades to my students four times a year. These grades were calculated using assessments given in class, student work, participation and any other factors that lead to a valuable assessment of the student. I worked on grades for a long time and spent countless hours on the comments section, detailing every aspect of the student’s progress and goals. What I failed to remember was the 10 year old girl who panicked over these reports. The girl who dreaded the look on her moms face when she handed these over. This girl’s value lie in those reports, even if for a mere moment, and that bothers me.
Grades are important. Please don’t misunderstand the point of this post. I think we need them and I think parents and students have to be aware of them. The point of grades is to truly assess “hey, are you getting this stuff or not?” And not “you are not smart or not good enough”; and that notion is the reason for my post.

Since the beginning of time, children have been “afraid” of report cards. Whether or not they receive good or bad grades, there is a negative connotation that comes with the idea of your teacher handing you an envelope and saying “give this to your parents”.   I hate this and I believe the idea of grades needs to be rethought.
I remember giving a test in Social Studies to my students in September. It was one of the first tests we took and any teacher will tell you, kids typically do poorly on these tests. I don’t know if it’s summer brain or not being used to studying for a test but most students don’t do well on their first test. Needless to say, on this particular test, the majority of my kids failed it. I remember even grading them and thinking “What’s going on? What am I missing?”  As I handed the tests back, my kid’s faces began to change. Some of them had tears welling in their eyes, others had looks of fear, some even put their heads down, covering the tears that streamed down their face. And then it happened, something in me started to look at these grades and think “no, this isn’t the point. This isn’t the purpose of that assessment”. I said to my kids, “let’s throw the tests out and do it again”. They looked at me confused. I explained to them that the goal of this test was to see if they understood the colonization of America;  If they knew why John Smith had come here, and what the heck happened to Jamestown; the goal of the assessment was not to put a big letter on the top that changed their mood. They didn’t get the topic and that meant one thing, I needed to reteach it.   I decided to rethink grades. The purpose of them is to assess if the student is truly grasping the information that is being given. If not, what can I do to make it better?
Grades should not be a surprise to a student. In fact, I think kids should be a part of the process of grading. We should meet with them frequently, look at the curriculum taught and together make the decision of how they think they’re doing. Did you understand the math lessons this week? If not, what can I do to help u get there?
If a child and teacher give an honest look at what they were supposed to learn versus what they actually absorbed this could be a life changer for both of them. Kids would always be aware of how they are doing, as well as teachers would always be aware of how they’re teaching. The learning process is a partnership between teacher and student. It is not a dictatorship.
My health teacher should’ve sat down with me and said, “Health is important and you don’t seem to be grasping it, what can we do together to change this?”  I know this seems like a utopian idea and maybe it is, but it is something we need to consider. Letter grades on report cards are affecting our children and causing some of them to place a value on it that is far greater than it should. No letter grade can assess my daughter’s behavior when she visits my father in law in the hospital. You can’t grade my daughter on how well she handled my father’s funeral or how she put her hand on my sisters back while she cried over my dad. Grades are not our kids. Grades are simply a road map that lets us know where they are and guides us in figuring out where they need to be.
When my daughters bring their report cards home, I glance at them to see how they’re doing and then I toss them aside. I say “good job” no matter what letters cover them. Grades are not my kids. I want my children to want to excel. I want them to be excited to learn and realize that what they are being taught in school is important. But I want them to have a part in it. Giving them the power to assess themselves and knowing that their teachers are as invested in them as they are.
When my daughters get handed their report card in a week or so i don’t want that to change how they feel about themselves. I don’t want it to change how I feel about them, not even for a mere moment. They’re just silly old letters, but that doesn’t mean I won’t check their closets for crumbled up pieces of paper.

The mistake heard round the world

The In Between.

They say the truth lies somewhere in between two versions of a story.  I suppose I agree with that. I’m kind of a stubborn girl so it’s hard for me to not think that “my version” is the not the truth. I guess, one would have to decide what “truth” means. I’ll leave that up to you. All I can tell you is the story in my own words. What you choose to believe after that, is your truth.

What happened?

Ok, so I am going to go over the events of four years ago rather quickly. Not because those events aren’t important, but they happened a while ago and it’s the “after” that matters more.

My colleagues and I were attending a professional development training. To be honest, I can’t even tell you the company that was hosting. All I can say is the training was one of many we were in to make our district more “data driven”. Anyway, students were off this day and we attended a half day training on software that can be used to assess students. At some point during the training, the trainer showed us a feature of the software that allowed you to easily group kids by ability. I think it’s important that you understand how much I loathe this concept. I don’t group kids and leave them in a group. My groups are fluid. A child might meet with me one day in a group to get extra help in adding fractions and the next day might not be in that group because they have grasped the concept and moved on. Anyway, the sidebar was necessary because it induced an eye roll or two from my colleagues and I and it was what prompted us to go online and chat with each other. Immature and stupid? Sure. Malicious and evil? Again, I’ll leave that opinion to you.

Then, the trainer said the words that would be the catalyst of my downfall. “This software will not only allow you to group your students, but you can even label your groups and your students will never be able to see the names you give them.”  I specifically remember saying out loud to my friend next to me, “what name would you possibly give a group of students that you wouldn’t want them to see?”  This notion seemed absurd. Comical even. Well, I guess that’s what we were trying to do. We proceeded to list group names that would be ridiculous and archaic. Names that, of course you wouldn’t want kids to see, but to us we were poking fun at the notion that anyone would name a group anything that would be questionable if a child were to view it.  And those were the labels that destroyed me   Offensive labels and words used to mock students were all of a sudden tied to me because I typed them down. Words and phrases I would never in a million years seriously use, but nonetheless, were associated with me.

Four years ago, I remember wanting to call the paper and say “wait, that’s not what I meant!  That’s not the way I was using those terms!!” But of course, I was told not to comment.  And so I didn’t.  I would later explain what I meant to an arbitrator who plainly asked, “Even if you didn’t mean them that way, don’t you understand how someone could take them that way?”  Yes.  I did.  I understood it fully because my life fell apart because of it. I was being completely sarcastic. Not one ounce of that chat was meant to be a serious conversation. My friends knew that. My friends knew me. But that didn’t matter. I was sorry. I am sorry.

For a moment here I want you to think about any embarrassing moment you have ever had in your life. Think about any mistake or dumb joke you’ve ever told. Now imagine that is published in a newspaper and it was what defined you for the rest of your life. I made a mistake. I did. And I take full responsibility for that. But it was a mistake and I believe with all my heart in second chances. I can only hope you feel the same.

The After

When the initial article came out over four years ago, I crawled into my bed and laid in a fetal position, sobbing.  It wasn’t about the article itself or even being suspended, it was because those words were attached to me and it made others think I was a monster.  I was a woman who dedicated my life to special education.  I got my masters in education with a specific focus on special education.  I worked in inclusive classrooms filled with kids who needed my help. I integrated our multiply disabled classes into mine so that all students could benefit. I am the mother of a daughter with Tourette’s syndrome and sensory processing issues.  My world was dedicated to helping  kids and when that article went to print, my world stopped.

I was suspended for 4 months without pay. I lost a pay increase. My own children read the articles about their mom and asked me about them. My marriage began to crumble. Every ounce of the reputation I worked for seemed gone. In its place, was left the reputation of a “bad” teacher, an “embarrassment”.

At some point, I had to move forward. If I wanted to do what was best for myself, my family, and what I believed was best for kids, I had to go back to teaching. And so, I did.

I was welcomed back with open arms from my colleagues, parents, and most importantly, my students.  I continued to teach for three years after that event.  I taught passionately and ensured that every day I did what was best for my students. I was the same teacher I had always been.  A teacher that loved her students immensely. A teacher that answered emails at midnight from worried kids. A teacher who believed all students can be successful, we just need to find the right ways to engage them. You know, a teacher. And then I decided it was time to move on.  I was ready to make a bigger impact on education.

My state job

I loved the part of the article that insinuated I deceived someone with a different name. It was like the scene in “Breaking Bad” where Walter has to finally go into protection so he calls Saul and the guy sets Walter up with an alias and a couple cans of soup in a cabin in the woods.

When I moved on from teaching, I knew I would use my maiden name. Partly because it was something I decided when my husband and I were separated and partly because it seemed like a fresh start. That’s it. I submitted name change paperwork through the courts. I informed my employer. I followed the rules.

Everything I did in my last position, I did because I loved education. I loved everything about it; what it was, what it is, and more importantly, what it can be. And so I worked tirelessly to do what was best for the state of education in New Jersey. I was not an “embarrassing hire”. I was not a “mistake”. I was a woman who worked long days and weekends to help support teachers and schools who would ultimately support our children, your children.

To dig up a four year old article and turn it into a new headline was absurd. I have been working in the real world for over 20 years, and one day, four years ago, I made a really stupid mistake. And once again, I am punished for it. This time I lost my job. This time I lost my pension. But this time, I am not lost.

Moving forward

I didn’t lay in a fetal position on my bed and cry this time. I read the article four years ago. It was the same thing this time around. I am a good human being. I am adamant about our education system needing support. I will continue to provide that support it needs. I don’t need to be employed as a state worker to offer help to those who need it. And so I will move on. This post was needed first before I did that.

Where do we go now?

So this blog will produce content on all things education. I think the profession is struggling. I think that teachers need support and guidance. I think our unions needs to reinvent themselves to stay alive and well, and boy do we need them. I think the intention of a good education is something that politicians speak about but don’t always do the right thing when it comes to supporting our schools. I think there needs to be more diverse teachers in our workforce, specifically more black and latino males. I think we need more accountability and less standardized assessments. I think the PARCC test is ridiculous. I think homework is a waste of time. I think there are thousands of special education students not being serviced in a manner that is in their best interest. I think there are LGBTQ+ teachers and students that are not comfortable in their environment. I think we can do better.

I think about all of these things a lot. And so, I will write about them. I will create content that I think is useful to you. I will answer emails and messages you send asking for advice. I will advocate for you, or if you’re a parent, your child. I will fight. I will move on. I hope you will move on with me.

For those of you who would still like to believe I’m a shitty person, I get it. There are a lot of people out there who have done things that I think are unforgivable too. For all of you, I am sorry. I truly am. I never intended to hurt anyone, but I did, and for that, I hope one day you can forgive me. If you’d like to leave negative comments on my post or troll me on Twitter, I understand. My handle is @mairecervenak I look forward to seeing you there.

For the rest of you, let’s get this moving. Let’s work together to do what’s right for these kids. Some of our kids will be ok. They have a good home life, they have resources, they have support. Some of our kids need those things, and I have a feeling that between all of us, we can do something about that.