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Why the Science Fair Isn’t Fair: Making Better School Projects

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, a friend posted this picture of her son’s social studies project—a shoe box decorated to look like a mummy’s tomb—with this note: “Hours and hours and hours of work went into this, and I’m wondering what did it REALLY teach my son about ancient Egypt?” Sigh! I could relate—my daughter has made plenty of projects over the years that were heavy on glitter glue, and short on substance. In fourth-grade, she had to squeeze an entire book report on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on the sides of a tissue box. I understand that the teachers were trying to spark creativity and attempting to make it more fun for kids. But for my daughter and some of her friends, the angst of having to fit all the requirements on the tissue box outweighed the joy of reading the book–and wanting to share it with the class.

Still, I’ll take a tissue box or a diorama any day over the Science Fair. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for more science education in schools and labs that allow kids to get hands-on experience. Why I don’t like the Science Fair is simple—I’m never sure how much help (or any help) I should give. And kids whose parents don’t or can’t help (whether it’s shelling out money for supplies or proofreading or brainstorming what the experiment will be) are at a big disadvantage in much the same way that high schoolers who can’t afford all those pricey SAT prep classes are when it comes to getting into college.  (Thankfully, the College Board is making some changes to level the playing field for the SATs.)

I got a hint of what the Science Fair was going to be like when my daughter was in third grade. For a classroom convention, she had  to make an invention that used simple machines. On her own, she came up with the idea of making a washing machine for doll clothes (that’s her project below). She had the idea to put a Bundt cake pan inside a box, but she couldn’t figure out what she would use to make it turn. Then I thought a whisk might work. I helped her put it together—she did about 80 percent of the work and I did the rest. I felt incredibly guilty for helping so much until I walked into her classroom—and saw that one child had brought in a huge wooden bed frame that folded up with a pulley. He said he made it with his dad.

By the time the Science Fair rolled around in fourth and fifth grades, I settled on semi-helping. The idea had to be my daughter’s, the work had to hers, but I proofread, typed, and help organize. She won ribbons both years. One of her friends did too and when I went over to congratulate her, she whispered in my ear, “My mom helped me.” She didn’t need to tell me. In looking through the projects, with complex charts, graphics, and some even with spreadsheets, it’s hard to believe that any 9-year-old—even a tech savvy one—did that on her own. And what about those kids whose parents couldn’t afford to drop 50 bucks at Michaels or didn’t have access to a computer at home? They were ribbon-less. And it wasn’t fair.

I promised myself that I wouldn’t be as involved in this year’s projects–and, thankfully, it’s been a non-issue. My daughter’s teachers focus on group projects that are done entirely in school. Recently, I loved hearing about travel brochure for the Paleozoic Era that she and a couple of other kids created in class. I wish that it had been this way all along. Let’s tell teachers that we prefer this method.

How much help have you given your kids on their projects? Let me know in the comments.

What Kids Like (And Don't Like) About School
What Kids Like (And Don't Like) About School
What Kids Like (And Don't Like) About School

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What Children’s Hospitals Will Do for Your Kids

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

I’ve interviewed dozens of families for a story on the 10 Best Children’s Hospitals that Parents publishes every couple of years, and I’m always touched by examples of how the staff has gone the extra mile to help patients. I remember hearing about a nurse running out to a grocery store on her break to pick up a child’s favorite snack and a child-life specialist who stayed after her shift to help entertain a patient who was having a particularly rough day. But the note I got from Riley Hospital for Children, one of Parents top picks in both neonatal and pulmonary care, blew me away: The staff threw a wedding for the sister of one of the critically-ill patients.

Teenager Gabby Jones had been in and out of the hospital since September battling blood cancer—and, now on top of that, she had a fungal infection that her immune-comprised body was too weak to fight. Gabby’s sister, Danielle, wanted her to be maid of honor at her wedding—and she told Gabby’s doctor about her wish. So doctors, nurses, and the rest of the medical team offered to host the wedding right there in the hospital.

Nurses came in on their day off to help work out all the details, like putting down a white table runner from Gabby’s room into the hall and pinning her dress over her hospital gown. They brought in veils and curling irons, hung garland, and cleared out the playroom for a cupcake reception.

And for the first time in a long time, Gabby showed emotion. She began to cry, and gave Danielle a thumbs-up, the special signal they used to say: “Everything is OK.” “Even when she found out she was going to die, she never cried. But when Gabby saw me and my dad, she started to cry. Then of course everyone started crying,” says Danielle. “She said they were happy tears. She said, ‘I’m really glad you did this for me’.”

I’m glad that they did it for her too.

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Baby Care Basics: Surprising Reasons to Call the Doctor
Baby Care Basics: Surprising Reasons to Call the Doctor
Baby Care Basics: Surprising Reasons to Call the Doctor

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The Case for Charter Schools

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

It’s the time of year when school districts across the country are working on budgets and considering proposals for new charter schools. In case you’re not familiar, charter schools are publicly funded independent schools. They’re free to attend and some have a niche—such as an arts or science focus that helps distinguish them from other public schools in the area. In full disclosure, my daughter has attended a charter school since kindergarten—one that offers a foreign language, longer school year, and more rigorous academics. In some ways, it’s like a private school without the $25,000 per year tuition, which we couldn’t afford.

Throughout the country, charter schools have been widely criticized. In Chicago, where proposals for seven new charter schools were approved this week, a mom told the Chicago Sun-Times, “The board will follow the mayor’s orders and approve these charter schools, ignoring parents and taxpayers.” Most of the critics, however, aren’t parents. In fact, research from Gallup shows that about 70 percent of parents support charter schools. Often, opponents tend to be members of a local school board or employees of a school district, who feel that charter schools are robbing resources from public schools. In fact, one superintendent recently tweeted that doing away with charter schools would bring millions of additional dollars into his district’s budget. Then he took a stab at charter school performance.

It’s true that some charter schools underperform. The same, of course, could be said for some public schools. And there have been cases where charter schools have been a big burden on the school district, like ones that close their doors in mid-school year. So charter schools aren’t without some risk. But I think it’s in parents (and kids) best interest to have them around. For me, it all boils down to school choice. The more options you have, the more chances you’ll have to find a school that aligns better with your child’s passions (like the arts or science) or even your family’s needs (half-day vs. full-day kindergarten, for instance). And a little “healthy competition” among schools in the districts encourages them to bring their A-game so education is better for all kids.

I think a middle-ground lies in a thoughtful approval process for charters. For instance, in Chicago, only seven of the 17 proposals were approved. Charter schools need to demonstrate how they would be significantly different from existing schools in the area and how they will be financially responsible. Only those that meet those requirements should be considered further. What do you think about charter schools? Tell me in the comments.

Need help keeping up with your child’s progression in school? Click here for our progress tracker to make sure you stay on top of everything.

What Kids Like (And Don't Like) About School
What Kids Like (And Don't Like) About School
What Kids Like (And Don't Like) About School

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The Holidays with Tweens

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, I pulled my daughter and her cousins aside for a little talk: “Do you guys still want to wear matching PJs for Christmas Eve?” I asked, reassuring them that it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if they wanted to stop matching now because they were getting older (ages 8 to 11). I fully expected “Yeah, we’re too old for that” with an accompanying eye roll. Instead, they looked a little disappointed that I was even asking. They told me that they still liked to match. And decorate the gingerbread houses. And help me make their favorite Christmas Eve appetizers—mini “pizzas” on bruschetta bread with a little sauce and cheese cut out in the shape of tree or snowman. So it seems that tradition trumps tweendom.

I should have realized that by now. My daughter, 11, is well into the tween stage. There’s nothing predictable about her except maybe being unpredictable. One minute she’s watching the Hunger Games. The next, she’s glued to a Sophia the First special that features Ariel. For Christmas, she asked for Barbies and clothes from Hot Topic (Have you ever been in there? It’s the only store that’s actually made me grateful for Justice.)

Starting tomorrow, she’s going to be off from school for the next 12 days so I’m going to face her multiple personalities 24-7. I’ll surely be referring to this piece in the latest issue of Parents to help me deal. But I’m also going to be relishing my daughter and her cousins frosting their gingerbread houses and putting on a play in their new peppermint PJs because who knows if they’ll want to do it again next year.

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The Grinch Who Stole Halloween

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

A North Dakota radio station is reporting that a local woman plans to hand out sealed letters to overweight trick-or-treaters. The letter, which you can read here, states in part, “My hope is that you will step up as a parent and ration this Halloween and not allow your child to continue these unhealthy eating habits.” The woman, only identified as “Cheryl” in the radio station clip, says that she does plan to give candy to all the children who come to her door and doesn’t want to hand out non-food treats because she doesn’t want to be the “mean lady.”

Um, too late for that. Assuming that this isn’t a radio-station trick (remember that viral video that Jimmy Kimmel faked of the twerking girl on fire?), I have my own letter for Cheryl.

Dear Cheryl,

Don’t be the Grinch who stole Halloween! While childhood-obesity is a major concern—about one in five trick-or-treaters between the ages of 6 and 11 are obese—your plan is scary. First of all, how will you be able to tell whether kids are overweight? You won’t be able to eyeball it, especially because they’re wearing costumes. The community I live in had trick or treat last Friday, and to stay warm, my daughter grudgingly put four layers of bulky clothing underneath her owl costume. We saw plenty of puffed-up superheroes, padded Minons, and other outfits that made it practically impossible to determine a child’s true size.

If a child genuinely is overweight, putting a letter in his treat basket—which he might open and read himself—is completely out of line. Do you want to embarrass children in front of their friends? Ruin a special night? All kids, whether they are overweight or not, should be able to enjoy trick or treating. Halloween doesn’t cause childhood obesity–the junk-food wonderland that’s available to kids daily at school, the mall, and even sometimes at home is the culprit.

I’m also upset that you singled out parents of obese children, urging them to ration candy. I wouldn’t be quite as offended by the letter if you gave it to all kids. Parents, regardless of a child’s weight, do need to have a plan in mind for what to do with an overstuffed treat bag. But I think it’s ridiculous to remind them of that by slipping in a letter with the Skittles and Snickers, which you’re planning to hand out.

Your comment about the mean moms who offer non-candy treats was terribly offensive. I’ve given out pencils, crayons, and mini notebooks over the years and I find that the kids actually appreciate them because they’re something different from candy. What’s really mean is making kids feel bad about themselves on Halloween. If you’re so worried about how parents will deal with the candy, go to the store and find something else fun to hand out!

Celebrate Halloween with our free Carve-a-Pumpkin app. And if you’re still not sure what to dress up as, use our Halloween Costume Finder!

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