SOL Proofing Your Kids! Homework for Moms and Dads

by local writer April Schweitzer

The Standards of Learning --just say those words and you will see your eighth-grader wince and your first-grader’s eyes glaze over. Say the words again, this time in a room full of parents, and you’re likely to get the same reactions. Some parents have pored over the booklet of standards and quiz their children nightly as if preparing them for the third-grade version of Academic Challenge. Others shrug their shoulders and stifle yawns, wondering what the schools will think of next.

The most amusing --and perhaps the most frightening --response I’ve heard about the SOLs is a story told by a third-grade teacher I know. She described her classroom packed with parents sitting on the edge of too --mall seats as she introduced herself during Open House last fall. "Any questions?" she asked, perhaps a bit naively. The hands shot up in the air --she could see the strain of self-control on their faces while their inner children screamed out "Me, first!", "Call on me!" One after another the questions all focused on the SOLs: "Can you send home extra SOL homework?" "Should I hire a tutor for the SOLs?" "Will you get fired if our kids don’t pass?" And here’s the gem: "If my son doesn’t do well on the tests this year, will it affect his chances of getting into a good college?"

College?Aaaargh. He’s only in third grade!

RELAX! Don’t panic. Instead of worrying about how your kids will do on the SOLs, start thinking about ways to SOL-proof your children.

SOL-proof? Let me explain --

With all of the memorizing an cramming and testing on the kids’ side, and with all of the number crunching and spreadsheeting and data manipulating on the administrators’ side, it kind-of takes all of the fun out of learning.

And you know what? Kids don’t do things they don’t want to do. Or at least not without bribing and coaxing and prodding and pleading.

So, instead of bribing and coaxing and prodding and pleading --Don’t worry about the SOLs. Don’t think about the SOLs. Don’t even mention the "SOL" word. Oops. That didn’t count.

Make your job as a parent easy. Spark your child’s enthusiasm for learning and the rest will fall into place. A lifelong love for learning and a curious mind are two of the greatest gifts any of us can hope to pass on to our children.

Choose not to spark a love for learning and it will definitely have more impact on whether or not you’re raising a future Harvard graduate than third-grade SOL scores will. Okay, so I have no scientific proof, but it sure sounds good. As a teacher, I can speak from experience when I say that it’s the children who love to learn who survive the SOLs --and even do well on them.

So, how exactly do you spark your child’s love for learning? Here are a few ideas.

Read, read, read. And I’ll say it again --READ! And that goes for your kids, too. The more your kids see you reading, the more they’ll read because it will be a part of everyday life. Use little moments to practice reading --read street signs, food labels and restaurant menus together with a beginning reader. Read a story every night to your child starting from the time you first rock them to sleep.

"It’s never too early to start giving books to children," advises Nancy Campbell, the children’s librarian at the Gordon Avenue branch of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library. "We’ll give library cards to infants. We really encourage children to connect with the library as soon as possible. Babies love the sound of language and the more you speak to them --the more they hear the tone and cadence of a story, the more prepared they are to read."

For older children, make a trip to the library a fun event. Linda Cox, a fourth-grade teacher at Nathanael Greene Elementary, recommends letting your children choose fun books or magazines like American Girl or Sports Illustrated for Kids. "Then ask them questions about what they’re reading, but make it a part of normal conversation. It will help them learn to comprehend and pay attention to details."

You can also use reading a library book as a special privilege --if Bobby volunteers to read a bedtime story to his little sister, then he can stay awake an extra fifteen minutes. A special treat for a distant grandparent could be a cassette or videotape of a young reader reading a favorite library book.

Play the old-fashioned way. I don’t think I ever got it to work, but I remember how fascinated my next-door neighbor and I were with the idea that two cups and a piece of string could make our own low-tech telephone. I also remember when I read Little House on the Prairie and decided that Danny (my unsuspecting next-door neighbor) and I were going to load up the picnic table with all of our earthly possessions and pretend it was a covered wagon heading west. It was great fun until it started to get dark and Danny was under the threat of being grounded unless all of his earthly possessions were back in his room before the streetlights came on.

Creative and dramatic play expand the imagination, hone problem solving skills, and let kids enjoy just being kids. If you don’t already have them, invest in a set of Lincoln Logs, a dress-up box and a chemistry set -- and give the Nintendo a break for the afternoon.

Karen Hoff, assistant manager at Shenanigans, said that kids love their selection of puppets and art supplies and parents love to see their kids’ "creative juices flowing. It’s so important that kids use their imaginations, it really teaches them to use their minds and to be creative. It’s also important that kids learn how to play independently and cooperatively --like with board games or Playmobil -- before they go to school so that they will be able to work on their own and to share with their friends."

Take it to the Kitchen. Cooking with your kids is a great way to review math without being academic. Using measuring cups and solving simple problems ("This recipe serves four, but we’re having eight at dinner. How much milk will we need to use?") gives real-life meaning to all of those workbook pages full of sums and dividends.

Selena Coleman is the Site Director of the Creative Learning After-School and in the Summer at Jackson-Via Elementary. Since the CLASS program began incorporating SOLs into their curriculum, Selena said one of the favorite activities has been cooking. The kids love the grown-up responsibility, and they have fun knowing that they get to eat the final product.

Encourage your child’s talents and passions. You may have seen the Disney World commercial with the dad who has to make an appointment with his 11-year-old’s secretary. The point is well-taken. Kids are busy nowadays and a day at school can be as stressful as a day on the job. Encourage your child to pursue an "outlet" for her energy and creativity to relieve that stress and develop a passion for learning about something that’s meaningful to her --whether it’s soccer, playing the drums, Harry Potter books or a killer stamp collection. Be careful as you walk the fine line between encouraging stick-to-itiveness and pushing the hobby to the point where it becomes a drain and basically defeats the whole "spark the passion" purpose.

Let your kids be "know-it-alls." Children are like walking almanacs, real-live records of every fact that has ever intrigued them. Did you know that the human head weighs eight pounds? Make up family quiz games, or design your own version of Trivial Pursuit. Play "20 Questions" when you ride in the car. CLASS program coordinator Janet Hendrix said that a quiz game similar to 20 Questions is popular at Burnley-Moran’s after-school program, "it really teaches the kids to form thoughtful questions and to listen to what the other kids have asked."

Try a weekly contest to see who can find the craziest fact or the longest word. Every family with school age children should own a dictionary and a copy of the Guiness Book of World Records.

Take Family Day Trips. My mother has the most amazing gift of spontaneity. My dad would have a day off in the middle of the summer and all of a sudden we’re all being loaded in to the car for a day of sightseeing in Amish country. Every summer we would leave Akron, Ohio for a week at the beach. Without fail we would arrive at the beach a day or two later than planned because my mom had picked up brochures at a rest stop and discovered that our route was going to take us within an hour’s drive of a Civil War battlefield, or someone famous’s birthplace, or some other enriching site. The first-hand experiences of our country’s landmarks sparked a lifelong love of history, and I now know that the trips are just as much fun when you plan them.

In fact, planning them can be part of the education, fourth-grade teacher Linda Cox said. "Reading maps, planning a route, using directions like north and south instead of left and right --that doesn’t come naturally. It really needs to be reinforced by parents."

In Central Virginia, there’s no excuse for not taking advantage of all of the local attractions with presidential birthplaces at our backdoor and geological formations like Luray Caverns and the Natural Bridge an easy hour or two away. If you think you’ve exhausted the local repertoire, try a new approach. Most families have been to Monticello, but certainly not everyone can say they’ve been a part of one of Monticello’s unique hands-on craft or history workshops. And if history is your family’s favorite, try Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier in Petersburg (online at www.pamplinpark.org or call 1-877-PAMPLIN). This museum stands out as an amazing interactive experience of the Civil War. Using headsets, you follow the life of a soldier as he tells his story in his own words, which were taken from journals and letters. The park also offers summer camps that give kids the chance to drill and set-up camp as if they were Civil War soldiers. Another unique opportunity, this one closer to home, is the Rivanna Trails Foundation’s Saturday morning trail building sessions. Clear a path, experience nature and feel good about helping out the community. Contact Diana Foster at 964-1022 to find out more about the group that meets the second Saturday of each month.

JUST THE SOL FACTS

(Written Spring 2001)

Virginia’s Standards of Learning are a set of expectations of what needs to be taught at each grade level in public schools. The standards were adopted by the state legislature in 1995 as an effort to make schools more accountable.

In many instances, each year’s standards builds on information from the previous year. Since students are only tested at third, fifth and eighth grades, the questions on the test cover cumulative knowledge.

In high school, students are given end-of-the-course tests. Starting in 2004 (this year’s ninth-graders), students must pass tests in core areas of Math, English, Science and History in order to receive a diploma.

Starting with the test results from the 2006-2007 school year, schools that fail to have 70 percent of their students pass the SOL tests will not receive accreditation from the state. The state legislature hasn’t determined what will happen to schools that lose accreditation, but at this point it appears that those schools will not be closed down.

To find out more about the SOLs, or to see how your child’s school did on the tests, check out the Department of Education’s website at www.pen.k12.va.us.

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