Thursday, April 28, 2011
Scarlett getting in on the literacy action, too!
I’m so excited that Matthew is almost finished with series 2 of the Stepping Stones Together reading program. Before I get into that, though, I want to clear up something from my last review. We actually did three times what we needed to in order to get through the first series of books. There was a small glitch in the system that wouldn’t allow us to move onto the next series. Luckily I got into contact with Dr. Burton, the creator of the program, who was able to fix the issue within the week! I was a bit critical in my last review about how much effort it took to get through so many books - when all of my criticisms stemmed from not being able to move onto the next series when we should have been able to after only 10 books instead of the 30 we were forced to do because of the glitch. If I’d have known we were finished the series twenty books ago, we wouldn’t have run into any of the issues we did with him losing interest.
I was really kicking myself for not getting into contact with Dr. Burton earlier, who was wonderful about setting things straight.
SO, after that was cleared up, I was very excited to start the second series with a fresh outlook, to see how it went. I did give Matthew a bit of a break for about a week just because he’d already done so much extra of the program and he was feeling a bit burnt out. This week, though, was a totally new experience. In fact, in each sitting, he’s asked to read TWO books. I’ve even tried to cut him off at one so as not to overwhelm him, but since he insisted on wanting to read an extra book before closing the program coupled with the fact that he’d done so well with the one we’d just finished, I really didn’t see any reason to say no. We’re six books in already, putting us more than halfway through the second of the three series.
See? A totally different experience!
Next week I’ll be posting a video because his progress is just unbelievable. We just finished reading a book called “Where Is Our Dog?” and Matthew’s enthusiasm was through the roof. Not only did he read through it beautifully, he also jumped up and shouted “Oh no! Bad dog!” after the page where Dylan the Dog got up on the table.
I will say that we’ve noticed an advantage by making one small adjustment: instead of reading through the story together once and then having him read it on his own, we actually go through it three times. The first time I read it to him, giving him the opportunity to make his predictions before I actually read each page. The instructions recommend looking through the pictures in the story first just to make predictions, but when we did that Matthew kept asking me to tell him what the words say -- so this way just worked for us. The second time, we read it aloud together. This really helped him to feel confident because I noticed that the length of the sentence alone would make him freeze up sometimes when it was his turn -- and then he wouldn’t even try. Every time I tried to help him with the first and second and third words, he’d just keep saying ‘this one’s just too hard, actually.’ Reading it together the second time made a noticeable difference and it also reinforced words that would have tripped him up without me having to stop to correct him -- he’d just hear me read it the right way and then know it for the next time. Then, the third time, he reads it all on his own… usually with no problem at all.
This little adjustment probably isn’t necessary for older kids, but like I’ve said before, Matthew wasn’t even three when we started the program, so he’s a bit younger than most kids who would use it.
In other semi-related news, I’ve started Scarlett on the Your Baby Can Read program!! Wal-Mart has started selling the DVDs by individual levels, making it much more affordable than purchasing the whole package in one shot. Obviously, it’s too early to tell if it’s working, but I will say that she watches the video and definitely responds with excitement when I take out the flashcards. I love most of all that the sliding ‘word cards’ are made of thick, sturdy, infant-friendly material. I wouldn’t leave them in a crib with her or anything, but they’re safe and fun for her to snatch from me and play around with the way that curious babies like to do. In fact, every time I hold up a word, she lets out a squeal and lunges for it! I say the word a couple of times then give it to her to fumble around with before taking out the next one.
As an added bonus, Matthew gets to benefit from them too. Once in a while he’ll sit through the video, but usually I have to keep him occupied with something else because he’s too much of a distraction to the baby. He ends up just competing with the video for her attention because he gets bored and starts trying to make her laugh.
One thing I was really excited to see about the video was that it uses the same basic technique I’ve used to teach Matthew his words. About six months ago I started drawing little bubbles on his dry erase board and inside of the bubbles I’d write two separate words (words that were completely new to him at the time) like IF and ON, for example. Some bubbles would have one word and some would have the other. Once I showed him one that said IF, he was able to pick all of the ones that matched. Then, I’d ask him to choose which ones said ON, and he’d circle all of the ones that were left. A day or two later, I tried it with new words, and again he was able to do it. After a few weeks, I realized that I could do the game with almost any combination of words and he’d be able to do it. The game ended up evolving into what we do now, which is where I just write four separate words on the board. I tell him what four words there are, but I don’t tell him which is which. Then I say, find DOG, for example, and he does.
The interesting thing about it is that I was able to do this with him with brand new words that he couldn’t read at all if I put it in front of him and asked him to read it. But if I put it on the board with 3 other words that he does recognize, he can find it. After a few days of repetition, he knows it like the back of his hand. It’s as if he doesn’t even know that he knows it, or that he’s actually “reading” it. It just comes to him. He knows how to sound words out, but he almost never does when we play this game, even with words he’s never been introduced to.
I’ve noticed that the Your Baby Can Read video kind of plays on the same idea. The video will show a picture of an elephant and then show the words HI and ELEPHANT, and ask the child to identify the right word.
Matthew loves the game I’ve made up for us so much that he literally asks to play it every day. I’ve never once had to be the one to ask him. Sometimes we’ll play for half an hour or more and he’ll whine when we have to stop. It isn’t hard to imagine that babies would take to playing the Your Baby Can Read word games just as excitedly.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Matthew is insanely sharp -- but for some reason the art of pedaling completely eludes him. It isn’t even that he isn’t athletic… Just that for whatever reason, pedals really, really piss him off. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time because the more we show him, the more insulted he gets.
So for this week’s Bicycle theme, I had to capture one of our attempts in an illustration. I made my subject a blondie just because I liked the mix of colors, but that face is all Matthew. My really pissed off, tenacious Matthew.
Monday, April 25, 2011
Scarlett in the show-stopping Easter dress that mom-mom Carol got her.
Matthew and his little right-hand-chihuahua
Every year we get it a little closer to perfect.
Matthew was the first to wake up and find his basket, hidden by the curtain on his favorite Bay Window hangout spot. Every year I put such painstaking effort into tailor fitting each basket to fit their personality that I look forward to the unveiling more than the kids. Scarlett got in on the action for her first year, too, with a tutu lined basket and new Sunglasses that her big sister helped to find under tufts of shiny pink grass. We barely made it out the door in time for coffee, much less decorating eggs and treats like we’d set up for the night before… but we made it off to church in our Sunday best -- right down to the fifth and tiniest of us, and the kids kept too busy to complain by finding surprise eggs hidden all over the house while they dressed. It was a first for that particular tradition… the first of many, many times to come judging by how well it went over.
It still feels like such a major score when that happens. When traditions are born, and things that are supposed to work for real-live-functional families actually work for ours… it feels good. Like maybe, just maybe we can actually pull this whole family-making business off.
For some reason, Matthew behaved and Scarlett stayed quiet, even though we forgot her binky and his crayons. Mary’s getting used to participating as an adult now instead of instigating distractions with her brother, so Matthews begun to follow suit… at least for as long as his attention span will let him. Everyone got a kick out of how he had the hymnal open, scanning the lines of the book with his finger, loudly repeating every last few words of pastor’s sentences throughout the sermon. They said that we have a little pastor in the making. I love when people get the wrong impression of my kids in a way that isn't humiliating. Mary had her name called in celebration of her Baptismal birthday which is apparently this month. Spencer and I were so pleasantly shocked that both kids were paying attention enough to catch it, that it didn’t bother us nearly as much as it normally would have when Matthew started quietly kicking the Holy Bible away from the pew toward the end. At least it ended shortly after, and as usual his little boyish antics only endeared our family to the other church members that much more.
The kids kicked off the last half of the day with an Easter egg hunt at their mom-mom and pop-pops. The grown ups got to sip Caronas and eat Chinese while the kids chased each other and blew bubbles at the small dogs in the tall grass. We swapped babies and milestones in the driveway and made plans for all of the weddings and baptisms to follow later in the year. Spencer and I snuck off to kiss every chance that we got, and between turns that we took griping about how much the baby needs to be held and our son needs to be corrected or cleaned up, we just held each other and marveled.
Just marveled, at the life laid before us. At how we really pulled this thing off.
At night, when everything is quiet, it isn’t any secret that we wonder what life would have been like if only we’d have waited. If we’d have gotten our careers together before having kids, if he could have avoided his whole first marriage, if we’d have had a wedding that predated more than one of our kids… if we’d have done so many things differently. We love our kids, we always say, but wouldn’t it have been wonderful to spend just a little longer loving each other before we gave it all up to them… before we gave them their turns? Last night, as we laid our daughter down to sleep and whispered a prayer over her crib, our thoughts were not of what we could have done differently, but of everything that we have done so bewilderingly right by doing so much so perfectly wrong.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
When this week’s subject came up for Illustration Friday, all that came to mind was my boy and his daddy. This is a sketch of the two of them trotting through a creek with Riley last summer, while I soaked my pregnant feet in the noisy water and laughed at everything they did. I loved Riley’s stance in two separate sketches, so I just duplicated him... Something about the summer weather coming back around makes me really miss that stupid, pain in the ass dog.
Monday, April 18, 2011
So over the weekend I did a little illustrating.
My niece Angelina turned one, so I made her a birthday card. Nothing over-the-moon, but it felt good to make something again. This is the first finished piece of ‘art’ I’ve made since the birth of my son, THREE years ago. It’s definitely nothing like the photorealistic work that I usually do in charcoal or oils, but it’s something of a start, and I’ll take that.
I also spent the week networking out my blog to other illustrators -- and I’ve been getting hooked on all of the posted work and insider information. I love the Mommy-blog world, but I’ve forgotten how good it feels to be really inspired by the works of other artists… and by people who are actively living my dream.
And while perusing all of these great blogs I found out that most of them participate in this awesome thing called Illustration Friday. Each week a subject is posted on the site and artists of every skill level and medium post their interpretation. This is exactly what I need to get the ball rolling again, and to get some pieces into my portfolio -- you know, that thing I haven’t touched since 2007.
Saying that it hasn’t been easy to work on the few things I have since Scarlett was born would be an outrageous understatement. I found from experience that even if I denied the children all sunlight and let snot complete crust over their nostrils, I’d still have to stop every 4.5 seconds to fulfill some very basic need just to keep them alive.
Saturday, for the first (and believe me, last) time ever I called an official time-out so that I could make that birthday card and refresh myself on Photoshop and Illustrator, leaving Spencer in charge of everything short of breastfeeding. He dedicated his efforts entirely to keeping Scarlett unconscious in the nook of his arm the entire time. Literally, the entire time. She was allowed to wake up as long as she didn’t move or make any noise. As soon as she’d squirm, he’d change her diaper and rock her back to sleep. Matthew watched so much T.V. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find that his brain had bled from his ears. Good thing the accumulation of ear wax would keep it from staining the pillow cases, because Spencer draws the line at laundry.
Don’t get me wrong, Spencer is a phenomenal dad. The best that there is. Hands down in a million ways for a million reasons. He just makes a crap mom.
The good news is that we are officially IUD protected!… or more appropriately, any hopes of making a career for myself as an artist is.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
I think about you falling in love all the time. The first time. The last time. All the wishy-washy times in between. I know what it’ll be like for the girls. But something about you being a boy, makes the thought run restless circles around my heart.
Yesterday you sat across from a little brown eyed girl on the tire swing, who made you laugh like I have never heard you laugh before.
The two of you locked eyes and shrieked while the world spun behind you. Her hair wafted toward you like a living thing, and she held on like she was scared, but watched you like she was loving it. She was so perfectly pretty for a girl her age, all done up with lace and bows, but you are still so many years away from caring. Your cheeks are stretched to their limit, your skin is flush with pink, and she is losing her breath laughing at you. You can barely hold on, you yell. She screams that her tummy tickles, and you join her in this rejuvenated round of infectious laughter.
Mary is holding baby Scarlett while I spin you around. We are all you know of love and females. We will be for some time to come, and yesterday hasn’t changed that.
When it does change, I wonder if this is the feeling you’ll get. I know that you won’t remember this girl or her hair or this ride. You won’t remember this park or this day. But I wonder if you’ll feel that same tug at your gut… the dizziness in your head… the weakness in your knees, that you felt yesterday. I wonder if the thrill of making her laugh will pull at your cheeks til they physically hurt. I wonder if your palms will sweat and you’ll lose your breath just before you fall.
And I wonder, when the world starts to spin, if this feeling will come rushing from some whisper of a memory buried deep in the back of your mind… of you and the little brown eyed girl who made you laugh when you were too small to remember. I wonder if a small piece of the boy you are today will light back up in you again.
…Suddenly I fear for the future daughter-in-law who will inevitably never measure up…
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
You are not always easy to please. I can’t say that you’re one of those babies who exudes sunshine and contentedness no matter what we do. You are a show-stopping-crier sometimes. You can belt out a screech like nails on a chalkboard -- if someone hooked the sound of nails on a chalkboard to the worlds most powerful amplifier. There were times in your earlier months I almost dared to call you colicky, but I knew that wasn’t it.
It isn’t that you can’t be pleased, it’s that you have an insatiable appetite for stimulation. You see all of this life around you, and you want to be knee deep in it all the time. On my hip, yapping away with the radio up and the wind in that powder-puff patch of fuzz you call hair on your head, testing how many times you can lunge yourself from my arms before I’ll actually drop you, and twisting, scratching, pulling and squeezing at all of the world’s objects. Yesterday you overturned a bowl cereal right out of my hands and before I could even look down to fully appreciate the slop of milk and flakes all down my jeans, splattered onto the floor at my feet, you had managed to stuff a fat, wet fistful of honey oat clusters right between your cheeks. Yes, only you Scarlett could manage to nearly kill yourself even in the arms of your mother -- which is where you are 300% of the time.
You can’t just sit in a swing or listen to a lullaby while Matthew and I go about our activities. You want to be in on the action. You want dirt in your toes like the rest of us, grass in your fist and a big, gummy grin pushing at your cheeks from the way that it tickles your face.
Monday, April 4, 2011
A few months ago, Matthew and I signed up for the Stepping Stones Together reading program. Today, we are a single story away from completing the first of the three series in the year-long program. Since Matthew began this program before he had even turned three (putting him only barely in the age bracket considered ready) and did not yet know how to read, I knew that this was going to be an interesting experience. Today, (again, only a few months in) I’m stunned at how close Matthew is to reading independently.
What it is:
The program is an online three-part series of short stories for parents to read with their children, specially designed to help develop vital reading skills. It was designed by Dr. Erika Burton, who developed the program after her own daughter graduated from kindergarten not knowing how to read. The program encompasses the use of hundreds of high frequency vocabulary words, including the 95 most common nouns found in children’s books, inside of simple, repetitive, high-interest text.
What it does:
The program is intended to offer even the busiest parents the opportunity and tools necessary to foster literary interest and skill in their children. The program prides itself in being both affordable and time efficient, taking only 15 to 20 minutes a day. A major benefit to the program is it’s flexibility. It can be used for children from 3 years of age to 7, either to begin teaching a child to read (as in our case) or to help develop skills your child has already begun to learn in school. We benefited from having the choice to either read the books online, or print them out for the child to physically hold and color. Since we also play phonics games online, it was easier for us to put our 15 minutes a day into the program immediately after, while we were still on the computer. And I enjoyed being able to track our progress and complete the program online, without having a lot of clutter to keep track of mailed to my house. There are also such a wide range of texts and game ideas included that children have the opportunity to make choices each time their parent opens the program.
Overall: amazing! With a few critiques…
We hit the ground running. Right from the start, the stories were a huge hit. Matthew couldn’t decide between wanting to read and re-read the same stories over and over again or choosing a new one, because there were so many stories he was excited to open. He loved that the choice was his.
Because the text is simple, short, repetitive, and is accompanied by obvious illustrations, even children who can’t read catch on quickly to what the story says after going over it once or twice. And they enjoy it. They enjoy the story, and they get a huge kick out of “reading” it themselves. If I was reading the story out loud to him, I could stop without warning mid-sentence and he would always be able to rattle off the rest of what it said. It was pretty amazing!
Surprisingly, Matthew enjoys the comprehension questions at the end of each book more than reading the book itself. Matthew is very much a “what if!” kid, so he loves being prompted to rethink the stories in a new way or come up with his own variations. Sometimes we even make little projects or drawings out of ideas we’d gotten from discussing things, like what we would do if we were one of the characters in the stories.
His enthusiasm was strong for more than a month, but eventually it did level off. Even though we always had a great time going through the stories together once I coaxed him into starting, and his progress continued to grow, he stopped viewing the time we put into the program as so much of a privilege. Sometimes he’d be excited to do it and sometimes he wouldn’t. By the third month, I started having to really put thought into what time of day we set aside for it, because his mood ultimately decided whether or not it got done at all. When we first started the program there was no need to print out the included progress chart because motivation was not an issue, so when I eventually did, that helped a little. We got special stickers to put on the chart -- but still, it took convincing and sometimes bribing for him to do the program with me.
I think that after the novelty wore off of being able to “read” the stories, it just became too redundant.
Part of why this program is so effective is because it depends on active participation. The flip-side to that is that it isn’t easy to get a child in this age-range to cooperate unless there’s ample motivation to come back - which I don’t think the program provides enough of right now. Especially toward the end of a series when your child will inevitably be left with all of the stories they’ve been least interested in getting through -- on top of feeling burnt-out and a little bored.
On the days that he did cooperate, you could clearly see that difficulty wasn’t an issue. He breezed through them, he giggled at silly parts, he readily made predictions and eagerly made comparisons, and we were finished in no time. Often times, he even asked for another one!
The tough part was that on the days he didn’t want to cooperate, it could take quite a while to make it through a very short story; he’d forget the rhythm of the repetitive syntax, or pretend to forget one-letter words he takes pride in knowing like “a” or “I” so that he wouldn’t have to do it. Sometimes providing a weekly review was difficult because 3 or 4 days might pass without my being able to coax him into reading another Princess story.
That being said, I cannot stress enough that this program is solid. It works. Like I said, Matthew only recently turned three and he’s already reading short (up to 3-letter) words on his own, and even simple sentences with minimal assistance. And this is only 1 third of the way through the program! You just can’t argue with results like that. Every selling point promised checks out. It is definitely effective, time efficient, tremendously user friendly (my favorite part!), and well-worth the comparatively small cost. Other benefits to the program which were mentioned, such as providing parents with an added bonding opportunity, have been particularly true. With that, of course, comes the advantage to a child’s reading success that parent involvement provides.
The only point I take issue with is that I don’t think it has what it takes to hold a young child’s interest for the length of time necessary to complete the program or to help to build a child’s enthusiasm, particularly if the child is already a struggling reader. My main critique is that it lacks the pizzazz a program intended to foster enthusiasm in young children needs. Mainly because it so easily could!
The program is right in priding itself on having high-interest text and topics, but the illustrations (a crucially important component to the program) are really lacking. These are supposed to be characters interesting enough to keep our three to seven year olds invested for up to a year. Yet, they’re rigid, boring and totally lifeless. There’s no doubt in my mind that this program and the children who use it would benefit tremendously if more care were put into character design. After all these characters are more than just pictures to go along with words, they’re icons of the product and how much fun children will have doing it. They need to be so much fun to look at that children want to make it to the next page. And that they will want to make it to the next book, day after day after day until they’ve made it through the program.
With similar early reader series available at book stores with characters children are practically addicted to, like Scooby-Doo or Dora, it bothers me that the reoccurring characters in this series don’t seem to even try to be comparatively compelling. Especially, like I said, when they so, so easily could. I mean it almost takes effort to make superheroes so dull.
Overall, I’m profoundly glad that we’ve made this product a part of our preschool day. Dr. Burton has a product that will bring the gift of literacy to children all over the country and I’m so thankful that Matthew gets to be one of them!