Arlyssa Heard, a completely engaged and very involved Detroit Public Schools parent, was at her wit's end recently on two occasions with her two children who are vastly different ages and have vastly different learning styles.
Her youngest son, now a first grader at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, was struggling with spelling and rhyming last year as a kindergartner, and Heard felt like she was running out of ways to help him. He'd also been undergoing learning evaluations for his inability to focus.
Meanwhile, her oldest son, an eleventh grader at the Cody Academy of Critical Thinkers, who is into everything "hip hop, iPod, and things like that," said his mother, was increasingly thinking mom and dad were "old and uncool." Engaging him a conversation was sometimes tough.
If you're a parent or guardian or even an uncle or aunt, you may not have been through these exact situations, but you know the feeling of helplessness when you are at a loss for helping your child or children grow and succeed.
Maybe your daughter is having out-of-control temper tantrums, and you just can't figure out why. Maybe your son is starting to neglect his homework when he used to be a straight-A student. Maybe your oldest child just can't understand Trigonometry (and you can't either).
Heard was right there. Feeling helpless.
She remembered hearing about the academic toolkits that Detroit Public Schools and Detroit Parent Network created for parents to use with their children over holiday breaks last year. The toolkits were billed as something to engage your child in lessons in fun and engaging ways during school breaks.
There are a variety of toolkits that are age-appropriate by various subjects, like Word Study, Comprehension, Writing, Numeration, Geometry and Measurement. They are based on the state's academic standards and developed and vetted by academic experts. Parents can even "check them out" like you check out books at the library by going to any one of DPS' 8 Parent Resource Centers.
Heard was skeptical. She'd seen the kits and they seemed like a waste of time.
But Heard is an explorer when it comes to parenting. And she believes in "differentiated instruction," which basically means that kids learn in different ways and need a variety of different ways to be taught.
"Sitting at a desk for 6 hours just doesn't work," she said of her first-grader. Still, she was at a loss. "And it makes me cry to say this, but sometimes you just don't know how to help your child."
So Heard decided finally to give the toolkits a try. She was surprised at some of the items in the toolkit geared for teaching reading and letters. Many of the reading kits contain books, as well as other interactive items geared at a particular age group, like Junior Scrabble for the middle school set. One of the kits for kindergartners contained a metal cookie sheet and the kind of magnetic letters that you typically see on the fridge.
Heard took the toolkit home and got down on the floor with youngest son. He quickly became engrossed with arranging and re-arranging the colorful letters on the cookie sheet. Heard started with the first word -- "pan." Then she worked with her son to exchange the first letter for another. "Ran." They did that repeatedly. "Tan." "Man." "Can." "Fan." "Van." His eyes lit up!
"He had so much fun doing it," Heard said, and she marveled that he was spelling and finally "getting it."
With her high schooler, the story was different. He was not communicating with mom and dad like he used to. As parents, this is an awesome fear. We all love when our kids are little, and they think we are the center of their universe. And we absolutely fear the time when they grow up and mom and dad are so uncool that they won't even talk to us.
So Heard tried another toolkit, and she was completely fully skeptical about this one. It had toothpicks in it and the user was required to make shapes with only a certain number of toothpicks. The skill was to practice spatial reasoning.
"It was a high school kit and I almost didn't check it out for that reason because I wasn't convinced. But you had to use a certain number of toothpicks to complete each of the diagrams, and it was NOT as easy as it looked," she said.
Her eleventh-grader and his father worked on the project together.
First, no talking. Then a little talking. Before long, through their frustration of figuring out the puzzles, dad and son were talking and laughing and sharing. Unintended consequence: a conversation starter.
"That just jump-started my interest," Heard said. "I thought, 'You should never shut down a strategy.'"
Heard is taking that interest to a new level. During DPS' first Annual Holiday Learning Fest, when the district is going to have 18 schools open for academic enrichment academics (using the toolkits and other strategies) and offering free meals to students, Heard is going to volunteer.
Her reasons are two-fold. First, she hopes to learn more learning tactics for her children while there volunteering.
"What I found is that a lot of parents are struggling like I was. Some of us don't know how to help our children effectively. But sometimes, it just takes getting on the floor with your child and trying something."
Secondly, she wants to help other parents.
"What better testimony can you have than someone who has been through it and tried something?" she said.
Heard plans to devote three days to the DPS' brand new Holiday Learning Fest, a program sponsored in part by the Office of Food Services. Schools will remain open to students for six days (December 27, 28, 29, 2011 and January 3, 4, 5, 2012) from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. to provide learning, fun activities and nourishment for students.
DPS needs more people like Heard to volunteer their time for this first-time effort. The district is only seeking volunteers who have already undergone a criminal background check with fingerprinting and can show proof. To volunteer, call 313-873-7490, fax the registration to 313-873-7446 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
But we also need more parents like Heard to get engaged in their children's learning. (Heard also regularly uses the DPS Learning Village, one of two online parent portals. More on that later.)
Parenting is an awesome responsibility. Sometimes , like Heard, we just don't intuitively know all the answers. A little bit of expert help can go a long way. To learn more about DPS' parenting programs, go to www.detroitk12.org/parents