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puppet chariot

This summer our all-ages Bible study provided the Bible stories and activities for a Do-It-Yourself one-week Vacation Bible School at a Spanish language church in a high immigrant area here on the U.S. Mexican border. Since the neighborhood is very poor, the local elementary school provided free breakfast and lunch, feeding 70 to 85 people each day. Our crew did the teaching activities, and the people from the church served meals, provided child care, and led a vigorous daily praise and worship dance workout.

We explored the Bible stories with the same everyday art activities that our kids use in our weekly gathering. Instead of breaking the kid-crowd up into age groups, we let each school aged child choose to explore the story in an activity center: art, drama, or sports. That may be why we ended up with so many teenagers coming and staying for the whole week.

chariots come 6 crop

Michaela Bell, 13, designed a flip card art project for the Baby Moses story, our kids made stick puppets out of popsicle sticks and tongue depressors for the dramas, and we taught one of the church teens to video the dramas. It wasn’t polished or glitzy like an American culture Vacation Bible School, but all the kids got their bodies engaged, so the Bible stories will stick with them. And we sure had fun.


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When I first began teaching our son Matt at home, I marked his mistakes in red like my own teachers had done, to help him notice his mistakes and try harder next time. He seemed oblivious to his mistakes, though. Matt disliked penmanship, for example, and our lessons failed to improve his attitude.
Then I read some good advice and quit marking mistakes. Instead I started drawing a red circle around Matt’s best work on the page. Then we talked about why those letters and words were his best. He had disliked having me tell him why his mistakes were so bad, but now he enjoyed hearing me tell him why his best work was so good. Matt started looking forward to seeing red marks when they meant success instead of failure. His penmanship improved, and so did his attitude.

After a few weeks of this new strategy, I started asking Matt to circle his best work himself. Once he began evaluating his own work, he found his mistakes himself, and his penmanship improved dramatically. The eye opener for me, though, was not how much the new approach changed Matt’s attitude, but how much it changed mine. Grading penmanship was irritating when I focused on finding what was wrong. When I focused on finding what was right instead, I cheered up and had more patience.

Later I was able to apply this new understanding to Matt’s spelling lessons.

Matt was a late bloomer who didn’t really “click” on reading until he was 10. Once reading clicked for him, his reading skills shot far above his grade level. But his spelling skills were poor, and he seemed unable to progress. He could make 100’s on his spelling tests using a traditional spelling curricula, but he could not seem to transfer what he learned in those lessons to the same words when he needed to spell them for original writing assignments. He behaved as if he had never seen that word before, and he could misspell the same word three different ways in one paragraph. He had great trouble proofreading as well. He could not catch his own mistakes.

He was so frustrated with his spelling difficulties that he began “dumbing down” his vocabulary in his written work to avoid writing words he didn’t know how to spell. His writing was way below his grade level and even further below his vocabulary level.

We finally had him tested at the local public school when he was 13. They said he could read at a college level, but he spelled at a second grade level. So he was “learning disabled in spelling.” I tried their suggestions for helping improve Matt’s spelling, but they didn’t work.

Then a schoolteacher friend of mine told me about a method for helping kids learn to proofread. I modified that method and came up with a good system that worked well for Matt. He began picking up two years in spelling improvement during each year that we used this method.

Today Matt has a Ph.D. in cancer research. He still struggles with spelling, but it is no longer an obstacle that prevents him from expressing himself in writing.

Here’s the method:

1. Use a spelling curricula that includes sentences for dictation, preferably a curricula designed for problem spellers. Teach the spelling lesson and do the exercises.

2. Then dictate three or four sentences using that lesson’s spelling words. (Use your judgment to discern how many sentences your student can do without feeling overwhelmed.)

3. Show your student the correctly written sentences that you just dictated and allow her to correct her own work before you even look at it. (Learning to find her own mistakes and correct them will be her key to learning to spell correctly.)

4. When your student thinks she has corrected all her errors, go over the paper with her. Make a little red mark for every correct word or punctuation mark on her paper. For example, if she capitalized the first letter of the sentence, make a red mark. If she spelled that first word correctly as well, make a second mark. When you come to an error, don’t make a big deal about it. Be matter of fact. Simply explain why it doesn’t get a mark and move on.

5. When you finish correcting the paper, count up all the red marks. Give your student a reward – a raisin or chocolate chip or other small reward for every red mark. (Chocolate chips worked wonders for Matt. He was disappointed when he missed a little red mark, and he tried harder next time to spot his errors himself. As his proofreading skills improved, his spelling improved.)

You can modify this system for original writing projects. If your student is too stuck on spelling to produce a writing flow, let her dictate to you what she wants to say (Dictation #1). Then dictate Dictation #1 back to her as she now writes down her own words (Dictation #2). Give her a corrected copy of Dictation #1. Allow her to check Dictation #2 using Dictation #1. Then proceed to steps 4 and 5.

Use good judgment. The important thing is to work with your child at her learning level and avoid her frustration level. Some horrible spellers, like Matt, are incredible story tellers who can dictate far more words than they can manage to write when those words are dictated back to them. In that case, dictate back only a paragraph or a few sentences – whatever your student can manage without becoming overwhelmed.

© Becky Cerling Powers 2012

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A few days after my October 5 post, my computer crashed. It’s still not back to running the way I need to have it run, but there’s a Plan in the works to fix all that.           

While recovering from The Crash, we had our Big Party. Grandma Powers turned 100 on December 5.

We put Grandma's high school graduation picture on her birthday cake.

Grandma’s party trumped Thanksgiving and Christmas this year – our kids, except for Jessica, only came home for the party instead of any of the holidays. Erik and his wife Nanda drove with their three daughters from northern Colorado, (more…)

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For eight years I wrote a short parenting tips column for The El Paso Scene. The column featured one tip for each day of the week, and I tried to give parents a balance of tips that would address their own priorities & attitudes as well as their children’s physical, social, intellectual and spiritual development. The column was formatted so that parents could easily cut out the column and keep it as a handy reminder through the month. Here is a sampler for the month of September

How to Be a Better Parent in September:

On Sundays… remember that you are less likely to burn out as a parent if you replenish yourself by taking care of your own needs. Learn to recognize not only your physical needs (for exercise, rest and proper diet), but also your inner needs for solitude, prayer, time with friends, mental stimulation, spiritual growth and creative expression. Then build routine solutions for meeting these personal needs into the fabric of your week.

On Mondays… keep in mind that children need warm approval as much as food, and they will be influenced all their lives by the people who praised them in childhood. So make sure that your children know you are their biggest fan.

On Tuesdays… encourage silent reading. Some families give their school age children an early bedtime to allow them personal times for reading in bed.

On Wednesdays… be aware that teaching children to be thankful begins with simple etiquette – learning to say “please” and “thank you,” and to express appreciation by writing thank you notes and making thank you phone calls.

On Thursdays…discuss chores with your children for the up-and-out process on school mornings. Keep a chore chart in the kitchen with tasks and time limits clearly communicated. Then give your children a list of their morning chore assignments at night. Instead of nagging about each chore in the morning, simply ask, “Have you checked off everything on your chart?”

On Fridays… remember to encourage creativity by keeping a desk, table or other working surface available for projects. Then keep supplies (appropriate to your children’s ages) handy where they can get them. Children will be more apt to start projects if they don’t have to wait for someone to clear work space and get out supplies.

On Saturdays… be sure to take hold of your family’s heritage of faith by learning the words to hymns and spiritual songs. Sing them through the day, at bedtime, and in the car. Thinking about the words will help you change your mental focus when you are worried or upset. You’ll feel better, and your family will benefit from the change in atmosphere.

 © Becky Cerling Powers 2001  Reprint with attribution only.

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Secrets in the Salt

Nova Science Now aired a segment  July 28 that shows some just-for-the-curiosity-of-it research that my husband Dennis did in collaboration with some Utah profs. You can also see more of Dennis’ work at the Kansas Underground Salt Museum in Hutchinson, KS where the KUSM folks set up a special exhibit. The museum is definitely worth seeing if you’re in the area. You can find the Nova Science Now program here:  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/sciencenow/0405/02.html

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Speaking of my friend Lee reminds me of a poem on friendship that my mom used to quote when I was a teen.  Today I went online to see who wrote it and discovered that it is a quotation from George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) [1819-1880]. Apparently it was not originally written as a poem, but I prefer it that way. So here it is (as a poem):

Oh, the comfort – the inexpressible comfort

of feeling safe with a person,

having neither to weigh thoughts

nor measure words,

but pouring them all right out

– just as they are –

chaff and grain together,

certain that a faithful hand

will take and sift them,

keep what is worth keeping,

and with a breath of kindness,

blow the chaff away.

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There is a wonderful old hymn that I like to use to put myself to sleep at night. It was written by Thomas Ken (1637-1711) and is the source of the Doxology that we sing in church to the tune of Old Hundredth (see final verse). It is also sung to the Tallis Canon, which is the tune I prefer. But at night, I just recite it mentally, then go back to the top and follow its wise suggestions for meditating on the day. It goes like this: (more…)

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