Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Week In Review – December 20, 2014

Highlights of the Week

The Nutcracker
  • We are all now officially on Christmas break!
  • We checked off The Nutcracker performance off the list. Smarty was super wiggly in the theater (well, for her anyway), so perhaps we will skip the next year.
  • The jury trial is over. It was a very difficult case emotionally where a mother killed her child as part of a murder-suicide attempt. While the mother was clearly mentally ill, we found her to be legally sane.


choir-PerformanceAs usual, the last week before Christmas was a “fun week” in school. The kids had a “grand finale” for their team-based math project, enjoyed a party for The Wiz cast on Tuesday and a class winter party on Thursday. The district junior choir had their first public performance of the year in a residential facility for older people, and it was quite enjoyable. It’s fun to hear Smarty sing the full songs that she learned in the choir and not just snippets of what she remembered from the radio.

After School

With The Wiz rehearsals over, Smarty had more time to read, play, and make some Christmas presents for our family. We also did a fun science project, which I will share… eventually :)

Places We Are Going

Christmas-in-the-ParkAnother of our Christmas traditions is visiting Christmas in the Park in San Jose. They have cute displays of Christmas animatronics and hundreds of Christmas trees decorated by various organizations around our area. Alas, the snow is, of course, not real :) An avenue leading to this little park in downtown San Jose is turned into a fairground for Christmas, and this year Smarty insisted on buying a ticket for one of the rides with her money. Then she was upset that the ride was not as much fun as she expected it to be. Well, this is also a good learning experience!

What My Child Is Reading

Instead of Amazon Widget (stupid Apple and its Flash limitations!), I placed Smarty’s favorite books of the week into a table. The links to the books are Amazon affiliate links, but the books are from our own library and from our community library. Together we were reading Hanukkah and Christmas books, and on her own Smarty blew through a thick Lost in Babylon in 2 afternoons. It’s hard to keep her supplied with new books considering her reading speed.
How Russian Snow Maiden Helped Santa Claus The Trees of the Dancing Goats Lost in Babylon
8 Nights of Hanukkah Nathan Blows Out the Hanukkah Candles Calvin and Hobbes

Favorite Memory of the Week

Mama-Daughter A rare picture of us together. Too bad that Smarty chose to close her eyes :)

Most Popular Post of the Week

Most traffic continues to come to 12 Amazing Engineering Projects for Kids. Second most popular is Gifts for Kids Who Have Everything.

Gifts-for-kids-who-have-everything Your Turn

How was your week?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Why Brains Are Not Everything

Yesterday I had a chance to observe the “finale” for the team project that the third grade class of my daughter was working on in December. The experience was both hilarious and educational for me and prompted me to reflect on how important it is to encourage other traits in our kids outside of pure academic skills.

Intelligence vs Emotional IQ

Team-based “Candy Factory Project”

My daughter was talking at home about “Candy Factory” all December. Her class is studying multiplication concepts and arrays, and "Candy Factory" was their main math activity for an entire month. The students were divided into 6 teams of 4 to 5 people. Every team had a candy factory producing boxes of candy and was given a number, for example, 36. They were expected to name their team, make “boxes” of candies with this number or its multiples, make a poster for their “company” and a price list. All that was done before yesterday. On the last day of the project, each team split into shoppers and shopkeepers (switching between 2 roles after about 20 minutes). Shoppers were given $30 in play dollars each and asked to buy as much candy as possible for their money. Buyers were expected to write receipts, give out their boxes of candy (rectangles with candy “boxes” written as multiplication problems), and give proper change.

Why “the Math Team” Did Poorly

Smarty’s teacher did an interesting experiment grouping kids by their math ability. Smarty’s team had 5 strongest math kids in class – three boys and two girls. When Smarty told me who is on her team, I joked that these strong mathematicians should certainly find a winning strategy for both pricing their wares and maximizing their candy.
I couldn’t be more wrong. Here is what went wrong for Smarty and her very bright classmates:
  • They couldn’t cooperate with each other. Each child had his or her own idea of the “right way” to approach this challenge. Instead of selecting the best ideas, they decided to accept every idea and to let everyone do what he or she wanted with very minimal coordination between participants.
  • They didn’t listen to instructions. The teacher shared with me while we were watching the trading that this team completely missed the fact that they were supposed to get a “candy number” from her. Instead they wasted a lot of time debating which number is a “good one” until Smarty finally realized that there was “something about Mrs L giving us the number in the beginning”.
  • They couldn’t express their ideas on paper. Their poster was a frightful mess done in #2 pencil in comparison with colorful posters done by their more artsy classmates. I wish I could share it here, but my phone decided to run out of power while I was in the classroom.
  • They “over engineered” the solution. For the life of me, I wasn’t able to figure out their price list. It was full of little inside jokes and discounts, but it was certainly not helpful to the shoppers who came to their shop to buy.
  • They canceled each other out. They spent so much time bickering and doing “their own thing” that in the first cycle only one person went shopping instead of 2 or 3.

Which Team Did Best?

Another half of gifted cluster was also grouped together – it was three girls and one boy. In my experience with them, all three girls are bright and cheerful, with more aptitude towards languages. The boy is very mild mannered and a good listener. Their whole performance was noticeably different.
  • Their poster was colorful and well organized.
  • Little “advertisements” for different candies explaining why kids should be buying them.
  • Somewhat underpriced but logical price list – with prices scaling correctly with number of items (buy more, pay less per unit).
  • Pleasant behavior towards each other and to their “customers”.
  • Clear roles and responsibilities between team members.
  • A brilliant strategy of “pre-launch excitement building” – apparently, the girls spent days talking to their classmates and convincing them to buy in their shop. Considering that these girls are (rightfully) popular anyway, their shop was always busy.

The Thoughts I Took Away

  • Last year we were “inches away” from pulling our daughter from this public school. Now we are glad we stayed. Smarty is having a fantastic year with her third grade teacher in her somewhat unruly gifted cluster.
  • We have to focus more at home on listening. Smarty is very anxious to talk and we need to work on her becoming better in listening to others.
  • Even the smartest person cannot succeed in group settings if he or she does not know how to work with others. Emotional intelligence is such a huge key to productive friendships and successful careers. I am very glad that Smarty is having to work in groups this year and, hopefully, increase her ability to cooperate and compromise. It’s not easy for her, especially if the group is more than 3 people, but I think that these “soft skills” are going to help her as much or more in the future as her considerable academic talents.

Your Turn

Do you have any tips on raising team players? If you are a blogger and have a post about that, feel free to leave a link in the comment section.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Hanukkah Activities for Older Kids

Do you want to introduce Hanukkah to older children? Here are some activities that you might consider.

Hanukkah Activities for Older Kids
Disclosure: I am an Amazon associate and this post contains affiliate links. For full disclosure, please click here and thank you for supporting my blog!

Read Hanukkah Books

Every year we pick books to read during Hanukkah time. Our selection changed over time as our daughter gets older. I pulled our favorites in the round up of 8 Books for 8 Nights of Hanukkah (my contribution to Multicultural Kid Blogs) and indicated recommended age for each book.
8 Books for 8 Nights of Hanukkah This year we kicked off our Hanukkah reading with Our Eight Nights of Hanukkah written by Michael J. Rosen and illustrated by dyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan. This book describes Hanukkah celebrations in the religious American Jewish family narrated by a boy who is about 8 or 9. I like that the book briefly explains the origin of the holiday and the reason behind lighting the menorah candles. It also highlights the themes of charity, of family togetherness, and of respecting other religions, but doesn’t gloss over the reason Jewish children love Hanukkah so much – presents, presents, and more presents!

Our eight nights of HanukkahBut… We Are Not Jewish, Are We?

This year was the first year my 8 year old asked this question. I think being Jewish is more confusing to her than, say, being a German, since being Jewish is associated both with the religion and with “blood heritage”. In heritage I am three quarters Jewish and proud to be one. However, I never practiced Judaism and don’t plan to become a practicing Jew. This is exactly what I discussed with my daughter yesterday – how we want to treasure and appreciate traditions from our ancestry even if we don’t follow the religion of our ancestors. Her mind quickly jumped from philosophical questions to mathematical calculations of how much of “Jewish heritage” she will be carrying forward.

Hanukkah Projects for Older Kids

Smarty is eagerly looking to three traditions of Hanukkah in our household – lighting menorah candles, playing dreidel games and making latkes. I expect her to do everything that is needed for latkes this year except frying them. When she was younger, we made some guided  Hanukkah art projects, but then she lost interest. This year she didn’t need any guidance – she made a beautiful Hanukkah Perle bead star (above) as a present for grandparents, and tried her hand constructing menorah out of loose Lego bricks. Other older children might chose to reenact Hanukkah story with puppets, to write a poem or a story or to draw pictures. I am actually very interested to see what Smarty might do next year!
Menorah out of Lego

Your Turn

If you asked your older child (over 8) to do a creative activity for any holiday, what kind of project would he or she choose?

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Monday, December 15, 2014

10 Easy Christmas Crafts for Kids

Are you looking for easy Christmas crafts to do with your kids in these last 10 days before Christmas? Here are 10 easy Christmas craft ideas from After School Link Up participants:

Christmas Craft from Planet Smarty Pants

My daughter is not really into crafts, but last week she was very determined to make a pinecone tree topper for our outside tree. The process is pretty self-explanatory and involves a pinecone, acrylic paint, and some glitter. She was pretty pleased with herself when she was done with her topper, and my husband helped her design the way to attach it to the tree.

Pinecone Tree Topper Christmas Crafts from After School Participants

1. A simple tissue paper and button Christmas wreath from Little Fingers Big Art
Button Christmas Wreath
2. Science and art combo – DIY jello window clings from Science Kiddo
Christmas Clings
3. Decorate jar lids (and put something festive inside those jars) from Mosswood Connections
Decorative-Gift-Jar-Lid 4. Make this beautiful jingle bell ornament from Buggy and Buddy.
Christmas Jingle Bell Ornament
5. Ornaments don’t have to be complicated. I love this “minimalistic snowman” from Doodles and Jots.
Minimalist-Snowman-Ornament-Printable6. Want a somewhat more “realistic” snowman? These egg carton snowmen from Life with Moore Babies look adorable.
Egg Carton Snowmen 7. An easy 3D Christmas tree for older kids who can fold and cut along the lines from Mama Smiles: Joyful Parenting. It really looks like magic when it unfolds!
fun-paper-christmas-tree-craft_thumb 8. Recycle flip lids into these adorable keepsake lockets from Doodles and Jots.
9. Another ingenious recycled idea from JDaniel’s Mom – turn empty egg cartons into holiday gift boxes!

Your Turn

Do you have a “go to” Christmas projects that you repeat every year?

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2014 After School Link Up Hosts

After School Link Up

Share Your Learning Week

We would love to have you link up your School-Age Post (Ages 5 and up) about your after school activities with kids age 5+ including Crafts, Activities, Playtime and Adventures. When linking up, please take a moment to comment on at least one post linked up before yours and grab our after school button to include a link on your post or site! By linking up you're giving permission for us to share on our After School Pinterest Board or feature on our After School Party in the upcoming weeks! Don't forget to follow along and join our After School Enrichment Community.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Week In Review – December 13, 2014

Highlights of the Week

  • Our week started with some warm weather and then the first real storm of the past 3 years hit the Bay Area. We had a lot of rain dumped on us, rain that we sorely need!
  • Despite the rain, kids had their big performance of The Wiz.
  • Witness testimony is completed for my jury duty. There is a good chance that we will be done before Christmas!


The WizIt’s the second year when Smarty participated in her school’s musical production. This year they put on The Wiz. Sadly, this year we didn’t get a CD with lyrics like last year, so it was harder for all of us, including Smarty, to really connect to the play, especially since her role of '”Munchkin #1” was relatively minor. Still, I think it was a good experience for Smarty to go through the whole process again and to be part of a big theatrical cast. She hasn’t decided yet whether she wants to do theater again next year, because it requires such a commitment. We don’t have an opinion one way or another – we leave all extracurricular choices to her.

After School

PineconeSmarty spent most of her after school time in school either rehearsing or performing in her play, but on Sunday we decorated our outside Christmas tree, and she really wanted to make a pinecone topper for it. She developed the idea and executed the whole project entirely on her own. We still didn’t put it in, because of the rains, but hopefully the topper (and the post about it) will come up next week.

What My Child Is Reading

What My Child Is Reading Dec 13
Last week my faithful reader informed me that people with Apple devices cannot see Flash widgets of Amazon affiliates. Dang, I should have known it before! No more Amazon Widgets on my blog, but the link below is an Amazon affiliate links. Together we were reading books from our book Advent calendar, and Smarty picked two new books from the school library. One amused me, because she said she wanted to read it to understand better what I am doing as a juror. It’s called Trial by Journal and written in an interesting format combining first person account, newspaper clippings, drawings, etc. The premise is a little farfetched, since the juror in a murder trial is a sixth grader, but Smarty enjoyed the book, and I consider reading it myself once my jury trial is over.

Best Memory of the Week

Munchkin No 1 I am still hoping to get a better picture from one of volunteer Moms, but here is my little Munchkin. She loved her costume, but it was too funny when her hat fell off her head in the middle of the dance :)

The Most Popular Post of the Week

This week was good in traffic for my blog, since two of my posts (Holiday Books for 4 Year Olds and Mr Seahorse) were shared by bigger FB pages. However, 12 Amazing Engineering Projects for Kids still outperformed every other post yet again. I guess this post is doing well both in Google and Pinterest searches – yay, me :)

Your Turn

 How was your week?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Computer Science for Elementary School

This week we celebrate Computer Science Education Week with the slogan that every student in every school should have the opportunity to learn computer science. How do we get our children started on the road of real computer literacy? I will share some resources in this post.

Computer Science and Programming Resources for Kids Age 5-10

Did You Learn to Code?

I have seen my first computers when I was about 5 – my Mom was one of the first graduates in Electronics Engineering in my native city of Minsk, capital of Belarus. She worked in one of the State Computing facilities and maintained mainframes. They were huge and took big rooms. When first personal computers arrived to my school, they were an incredible rarity and a gift to our school from our Japanese twin city. the year was 1986, and I was a senior in high school. The first program I wrote in Basic made me change my career plans from chemistry to computer science. I graduated with a degree in System Engineering from Minsk Radioengineering University and my whole adult career was spent in high tech even though I shifted over years from coding to QA to product management to program management.
My husband (we are exactly same age, but he grew up in Western Germany) bought his own “DIY Atari” when he was a teenager. Programming was always his passion. He is one of those geeks who programs for fun, but he is also a professional software developer who is paid well for his skills. So, in essence, learning to code continues to put food on our table and roof over our heads.

When Is a Good Time to Start?

Programming (or coding) changed so much since our youth. I remember struggling to comprehend certain concepts of computer programming even in high school, and I was a very capable student. Nowadays kids can start programming much earlier with more visual approaches to computer languages. My husband was very enthusiastic about teaching our daughter to program, and we tried to get her into coding first time last spring when she was 7 and a half.
Learning-to-Code We used Khan Academy Intro to JS, since Smarty was already familiar with Khan Academy math program and loved it. While Smarty progressed quickly through easy topics, she hit the wall when it came to variables and loops. My husband tried to explain them in various ways and drew pixels on graph paper, but it appeared that Smarty was simply not ready for a degree of math abstraction required while trying to program in Java Script and the more my husband tried to “encourage” her, the more she resisted. He tried again over the summer, and this time she went a little further in her understanding, but, again, she didn’t have motivation or the right project in mind to get her over the hump of theory that is needed with languages like JavaScript to move to practice. So we decided to wait a little and perhaps reconsider our approaches to teach programming to Smarty.

Are Girls and Boys Different When It Comes to Learning to Code?

I don’t want to generalize, but so far I am yet to see a girl of Smarty’s age genuinely interested in programming. Boys are completely different matter! One of Smarty’s classmates is spending all his free time reading Java programming books and writing his own programs. My good friend’s son who is a year older than Smarty was into programming for several years, his preferred environment is Scratch, and he and his best friend write games together and already plan to start their own software game company. Perhaps not incidentally, both boys have extremely geeky fathers who are very supportive of their boys’ interest and spend a lot of time with them.
Don’t get me wrong - I am not saying that girls cannot grow into terrific software engineers, but there is something in learning to code that seems to call to boys earlier than to girls. Perhaps the situation will change soon with some beginner tutorials specifically targeting girls, such as this Code With Anna and Elsa tutorial designed for kids age 8+.

How to Get Started?

Tutorials for Beginners
There are many paths that you can take into the world of coding. Start small! Give your children an hour of code. Check out tutorials and coding apps that might work for children as young as 4. Let them experiment and follow their interest. I will be honest and say that it is certainly helpful to be able to code yourself if you are trying to encourage your child to try it out. But perhaps coding is a new skill that you and your child can learn together. I, for once, am excited to try some of the tutorials designed for age 8+ (not for middle school like Khan Academy) and see if Smarty’s interest in programming takes off again. I am looking forward to our Hour of Code this weekend :)

Your Turn

Do you know how to code? What computer languages did you learn?

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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Truth About Strict Parents

Why strict parenting works and why do parents have problems being strict?
Why do parents have problems being strict
I remember conversation that I had with my friend when Smarty was about 2 years old. He said, Your daughter is a well-behaving child, but you are very strict with her. She just blinks wrong, and she is already in timeout. Ever since, we had the same reaction – people were complimenting good behavior of our daughter, but their eyebrows went up when they heard me and especially my husband using The Voice (readers of Dune Chronicles will know what I mean) when correcting our daughter’s behavior in public. I was also called a “Tiger Mom” by acquaintances when I shared my approach to teaching my child to read early.

Why Do Parents Hesitate Being Strict?

When children rule the roost
It seems that in US being strict is equated with authoritarian parenting – with the father who hits, with the mother who yells and puts down her kids. It is associated with “do as I say” approach in parent-child relationship. Modern parents are expected to be “different” – to be sensitive, to attend to the needs of their children, to “prevent” bad behaviors through ingenious hacks. We are expected to be “friends” with our children instead of what we are meant to be – people who raise them, who move them from total dependency on us to total responsibility for their own actions.
I am not saying that being a sensitive parent is bad. In fact, I consider myself and my husband to be sensitive parents fairly attuned to the needs of our daughter. But I’ve seen so many examples of outrageously bad behavior of children in real life with parents doing nothing to correct behavior of preschool age children who take things without permission, ignore other adults, or are clearly mean to other children. Then these children go to school where the behavior expectations are higher, and they start failing from day one, because they are not used to boundaries being set at home. In “best case scenario”, some kids react to this change of expectations by behaving well in school and rising to expectations, but becoming even more impossible at home where they are allowed to “be themselves”.

I Am a Strict Parent, and I Am Not Sorry

My parents never pushed me
Yes, my husband and I are strict with our daughter. We have high expectation of her behavior, and we have rules of the house that we expect her to follow. There are consequences for breaking the rules. Of course, we read that natural consequences are best, but more often than not, we cannot use “natural consequences” for, say, not cleaning her room which is her normal chore, and we use “agreed upon” consequences – timeouts or privilege withdrawals. In our house, we don’t hit, but we do raise our voice occasionally. The key here is that we do all this not randomly, not because we are having a bad day or our daughter has a bad day. My husband and I talked about our approaches to discipline even before our daughter was born, and we keep talking and adjusting our behavior  as she grows older and changes.
You see, to us discipline is a form of love. Setting the limits for our child shows her that we care about her. Changing the limits and rules as she grows shows her that we are more confident in her ability to think for herself, that we give her more freedom and expect her to take more responsibility. I read somewhere that strict parents create sneaky children. I think that this is a major misconception. Inconsistent and unfair parents create sneaky children. Our 8 year old is incredibly honest and tells us when she was not following the rules even when we were not present during her transgression. This tells me that she considers our rules fair and she values our trust more than any transient reward she could get from “sneaking”.

Are We Always Consistent?

Hard Parenting Only robots are always consistent in their responses. Of course, we are not always consistent, and even between the two of us we have different ways to respond to the same event. However, we are very careful not to let our daughter “play favorites” and avoid the consequence by going to a more lenient parent. This is hard, folks, but we are doing it because we believe in our mission of raising a responsible human being who is able to self-regulate her behavior. We have our difficult moments, just as any other parents, but we are persevering in our intention to stay strict intentional parents.

True Facts of Strict Parenting

Here are some facts of strict parenting that are true for our family and, I hope, will ring true for other parents who are in the same camp of strict parenting regardless of how they were raised themselves.
Rules of Strict Parenting Your Turn:

Are you a strict parent?

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