Calling All Book Nerds! 7 Reasons You’d Love Volunteering at the School Library

Have you been looking for a way to help out at your kids’ school, but you’re not quite cut out to be a room mom? Or maybe you’re too introverted to be an active member of the PTA? Or perhaps you only have an hour to spare each week, but you’d love to help out somehow. Enter: the school library. Literally, I mean, go in the school library.

If you consider yourself a geek or nerd, libraries likely conjure many fond memories of your own days as a student. Finding new worlds to get lost in, hiding in the corner and reading during a free period, or even browsing through things that your own kids have never heard of, like “card catalogs” and “encyclopedias.” Having many such happy memories myself, and being too shy to be active in the PTA, I chose my daughter’s school library for my volunteering efforts.

And I love it so much that I just had to tell you all about it.

Here are 7 reasons why volunteering at the school library is a fun, fantastic way to give your time.

1. Learn about current books and authors and recommend them to your kids. After checking in the pile of books sitting on the counter every week, you start getting an idea of what titles are popular and what genres kids are getting into at their age. (Spoiler: Graphic novels.) If a picture book catches my eye that I know my kindergartener will enjoy, I write down the title to check it out for my daughter at the public library later.

My favorite section, though, is the chapter books/YA novels that I would have loved to read as a kid myself. Or, you know, now. So not only might you find your kid’s next book to love, you might find one for yourself, too.

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

2. Help a busy librarian. The school librarian has a lot more to do during the day than fiddle with the books on the shelves. He or she needs to write lesson plans, order books, coordinate school literacy initiatives, and find out just what the kids in the hallway are shrieking about. Your 30 minutes checking in books and shelving them helps them get it all done and actually take a lunch break.

3. Meet the kids in your child’s class. Some school libraries have weekly class times and allow a parent to volunteer during their child’s lesson. Checking out the books for your kid’s classmates lets you put faces to the names you hear about at the dinner table every night.

4. Shelving books is delightfully mind-numbing. I might have deadlines looming or a problem nagging me, but for one hour every week, all I worry about is finding 636.81. (Kindergarten girls really like books about cats.) Putting the books back on the shelves is a wonderful way to focus on something else for a little bit.

5. Help advocate for your school library by getting a firsthand look at where it might need some help. “They’re always under threat of budget cuts, and parents play a big part in saving libraries and librarians,” says Jackie Reeve, GeekMom’s resident school librarian. Spending time in there every week might highlight some problem areas (outdated books? in need of donations?) that can help you take your volunteer efforts further.

6. Get crafty. The school librarian once asked for my help with the books in the window display and you’d have thought I won the lottery I was so giddy. If you enjoy crafty stuff at all, helping with the bulletin boards and setting out books to display can help you get creative for a good cause.

7. Nerd alert: Learn the Dewey Decimal System. There’s something strangely satisfying about directing a curious kid to the Ancient Egypt section or a book about the Loch Ness monster without having to look it up on the computer. This probably doesn’t seem like a huge benefit or useful life skill—unless you’re a book nerd, which I personally am, and I have a feeling you might be, too.

Edda: A Little Valkyrie’s First Day of School

little val cover
Image by Adam Auerbach. Christy Ottaviano Books

Vikings are garsh darn cute. Cute vikings? Impossible, you say! Check out this new picture book by Adam Auerbach and you will agree that Vikings can indeed be quite adorable.

Edda: A Little Valkyrie’s First Day of School is about trying something new, even if you’re nervous. Finding friends means venturing out into unfamiliar territory, doing things you may not be good at, and putting your true self out there. In the end, it’s being who you are that attracts real friendship.

little valkyrie
Image by Adam Auerbach. Christy Ottaviano Books.

Edda is the youngest Valkyrie in the magical world of Asgard (home of the gods). She can do whatever she wants there, but has no one her age to play with. Her Papa takes her to Earth school to meet friends. She is worried, but he assures her that Valkyries are very brave. Her first day of school isn’t very welcoming, with the kids mostly ignoring her, and she has to sit at a desk, and write when she’d rather draw.

She is determined to make it work, though, so she starts writing about her adventures in Asgard, and shares them with the class. What makes her different makes her special, and she finds a friend.

Adam Auerbach shares this message in a sweet and funny story. (As a homeschooler, I feel for the poor Valkyrie having to sit at a desk all day just to meet a friend!) But it’s the illustrations that make this book stand out. Each page is wide and welcoming to your eyes, and the character’s faces are simple yet expressive.

The ending is the best part, but I won’t spoil it for you. Young kids will really enjoy this book, and want to find out more about Norse mythology afterwards!

Edda: A Little Valkyrie’s First Day of School is available in June. GeekMom received a copy for review purposes.

Kindergarten and Herd Immunity

Ontario Ministry of Education: Copyright Expired.

This September, my precious baby boy starts kindergarten. While he is jumping up on the bed excited about it, I cry myself to sleep at night. He is busy practicing writing his name and making a list of things he would like in his lunch box. I am trying to convince my husband that I should quit my job and be a stay-at-home mom for the next few months.

There’s a lot of paperwork to do when sending your child to school for the first time, and there should be. But there are things I never anticipated, like the media release form. If my son happens to be photographed at athletic events, concerts, performances, or graduation ceremonies, his image is fair game. But I have to agree that his “name, picture, voice, or statements” be used by the district and school websites, as well as by any authorized outside media. I get the choice, and I so agreed. It makes perfect sense, but my 1986 registration was primeval in comparison.

They want to know what language we speak and if we speak many. I didn’t ask if Klingon counted. They want to know if we are migrant and if we process dairy or cotton on a regular basis. They want to know if I went full term and what his birth weight was. They want to know if he had Osgood Schaltter Disease, to which I said, “Huh?” They need a day-by-day account of where the bus should pick him up and drop him off, and who is allowed to do that. All of these things are wonderfully necessary, but they don’t calm the pulse rate as I prepare to loosen the apron strings.

And then there’s the one that gets GeekMom buzzing, sets the internet on fire, and raises more controversy than John Travolta’s Oscars gaffe.


I wasn’t too worried about this. I believe in medicine and our doctor’s education. My kids get all the vaccines that are currently available and recommended. Nicely spaced out, they have kept many a fear at bay in my mind. But now my boy is going to be in a school with 660 other kids whose parents had to fill out this paperwork. And they got asked the same questions and given the same choices I did. Like this for example:

Non-Immunized Students:
Non-immunized students are not permitted to attend school unless one of the following conditions is met:
(Please check the applicable)
___Parent/legal guardian provides written assurance the student will be immunized within 90 days.
___Parent/legal guardian provides a written statement from a physician stating that immunization against one or more diseases may be medically inadvisable. (Required each year.)
___Parent/legal guardian provides a written statement that immunization is contrary to their sincere religious beliefs, or that he/she is opposed to immunization for philosophical reasons. (Required each year.)

Hmmm, so this herd that my baby is joining may not be as immune as he. This herd may not be quite what I thought. I’m not too worried about this, but I did check with some lawyers, and the main point of me mentioning this here today is to share this little fact with other kindergarten-starting GeekMoms who might be wondering.

You are allowed to ask if anyone checked these boxes.

You are not allowed to know who, you are not allowed to see anyone’s documentation, and you are not allowed to speculate with staff. You have no rights to any files and you have no rights to details of conversations regarding this. But you are allowed to say, “Hey, there are 660 kids here, any of them not get vaccinated?” And get just a number in response.

Now I’m not looking to fearmonger and I’m not looking to judge anyone’s beliefs. I don’t want to praise my own method of parenting over anyone else’s and I by no means have all, or any, of the answers to this lifelong gig we have engaged in. But, just so you know, you have the right to know how healthy your herd is, and that’s all I have to say about that.

Google Docs: The Future of School Reports

Teaching Your Kids How To Use Google Docs For School Reports
all images courtesy of: justJENN

When you think of the future and technology, visions of floating cars and time machines are the first thing that come to mind and rightly so, I’m waiting for my DeLorean as we speak. With computers and video games, kids have access to so many advancements now that it’s easy to overlook key pieces of technology that can be integrated into their core school work.

Growing up we had to write outlines on lined paper by hand, then a summary, rough draft, and final draft in pen. Pen! The final report was then typed on a typewriter, and if mistakes were made, liquid paper was your best friend. This all isn’t that long ago but that’s how quickly technology advances.

google doc settingsWhile iPads and laptops are common for school work nowadays, something you may not be taking advantage of is Google Docs. Google Docs is a free web-based software within Google Drive. Not only can you edit your document on multiple devices but it also allows you to edit and share documents with others online.

I’ve always used Google Docs for my own writing and when the Kid’s 4th-Grade California Mission project came up, it dawned on me that it would be the perfect way to research and write the report.

At the start of the project I set up the Kid with a new document in Google Docs where he typed his outline and the questions he had. Google Docs is a shared mobile app, so that document was always with us. When we visited the site, I simply brought up the document on my phone and he altered and added information to it as we walked around the Mission.

using google docs for school reportsWhen we got home he went over the notes he took and completed his rough draft. It’s that simple! The days of dragging around spiral notebooks and a pen to field trips is over!

Google docs is great for group projects as well. It allows for sharing a link to the document with your other collaborators or keeping the document completely private.

To see how the Kid transformed his notes into a Powerpoint presentation, go here.

Feels Like the First Time: Reliving My School Choir Days

English cover of the 1984 single “I Want to Know What Love” Is by Foreigner.

You know that feeling you get, when something you always thought was pretty cool coincides with something you love, and makes a whole pile of awesome? Benedict Cumberbatch on Sesame Street, the It’s a Wonderful Life episode of Warehouse 13, little boys dressing up as Darth Vadar for Superbowl commercials. All of that rolled into one big moment for me this week, when I found out that Foreigner—a British/American band that brought us “I Want to Know What Love Is” and “Feels Like The First Time”—was not only playing in my town, Portland, Maine, this week, but on stage with them would be the choir from Deering High School.

I was a bit of a choir geek back in the day. Sure I toyed with Orchestra and the violin, I half heartedly learned the guitar, but it was to the choir room I found myself going year after year throughout high school. From Mr. Mason, our choir director, I learned lessons of diction and clarity that I still hear myself repeating on an almost daily basis. How long to carry an “s” sound in the middle of a word. When to use a hard “g” in “ing,” and when to swallow the middle of a word. From Mr. Mason I learned the opening pre-amble to “White Christmas,” memorized the words to “The Seven Joys of Mary,” and learned that a high E was within my range. It is no longer within my range.

Turns out, this is something that the band has done across the country for the past six years as part of their effort to promote music education. Along with the chance to perform on stage with a band that has sold over 80 million albums, the participating choir gets $500 and the opportunity to sell Foreigner CDs on site. The sales go to the music education fund of the Grammy Foundation. The Choir’s role is only a minute long; they will sing backup on “I Want To Know What Love Is.”

I got the chance this week to ask a few questions of Gil Peltola, the Choir Director at Deering High School.

GM: What excites you most about this opportunity?
Gil: This is a great opportunity for my choral students to actually be on stage with a world famous rock band. They’re usually in the audience looking up, but this time they will be on stage looking at the audience.

GM: What excites the kids?
Gil: Pretty much the same thing.  The thrill of being on stage with a famous rock band. Actually, the parents are just as excited (maybe more!) about this adventure—they grew up with Foreigner.

GM: Has the Glee effect had an impact on how you, and indeed how the kids, approach choir now?
Gil: I just had this conversation with my students as we plan our music for the future.  They would like movement to be a part of their singing and productions but also realize that the music must come first.  They are thrilled about adding motion to their music.

GM: Were you a Foreigner fan before this?
Gil: I listened to them on the radio but I was more of a jazz fanatic.

GM: What are you doing to prep yourself, and to prep the kids for Tuesday night?
Gil: Not to down play our performance, but we will be just singing the chorus of “I Want To Know What Love Is” with the group on stage. We have a recording and video to watch.  Most important we need to be professional throughout the entire performance and smile as big as we can.

GM: What is your favorite memory of your own time with the groups of your youth?
Gil: Again, being a jazz aficionado, I had the opportunity to see jazz musicians such as Cannonball Aderley, Buddy Rich, Bud Shank, Herbie Mann, and others at local jazz clubs.  I hope my students will remember this concert and enjoy being a part of music on stage.

Gil expressed his thoughts on music in our education system, thoughts that I can testify worked in my own life thanks to a strong music program. “For me, the purpose of music is performance.  We work so hard at rehearsals to perform usually only one time. Hard work produces good results.  They can go as far as they wish with hard work and dedication.  Hopefully this will excite them and make them go further in life.”

My own choir director taught me vocal tools that I use everyday so the key thing I wanted to know from Gil was what he most hoped the kids would take with them when they left his Choir. “I hope they take the love of music with them.  I always tell my students that music is a life long personal partnership. In college there are many music groups, instrumental and choral.  Every community also has musical groups that the public can join. Love music and performance, and keep it in your life as much as you can—it is good for the soul.”

Foreigner is playing, with Deering High School, at the State Theater in Portland, Maine, on Tuesday February 18th. Their tour continues throughout the year, check out their tour dates and see if they are playing with a high school choir near you.’s Mobile App School Search Feature: Godsend for Parents

As a military family, we rely on mobile apps such as for the iPhone to help with the most up-to-date househunting information. Image:

In much of America, particularly among military families such as my own, it’s coming up on “moving season.” In order to not disrupt most of the country’s public school schedules, families with school-aged children try to move in the summertime. In military communities, it’s tradition to see the “For Sale” and “For Rent” signs appearing throughout the local neighborhoods in the springtime, as families anticipate their June and July moves.

My own family will be moving in a mere five weeks–eek!–to Colorado Springs. Earlier this month we took a long weekend and flew out to choose a new house. Continue reading’s Mobile App School Search Feature: Godsend for Parents

Bully, the Movie

My son, getting interviewed by our local news network after we saw the movie Bully. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm.

Not long after my children returned to public school after two-and-a-half years of homeschooling, it started.

At this point, my older son was in 8th grade and so gym meant changing in a locker room with the other kids in his class. A couple of his peers developed a habit of coming up behind my son while he was changing, cupping his chest, and informing him that he had breasts. On the gym floor and in the hallways between classes, these boys would leer moon-faced at my child and call him “Scoops.” At the time, my son shared none of this with his father or me or his inclusion teacher or the school psychologist that he was seeing once a week.

Part of the reason that we’d decided to homeschool in the first place was because my younger son had been physically bullied in elementary school–finally, after a third call in as many days from the school nurse telling me that my 2nd grader had been injured again by a peer at recess, and a third day of ignored calls to discuss the matter with the principal, I picked both children up from school and left a message with the principal saying, “I will allow these children back on school grounds when I have a guarantee that they will be safe.”

One day passed. No phone call. Two days passed. I called the district superintendant’s office. A message was taken.

On the third day, the principal finally called. She opened our conversation by saying that she was very disappointed in me for keeping my children out of school for three days. The second point she tried to make was her last: “Mrs. Schwalm, you cannot possibly expect me to guarantee your children’s safety at all times in this building–I am only one person.”

“This conversation has ended,” I immediately replied. “You’ll have the paperwork for homeschooling on your desk tomorrow morning.”

And so, we homeschooled for two-plus years–and it was great. We read together and went to parks together and visited museums and wrote plays together…and then I felt it was time to send my children back into the fray. Ironically, I was worried that by homeschooling, I was making things too easy for my sons and blocking them from experiencing necessary social challenges or developing important coping skills.

The way we found out that my older son was being bullied was through a call from the middle school principal informing me that my son was being placed on three days of ISS (in-school suspension). Having suffered through months of taunting, he’d finally had enough, and when the boy who had been teasing him the most reached out to cup him in the chest for the hundredth time as he was passing my son’s locker, my son had thrown himself at the boy and knocked him against a wall. No one had been hurt but a half-dozen teachers standing at their doorways monitoring the hallway had witnessed the entire inelegant encounter.

The principal’s voice was heavy on the phone as she spoke with me. “I know what happened–all of it now–but we have a zero-tolerance policy for violence in the school. The other child is being suspended out of school–at home with a parent–for a week, and other measures will be taken, as well. I have to protect the privacy of the other student but I am telling you: we will put tools and consequences in place so that this will not happen again.”

Outside of a lecture on the importance of talking to trusted adults when you need help, we didn’t punish our son at home. On the night of the incident we actually went out for pizza and ice cream. He did his three days of ISS and when he came back to class, two boys in his gym class told him that they thought he was cool for standing up to the other kid and not taking it anymore; a trio of girls nearby agreed.

A week later, my son joined a running club for children with disabilities. Within six months he’d lost 40 lbs. and was requesting that we buy healthier snacks when we went food shopping. He has never felt like a victim at school again. At his most recent annual review meeting as we discussed moving my son out of inclusion and into a more-rigorous curriculum, his teacher told me, “Whenever I pass him in the halls, he is chatting and surrounded by friends.”

Closer. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm

So, after all of this, I thought it would be a good idea to go as a family last Friday to see the documentary Bully. My older son is a member of his high school’s Anti-bullying Club and was planning shortly on participating in its Gay-Straight Alliance’s Day of Silence to support gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students. I wanted my children to see that they were not alone in experiencing either bullying or inept school personnel. I thought that the movie would give their experiences a broader context and soften some of the residual sting in all our memories.

The boys brought a friend and all three agreed afterwards that the movie was worthwhile. “That was a lot better than I thought it was going to be, actually,” my younger son confided. “I thought it was going to be boring but it really wasn’t–and I can understand why you wanted us to see it.” As my older son walked off then to be interviewed by the local television station, I excused myself to the bathroom for one last, brief, shuddering crying jag before we all drove off to an afternoon of cheese fries and amusement park rides at Coney Island.

It may sound melodramatic, but I cried through this entire film. The opening scenes intersperse home movies of a toddler giggling up at a camera with scenes of his somber father recounting the life events that ultimately lead up to Tyler Long committing suicide at 17, and that was it: 90 minutes of continuous crying and a headache that followed me all day until bed.

I saw aspects of my children in almost all of the children followed in this film: like my older son, Alex has some developmental issues and refuses to tell the adults in his life how badly he is being abused. Like my younger son, Alex had a frail, perilous babyhood. Like the principal at Alex’s school who tells his parents, “These children are just as good as gold,” the principal at our elementary school was clearly not trained in creating a school culture that rooted out bullying and abuse. Like my older son, Ja’Meya also finally decided that she needed to fight back against her bullies–but she didn’t just push a child against a wall, she brought her mother’s handgun onto her school bus and brandished it in front of her peers in an effort to get them to leave her alone (and wound up incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital for six months).

“Geeky” Tyler Long suffered through years of being abused in his school’s locker room and being called “a fag” before he hung himself in his bedroom closet. Ty Smalley was a beautiful little boy with freckles and wide eyes similar to my younger son’s features. He killed himself after he was suspended from school for standing up to a bully…

I can’t help but believe that if conditions were only a little different, I could be one of the devastated, shell-shocked parents in this movie. Don’t mistake me: I empathized with the other parents in Bully but I was crying for me and my children. The policeman in the film who suggests that 14-year-old Ja’Meya be charged with 44 counts of kidnapping and receive hundreds of years of imprisonment because she hadn’t “really been hurt” simply doesn’t know what he is talking about.

Bully is playing in a still-expanding number of theaters nationwide. The movie was initially given an R rating by the MPAA but after a great deal of media attention and public outcry, this was changed to PG-13. Go with a group of people you care about. Get ice cream afterwards. Or cheese fries.

Kari Byron, Mythbuster Mom: Preschool Hustle

KariCloseUp-e1308329695929I am writing another $50 check, to another preschool … just for the chance to have my application reviewed.

The more I think about this game, the more it feels like a grift. I show up to a potential preschool along with a dozen other mommies and daddies to compete for a spot that may actually not exist. We’re all trying to look like the most interested, the most invested, and the best candidate — all while our 2-year-olds are running around putting things in their mouths with their finger up their nose.

Is this just an urban problem or modern problem? Is this really the lynchpin for my child’s entire future? If I choose the wrong preschool, am I dooming her to a life of, “Do you want fries with that?”

The stress is overwhelming. It was easier for me to get into college. It was easier for me to get an apartment in San Francisco at the peak of the dot com boom!

I never took rejection as personally, as I do now when it comes to my kid. I got a letter in the mail denying me from a preschool co-op that I applied to when my daughter was a few months old. My husband had to put ME on a “time out.”

The preschool hustle is making me a crazy person.

If I make it to the end of this process without choking out the obligatory suck-up mommy taking pictures of the potty area and asking philosophical questions about their educational structure…My baby may just learn how to make ants on a log and finger paint macaroni art.

Next stop, Harvard.

I Want To Be A GeekMom When I Grow Up

IMG_5194-227x300Last night my husband (Tim) and daughter (VIP) went to her Spring program which was the grand finale to her last day in pre-school. They brought home a huge keepsake packet to let me peruse through which included everything from a “report card”  to art projects.

When I had finally reached the bottom of the never-ending stack of finger-painted animals and seasonal decorations, I came to several sheets of paper that brought me pretty close to tears…

First, a paper asked the question “What makes you smile?” Her response: being with her dad. My first thought was that Tim and I are doing something right as parents that she is happy with her family (at least her dad). Second, I found a paper that highlighted her favorite things. Among the listed items were Lego Star Wars (which she has played a grand total of 6 times) and basketball.

The paper I found that prompted the biggest reaction was the one reflecting what she wants to be when she grows up – A GeekMom! I must say, she is on the right track. Her report card reflected that she has mastered all points that were taught this year. She wants to “go to work at the same place as dad because he takes stuff apart,” and she wants to eat lunch with him. He works at UL, so her view of what he does for a job is actually pretty close to accurate.

This morning I asked her why she wants to be a GeekMom when she grows up. Her response was simple, “I want to have a kid someday and do projects out of a GeekMom book.” Considering how much time we have spent working out of the GeekDad books recently, that is sound logic.

Today I am faced with where to put all of our new fabulous art. I already had a drawing of Perry the Platypus that I want to display in some manner that is a higher status than the refrigerator.

I think “I want to be a GeekMom” is going to be framed.

I am so proud of my GeekKid.

For New Books to Read, Go Local


One of the things I love about local bookstores, such as one of my haunts, Longfellow Books in Portland Maine, is that they highlight local work. So when an author who lives nearby comes out with a new book, I can usually find a decent interview in the local press, a signed copy of the book from any of the local stores, and even, on occasion, a reading at said bookstore. The biggest plus however, is discovering works that otherwise would have gone un-noticed by this generation Amazon-er.

Such is the case with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente, a Peaks Island resident who was interviewed in the Portland Press Herald last week. A quick look around the wonderful world of the internet and I learn that this book is the first to win the Andre Norton award before traditional publication – meaning it was an online book when it won the award. As a fledgling writer in a blogger’s world, this gives me hope. It also gives me something to add to my wish list. Having earned praise from Neil Gaiman, Tamora Pierce and Holly Black this is certainly one to look out for.

Having people around locally who are producing works like this is inspiring for me, but also for the kids that I work to support. Lincoln Peirce, creator of Big Nate, recently visited the middle school where my office is based, to talk to the kids for a couple of hours about what he does. This is something they can really relate to, and it’s great for them to be able to connect with someone who does something like this, but locally. Kudos to him for having an incredibly affordable fee.

There’s a lot going on around us that we can take, and teach inspiration from. From my end of things; Stephen King is a Maine resident who makes a habit of giving back to his community; Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon are active in the Mount Desert Island community, and will be speaking at a showing of Bull Durham in July; and then there is Jonathan Frakes (Cmdr. William Riker in Star Trek: The Next Generation) teaching film classes to Maine students at The Waterfall Arts Center and The Saltwater Film Society.

Now don’t get me wrong, I won’t be teaching my son that fame is the key to happiness, but I do hope to show him that the things he wants in life aren’t out of reach. Sometimes it amazes me how willing people are to give back to their community. If you look around you might just find your child’s idol willing to come talk at their school. As to the middle school kids that got to meet Lincoln Peirce? I’ll be looking for at least one name in the funny pages ten years from now.

On Raising Boys Who Read

Photo: Flickr user KellyB.

My boys are voracious readers. Sometimes I’ve even been tempted to make them put the books down and do something else. Anything else. A friend of mine tells me that this is a good problem to have. Her son, the same age as my youngest, won’t pick up a book to save his life.

“How do you do it?” she asks.

She’s not the only one wondering. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal ponders How to Raise Boys Who Read. From the article:

According to a recent report from the Center on Education Policy, for example, substantially more boys than girls score below the proficiency level on the annual National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test. This disparity goes back to 1992, and in some states the percentage of boys proficient in reading is now more than ten points below that of girls. The male-female reading gap is found in every socio-economic and ethnic category, including the children of white, college-educated parents.

How did we get to this point with our boys? Some blame technology and video games. Others blame the reading material itself:

A considerable number of teachers and librarians believe that boys are simply bored by the “stuffy” literature they encounter in school. According to a revealing Associated Press story in July these experts insist that we must “meet them where they are”—that is, pander to boys’ untutored tastes.

While I don’t disagree with the idea of letting kids read what interests them, I didn’t have to pander to my kids with books like Zombie Butts from Uranus. My youngest did pick up Captain Underpants on the recommendation of a friend, but it didn’t cause him to seek out more books in the bathroom humor genre. I think he had enough sense to realize that while there may have been a few chuckles in the book, it really wasn’t as enjoyable as some of the other stories he’d read.

As a homeschooling family we’ve had the freedom to let reading occur at a more natural pace. I never sat down and said, “Today, we learn to read.” Instead, I read to the boys. A lot. I pointed out signs, telling them what they said. I made sure they had access to plenty of interesting reading material. Not just books, but maps, games, Pokemon cards, and LEGO catalogs. And they learned to read. Note that I didn’t say, “I taught them to read.” I didn’t. I gave them the opportunities and they essentially taught themselves. I answered plenty of  “How do you spell ___?” questions and told them what the unrecognizable words were when they asked. But that’s been the extent of my reading lessons.

My eldest was reading picture books at the age of four, and asking the librarian to help him find non-fiction books on topics of interest at five. My youngest was a late reader. At age eight, he didn’t read much beyond some familiar and basic words but he was desperate to know what all the Harry Potter fuss was about. I told him that when he could read, he could read Harry Potter. He’d finished the first book in the series two weeks later because all of a sudden, reading became interesting and important to him. Today? Both boys are reading at levels well beyond their respective grade level.

I think that because my boys have had the opportunity to read what interested them, at their own pace, they’ve learned that reading isn’t a chore that must be completed, but rather an activity to be enjoyed. My youngest – the late reader – carries a book with him everywhere he goes in case there’s a down moment when he can squeeze in a little reading for pleasure.

That Wall Street Journal article closes with this interesting fact:

There is no literacy gap between home-schooled boys and girls.

This is not to say that every homeschooling family uses the same method. Certainly that’s not the case. But somewhere between home and school, something is going on. Is it the push in schools for high scores on standardized testing? Is it the long hours of seat time leaving boys with the desire to do nothing but move when the bell rings?

My friend whose son is a reluctant reader feels very strongly that he was pushed to read when he wasn’t ready. His first two years of school was full of forced memorization. In her mind, those lessons did nothing but teach him to hate reading. Forcing our boys to sit and read when their brains are simply not there yet is counterproductive.

I’m not suggesting that everyone run out and homeschool. Absolutely not. And I’m not suggesting that kids with learning disabilities be left to their own devices. But why not take a lesson from what seems to be working and ask schools to ease up a bit? Give these boys the resources, let them read at their own pace, and I’d bet that in no time this problem will be a minor one. Let these poor kids learn to enjoy reading.

So, GeekMoms. Is your son a reader? What did you do to encourage a love of reading? Was there one teacher who really inspired him? This is my story; tell us yours!

GeekMom Debate: My Kids Hated School. So We Dropped Out (Temporarily).

Boy with shark puppet
Giving an oral report on South African sharks to the homeschool Passport to the World Club. Image: Andrea Schwalm

Welcome to the first edition of GeekMom Debate! GeekMoms are nothing if not opinionated, so we’re giving them a chance to present different sides of the same topic. For another take on the question of dealing with kids who hate school, read Alisson Clark’s post My Kid Hates School. I’m (Mostly) OK with That.

As an adult, I am a good student. I had a graduate school professor once tell me, “I’ve never had someone pay such…such rapt attention to me before. And your papers…are a pleasure to read. You make me feel like a very good teacher.”

This is in stark contrast to the twelve years of low-average report cards still archived in my mom’s bedroom dresser drawer, all reading identically: “polite student, loves to read, tends to daydream, does not work to potential,” like the droning chant of a dozen disappointed matryoshka nesting dolls. Academically and emotionally, I self-identify as a late bloomer and I am sure my experiences with education have shaped the decisions I’ve made for my children.

My younger son asked recently, seemingly out of nowhere: “That reminds me! About school: What’s wrong with laughing? Why can’t there be laughing and learning all the time?”

“You can have both laughing and learning. Just not always at the same time,” I replied. “We have to learn that not everything gets to be fun. Sometimes, you just have to suck it up and deal.”

For a long time, though, my children were neither laughing NOR learning in school. My bookshelves at home are a hard-covered testimony to our journey: The Explosive Child, From Emotions to Advocacy, Overcoming Dyslexia. All of this reading was not changing one important thing, however: my children hated school.

“I hate this place, Mommy,” they would tell me in their piping, Disney-woodland-creature voices as I dropped them off in the morning. “Back to prison,” they would moan—the one time of day these two seemed to come together to agree on anything.

And then, each night, we would embark on another two-hour, tear-filled psychological journey through the five stages of grief on our way to completing homework assignments that the teachers perkily assured me should take “no more than twenty minutes” but required hand-eye coordination and literacy and numeracy skills that my sons were just not developing at the same rate as their peers.

Ultimately, special education supports and services were provided to my children at school. But even then, they still disliked school, did not find most of the work they were asked to do meaningful, appropriate, or remotely enjoyable. To them, work was done only to avoid parent-imposed negative consequences: loss of TV, loss of video games, loss of computer time. There was no ownership or pride in what they were doing.

Was this a healthy way to develop?

I wanted my sons to develop the critical thinking skills and “positive habits of the mind” that ultimately shape personal character — to learn to be “fair minded,” “inquisitive,” “empathic,” and “confident.” Yes, I knew the dangers of allowing my children to think that the world was always an accommodating place. I believed that children thrived when working to meet high expectations. But I felt like my children, because of their learning disabilities, were giving up on learning.

So, I listened to what my children were saying and decided to homeschool them. For two years, we visited every museum, aquarium, and hands-on science program in our region, passed history books back and forth as we read together in pajamas on the couch, watched Shakespeare on video and re-enacted the best deaths, and participated in countless programs with local homeschooling collectives.

My plan had never been to homeschool indefinitely. My goal was simply to engineer learning experiences that were pleasurable and relevant, reignite this flame. Reboot our sense of joy and intellectual curiosity.

Last fall, after two years of care and growth, they returned to public school. Back to the same services and supports they’d left. They were complimented on their profound depth of knowledge on certain topics and chastised for their unwillingness to follow rules that did not make sense to them. They met or exceeded academic expectations. And they seemed … happier. More willing, more receptive, more curious.

This year they entered high school and middle school.

“How was it?!?” I asked after their first day, before they could even get through the door.

“Long, but actually very interesting,” my older son said. “Fun!” was my younger son’s more concise reply.

All right, I thought as I listened to them and laughed. THIS we can work with.