Thursday, March 26

Motivate Your Child In School (a.k.a Since I Don't Have Enough Jobs...)

I'm excited to share that I was recently asked to become a blogger for Oxford Learning, where I'll be writing monthly education-related posts for parents.

My first article discusses ways that you can help, at home, to motivate your child academically. Some of them might surprise you!

You can find the full post here:

As always, I love to hear (read) your feedback!

Wednesday, March 25

Spring Cleaning - Teach Kids To Declutter! My CHEX Daily Segment

Last night on CHEX Daily, I chatted with hosts Teresa Kaszuba and Mike Judson about what kids can learn from spring cleaning (responsibility, organization, social justice/generosity, etc.) I share what chores my girls do, and how I am teaching them to declutter their own belongings. I even managed to work in a reference to The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, one of my favourite books ever - no matter what my book club says!

I'm at the 30:28 mark, and if you can't see the embedded video you can find it here:

A few things we didn't have time for:

-Kids can be motivated by the thought of making money. While donating is wonderful, some items can be set aside for a yard sale, and larger items can be sold on Kijiji under your supervision. (Also a great lesson about Internet safety!)

-The one-in-one-out rule can work from toddlers to teens. No new toy/game/pair of jeans until you can find (at least) one to donate.

-Once items are purged, bins and labels are an organizer's best friends. I like the idea of putting photos (e.g., of Lego, Barbies, cars) on the bins so pre-readers know where everything goes too!

Feel free to leave other suggestions or links to kids' spring cleaning posts below. I'm always on the hunt for new ideas!

Friday, March 20

Family Fun In Kingston: Delta Waterfront, Megalos, Crockadoodle and More!

My husband and I are proud graduates of the Queen's University Faculty of Education (the Trent/Queen's Concurrent program), so what better place to take the girls for a mini-break than the beautiful city of Kingston, Ontario?

We started our visit with some creative fun at Crockadoodle. The girls each chose an item of pottery from the huge selection shown below (a cupcake box for Maggie and a dog for Frannie) and very carefully painted it with their selected colours. Items are marked on the bottom with prices (for example, the cupcake was $22), which include the paint, glaze and kiln process.

Owner Lisa Ustel filled us in on how busy her Crockadoodle location has been since opening before Christmas, and this March Break day was certainly no exception. Not just for kids (though a great birthday party destination), the pottery painting process is very popular with adults too, and her weekly ladies' nights are sold out far in advance.

A few careful coats of paint later (with lots of support from Theresa and other helpful employees), the girls had their creations ready to go:

We left the items behind to be glazed and then placed in the large kiln to be heated  - to over 1800 degrees F - overnight. Since there is a turnaround of a couple of days (the only downside of the whole experience), Lisa kindly agreed to ship our items to us, but tourists should make sure to visit Crockadoodle at the beginning of their trip to have creations ready by the end!

When the final products arrive, I'll be sure to update this post with an "after" photo!

Next, we were off to our hotel, the gorgeous Delta Kingston Waterfront. The downtown location is very convenient (and if spring didn't feel like winter we really could have walked everywhere). Covered parking was steps from the lobby door, and as soon as we walked inside we were impressed with the clean, modern look.

The girls are posing dutifully for this photo, pretending that they weren't just fighting over who got to push the elevator button. They roll their own suitcases, which of course they pack and unpack themselves, too. Though that did mean Maggie came without pajamas...

The room was also modern and sleek, with just enough space for our family of four.

The view from our window (Kingston is located where the St. Lawrence River meets Lake Ontario)

Even the hotel toiletries made me happy, with their inspirational names and messages.

You may be wondering why I am showing this small closet. Well, dear reader, it's to share with you that somehow my daughters managed to turn the space into a private change room. You gotta love kids.

Once we had unpacked, the agenda called for some fun (kids) and relaxation (me) at the top-floor pool and hot tub. (Loyal readers know which one I actually spent time in.) We arrived at a quiet time, prompting Frannie to announce "They must want a really good review from you, Mom! We have our own private pool and hot tub!"

The incredible view from the pool window:

This is my idea of a relaxing March Break - lounging by the pool with all the latest magazines on Next Issue. (Delta offers free wifi - a much-appreciated perk!)

For dinner, we headed up Princess Street to Megalos, a favourite for my husband and me, but a first-time visit for the girls. It's warm, inviting and private (lots of cozy booths), and while it's welcoming to families, it has a classy feel, perfect for grownup meals as well.

The kids' menu offers the standard fare you would expect, but also healthier options like a stir-fry and a chicken breast meal. All four of us were thrilled with our food (pasta for the girls, pizza for my husband and fish and chips for me) and the portions were large enough that we left with some take-out containers to stash in our hotel room fridge. Other "adult" selections on the menu include pastas like Shrimp Florentine, Lobster Ravioli and Vegetarian Gnocchi, chicken dishes, stir-fry, salmon, steak, burgers and sandwiches. They also do lunch, weekend breakfast and special occasions/large parties.

It took a while to discuss the merits of linguine over penne, but eventually Maggie made her choice!

While we did have leftovers, we managed to find some room to share this delicious chocolate concoction, the perfect way to end any meal!

The service at Megalos was excellent, and combined with the delicious food and warm atmosphere (they call it "upscale casual, yet family-friendly"), it gets a very high recommendation from not only me but the (picky) girls and (even more discerning*?) Daddy. (*Update: I originally used the word "pickier", but it's not to say that he is unduly selective about what he eats - like his wife is - but that he appreciates good food and ambiance and would never give a good review if he didn't mean it!)

Walking on Princess Street after dinner, I snapped this shot of the girls outside Gap. The reason? When we first found out we were expecting Frannie, and hadn't yet told anyone, we took a trip to Kingston and at Gap I bought my baby-to-be her first gift: a little unisex white onesie with a cow and the word "Moo" on it. (Appropriate for country folk like us.) The onesie is now in her box of mementos, and every time I go by this Gap the memory rushes back.

Another downtown Kingston purchase that has been saved for the sake of sentimentality is a pair of "I got a job!" jeans, flares with detailed bottoms, picked up at a boutique on the February day I found out I had been hired with our school board for the following year. As a student, I had never spent so much (around $80) on one item of clothing!

I had hoped to take a picture of another landmark, the downtown Indigo store, but I learned that it closed a couple of years ago. It was there, on a trip almost seven years ago, that I decided I really was going to give the freelance writing thing a go, and I bought all of the parenting magazines I could find in order to immerse myself in that world. The rest is history.

Speaking of history, we took a few minutes to drive by the Faculty of Education, and answered the girls' many questions about our university days!

After dinner we headed back to the pool at the Delta Waterfront, where I ended up meeting someone I haven't seen since high school! (Small world, right?) Her two girls are around the same ages as mine, and they all had a good play together in the pool while my former schoolmate and I caught up. (For those who want to be a little more active during your hotel stay, Delta also offers a fitness room with elliptical machines, treadmills, bikes and free weights.)

At bedtime, we all took advantage of the luxury of watching TV in bed (something none of us can do at home) and as tired as the girls must have been, they insisted on watching the entire 10 p.m. episode of Love It Or List It. (Spoiler: They listed it.)

No matter what time my beautiful daughters go to bed, their little biological clocks wake them up by 7 a.m. every day, so we were off to an early start. After a smooth and speedy checkout from Delta and great breakfast at Peter's Place (a diner-style restaurant right at the bottom of Princess Street) we visited the Museum of Health Care, where the girls learned a lot in a short period of time. I'm pretty sure Frannie will never forget that in the 1800's, doctors might drink a patient's urine in order to come up with a diagnosis. Ew!

An iron lung

The girls were invited to sit in on a free educational March Break program, where they were talking about the very important topic of being active. Admission to the museum is by donation, and there are tons of great activities and events for kids, so Kingston locals and visitors should be sure to check it out!

Kingston is an amazing city to visit, for couples or families, and we didn't even come at the best time of year. When the weather warms up, there is so much to see and do downtown Kingston and beyond. Next time, we'd like to check out Canada's Penitentiary Museum - lots of learning to be done there - and take in all of the fantastic shopping opportunities.

If you live in or are familiar with Kingston, I'd love to hear your ideas for other family activities we may have missed in this beautiful city. For others, I'm always happy to answer any questions you might have about our travel adventures.

Disclosure: We were provided with free accommodations at Delta, pottery painting at Crockadoodle, and meal at Megalos for review purposes. Opinions are, as always, my own.

Monday, March 16

Kate's Picks: Books, TV and Movies

I've been doing a lot of mini-reviews on social media lately (which is why, if you have accounts, you might want to follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram) but today I'm offering a quick recap. In keeping with the title of my blog, I'm sharing what I actually sense harping on the negative, right?


The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (loved it)
Us by David Nicholls
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (designated young adult, which I am not, but I devoured it)
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (WWII theme)
All My Puny Sorrows - Miriam Toews (heavy themes)
Funny Girl by Nick Hornby (not as funny as I thought, was expecting Brit-chick-list - Bridget Jones, Shopaholic, but still a good read)


No, I don't have Netflix. We have our good ol' Bell PVR, and there's still some great entertainment to be had there.

Secrets and Lies (new; Ryan Phillippe, KaDee Strickland, Juliette Lewis)
The Following (new season just started; Kevin Bacon)
Blue Bloods
Grey's Anatomy (because I'm sticking it out until the end)
House of Cards (I bought the first seasons from iTunes)

As you can see, I lean towards a certain genre. The only comedy currently on my PVR is Modern Family. I'd love some other recommendations!


Often it's pay-per-view, but I do love to go the movie theatre, and I'm usually there a couple of times a month. My recos:

Cinderella (absolutely wonderful, for all ages)
The Theory of Everything (I know it's a true story so they couldn't change the facts, but there was one plot point I didn't really like)
The Captive (abysmal reviews but we actually really liked it)
Gone Girl
Still Alice (have tissues handy)
St. Vincent
American Sniper (yes, they used a doll for a baby. Get over it!)
The Judge

Have I missed anything really good in any of these categories? I always love to hear what others are reading/watching and enjoying so please let me know!

Wednesday, March 11

Fun and Educational March Break Activities

Last night on CHEX Daily I chatted with hosts Teresa Kaszuba and Mike Judson about fun and educational March Break activities for kids and families. While some specific suggestions are local, you don't have to live in Peterborough (or even Canada) to make use of most of the ideas. Plus, chances are, if our mall has kids' events taking place, yours does too - it's only a Google search away!

Whether you're looking for something to do with the kids (free and fee), or you're working during the break and need childcare options, there's something for you here!

I'm at the 30:20 mark, and if you can't see the embedded video you can find it here:

Video courtesy CHEX Daily

Something I didn't mention was that traveling also gives your kids a great chance not only to learn new things on the trip but to practise their skills. "Are we there yet?" can be eliminated when children use timers or clocks with the arrival time in mind, and eating out provides opportunities for older kids to estimate the total cost of the meal, or for little ones to sort coins into piles while waiting for their food!

The most important thing is for kids to slow down and enjoy their time away from school. (And maybe the teachers too?)

Links for more information:

Peterborough Public Library

Canadian Canoe Museum 

Peterborough Museum and Archives 

Art Gallery of Peterborough 

Cineplex Family Favourites 

Lansdowne Place


Home Depot 

Tuesday, March 3

An Interview With Cate Blanchett: Cinderella's Evil Stepmother

A star of stage and screen, Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett turns evil in her latest role as the stepmother in Walt Disney's highly anticipated new film, Cinderella.

It may be a sign that I'm in denial about aging when I could still envision Cate as the princess, not the stepmother! However, she certainly is a busy mom in real life, with three sons (Dashiell - 13, Roman - 10 and Ignatius - 6) with husband Andrew Upton. *UPDATE 3/6/15: Cate and her husband have adopted a baby girl, Edith Vivian Patricia*

Read on for Cate's thoughts on the new film. While I would love to say this is an exclusive interview (maybe next time!) in the interests of full disclosure you must know that it was shared with me by Walt Disney Studios Canada - but it's still fun to get the perspective of this famous mom!


Tell us what drew you to the project.

I love fairy tales, and “Cinderella” in particular, because they deal with complex issues that face children. So many stories that children are told now make them feel like they are heroes who can overcome anything and that the world is a perfect place. The timeless fairy tales, like “Cinderella,” tell us that the world can be a nasty place and require a good deal of courage and resilience to survive. This is a story where kindness is a super power, which is something Ken Branagh and I talked about early on that I found really exciting. Plus, I have three boys so I’m aware of all the films out there that have male superheroes at the fore, so I was thrilled to be part of the telling of a female-centric story.

How was it playing such an evil character like the stepmother?

A.                  I loved it. Like a friend of mine once said, ‘At a dinner party I’d rather be sitting
next to Lady Tremaine,’ so it was great fun to inhabit such a colorful role like this. But Ken Branagh decided early on not to go for high camp, which you can absolutely do in a fairy tale, and to find the core of truth to the character instead, so it was quite a balancing act. No one is purely evil…everyone’s got a motivation. The stepmother is what happens when good is perverted: it often turns wicked. I was interested in exploring what makes someone wicked. Through little vignettes in the film, you get a glimpse that this is a woman who has tried to start her life again, and becomes intensely jealous of the deep affection that her new husband has for his daughter, Cinderella. She’s not as beautiful and not as kind and as good as Cinderella.  When Cinderella’s father dies, the financial pressures, the panic and the jealousy grow…that is what makes her wicked.

All photos courtesy Walt Disney Studios Canada

How did you come up with the look of the character?

A.                  Costume designer Sandy Powell and I drew inspiration from images taken in the
1940s of screen legends like Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford – women that we still admire today – who had a tremendous sense of danger and mystery about them, especially the dramatic way they were lit.

Tell us about Lily James’ performance as Cinderella.

Lily is a blithe spirit…she glows, and I think she is absolutely perfect for the role.
She is like a breath of fresh air and is totally unaffected. And there’s a generosity of spirit to her as a performer, which is really rare and which requires incredible discipline, focus and depth.

How was it working with Holliday Grainger as Anastasia and Sophie McShera as Drisella?

Sophie has such exquisite natural comic timing, and both she and Holliday are so unaffected, so they found a way of playing the sisters that was totally believable. You genuinely believe that they felt they were both the brightest button and the most beautiful girls in the room. But, they didn’t over play it, despite how they were dressed, because they could have easily camped it up.  They were fantastic. They found the balance immediately, and they were so sweet and so funny.

Tell us about Kenneth Branagh.  Did his acting background have an effect on his directing style?

Ken was able to find the tone of the film, at once sweet and delightful, but also sinister. He was able to harness both the domestic and the grand moments between the characters. He’s got a wonderful sense of rhythm as a director, so we knew we were in safe hands. Being such a great actor, he’s very good at using the rehearsal time in the morning. He’s able to incorporate everyone’s process, and make it feel like a collective effort.

 At the film's Hollywood premiere

Tell us about the look of the film.

Well, everything about the film exceeded my expectations. The production was 
blessed to have people like Ken Branagh, Sandy Powell and production designer Dante Ferretti collaborating to create the extraordinary visuals of a storybook world you’ll see on screen. The world they have created is a bit David Lynch in the sense that you’ve still got the old telephones but within a modern setting so you don’t quite know where you are. But the story of “Cinderella” is timeless in the best possible sense. The first time I walked onto the set of the ballroom I had to pick my jaw up off the was like an MGM Technicolor moment, and in terms of cinema I felt like I was transported back in time. When Cinderella and the Prince took to the floor to dance, it was profoundly moving.

What do you hope audiences take away from “Cinderella”?

I think we’re used to seeing fairy tales told in animated form that allow us to sort

of guffaw and laugh at these characters from a distance. But when you see Cinderella in the flesh, you're really brought back to the actual human cost (that is often personified in fairytales via fictitious characters like the big, bad wolf or the wicked stepmother). And I think audiences are going to genuinely be rooting for her.  We all know the story of “Cinderella.” We all know the story of “Hamlet.” But we go and see “Hamlet” over and over because the best productions make us think maybe this time he will kill Claudius. And with this “Cinderella” people are going to feel the same way and will be surprised by a lot of scenes because they are so true, and therefore truly funny and truly tragic as well. Audiences are going to feel like they’re being told the story of “Cinderella” for the first time.”


My daughter celebrates her 9th birthday just days before the movie's release date, and she has eagerly agreed to forgo a party in order to take a friend to see Cinderella. She's been counting down the days for weeks! The film opens in theatres on March 13th. See you there!

Friday, February 27

The Highlight of My Week (or All About My Class Reading Program)

Bear with me here, but I get pretty excited when it comes to reading. This week, I assessed most of my students on their reading levels (with help from my awesome Trent University Teacher Candidate), and I was absolutely thrilled to see the progress they’ve made. (I’m sure I’m supposed to maintain a neutral expression as they read, but if any child looked up he or she would have seen the silly grin on my face!)

Our school board uses the PM Benchmark program, and what happens is that I sit with the child, give them an introduction to the story, and they read it to me. I keep a running record of their errors, which can be helpful when figuring out if they’re substituting words that look the same (hat/hot), or mean the same (hat/cap), and what words they’re still having trouble with. Then the child retells the story to me and orally answers a few pre-set reading comprehension questions. Their percentage of accuracy, combined with their comprehension, tells me what level they have reached in the program.

Some ideas I incorporate in my class to support reading (this list is by all means not exhaustive; just a few highlights):

Self-selected reading: For 20 minutes a day, every day, the students are allowed to find a cozy spot in the room to silently read material of their choosing. In September we have to do a lot of work on how to choose a just-right book, so that the time they spend reading each day can really help “grow their brains”. Regularly choosing books that are too challenging, or way too easy, won’t be beneficial for them.  I truly believe that the best way to improve reading is to read. Crazy, I know, but compared to worksheets and drills out of context, reading material that they’re interested in is so motivational and authentic. For children who really struggle, especially those with learning disabilities, there are some great direct instruction (rote drill) type programs that are very successful (our school board uses Empower, which is taught to small groups by the Special Education Resource Teacher), but I always want to combine that with high-interest books as well. 

The kids love to read somewhere other than their desks!

An extensive classroom library: We do visit the school library once a week, but in the classroom there are hundreds of books students can access as often as necessary. Bins are labelled by genre or book series. I never label based on reading level, which some educators might disagree with, but I also provide each student with a handful of leveled books from our school “book room” to keep in their desks to supplement their own choices, so they always have material they can handle. Points earned from Scholastic book orders really help to build the library, as well as donations from families and thrift shop finds. I allow students to borrow books with no sign-out system, and to take books home at will. I trust the families, and if a couple of books go missing along the way by accident it’s still totally worth it. (I’ve had many books returned months and even years later, when families discover them at home!)

 “Featured Book” rack: This is where I place books we’ve read in class (it can be very helpful for kids to reread books that they’ve heard as read-alouds) and titles that go along with a subject of study (e.g. Black History Month, liquids and solids).

Grade 8 buddies: Once a week for half an hour we meet up with our buddies from the Grade 8 room. Sometimes I visit the older classroom first to talk about what strategy/skill  the Grade 2/3s are working on, and some days there’s a writing component or I even switch it up and have them work 1 to 1 on a math task, but usually it’s another solid chunk of reading time.

After school program: In January, I set up weekly after school program where a few of my students stay for an hour and read with local high school students looking to earn their volunteer requirements. I can really see the difference it’s making for those kids.

At-home-reading:  No rules, no reading logs. (I'm a parent; I get it!) I find students a short book, at the right level, from the book room, make a note in my binder, and send it home. When the student can read it fluently (sometimes this is the next day, sometimes weeks later), it gets returned and exchanged for a new one. That’s it.

Before I wrap up, I want to make sure I’m clear that there’s a whole lot more to reading than the scores: I can see the kids’ interest levels have shot up, parents tell me they’re reading more at home (and more willingly), the students can show their comprehension and share their thoughts about reading material much more adeptly, they say "YES!" when I announce they have extra time to read – but there’s also something to be said for cold, hard data, and seeing those numbers go up really does give me a thrill. (By the way, I don’t share the actual levels with the students, we just talk about their progress in descriptive terms, but I do update parents with notes in the planners.)

A grandmother of one of my students stopped me after Mass on the weekend to tell me how impressed she is with the gains her grandson has made. While teaching kids to read is most definitely “my job”, it’s certainly nice to get that acknowledgment. I’m also very aware that the progress happens much more quickly when there’s support at home as well, so I’m definitely not doing it alone!

So there you have it – the highlight of my week! It might help the kids too that their teacher is a voracious reader. On tap for the weekend: catching up on my favourite magazines on Next Issue, and reading Funny Girl by Nick Hornby. Can’t wait!

Wednesday, February 18

Why Your Kid Needs To Be At School (with my CHEX Daily segment)

What's the magic number of days considered "normal" for a student to miss in a school year? What do you do if your child doesn't want to go to school? What if you just have to book appointments during the school day? I discuss these questions and more with CHEX Daily hosts Teresa Kaszuba and Mike Judson.

I'm at the 30:40 mark, and if you can't see the embedded video you can find it here:

With so much experiential learning going on today, there's no way for kids to totally "catch up" on what they miss. When parents ask for make-up work (or sometimes even when they don't), I try to find a Math practice sheet to reinforce whatever skills were worked on that day, but a lot of what we do (stories, discussions, presentations, investigations, experiments, physical activity, partner/group/older buddy work, Music/Art/Drama, guest speakers, library visits, etc.) is pretty much "you had to be there".

As I mention in the segment, naturally kids get sick (believe me, so do teachers!) and will miss some school days each year. But what about when absences can be avoided?

He's tired, her fish died, I worked late yesterday and wanted to spend some time with him, someone is visiting from out of town...on occasion, these reasons are understandable. But they can add up quickly - especially when a child knows how to play mom or dad!

My girls certainly missed their share of days last year, as my older daughter had strep throat three times (seriously), and my younger daughter got it twice. Grandma and Grandpa are our dependable stand-by caregivers (and the girls LOVE being with them) so when one gets to spend a sick day at their house, the other is quick to highlight all of her symptoms, both real and imagined. As a parent, it's sometimes hard to tell, but I err on the side of "send them to school now, ask forgiveness later", and 99% of the time that's the right choice.

Now, the controversial topic of pulling kids out of school for holidays. I totally get that it's cheaper and sometimes more convenient to travel during the school year. (I wish I could do it, too!) I also completely agree with parents who point out that a lot of amazing learning goes on during family vacations. Depending on the destination, there can be very rich History, Geography, Science and Arts lessons taking place.

It's great when parents can let the teacher know well in advance if they're planning to pull their child from school. I always make sure to avoid class trips and special events when I know a student will be absent, and try to schedule reviews and tests appropriately. I don't think it's necessary for kids to take "homework" when they travel (though one of my students recently returned from Florida with a beautiful journal filled with memories and photos to share, which was awesome), but I will fully admit that I expect them to complete work on missed Math concepts, either before the trip or when they return, or they will be at a disadvantage going forward.

Last thing: there's a big difference between a child who, as a ritual every morning, announces from bed "I don't want to go to school today!" but eventually heads out the door with a smile, and a child who is truly experiencing anxiety about it. As a teacher, I would definitely want the parent to contact me if this was happening so we can get to the bottom of it and make sure that not only does everyone have the full picture (my own daughters have moments when they dramatically announce that they have no friends at school and played with absolutely no one that day, forgetting their mother was out on lunch duty and saw them running around happily with their peers) and that school can be a positive experience for the child.

(P.S. The website I refer to in the segment is