Best Apps for Time Management

I knew from very early on that I wanted to be a teacher. I loved the independent work folders my second grade teacher used because they meant I always had something to do while I was waiting for the people around me to finish their work. I remember thinking very clearly, at the age of seven, “I’m going to use folders like this in my classroom.” In the years that followed, I tried many planners, lists, folders, and eventually technology to give me that same sense of organization and productivity. But what does this have to do with my favorite apps for time management?

I love a good productivity tool. I crave lists and organizing structures. In fact, I like the system-creating part so much more than I like the actual doing part. Oops. So if an app is going to help me be more productive, it has to be simple to use, integrate smoothly with my other tools, and avoid stealing my limited attention. I’ve tried them all, so if you’re looking to get yourself more organized or if you’re looking for the best apps for time management for students, I’ve got you covered!

My favorite apps for time management

Keeping track of time – clocks and calendars

Calendar: Google Calendar  is my go-to app for time management for students, and for myself. For students, plugging in their recurring commitments (lessons, practices, games, family commitments) gives them a visual of how much time remains for their work. The thought “That paper isn’t due for a week!” is easier to defeat when they can see that 4 of those 7 days have after-school activities. 

Clocks and Timers: I use my cell phone clock for just about everything. Alarms remind me to get up, pick up the kids, take things out of the oven, and leave for events. For my kids, asking the smart speaker to set a timer is the simplest way for them to remind themselves. My son sets one for his after school break to remind him to start his homework. Set recurring alarms for daily events, or set them as needed for anything you might forget to do (or forget to stop doing!)

Work time: When I am having trouble getting started on a task, or when something feels like it’s going to take forever to finish, I use the Pomodoro Technique [] to manage periods of work and breaks. The technique involves setting a timer for 25 minutes of work, then a 5 minute break timer, and repeating these intervals until the work is done or you get to a “long break,” which for me is either lunch or the end of the work day. I usually use the web-based timer at Forest is a cool app for Apple and Android that represents each Pomodoro/task as a tree. To care for your trees, you have to finish your task!

Keeping track of tasks

The simplest way to keep track of what needs to be done is a list on a whiteboard. If the person you’re trying to help with time management is a child or teen, hanging a whiteboard in their workspace (or in a common family space) is a very simple way to make tasks – homework or chores – visible.

For a more high-tech solution, I recommend Google Keep for anyone with to-do’s in just one or two domains. You can have a single “Homework” list and add and delete things. A new note for each homework task works, too. But if there are more than you can see on the screen, it can get overwhelming pretty quickly. You can copy cards, set reminders, and archive notes you don’t need anymore.

For complex organization needs, like keeping track of tasks for a whole business or a family, I recommend Trello. I think if you’re looking for best apps for time management for students, Trello is probably too powerful and complex for what students need. But for parents, teachers, and professionals, I think it’s amazing. I use Trello because the app syncs with the web version, I can add collaborators to individual cards or boards, and it can sync with Google Calendar. With templates for things like my blog, and I can duplicate a whole board, or a template card, for a new task. I am also still adding to my systems for automating reminders so nothing falls through the cracks.

Keep track of care and feeding of humans

As I sat down to write this section, I realized I never finalized my grocery order for the week, which is bad news bears because I’m working with a narrow window for picking groceries up this afternoon. And my family is weirdly obsessed with eating several times a day. So I know a lot about the struggle of making sure I and everyone in the house get enough food, water and sleep. And I also know how hard it is to keep track of those things on a busy day (especially for certain kinds of brains)!

The best apps for time management around taking care of your body and brain depend on which things you are responsible for. For a student who needs to remember to drink water and stop for lunch, an app like Habitica might be the solution you’re looking for. Habitica is an app that gamifies completing routine tasks. You pick the task and how often you want to do it, and the app prompts you to get it done, then gives you points for doing it! To keep your avatar alive and healthy, you have to show up consistently and do your habits.

Habitica works for many adults, too, but for me, there are just too many things I’m juggling in an average week and I quickly got overwhelmed by wanting to put everything in the app. 

For me, Trello is still the best solution to all those family management tasks. I have a template for a weekly meal plan and when I’m organized enough to plan meals, I can drag and drop our favorite meals onto the weekly list. I use my grocery store’s app to fill my cart and comparison shop, then pick up my groceries curbside. A timer reminds me when I need to leave my desk and cook dinner. 

I also know a family that loves the Paprika app. You can import recipes from anywhere online, or type in your own. Paprika can sync between devices (although you have to pay for each different platform you use), track your pantry, and help build your shopping list. It has worked well for the family’s main shopper and cook to share their knowledge and some responsibility with others in the house.

Keep it simple!

You must remember that old Apple slogan, “There’s an app for that!” It’s tempting to go for a high-tech solution, one more app on your phone or iPad, to help you become more productive. But sometimes the best “apps” for time management for students are actually low-tech things like whiteboards, or features on a device that you already have, but can use more effectively. Sometimes the best time management technique is not wasting a ton of time looking for the perfect solution, but instead using the tools you have to quickly implement a solution that’s good enough.

So what are you waiting for? Make a list, set a timer and get something done!

How to study vocabulary using spaced repetition

Almost any class you take in middle school, high school, and college, will be introducing you to new vocabulary. Sometimes it comes up organically and it just becomes a part of the conversation. I remember a college professor who loved the word “salient” and made it part of my vocabulary by the end of the semester. Other times, you need to make a particular effort to study vocabulary and learn what seems like an endless list of new words. This is especially true in foreign language classes, but it can also be true in science or history classes. So what’s the best way to study vocabulary?

Brain research shows that we learn best when our studying is spread out over time. In fact, forgetting is an important part of the learning process. Your memory for a fact is strongest when you learn it, come close to forgetting it, and relearn it a few times. Through that process of learning and relearning, you are building stronger connections that make the word stick in your memory for longer. The technique for studying this way is called “spaced repetition.” 

Lots of memory experts use spaced repetition to learn new material. There is software to help you do it. 

Setting up spaced repetition

But my favorite tool is a file folder and some envelopes. Here’s how I set it up.

  1. Get a file folder and open it.
  2. Get two or three regular mailing envelopes, seal the flaps and cut them in half.
  3. Glue or tape the flap side of each envelope to the file folder with the open ends facing up. You now have a file folder full of pockets.
  4. Label the pockets
    1. Every Day
    2. Every Other Day
    3. Twice a week (optional)
    4. Once a week
    5. Once a month
    6. Review (optional)
  5. Make flash cards for each word or term. Make sure they fit in the pockets.
    1. Put ONE piece of information on each card. For example, don’t write out all the parts of the face in French on one card. Have one card for nez and another for les yeux
    2. Put the definition of the word and/or a picture clue on the back

How to use a spaced repetition system

Starting out your study system

Day 1: First, don’t try to study too many terms at once. Start going through the pile. If you come to a word and you know everything on the card, put it in the Every Other Day pocket. If you are at all unsure or shaky about it, or if you miss any information, put it in the Every Day pile. Keep going until you have about 5 cards in the Every Day pocket. 

Day 2: First study the cards in the Every Day pocket. If you get them right, move them to Every Other Day. If you get them wrong, they stay in the Every Day pocket. There are lots of things you can do to strengthen your memory for these, like reading them out loud, watching a YouTube video that explains the concept, or drawing a detailed picture to help you remember more. 

Second, study the Every Other Day pocket. If you get the words right, leave them in the Every Other Day pocket (you’ll move them at the end of the week). If you get them wrong, move the card back to Every Day.

Day 3: Study the Every Day pocket. As you move words to Every Other Day, start putting new words in your Every Day pocket so you always have about 5 you are learning.

Day 4: Every Day and Every Other Day pockets. Keep moving the Every Day words to Every Other Day if you get them, and leave the Every Other Day words where they are until the end of the week.

Day 5: Every Day words. Keep adding more as you are ready

Day 6: Every Day and Every Other Day. 

Keep it going!

Day 7: New week! Study your Every Day words. When you study the Every Other Day words, you are ready to move some to Weekly. If you get them right, move them on to the Once a Week pocket. If you get them wrong, they go back in the Every Day pocket. Today, your Every Other Day pocket will be empty except for the ones you added today.

When to stop reviewing

Keep repeating these 7 days. On the first day of each following week, move Every Other Day and Weekly words on to the next pocket when you get them right. 

After 4 weeks, go through all the words in the Once a Month pocket. If you get them right, retire them! Don’t throw them out because you might want to review them before a big exam (or sell them to a less-prepared friend?) but you can take them out of your study system.

To find out more, check out my video on YouTube: How to study vocabulary using spaced repetition.

Another great year of literacy instruction

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Taking stock

I’ve been an online reading and writing tutor for more than 6 years now. I used to have conversations like, “We use a video conferencing tool called Zoom. Have you ever heard of it? Um, no, no, it’s different from Skype, but similar.” Within a couple of years, I was ready to use my skills as a certified Orton-Gillingham tutor to offer full OG lessons online. It was hard to find anyone who was 

I rolled along, teaching online reading and writing lessons part-time while teaching special education, and later reading intervention, in local schools. And then our schools closed in the winter of 2020 and within a couple of weeks, my schedule was jam-packed with existing and new students. We were all just trying to figure out what to do with ourselves that winter, remember?

My kindergartener needed a parent at home the next year, until his school reopened. So all of a sudden, I wasn’t a teacher with a side hustle. I was suddenly a full-time entrepreneur! Starting anything new can be nerve-wracking, but starting a new business in the upheaval of 2021 was a real nail-biter! But I love it! I am making a stronger connection with students and make more of a difference than I could when I was working within a school. I’ve been invited to apply for a few school-based positions, but nothing has tempted me to go back.

That brings us to 2022…

As we come to the end of 2022, I am looking back with gratitude to all the families I’ve been able to work with and all the professionals I’ve connected with. I’m looking ahead to expanding our reach to more students and more schools in the coming year. Here’s where we are now:

Things I want to keep doing in 2023

Working with students – When I was a teacher, some parts of my year were consumed with standardized testing, meetings, chaperoning field trips, paperwork, paperwork, and more paperwork. As a private Orton-Gillingham tutor, I’m able to spend most of my work hours actually supporting students! 

Learning about the English language – I’m in the middle of an advanced OG course and I’m so excited to learn more about the origins of English words and how that impacts spelling. Knowing what word parts come from Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Greek and other languages feels like a cheat code for spelling and vocabulary and I’m looking forward to sharing more of this with my students in 2023! 

Connecting with schools – I used to be chained to my school’s schedule. I was totally in tune with marking periods and seasonal activities. These days, knowing the school schedule is an afterthought for me. But this year, I am teaching a few students during their school days, and supporting a team of teachers in another district as they implement Orton-Gillingham interventions. I am excited to keep connecting my Orton-Gillingham tutoring to teaching and learning in schools because that will have a bigger impact on my students.

Things I want more of in 2023

Reading – I spend a lot of time thinking about books for my students and my own children. I am not even sure how many times I’ve read Fahrenheit 451 and Of Mice and Men. But I would love to do more reading just for myself. I’m working on it now and I’d like to keep growing my reading time (professional and frivolous!) in 2023.

Rest – As a business owner, mom and educator, I find it hard to say no to people in need. When a parent calls and describes their child’s reading difficulties, and I know exactly what I would do first to help, it’s hard not to do it. But in 2023, I want to grow our team of online reading and writing tutors so that I can offer resources to parents without putting them on my own schedule. I am committing to finding more time for rest in 2023!

Professional Community – Working as an online Orton-Gillingham tutor can be a little bit lonely, sometimes. Sure, I have my students, and it’s nice to work at home with my husband, and be here when my kids get home. I do miss working in a school and chatting with colleagues over lunch. Luckily, I work with some excellent tutors here at Deep Roots Learning Solutions, Inc., and I am part of some lively communities of literacy teachers online that I can always bounce ideas off of. In 2023, I plan to connect with other professionals more often. I’d also like to attend at least one conference in person.

Is helping your child improve their reading one of your goals for 2023? Contact us for a free consultation to see if online Orton-Gillingham tutoring is the right fit for your family.

Things I want less of in 2023

Rushing – there are some spots in my schedule where I run in the door from some errand and get right on to Zoom. Maybe I can grab a glass of water in between, but not much more. In 2023, I want to build a schedule with more breathing room.

Repeating myself – there are some lessons or concepts I teach the same way every time, both to students and adults. I’m wondering if I can turn some of those explanations into videos or documents that will let people get the information they need at their own pace. That will let me spend more time on specific challenges or new learning in live meetings.

Looking for lost papers – my dirty little secret, that no one can see on Zoom, is that I have a Pile. Not just any pile, a Pile with a capital P. Don’t mess with my Pile, because everything important is in it! …Somewhere… In 2023, I want to use a better system for minimizing and dealing with paper. As an online reading and writing tutor, most of my work is virtual these days, but it’s surprising how many pieces of paper show up anyway!

Here’s to a happy, healthy, 2023!

It’s fun to look back at 2022 and see how far we’ve come. There are some beautiful parts of this year I want to keep going into 2023. There is also always room for growth and change. The end of the year is a great time to take stock of what you enjoyed this year and what you are ready to leave behind.

What goals do you have, for yourself or your family, in 2023? Drop a comment below and let me know what you are hoping to carry into the new year!

Writing tools for dyslexia

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that impacts reading and spelling. As a result, it can impact students across all areas of the curriculum. Writing, whether it’s answering short science questions or composing an essay, can be frustrating for students with dyslexia. Luckily, there are many writing tools for dyslexia. Some are already in our computers, tablets and smartphones, and others are inexpensive pieces of software that are easy to learn. Having the right tools for writing can help students write more easily and more confidently!

The “write” tool for the job

Early learners (K-3)

For young students, dyslexia can be less of a barrier to writing, as many students are still learning to form letters, spell, and write short sentences. For students who are still learning to form letters, magnetic letters or letter tiles can be a great option for spelling activities. 

When students are writing sentences, it can be helpful to give them a personalized word bank that includes some of the things they write about often and might misspell. Knowing they can look up the name of their favorite team or favorite animal (or even the word favorite!) can make writing feel easier.

Some technology options are appropriate for young writers, too. Clicker software is a tool that lets students choose words in their sentences by clicking. It gives students the opportunity to generate complete sentences without being slowed down or distracted by handwriting or spelling challenges. 

Middle grades (3-6)

By third grade, students are being asked to write longer compositions of a paragraph or more. Writing tools for dyslexia at this age should focus on helping students get their ideas out efficiently, catch their errors, and produce a polished final draft. Third grade is the perfect time to introduce technology that will help dyslexic students write well all the way through school and into adulthood.

When I started teaching students with writing difficulties, we had just one piece of writing software on our classroom desktop computers. We taught them to use word prediction with Co:Writer, but with only a couple of classrooms in the computer, they didn’t have much access. Dictation was a possibility, using Dragon Dictation, but training the computer to a student’s voice was a challenge. These days, pretty much any device you pick up at home or in the classroom has powerful speech recognition, spell check and word prediction. Both Android and Apple devices offer these as core features, no special assistive technology apps needed. 

For students in the classroom, Google Docs is often the preferred tool. And on any Chromebook or computer running the Chrome browser, students can access Voice Typing. With a few minutes of training, students are ready to practice dictating their writing. It’s not magic. Students may begin writing more than they ever have before, and will need help editing that longer work, including placing punctuation and catching the computer’s errors. As students are starting out, I strongly recommend doing this editing for them, preferably in their presence. Because students with dyslexia who read and write slowly are exposed to less text, they might not have experience with quotation marks, run-on sentences, and proper nouns. They will need an adult to model this for them. When I do it, it sounds like this: “OK, you wrote ‘the king’s crowd has many signing jewels.’ Did you mean ‘the king’s crown?’ and is it ‘signing jewels’ or ‘shining jewels?’” I try to keep them engaged in the process without asking so many questions that they get overwhelmed.

Once students have some comfort with a device, writing on the computer should always be an option, unless the task is specifically for the purpose of practicing handwriting and spelling. This is something that should be made clear in the child’s 504 or IEP accommodations. Otherwise, teachers tend to say “it’s OK, you can write with a pencil, just this once,” and they don’t take into consideration how challenging and frustrating that can be. Students with writing tools for dyslexia in their accommodations should not have those tools taken away! It’s 2022. We have lots of options for turning a worksheet into a pdf, and lots of tools (like Kami for Google Drive or Noteability for iPad) that make it easy to speak or type an answer onto a PDF.

If your middle or high school student is struggling with writing, consider our paragraph writing class this winter. In 6 weeks, we talk about the anatomy of a paragraph and practice a reliable formula for turning ideas into finished paragraphs. Sign up here to be notified of winter course dates. 

Middle and high school students

Writing expectations vary widely from grade to grade, school to school, even teacher to teacher. But one way or another, your child will be asked to produce longer form writing, such as essays or reports, in middle and high school. Having the right writing tools for dyslexia at hand can make the difference between a composition they are proud of and a frustrating mess that may never get turned in at all! 

For many students, planning in advance, using a mindmap or an outline is the way to ensure an organized final product. But for me, outlining a paper is too high-stakes and I can get totally stuck because I don’t know what I want to write until I’ve started writing it. 

An alternative that works for many of my students is a sort of hybrid approach. Instead of a blank outline, we start with a paragraph template. For middle and high school students writing from research or writing about their reading, I like the TBEAR model. I create a template for the essay’s body paragraphs that looks like this: 

T – Topic Sentence
B – Brief explanation
E -Evidence #1
A – Analysis #1
E -Evidence #2 (sometimes more than 2 pieces of evidence are needed)
A – Analysis #2
R – Relate

In the boxes on the right, students write notes or complete sentences that will go in their paragraph. Sometimes they start with very brief notes, like “Lady Macbeth washing hands” for evidence, or sometimes they already have a quote in mind. Seeing the blank lines in their paragraph plan helps students figure out where they need to do more thinking or research. If they go directly to writing paragraphs, sometimes it’s easy to see the writing is “too short,” without knowing what to add to it.

When the plan is finished, students can take their sentences out of the table, right there in the same document, and cut and paste the paragraph together. This can also be done with speech recognition or word prediction software to help with spelling or writing speed.

Writing isn’t easy

Too often, people become teachers because they enjoyed school and succeeded there themselves. They think of reading and writing as “easy” and jump write to helping their students enjoy it. But for many students, writing doesn’t come naturally. Having the right tools available can make writing less of a burden and help students more fully express themselves in writing. 

Does your child struggle with writing assignments? What has been helpful?

When grades start to drop –  How to make it through to the break

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It’s December! For students in the US, that means we’re in the home stretch for the fall term. For many, the semester ends in a couple of weeks before a break for the winter holidays. Others will return in January to finish up their work and take exams. We’re so close to the end and it’s a time of year where I often hear from concerned parents, worried because “my child’s grades are dropping!” 

Why does this happen and how can we support students to help them finish the term strong? 

Why are my child’s grades dropping now?

It’s partly the kid…

In most middle schools and high schools in the US, the school year is divided into 3 marking periods – the first ends sometime in October or November, the second sometime in January, and the third at the end of the year. Eight or 9 weeks is a long time for a student that age to focus on and work toward a goal like getting an A in English.

For young students, teachers set very short-term goals – read this chapter today, or learn these vocabulary words by Friday. As students enter middle school and high school, the deadlines get farther out and the assignments get bigger. But their brains don’t necessarily grow at the same pace. Sometimes students’ grades drop because they don’t understand (or can’t do) what it takes to get a good grade on an essay, or a mid-term exam, or a large project.

If your child’s grades are dropping, sit down with them and look at the grade book. Make a list of any missing assignments they can still turn in, and look at the big projects ahead. It’s a good idea to take the December calendar and write down, in pen, any firm due dates or commitments. Include sports, dance or activity meetings, and family commitments like holiday travel.

Then look at the list of what needs to be done and plug that work into the “white spaces” on the calendar. If there’s a math test on Wednesday, but your child has events on Monday and Tuesday, he’ll have to make sure he does most of his studying the weekend before. This type of planning doesn’t come naturally to adolescents (or to me, for that matter!) so using concrete tools like paper and different colored pens or highlighters is much more effective than just saying it out loud. 

If there’s no way to fit everything in, it’s time for triage! It may be that your student has fallen behind this term, or that her courseload is just overwhelming right now, or she has overcommitted to activities. It does happen that sometimes there is just more work than time. Some things to think about as you prioritize together what work absolutely needs to get finished:

  • Value of the assignment – If making and studying flashcards will take hours, but the Spanish quiz is only worth 5 points, that might be low on the list. On the other hand, if a large history project will make the difference between passing and failing the class, it should get a lot of time on the calendar, even if it’s not due for a few weeks.
  • Grade goals – if your child is a straight-A student, you probably stopped reading this post a while ago. Students who are struggling in a few classes might need to prioritize to get the grades they need. If they are failing one class but could turn in missing work and get the grade up to a C-, that’s probably more urgent than doing great on the math test that could take them from a B to a B+. Every teacher will say their class is important, or they are all important, but if your child’s grades are dropping, you need to do the math and find the true priorities.
  • Motivation – Sometimes it’s a teacher they don’t get along with. Sometimes it’s a subject that they just hate! For some students, they idea of pouring all their effort and time into their most hated class just feels like torture. Pick your battles. If they understand the consequences of neglecting that awful class, and it’s the best way to get them to move forward in their other classes, that may be the best option. As a parent, it’s very difficult to say “well, don’t do that one, then.” But if they are making the choice between a bad grade in one class, or bad grades in multiple classes, the choice is pretty clear. If putting aside the requirements for their hardest class gets them moving on other things, it can be the right tradeoff – in the short term.

It’s partly the school…

Isn’t it weird that one summer, we pick up an elementary schooler at the end of the last day of school, and somehow, magically, we send a middle schooler back to school in the fall? All of a sudden, they enter this new world of junior high with lockers, and changing classes, and maybe a new device, and new people. But they are the same kids! 

Nothing magical happens during that summer, so it makes sense that lots of kids are still learning skills they need to succeed in a more challenging junior high environment. Too many middle and high school teachers have an attitude like “they need to be more responsible” or “they need to understand that they can’t wait until the last minute” but they haven’t taught the skills that lead to “being more responsible.” 

Some skills and tools schools should be offering include:

  • One consistent system for notifications/reminders and assigning work. Students shouldn’t have to check Google Classroom and Canvas and that one teacher’s website and the school calendar to find out everything that’s going on.
  • A practice of consistently and effectively using planners. Students need to be taught what to write on today’s planner page, what to write on the assignment’s due date, and how to use all that white space to, well, plan their week. Learning to do this can take up a significant amount of time at the beginning of the school year, but I believe it pays for itself for the rest of students’ lives by giving them a set of tools for managing their work through school and into adult life.
  • Instruction on goal-setting and planning. Not everyone is shooting for 100% in every class. But students need to understand how to calculate their average and understand what a poor test grade or missing assignment can do to their grade for the term.
  • Models and templates. Especially at the beginning of the year, students need their teachers to model what an organized notebook looks like. Also, a clean locker, a completed page of homework, an effective paragraph. We cannot take for granted that kids just know what we mean when we tell them to produce these things!

If poor or disorganized writing is holding your child back, you may be interested in our small-group paragraph writing class. These classes are short and focused on the academic paragraph, the basic building block of longer writing.

It’s partly the world around us…

My focus isn’t at its best in December, either. There seems to be a tipping point around Halloween and after that the year just flies by! All those things we need to do before December 31st make us busy and stressed. For young children especially, the anticipation of the holidays can take up a lot of room in their brains! But older kids are feeling it, too. 

In September and October, we’re very focused on our school routines, and by December, some things have started to slip and others have been totally replaced by seasonal needs. Gotta go Christmas shopping. Gotta rehearse for the winter concert. Gotta go to Aunt Sally’s this weekend for her annual cookie swap! 

With so much going on around us, it’s especially important to go back to basics. Make sure your child is getting enough sleep, eating nutritious meals, and getting some time to rest and relax. We can combat that seasonal and end-of-term stress by keeping the predictable routines that worked for us last month. Those routines will give them the support and structure they need to focus on their school work.

This, too, shall pass

It’s temporary, this seasonal stress. The marking period will end. The gifts will get wrapped. The concert will be performed. The days will get longer and we’ll turn our attention to the next challenge. But don’t forget the tools and skills that you and your child needed most in this challenging time. What lessons can you take from this situation that will help your child avoid the pain and stress of getting overwhelmed by poor grades. Next year, instead of “my child’s grades are dropping,” I hope you’ll be saying, “OK, December is coming. Here’s our plan for prioritizing, using tools from the school and managing our energy so we can all make it through in one piece!”

One way to help your child manage their energy in a difficult class is to make sure their basic skills are solid. That’s why I’m offering our paragraph-writing class this winter for middle and high school students. Check it out and leave your name in the contact form to make sure you catch the updates!

Christmas gifts for second graders

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My mantra lately has been “less.” I try to talk less, let my kids figure things out more. Work less, rest more. Eat less. Buy less. Worry less. Gradually, “less” of the things I don’t want is making room for more of the things I do want – time, space, energy, reading.

And as we head into the holiday season, I’m also planning to buy less. We’re experimenting with the “Want, Need, Wear, Read” model for buying Christmas gifts this year. My kids are both at the age where they see things in commercials and instantly want them. They don’t know what they are or what they do, but that commercial makes them look like so much fun! They have lists a mile long, but the toys they do get are often exciting at first and quickly forgotten.

My favorite part of Christmas shopping is the “Something to read” category. I get so excited picking books for kids, trying to give them the excitement I felt over getting the perfect book . But if you don’t read as many children’s books as I do, how do you get gift ideas for 2nd grade students when you’re holiday shopping?

Know your audience

Chapter books for second graders

At some point during second grade, most students will be ready for books with chapters. Some come into second grade already reading these, and others stick with beginning readers, graphic novels and picture books for longer. It has to do with their skills and also their interests. Here are some excellent chapter books to pick up as gifts for your second graders.

  • Magic Tree House books are a popular series with many, many, many books to choose from. The main characters, Jack and Annie, magically travel all over the world and all through time, solving mysteries and problems. This set of the first 4 books Magic Tree House books is a terrific place to start for second graders ready for chapter books.
  • Bad Guys is a fun series, sort of a hybrid between graphic novels and chapter books. Early in second grade, they convinced my son he really is a reader and he blew through them before I knew it! Here’s a boxed set of the first five Bad Guys books that will keep your action-loving reader busy for weeks
  • Kate DiCamillo is one of my favorite authors of children’s books. And a great way to start kids off with Kate DiCamillo is to introduce Mercy Watson, the beloved pet pig of Mr. and Mrs. Watson. In this collection, Adventures of a Porcine Wonder readers will join Mercy on her first 6 adventures.

Graphic novel gifts for 2nd graders

Not all second graders have the reading stamina or patience to read chapter books independently by the time you are shopping for gift ideas for 2nd grade students. Graphic novels are a fun, valuable reading experience that can help kids bridge the gap between short picture books and longer novels that require more patience and time. Some popular graphic novels for second graders include:

  • Narwhal and Jelly might be my personal favorite graphic novel series for this age. The pages are simple, the jokes are cheesy, and the characters are adorable!
  • Investigators . Get this. They’re alligators and they investigate mysteries. They are INVESTIGATORS! Bad guys, gators and spy gadgets. What more could a kid want?
  • Dog Man by Dav Pilkey has a bit less potty humor than the author’s Captain Underpants series, but it still appeals to kids this age because of the goofy humor and fast-moving plots.
  • Guinea PI: Pet Shop Private Eye is a really funny graphic novel series by Colleen AF Venable. The first book, Hamster and Cheese tells the story of an enthusiastic hamster and a reluctant guinea pig that team up to solve mysteries in the pet shop where they live. 

Books to share with your child

Second grade is a year that is all about increasing independence for many students. They become independent readers. They might start to have more homework to do on their own. They might move from more group lessons on the rug to more individual work at their desks. But it wasn’t so long ago that those big, independent second graders were little people who loved to cuddle and hear stories. Maybe it was within the last 24 hours, even! 

Shopping for book gifts for 2nd graders doesn’t mean being limited to books they have to read on their own. Second graders are a great audience for rich novels and beautiful picture books that you can read to them! Here are some of my favorite read-aloud books for this age group:

  • The Wild Robot by Peter Brown, along with its sequel, The Wild Robot Escapes, are excellent for reading aloud. They can be enjoyed at different levels, from younger children who appreciate the silly situations the robot gets into when she lands on an uninhabited island, to the more science-minded students who appreciate the technology and ecology learning woven through the story.
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle is a great choice for a read-aloud with second graders. Some of the vocabulary and situations are unfamiliar to young children (even before the Murry children begin their journey through a tesseract to find their father, a scientist working on a dangerous secret project). It’s the beginning of a wonderful fantasy series that I reread every few years, whether any kids want to hear it or not!
  • Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo is a beautiful read-aloud choice for animal lovers. It tells the tale of a young girl who is new in town. She rescues a stray dog who has gotten himself in trouble in the local Winn-Dixie supermarket and as a result, she builds friendships with both children and adults in her new home, and comes to understand her father better, too!
  • Your favorite book from childhood. I’ve read my kids Little House on the Prairie, while my husband has read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and parts of The Lord of the Rings. Even for kids who can read to themselves, read alouds are a great way to expose them to new stories and expand their vocabulary and imagination!

So many books to choose from!

It’s really difficult to go into a bookstore and pick the right books for Christmas gifts for second graders. They could be anywhere from the very early stages of learning to read to plowing through novels on their own. If you’re not sure where to start, ask the kids in your life what they’ve been reading lately or what books their friends are reading. And if all else fails, a gift card always fits just right!

What was your favorite book in second grade? Comment below and let us know!

What if the school doesn’t see a problem with my child’s reading?

We’re coming up on fall teacher conference season in my area. I’m scheduled to see my child’s teacher in a few weeks to take a look at some of his work, here the good and bad news about his progress and make plans for how I can support him at home as the year goes on. Usually, my son’s teacher and I are on the same page about what he’s great at and what he needs. But what you go in with concerns about your child’s reading and the teacher doesn’t share them?

When to worry about your child’s reading

When is dyslexia diagnosed?

Learning to read in kindergarten, first and second grade can be a messy process. Students all come to school with different levels of skill and different language backgrounds. They are learning how to be students – how to line up, sit at desks, follow directions. And somewhere, in all of that, the teacher is taxed with teaching students how our system of written language works. Yet for most kids, by the end of about second grade, they are reading fluently and ready to take on new books and new challenges! Nancy Young, creator of The Ladder of Reading & Writing model, estimates that about 45% of kids learn to read in a way that seems pretty effortless. 

The other 55% of students (that’s more than half!) need consistent, explicit instruction in how reading and spelling work. They need to be taught the sound represented by each grapheme (letter or group of letters that spells a sound in words). They need to learn to manipulate language sounds out loud (phonemic awareness) and blend sounds together smoothly to form a recognizable word. They need to be able to work with syllables and notice if a word has a prefix or suffix that affects the meaning. 

Within that 55% of students who need explicit phonics instruction, some – 10-15% of all students – will need lots and lots of intensive practice and teaching with phonics. This number correlates roughly with the number of dyslexic students. That doesn’t mean that all struggling readers are dyslexic, or even that all dyslexic readers will struggle to learn to read. But those numbers taken together do suggest that in a class of 20 first graders, at least 3 will need some intensive instruction to become readers. 

Often, schools use a “response to intervention” approach to identify students with learning disabilities (dyslexia is an example of a specific learning disability in reading and schools tend to use that term instead of dyslexia). That means they may put the student in small groups, give them extra instruction in the skill areas where they struggle, or bring in additional materials. Done well, this process can fill in skill gaps for students who struggle and also help to identify students who need the most help. Done poorly, this process can waste a child’s time with unfocused or ineffective instruction and delay testing and identification that gets them the support they need. 

Dyslexia is diagnosed by a qualified professional, through a combination of formal testing, observation, and an educational history. It is often left to the parent to initiate and push through this process. But deciding to “wait and see” can have grave consequences for children as the months and years tick by without their reading problems getting solved!

Will dyslexia go away?


Dyslexia can be remediated, meaning the skills a child struggles with (repeating multisyllabic words, decoding, spelling, fluency) can be taught. But a child with dyslexia grows up to be an adult with dyslexia. 

With the right teaching and plenty of support, many dyslexic adults are successful. They may choose careers where reading isn’t a barrier. They may also choose to tackle lots of challenging reading that is worth it to them because they are curious and passionate about what they are learning. But they are still dyslexic. They will benefit from accommodations and tools like audiobooks, spellcheck, note-taking strategies, speech-to-text, and a family member or friend who will edit their written work. 

Will dyslexia go away for children whose needs aren’t met in school? 

Double nope. 

Ignoring a child’s reading struggles in the hopes that they will “catch up” or believing that they are “late bloomers” is a harmful practice leftover from the days of whole language teaching. Teachers used to think that if we just fostered a love of reading and read to kids enough, they would eventually catch on. 

In many schools, these “late bloomers” don’t bloom at all. Instead, they become below average students who “miss a lot of details,” “have a bad attitude” about schoolwork, and become anxious, depressed, or disruptive in the classroom. And who can blame them? They’ve been sitting in these classrooms for years, being told to “try harder” when their educational needs are being ignored! 

If this describes your child, contact us for a consultation today to find out how online Orton-Gillingham reading tutoring can help your child succeed!

So what should parents do about dyslexia?

If your child is struggling to learn to read, they need your love and support, and they also need better instruction. Often, it falls to the parents to advocate for their children. This may begin with asking the teacher for data about your child’s reading, from classroom assessments. Be sure to get your child’s score and ask what the expectation is for students in their grade at this time of year.

If classroom instruction isn’t moving your child along to where they need to be, you can request a special education evaluation from the school district. Even if your child attends private school, your local school district is responsible for conducting the testing and, if necessary, offering services. 

Once the testing is complete, the school may offer an IEP, or Individualized Education Plan. This document, written for a student with an educational disability, lays out the instruction your child needs to make effective progress in the curriculum. It will include goals (what the district plans to achieve in a year), accommodations (supports like study guides and audiobooks that will help your child access her schoolwork) and services, a specific number of hours or minutes during which your child will get specialized instruction, every week, throughout the school year. 

The IEP process is complex, but there are lots of resources out there to help you make sense of it. I recommend starting with your local Decoding Dyslexia chapter. Decoding Dyslexia is a network of parents and professionals working to improve education for students with dyslexia. They are an incredible resource for information and advocacy as you support your child.

Conclusion heading

Watching your child struggle with reading is disheartening and scary. We know how much reading they are expected to do in school, how many tests they must take between now and graduation. We picture them struggling to read a menu or a job application. We hear them cry over homework or fight over getting ready for school.

Becoming an expert in dyslexia and reading challenges on top of supporting your child through her school days is a lot to take on. But the rewards – a happier, more confident child, proud of her new skills and ready for new challenges – is an outcome worth fighting for.

If your child is struggling to learn to read, contact us for a consultation today to find out how online Orton-Gillingham reading tutoring can help your child succeed!

What We Miss When We Don’t Read

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I was chatting with a friend the other day about garden flowers. We each grew up around gardeners (her father, my grandmother) so we’ve heard lots of flower names over time. With the help of Google, we were able to find the names of some flowers we like and decide what to plant. 

And then she brought up a flower I know my grandmother had in her garden, “gladiolas.” “I think I overwatered my gladiolas.” “Did you see the gladiolas out front?” And that’s how I typed it into Google: gladiolas. I was switftly corrected by the search engine: Did you mean gladiolus? 

Hmm, I had heard about these flowers, but I guess I never saw the word in print. Does that matter?

Is it better to read or listen to a book?

Learning by listening

My friend and I have knowledge of flower names that is broad, but shallow. Names sound familiar to us. When we try to recall a name, we know it’s something with a G or it sounds like a person’s name. We might pull out the right name from memory but that’s about it. 

This is the kind of knowledge a novice, like a student in elementary school, might have about the planets in the solar system. They know a few names, and a few facts, but they aren’t clear on the relationships. So they might say the moon is a planet because it goes around the sun. Seeing models and diagrams, with labels, makes a huge difference in a child’s understanding of the subject, and helps them remember the facts better than listening alone.

So audiobooks are bad, right?

“But I thought you were all for audiobooks!”

Yes, I will talk all day about how much audiobooks can support comprehension for struggling readers, exposing them to challenging content that they are not yet ready to decode on their own.

But that’s not enough.

I often hear stories of school districts saying “We give a 504 for dyslexia, not an IEP” or offering accommodations like a scribe for written work, an adult to read aloud, or audiobooks, as the end point for supporting students who struggle to read. 

But if students only hear Shakespeare say [double entendre], they may miss the fact that [homophone] Their understanding will be less rich and less complete than that of a person who read the play with their eyes. Shakespeare wrote his works to be performed, though, so even that isn’t as bad as listening-only access to something like a history book or a scientific article. Academic writing is complex, with subtle punctuation choices (semi-colons, colons, and m-dashes, oh my!) and long sentences. Glancing up to the previous paragraph or flipping ahead to a diagram are an important part of understanding the text.

If your child is not getting enough support for reading and writing at school, contact us for a consultation to see how we can help through online Orton-Gillingham tutoring.

Making in the invisible visible

Seeing words and understanding morphology adds a whole layer of richness to our understanding of words. Kids may be able to memorize definitions of math and science words (centimeter, milliliter, quadrilateral) but if they don’t have the skills to take the word apart into its morphemes and notice the meaning connections to other words (centimeter, century, cent) they are missing a layer of undertstanding.

So what do we do? For kids who struggle to read, we often have to prioritize. They have fallen behind, so we choose between devoting time to shoring up basic skills or helping them to push through their current workload, relying on accommodations to save time and substitute for weaker skills. 

Teaching morphology – the meaningful building blocks that make up words in our language – is working smarter, not harder. Once students have the basics, they can continue to learn (and even teach themselves!) the meaning of new vocabulary by taking words apart into their morphemes and using that information to understand the new word. 

Managing time and energy

In life, and especially for our students who struggle, we have to manage our time and energy. We can’t expect slow reading students to both sound out all the words in an act of Hamlet and understand Shakespearian language and learn the definitions of a half-dozen vocabulary words in the play. 

So is it better to read or listen to a book? It depends on your purpose. For an overview of a complex chapter or essay, or to understand the plot and character development in a novel, audiobooks are great! You can adjust the speed, pause, rewind if you need to hear something again. You get the benefit of hearing a professional reader imbue the story with energy and meaning through expressive reading. But if the goal is the nitty-gritty details of vocabulary, word choice, and spelling, it’s best to turn to the printed version to get all the available information.

I’ll be getting my garden-planning books in visual form and saving the audiobooks for taking in stories while I commute or clean the kitchen.

If your child is struggling to read and write at school, contact us today for a consultation to see how online Orton-Gillingham literacy instruction can help.

The embarrassing reason I didn’t finish my grad program

Like a lot of people who become teachers, I really liked school. I liked the predictable routines of reading a chapter, answering the questions and then taking a quiz. In college, I hit a few speed bumps, like papers I wrote at the last minute or an overwhelming volume of completely uninteresting reading but I came out of it unharmed. Even my master’s program was pretty comfortable, with lots of reading and writing, but nothing that really stumped me. Teachers frequently gave us templates for writing essays or reports, or examples from previous classes that gave us guidance as we planned our own writing.

But to advance in my teaching career, I needed to earn more credits after my master’s. I enrolled in a CAGS program (Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study) at a local university and had the opportunity to choose my focus (literacy and special education) and select classes to gain a deeper understanding of the subjects. I took lots of classes on literacy development, the assessment of reading difficulties, and different approaches to teaching reading. So far, so good. But then it was time to plan my capstone project: a thesis or an action research project. That’s when I got stumped. 

Why are templates important?


The thesis process at that university goes like this: First, choose your topic and develop an annotated bibliography and proposal. Then, find a professor to serve as your advisor. After that, work with their guidance to complete the research and write the thesis. But when I submitted my annotated bibliography and the roughest sketch of a topic to my program advisor, they said I would need a LOT more before they could connect me with an advisor who knew my subject matter.

And that, dear reader, is when I quit.

I was pregnant with my second child and working full time, and as much as I wanted to finish this degree, I just couldn’t see how. I had spent hours Googling random combinations of words like “graduate thesis education,” “thesis proposal template,” and any other phrase I could think of that might give me some insight into what was missing from my proposal. And asking for help from my program advisor turned out to be a dead end. That person wasn’t in the same field as me and either I didn’t know how to ask or they didn’t know how to tell me what my submission was missing. 

My plan was to take some time off and then try again. And I did the first part, but never the second part. Oops.

Should students get templates for writing essays?

Now imagine that instead of a thirty-something educator, I was a ninth grader, assigned my first high school essay. Or a middle schooler writing my first lab report. All that knowledge I had in my head about reading and education, and all the writing I had done in my life up to that point, didn’t prepare me to write this proposal because I didn’t really know what it was

It reminds me of The Great British Baking Show, where the characters are given just the vaguest outline of a recipe and they are supposed to use their knowledge of baking techniques to reproduce one of the famous hosts’ classic recipes. When you give vague directions, you can’t expect the product to turn out like you imagined. And the same is true of templates for writing essays. The more specific a teacher can be about what he is looking for in an essay, the more opportunities the students will have to succeed with those expectations!

If your middle or high school writer needs to strengthen their academic writing skills, check out our small group offerings. A new session of our paragraph writing course will be offered in Winter 2023. Contact us now to get on the list when enrollment opens.

What is a writing template?

Templates for writing essays are documents that lay out all the parts of the assignment, including models for what should be included in each part. For example, a simple template for a 5-paragraph essay would look like:

  • Introduction – include a thesis statement
  • Body paragraph 1
    • Quote 1 and explanation
    • Quote 2 and explanation
  • Body paragraph 2
    • Quote 1 and explanation
    • Quote 2 and explanation
  • Body paragraph 3
    • Quote 1 and explanation
    • Quote 2 and explanation
  • Conclusion

Most students will need more detailed guidance, and would benefit from a paragraph-writing template. I like to use the TBEAR model for most middle school and high school writing. It looks like this:

  • T – thesis statement: This sentence makes an arguable claim that the writer will support with examples
  • B – brief explanation: A sentence or two (not much more) to give the reader background about the part of the text you will discuss. 
  • E – evidence: This sentence will either directly quote or paraphrase a sentence or phrase from the text that supports the thesis statement. (A good body paragraph usually has 2-3 pairs of evidence and analysis sentences.)
  • A – analysis: In a sentence or two, explain why the evidence above supports your thesis. Make the connection between your thesis and the quote clear.
  • R – relate: Show how your evidence relates to the big ideas of the reading. This could be relating the section you analyzed to the whole book, making a connection to real life or your own experience, or a connection back to the main thesis of the essay, depending on the exact assignment.

Why are templates important in writing?

Often, we show students examples of good writing and hope and expect that they’ll be able to produce something similar. But the problem is that weak writers don’t know enough about good writing to tell the difference between good and bad essays. They don’t know what to imitate because it’s not clear to them what makes the writing good. 

A template for essay writing goes further than just providing examples. Instead of “do what the author did here,” a template makes the instruction explicit. “Just like the example, your essay will have 3 body paragraphs, each with 2 pieces of evidence quoted from the text.” Now that is a direction students can take action on. 

And by writing, students become better writers! Once they have produced some essays, they will become better at recognizing good arguments and understanding the structure of other people’s writing. And that’s why templates are an essential part of good writing instruction for all developing writers.

If your middle school or high school student is struggling with essay writing, let me know. I’m looking forward to offering our paragraph writing class in the winter of 2023. If you are interested, drop your email in the contact form on that page and we’ll update you when the class is scheduled.

How to Help a Slow Reader

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Slow reading can lead to stress, overwhelming time spent on homework, poor grades, and loss of confidence. Students who read more slowly than peers will end up reading less over time – that’s just math. If you’re here wondering how to help a slow reader in your life, you have a big job ahead of you, but one that can be very rewarding!

Reasons for slow reading

What does it take to read fluently?

Listening to a young child read is painful. They are slow and they are working so hard for every word. It’s not until around second grade that the average child’s reading starts to sound like “reading.” For many children, this ability develops later, or they continue to struggle. For a child to read fluently, they need to be able to automatically recognize and blend all the different spellings of all the different sounds in English. They have to have a robust vocabulary to recognize words in context. They have to have sufficient knowledge of punctuation, sentence structure and stories to read sentences smoothly and anticipate what’s going to happen. They also need enough background knowlege about the topic to anticipate what’s coming. For a reader to be fluent, these elements need to come together all at once. There are lots of different things to go wrong, which means there are lots of options for how to help a slow reader.

Decoding issues

One reason kids read slowly is that they don’t know how to sound out words. We can memorize a certain number of words, but trying to memorize them all will lead to errors. Our brain stores words we read automatically in the language parts of our brain, not the visual parts. Think about though/through/thought/tough – they all look similar and our brain isn’t good at memorizing the details. If students aren’t able to connect each of those spelling “chunks” with sounds, they might mix up those look-alike words or other words with similar visual features.

Students need to learn how to decode words with all the many spelling patterns in English, as well as how to chunk words into syllables, or into root words and their prefixes and suffixes. Without the skills to segment words into syllables and individual sounds, students have to rely on their visual memory, which is not as detail-oriented as the language system for decoding words.

So if you are trying to figure out how to help a slow reader, one answer is you have to find out what is behind the slow reading. For many kids the cause is inefficient word recognition. What they need is some solid instruction in phonics and morphology (root words, prefixes and suffixes) and when that  need is met, their fluency will be just fine.

Bad habits lead to slow reading

Most kids I’ve taught read slowly because they were still learning to decode. But sometimes if you want to know how to help a slow reader, the answer is: read to them and read with them.

  1. Some kids read as fast as they can, not stopping at punctuation or varying their reading speed or tone. The result is flat, rushed reading and poor comprehension. And they may also skim over their errors without correcting them, so they miss important information. The solution is getting kids to think about “sounding like a storyteller” or an actor. 

How to fix it:

  • Take turns reading. Hearing you read every other page, or every other paragraph, Point out things you’re doing, like how you read a sentence with an exclamation point or question mark. 
  • Read a short selection a couple of times, and give them feedback after their practice. The goal is not to memorize the words and read it super fast. Comprehension and fluency support each other, so having a handle on the story will improve fluency. Repetition will also help them anticipate tricky sentences.
  • Record them, either on video or just audio. Have them read something they feel comfortable with out loud. Help them (kindly!) critique their reading. Pick one thing to focus on – like pausing at punctuation or not repeating words – and have them practice a bit and then record again. 
  1. Other students read accurately but very slowly. Sometimes this looks like a lack of confidence. But there’s usually something behind it. Either kids have learned to accurately decode, but they aren’t automatic yet. For that, keep offering practice at that same level, text they can decode. Sometimes slow reading is related to slow processing speed or inattention. For these kids, the strategies above help, but their progress might be slower. A few students with the greatest difficulty may never read at an average speed. But they can make progress and learn to read fast enough for comprehension.
  2. Another bad habit that some readers develop is pausing every time a thought pops into their heads, or pausing to ask questions about the story that will be answered by the end of the sentence! Remind them to “read all the way to the period, then ask” their question. For readers distracted by things other than the story, focus on a peaceful reading environment, picking a really good book, and gradually building up their stamina. At first, taking turns by paragraph or page will help them move through the story quickly enough to hold their interest.

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How to help a slow reader get through this book

Often, slow reading becomes a significant problem for older children. They may have gotten away with listening to teachers’ instruction, reading part of the text, or learning from talking to other students for years. But sooner or later, whether it’s 6th grade, high school, or freshman year of college, slow reading begins to catch up with them. There’s a book report due or a discussion to prepare for. 

The best option for giving a slow reader the gift of time is to provide the audiobook version of a text. These are widely available through local public libraries and from services like Audible. Many classic books are available from LibriVox . Some audiobooks, either commercially produced or read by teachers or other volunteers, are available on YouTube. Some of these uses violate copyright laws, so use your own best judgment when choosing this option.

How to help a slow reader in your life

No matter what stage of learning your slow reader is in, becoming a faster or more fluent reader will take time and practice. Whether it’s finishing their knowledge of sounding out words or practicing to make their reading sound smoother or more animated, slow readers will need lots of practice.

If the reader you are helping is your own child, make a point of keeping reading a fun, positive, family activity. Your child needs to practice consistently and that will be an uphill battle unless they begin to enjoy the process. Short periods of focused practice most days of the week – start with 10 minutes in the evening and work your way up – will benefit your child more than long sessions of drilling. 

For older readers who are already feeling the pressure of trying to keep up in school, offering them audiobooks can take a lot of the pressure off because it frees up their time for the hard working of thinking and writing about what they read. I recommend listening to a chapter first, then rereading to take notes or complete assignments. 

Helping a slow reader can be time consuming and challenging. But watching your child grow through consistent practice will make you both proud!