Help Your Kids Read More in 2021

By Tracey Dowdy

When we all went into lockdown back at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us found ourselves with more time on our hands. Since we could no longer spend time with our friends and family, go out to restaurants, movies, concerts, or many other ways we entertained ourselves, we turned to books. 

Of course, not everyone is a reader. Many would rather play video games, master a new recipe, or do just about anything else than read. But, if you’d want to encourage your children and yourself to read more in 2021, these tips can help. 

Start by letting go of all your preconceived notions about what reading is supposed to do for you. If you’ve always looked at reading as a path to self-improvement or something one is supposed to do, let that go. If your kids see reading as something they have to do rather than something they get to do, they’ll never enjoy it. On the other hand, if you’re a list-maker or competitive, set a goal for the number of books you want to read this year and create an Excel spreadsheet or use an app like the Book of the Month Club to track your progress. Sites like Book Riot and Goodreads have reading lists, and their own 2021 Reading Challenges, or hop over to Beyond the Bookends for a mom and kiddos reading challenge.   

Do your kids think reading is boring?  Whatever their interest, I guarantee there’s a book for that. Sports, science fiction, dinosaurs, STEM – the possibilities are virtually endless.  Scholastic has great tips on helping them discover books that will capture their interest, including using Book Wizard to find hundreds of titles by searching a title, author, or keyword.

Try switching up genres. Mystery, suspense, true crime are my usual choices. However, when quarantine stretched on and on, I switched to lighter fare. I still love a good mystery, but for a consider cozy mysteries like Sherry Harris’ Sarah Winston Garage Sale Mysteries. Clever, engaging, with intriguing plots, they were just what I was looking for. You and your kids don’t necessarily have to abandon your favorite author but explore new ones. Help your kids find new friends in Captain Underpants, Anne of Green Gables, Matilda, Eloise, or introduce them to a president in President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath.

While you’re switching things up, if your child is not a reader, introduce them to audiobooks and podcasts. Forcing someone who struggles with reading to slog through a chapter book only reinforces their negative impression. Audiobooks and podcasts hold the same storytelling magic, without the weight of trying to decode words. We want them to fall in love with books – it doesn’t matter what format. 

 Don’t be afraid to revisit old friends and introduce your children to your favorites. Who doesn’t love Charlotte’s Web, A Wrinkle in Time, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Babysitters Club, The Lion Witch, and the Wardrobe, or The Hobbit? The same beautifully written stories that drew you in will entrance your children. 

Create a reading space. Books have the power to transport us to another world, so having a special place to read – even something as simple as a blanket fort with throw pillows tossed in or reading under the covers with a flashlight – can help make reading feel like a special event. 

Feel stuck and don’t know what to read? Can’t get to the library to borrow a book and don’t want to spend money on new ones right now? Take a minute to go through your bookshelves and pull out all the books that have been hanging out on your #TBR list. Once you’re through, swap with neighbors and friends. It’s a great way to discover new authors and encourage reading in others. 

Finally, connect with authors and other readers. I’m part of a monthly book club, and our meetings – though almost exclusively virtual since last March, have been a bright spot in an otherwise underwhelming year. Not only do we enjoy unpacking the stories, but we’ve also hosted local authors, expanded our usual reading lists, supported one another through caring for ailing parents, a divorce, children with mental health issues, and encouraged the moms wading through working full-time while having to help their kids doing virtual schooling. In a season when playdates aren’t an option, and many parts of the country are still on lockdown, participating in a book club or “attending” virtual book events can lift your spirits and put the magic back into reading.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Teach Your Children to be Anti-Racist

By Tracey Dowdy

For Gen X and the generations that followed them, the United States feels more racially divided than it has in our lifetime. The good news is that many Americans have realized that not being a racist isn’t enough – we need to be actively  himselanti-racist. 

After George Floyd’s death in May 2020, Doyin Richards, an author and public speaker based in Los Angelos, saw a need for more anti-racism resources directed at children, so he created the Anti-Racism Fight Club. Its purpose is to empower kids and their families to boldly stand up and speak out against racism and social injustice whenever they see it, even if it feels uncomfortable. 

“It really culminated when George Floyd was murdered and I looked around and thought, ‘What resources are out there? Not only to help white people, but to help kids become anti-racists? There were no places I could find that were adequate, so I created one…I call it the Anti-Racism Fight Club because we have to actively fight against racism,” Richards explained. “This is not a passive activity, it’s a truly engaging activity and requires effort. It’s often confrontational, messy and uncomfortable.”

Richards one-hour seminar directed at children aged 5-12 (there’s a separate track for parents and adults) “explains the nuances of racism in a way that children can understand and will empower them to be anti-racist in their own lives.” Since its inception, thousands of families have completed the seminar that explores the history of racism in the U.S. and explains terms like “white supremacy” and “white privilege.” Each child that participates gets a “Fistbook” filled with resources, activities, data, and real-talk presented in a frank but age-appropriate style. 

Because racism is learned behavior, Richards recognized the need for children to learn how to stand up to family members who hold racist opinions and beliefs. “Sometimes one of the biggest obstacles for kids being anti-racist is it’s happening right under their own roof,” Richards says. “Kids don’t feel empowered to speak up and say, ‘Hey, I don’t want to talk about this,’ or ‘That’s not OK. But I tell students they have to stand up and say they don’t want to talk about racist things. We talk about what they can do to fight against racism and to be a better human being.” 

Amy Grant, mom to two sons ages 8 and 5, took her family through the seminars last year. “My main takeaway was that I need to listen more,” she said. “And, that anti-racism is a verb. It’s one thing to have an anti-racist viewpoint, it’s another thing to actively be an anti-racist.” 

Richards himself is dad to two mixed-race daughters, and he sees the impact racism continues to have on their generation. “My hope for my kids is that this whole racist wave that we’re seeing in America gets squashed quickly by the people who know better. I want my daughters always to speak up, whether it’s the boardroom or the classroom or the living room; wherever it is, let them know this is not okay. 

Back in November 2020, Richards gave a TEDx Talk about his own experiences called “Racism from the perspective of a non-threatening Black man.” In his Talk, Richards describes what it was like to be a “preppy Black kid” growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Connecticut. As a youth, a white friend told him racism wasn’t real, and despite experiencing racial bias repeatedly, he felt conditioned to think it was his fault. These experiences led to severe depression and suicidal ideation. These experiences made Richards determined to educate people about the negative effects racism can have on long term mental health and provide the tools to fight those feelings of despair.

Richards’ ultimate goal is to end discrimination once and for all. “Racism is the most pervasive problem in American history,” he says. “It’s as pervasive as apple pie and baseball and it’s been here for centuries and has become normalized. We have to have an active way to fight against it and show it doesn’t have to be this way…I want my kids to grow up knowing in 2020 and 2021, when things were crazy, their dad did something about the racism situation,” he said. “I want them to have countless examples of things I’ve done to make their world a better and more equitable place.”

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Last Minute Valentine’s Day Gifts for Kids 

By Tracey Dowdy

Valentine’s Day seems to have crept up out of nowhere this year, perhaps because most parents are too busy trying to keep their family safe during a pandemic to think about much else. 

The good news is, online shopping once again is here to save the day, and these ideas can help you put together a fun Valentine’s Day gift for your kiddos faster than you can say, “Is it wine o’clock yet?”  

For the reader in your life, choose from sweet books like that puts a spin on the traditional Cinderella story. 

If your child discovered a love for baking and cooking while we were quarantining safely at home, baking-themed gifts are a great idea. Choose from kits like the Real Kids Baking and Pastry Cooking Kit or RISEBRITE Real Kids Cooking Set. If you already have the essential tools, choose a unicorn cookie cutter set, a 200 piece Cake Decorating Supplies Kit for Beginners, or a Cake Pop kit. Online cooking classes are another fun option, and The Spruce Eats has a list of great alternatives. 

Subscription boxes give your kids something to look forward to, and depending on the one you choose, can buy you hours of entertainment or peace and quiet. No matter the interest, there’s a box for everyone offering anything from developmentally appropriate toys, becoming a home chef, books, or opening their eyes to new experiences. Check out this list from Good Housekeeping for ideas. 

While we’re still trying to maintain social distancing, home entertainment options have never been more needed. Screen time doesn’t have to mean brain drain or laying around like a human throw pillow. Sign your kids up for online yoga, dance, or even martial arts instruction. Popular adult fitness programs like Beachbody and CrossFit have online options, and YouTube offers countless free and paid workouts, dance classes, and other challenges to get your kids up and moving. 

Kids who love music will appreciate their microphones, karaoke machines, and headphones. PopSugar has a collection of gift ideas that will inspire you and set your family up for hours of entertainment. 

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Inspirational Presidents’ Day Videos for Kids

By Tracey Dowdy

Presidents’ Day falls on the third Monday of February, so this year we’ll observe it on February 15th. It was initially established as the day to commemorate George Washington’s birthday, and we now include Abraham Lincoln’s February birthday. Now, while many states still have individual holidays honoring the birthdays of Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and other important figures, Presidents’ Day is the day we celebrate all U.S. presidents, past and present.

These videos cover President’s Day’s history and include lots of fun facts about each of our forty-six presidents. 

The Kiboomers’ music is geared to PreK kids. Their Presidential Coins Song teaches your little ones the names of the presidents on U.S. currency. The lyrics are set to “Do You Know the Muffin Man,” so even if the presidents aren’t familiar yet, the tune will be. 

Rock’ N Learn has loads of entertaining, educational videos for toddlers and kids up through fifth grade. Kids can rap along with D.J. Doc Roc to learn each of the president’s names and the year that they took office with their U.S. Presidents Song for Kids.  

Disney Educational Productions has a fun series of biographical Presidents’ Day videos filled with interesting facts about the men who led this country through change and the lives they impacted, starting with the idea of democracy up to Barack Obama, our first African American President.

Dave Stotts’ Drive Thru History takes kids on adventures throughout, well, history. His “Founding of America” series takes kids back to the beginning as he tells the stories of the people, places, and events that shaped the founding of the United States of America, including one dedicated to Dave Stotts’ Drive Thru History

PBS has a whole channel dedicated to the United States’ presidents, and their Sixty Second Presidents series is filled with fun facts. For example, did you know George Washington was the wealthiest U.S. president until Donald Trump’s election in 2016?  

You’ve never seen history presented like Mr. Betts introduces it. His Precedents of Washington (Toto’s “Africa” Parody) reviews “the precedents of our first president, George Washington, while jamming to the five-part harmony of Mr. Betts’s twin brothers and sisters!” It’s weird, witty, and your kids will be entertained while they learn. 

Happy President’s Day! 

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.


Encouraging Girls to Pursue STEM Education

By Tracey Dowdy

In several studies, when children were asked to draw a mathematician or scientist, boys almost without exception drew men, often in a lab coat, and even girls were twice as likely to draw men as they were to draw women.

STEM careers have traditionally been male-dominated fields. Children repeatedly learn about the male mathematicians and scientists who have shaped our world from children’s books and classroom instruction. It starts at an early age, which may be one reason girls enter STEM fields at dramatically lower rates than their male peers.

Statistically, girls perform as well as boys in STEM-related courses until high school. 

On a national level, girls’ math test scores have been consistently equal to or within two points of boys in fourth and eighth grades. Furthermore, middle school girls pass algebra at higher rates than boys, and when it comes to science, girls perform on par with boys and enroll in advanced science and math courses at equal rates as they move into high school. 

That’s when things take a turn. As students progress through high school and on to higher education, the gap widens significantly and is compounded by race and class issues. 

Part of the issue lies in stereotyping, and that starts in elementary school. A 2015 study uncovered teachers’ unconscious biases discourage girls from Math and Science. Those early educational experiences have a quantifiable effect on the courses students chose later on, which of course, eventually impacts the jobs they get and the wages they earn. 

Stepping back from gender bias in the classroom makes a significant impact on the teaching methods’ efficacy. Cicely Woodard, a middle school math teacher and Tennesee’s 2018 Teacher of the Year, says, “For me, it starts with a belief, these expectations I have for all of my students, that all kids can learn—every teacher doesn’t have that belief. When the kids walk in the door I immediately believe they will get this content.”

Conscious and unconscious bias around who is “good” at math and science has profound implications for low-income students and black and Latino females. Both demographics are significantly less likely to take advanced STEM courses and pursue STEM professions later in life. Students’ challenges with limited in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic have only widened the academic gap

One solution that seems to be addressing some of these biases and gaps in instruction is project-based open-ended assessments. This allows students, mainly girls, to demonstrate their proficiency through word problems or writing, where they often feel more confident.

Dr. Jill Marshall, associate co-director of UTeach at the University of Texas at Austin, a program trying to confront the pipeline problem of STEM teachers from diverse backgrounds, says shifting the instructional and assessment models using these methods levels the playing field. She cites a 2008 study from the National Academy of Engineering that asked people if they wanted to be engineers. It will come as no surprise that girls were twice as likely as boys to say no. However, when asked if they would like to design a safe water system, save the rainforest, or use DNA to solve crimes, the girls answered yes. “Project-based instruction just generally draws in more people because it addresses problems that people see as relevant.”  

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Start a Journaling Practice with Your Child

By Tracey Dowdy

Nicole Russell is the author of “Everything a Band-aid Can’t Fix” and co-founder and executive director of the Precious Dreams Foundation. The organization supports children in foster care and homeless shelters by providing bedtime comfort items and positive reinforcement, empowering kids to self-comfort when stressed. 

Raised by a single dad who often struggled with depression, Russell developed healthy self-care habits like journaling, talking to herself, and creativity to deal with the complex emotions surrounding her parents’ divorce and her struggle with ADHD. Journaling, in particular, helped her unpack and externalize those emotions.

Russell’s struggles aren’t unique. Many of our children are fighting similar battles as they navigate the fears and frustrations resulting from a global pandemic, social distancing, virtual schooling, food insecurity, and increased stress at home. Roy Dowdy, a Family and Marriage therapist in Fairfax, Virginia, has years of experience counseling children and adults who’ve experienced traumatic stress. He says journaling is an invaluable tool in helping children through stressful life events. “Journalling allows children to express their thoughts and process complex emotions in a safe space without fear of judgment or retribution. Kids can write down what they’re not ready to say out loud, and it serves as a tool to initiate the conversation when they are ready to share. It transforms an embittering experience into a memory, externalizing the events. Most importantly, it takes the fear, guilt, or shame off the person and shifts it to the problem.”  

If you feel like your child is struggling, be gentle when you approach the topic and don’t push journaling as something they have to do. “Don’t force it,” Dowdy says. “The goal is to create a sense of security, not increase their stress levels.” Instead, include them in choosing how they’d like to record their thoughts and feelings. Not every child wants to write, and some may see this as another dreaded writing task. “Kids who aren’t big on writing for school will see this as another assignment, so instead, let them record their thoughts on their phone or tablet, or even use an online audio journal.”  

Dowdy says it’s important to ensure your child that what they write or record is private and you won’t cross that line. To ensure kids feel safe writing their thoughts, Randall created a “Write Here and Tear” journal with perforated pages designed to be ripped and torn apart without making the book fall apart. “I created this journal for people who needed to write during the pandemic but didn’t have the privacy to do so openly,” she says. 

If they’re unsure where to start, offer writing prompts like, “What made me happy today/What made me sad today.” Entries don’t have to be long or filled with deep thoughts, especially in the beginning. Five Minute Journal has an inspirational quote for each day and simple writing prompts for the morning expressing gratitude, goals, and a daily affirmation. The evening prompts encourage gratitude and self-reflection. Each section is just three lines so that kids won’t feel overwhelmed by the size of the task. 

If you’re looking for additional support for your child’s mental health, Dowdy suggests these online resources:

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Communicate With Your Child’s Teacher

By Tracey Dowdy

There may be no better illustration of the breakdown in trust and communication between parents and educators than last week’s Oakley Union Elementary School District Board meeting. Prior to the meeting’s official start, and unaware the online forum was set to public rather than private, board members used profanity and made jokes about parents wanting schools to reopen so they’d have a babysitter or be free to smoke pot in their home.  In the wake of the fallout, all board members have resigned. 

As a parent and a former teacher, I’ve been on both sides of the desk for parent-teacher conferences and understand that emotions can run hot for both parties. I’ve not had to navigate educating a child through the COVID-19 pandemic, but I have an appreciation for what my family and friends have struggled with. Camron Kirkland, 9th – 12th-grade teacher at Cranberry Area Jr/Sr High School in Cranberry, Pennsylvania, says, “We know this is not the best mode of education. We know it’s harder for most students. We would love to just have all kids in school and educate in a normal setting. However, the best way for your kid to get something out of this schooling (at least at the high school level) is to learn to communicate with teachers professionally. Express your struggles, enlighten us about how you’re overwhelmed with multiple assignments due at the same time, seek additional tutoring or material from us, and let us work together instead of us vs. them.”

When it comes to communicating with your child’s teachers, practice these strategies: 

Develop a team mentality. Even if distance learning has devolved into a less than ideal situation, remember it’s not Teachers vs. Parents. Principals, educators, and school support staff are invested in your child’s success too. Remembering you’re all invested in ensuring the child feels supported and encouraged builds trust and a solid framework for advocacy. 

Communicate early and as often as necessary. Don’t bombard teachers with requests for accommodations, but don’t hesitate to reach out to see if your child is struggling emotionally or academically. Early intervention is critical. Educators are aware their students have varying levels of parental engagement because of the demands on time and the strain of balancing home and their own jobs. Understanding the situation at home enables teachers to contextualize what’s happening and identify which tools and resources will be the most effective.  

Teach your child to advocate for themselves. Kirkland says, “The worst thing to do (for high schoolers) is for you to reach out on your child’s behalf. Teachers are much more inclined to cut breaks, extend due dates, stay late for tutoring, etc. If it is the student asking for it directly.” Your child needs your support, but as they transition from high school to their post-grad education, they’ll need the skills they’re developing now to advocate for themselves. This isn’t abandoning them to sink or swim. It’s setting them up for success. 

 Demonstrate diplomacy and compassion. There’s a difference between advocacy and aggression. One teacher who asked to remain anonymous because she feared the repercussions said, “This has by far been the hardest year I’ve ever experienced as an educator, and that includes the year I balanced teaching and chemotherapy. We’re all frustrated – teachers, parents, and students – but I’ve never been so disrespected and outright bullied by parents. Maybe it’s because everything is virtual, and since we aren’t face to face, but some of the emails I’ve received from both parents and students are downright shocking.”  

If you feel there’s been a communication breakdown or your child’s needs aren’t being met, don’t let your emotions get the best of you. Start by drafting the email or text and then walk away for an hour, a day, and come back to it with fresh eyes. It’s a good idea to read the letter back as though you are the one receiving it. Remember, your tone can be misinterpreted via text or email, so be careful of the language you use. Don’t speak in absolutes like “You always” or “You never,” and use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. If you’re unsure if you’ve communicated clearly and effectively, have a friend or family member read over the message before sending it. A second set of eyes and honest feedback can help you avoid awkward interactions and prevent misunderstanding in the future. 

Most of the teachers I interviewed say they wish people understood the challenges they face teaching virtual, hybrid and in-person classes. They say some parents and teachers have “checked out” because of the hurdles they’ve faced and the negative impact virtual learning is having on their child’s mental health. They realize some of their students are food insecure, have poor internet access, limited support from home, and abuse isn’t being noted or reported the way it should be. The weight of seeing families struggle weighs on them, though they are often powerless to help.  

Baker, a second-grade teacher in Washington state, who also asked not to use her full name because of possible repercussions, told TODAY Parents, “It’s the best job in the world. Just not this year.”

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

National Pokemon Day 2021

By Tracey Dowdy

Gen Z may be trying to bring back the 90’s, but one element of 90’s pop culture never lost its fan base – Pokemon. While it may have faded for a little while, it’s as popular as ever, with February 27 designated as National Pokemon Day. It’s the day Pokemon was introduced back in 1996, when Pokemon Red and Green, a pair of video games for the original Game Boy, were released, making this Pokemon’s 25th anniversary. Feel old yet? 

Pokemon’s online community hosts discussions and cosplays, show off the Pokemon they’ve caught on Pokemon Go ( which celebrates its fifth anniversary this year), and screenshots of their online battles. Fans will be able to watch a selection of curated music-themed episodes of the Pokémon animated series on the Pokémon TV website, and there’s usually a highly anticipated press release on what’s coming for the franchise. 

This year, rapper Post Malone will headline a virtual concert for Pokemon Day, and Katy Perry will take part in what’s being called the “P25 Music” celebration event. On February 25, Pokémon released a password allowing players of the “Pokémon Sword” and “Pokémon Shield” video games to add a special Pikachu to their gameplay. Because this year focuses on music, the character will know a special “sing” move, which it ordinarily cannot learn within the game.

One of the marketing partners is McDonald’s, whose Happy Meals now come with a booster pack of Pokémon trading cards featuring the Pokémon 25 logo and highlight some of the original Pokémon, including Pikachu.

So, if your child is one of Pokemon’s millions of fans, here are some quick FYI’s to get you caught up and some fun ideas to help you participate in Pokemon Day together.

One of the best features of playing with Pokemon is that kids – and adults – get to share their adventures with others. At a time when social distancing is the norm, any activity that brings us together to celebrate safely is a bright spot in an otherwise difficult season. Now get going! You gotta catch ’em all! 

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.