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When I was a child I hated reading, I was never any good at it and I’d much rather be outside climbing trees and playing ball. My love of books (especially picture books) came at a much later age and my goal as a teacher and mother was to make reading and writing fun, to encourage a love of literature.

Schoolyard Stories was created after years of volunteer committee work at my kids’ pre-school and school. We decided we could publish a compilation storybook and sell it within the school community to raise funds. The feedback was so positive and parents were absolutely thrilled with their beautiful keepsakes.

In this blog I share stories of my experiences as a teacher, mother and small business owner. I also share worthwhile, practical, resources and review and post your submissions about literacy, teaching and learning.

 

Pre-Schooler Reading

Meaningful Fundraising Ideas for Schools

Often the best place to get advice on fantastic fundraising ideas for your school is from other parent volunteers. Experienced volunteers can give you a real cost benefit analysis. The COST being the time and effort involved and BENEFITS being the funds earned as well as other rewards (fun, fitness, learning, socialising) that the school community gained from the event.

Having said all that, you can never dismiss the power of the internet. My go to website has always been the Fundraising Directory. It is user friendly and lists some great products available in Australia. Fundraising Mums is another great site that offers objective analyses and recommendations on a range of fundraising products and ideas, many of which have been tried and tested by blogger Shannon at her children’s school. Not only are her articles well written, they follow a similar and useful formula. They start with a brief summary and then provide more details about the product, cost, profit and process. Your volunteer time is precious and this website allows you to skim and then delve deeper into whatever catches your fancy.

Having done my fair share of skimming, delving and volunteering, I have narrowed down a list of fundraising ideas that may be stand alone events or can be incorporated into annual school events. Although each activity is completely different, what they do have in common is that they are meaningful fundraisers, in that they provide additional benefits.

ADD VALUE TO ANNUAL EVENTS
Sometimes when your whole school is gathered at a sports event or a swimming carnival, it is a great time to raise a little extra cash with minimal effort. At these events we often pull out the barbeque tongs or raffle tickets, but here are a few different FUN ideas.

Stuck to the Wall: All you need is duct tape and a willing principal or teacher. Cut the tape in to one meter lengths and sell them for a dollar each. Your principal stands on a chair (in clothing that is not too precious) against the wall and everyone takes turns applying the tape. The goal is to get enough tape on him/her so when the chair is pulled away your principal is stuck to the wall. You are only out of pocket the cost of the duct tape.

Racing Rubber Ducks: This is an annual event, in my home town, that my kids (and the entire community) love. It takes place by the river that flows through our town, but friends have had just as much fun with it in their community pool. You’ll need to purchase several rubber ducks and write numbers on the bottom with a permanent marker. Participants are able to buy a number that corresponds to a duck. At your swimming carnival, dump the basket of ducks into one end of the pool. Have a few students use kick boards to create waves so that the ducks float towards the designated finish line. The first duck (or first few ducks) that cross the finish line win a prize. Recycle the ducks for the next year and add more ducks as the event grows in popularity.

Lemonade Stand: In the months when everyone has an abundance of lemons, ask for donations at your school. Lemonade is easy to make, refreshing and will be a hit during any event on a hot day. Just remember to make sugar syrup first so all the sugar dissolves and doesn’t just sink to the bottom. The sugar syrup is a ratio of 1 to 1 (one cup boiling water to one cup sugar) then add 1 cup lemon juice and 3 cups cold water. Do this on a very large scale.

CREATIVE KIDS AND LEADERS
Let go of the reins and let students take charge of these events.

Haunted House: Give students a small space to work with; some place that can be darkened. Allow them to write a scary story that will be told to their guests. Guests pay a small fee to be lead through a creepy sensory maze, touching eyeballs (grapes), intestines (pasta), listening to chilling sound effects and flashes of frightening beings (actors) around each corner.

Pop Up Art Gallery: Students work throughout the year to create a range of artwork to be displayed in a school art exhibition. Invite family and friends along to bid on the artwork or simply set a price for each piece of work. Watch how satisfied students are putting a SOLD dot on the exhibited pieces.

Battle of the Air Bands: Air bands are fun and enthusiasm is the only real talent required, therefore enabling anyone to participate. Sell tickets to the event. Allow audience members to vote for their favourite or ask a panel of judges to choose the winners.

MIND AND BODY
These are not new ideas, but they are simple and healthy.

Read-A-Thon: Reading can be done as a class or as individuals for a specific time period. Students ask for donations and the more they read the more money they raise. You may even wish to offer a prize incentive to students in each year level. All you really need are sponsor forms (click here), student reading forms (click here) and books.

Fun Run: Students, staff, parents and friends can all participate. You can provide participants with pledge forms (click here) or if you have some tech savvy volunteers, you can create a donation page on your school’s website. Make it a fun event with music and healthy snacks.

Schoolyard Stories: Obviously publishing a book is the top activity on my list, but I may be biased ☺

When deciding what type of fundraisers to run, keep it interesting and meaningful and you really can’t go wrong.

Recruiting New Fundraisers

Term four is the time of year that we are wrapping up our current fundraising events, setting our sites on the New Years’ events and the toughest job of all... recruiting new committee members. How many times have you been sitting in a meeting at preschool, a sports club or work and the question is asked, “Who would like to take the reins next year?” It is at this time that those attending the meeting will start doodling on scapes of paper, looking at their phones or picking non-existent lint off their T-shirts in an attempt to avoid eye contact.

I recently came across a wonderful article on the Fundraising Mums website entitled How to Get the Hard Core Non Helper Involved by Shannon Meyerkort. The title says it all, but I thought I would touch on the points that I found particularity useful and add some thoughts of my own.

Shannon mentions that volunteers’ roles should be well defined and major fundraisers should be made easy with clear guidelines, as people are more likely to sign up when they know what is expected of them. I couldn’t agree more. If a committee secretary is a vital role, then a list of the skills needed and the number of hours per week/month that are required will make the job seem less daunting. Is it a role that can be shared? Working with someone often makes the task more enjoyable and less time consuming. There is no need to redesign the wheel every year. If a carnival is something you run annually or biannually, a reference folder for each task that summarises what was done, the contacts that were used, what was successful or unsuccessful, will make it easy for volunteers to duplicate events in years to come.

Limiting the number of fundraisers each year is wonderful advice. As parents we are constantly bombarded with emails and notices and it gets a little overwhelming. I tend to prioritise and as a result, smaller events tend to get pushed to the bottom of the list, whereas big events often become a highlight that we look forward to each year and are more likely to participate in. It is a good idea to reassess the number and quality of fundraisers each year. If for example you are sending home 3 or 4 different types of raffles each year, you may wish to condense all your efforts and resources into one and make it really special. If Trivia Nights and Carnivals are both really successful big events, you could possibly split them up into alternating years. One key fundraiser per term is a great alternative and you’ll require a smaller number of volunteers.

Trying something new is often a risk, but if you pull it off it can be the most rewarding event. As Shannon rightly points out, "maybe parents are bored with baking cakes or letting kids buy other families second hand toys". Shannon’s site and The Fundraising Directory are just two great resources for new ideas. It goes without saying that my favourite idea would be publishing a book of short stories. New ideas will motivate new committee participants.

As a final point I would like to add that the best fundraisers are ones where children, families and staff benefit from both the funds raised and the event itself. Obviously, literacy and books are my passion, but events like Jump Rope for Heart that encourage exercise, healthy food fundraisers or even a simple Read-Athon to get kids reading more (I always seem to bring it back to books) really help promote a physically and mentally active, healthy lifestyle. I have found that worthwhile fundraisers tend to inspire greater participation.

Don't Take Education For Granted

The importance of a good education has been drilled into my sole for as long as I can remember and with good reason...my Mother was never allowed to go to school.

I recently wrote a piece about my Mother for a segment (that I love) on 774 ABC radio in Melbourne called Changing Tracks. To my delight, it was aired and my family and I all sat around the radio like it was 1940 listening, crying and laughing, while Rafael Epstein read my story in his captivating voice.

After I wrote it and it was “published” I felt an overwhelming sense of pride and for me, this truly validated what Schoolyard Stories is all about. If I was so thrilled about someone liking my story enough to share it, how proud would a child be?

Here is my story. I hope it inspires you to write one too.

LET’S CELEBRATE ALL MOTHERS: Both Working & Stay-at-Home

I was listening to an interesting yet somewhat disturbing discussion about child care on talk back radio that I thought I’d share. There seemed to be a general consensus among callers that child care needs to be more affordable and accessible to low and middle income families, that women (with children in care) generate billions of dollars in tax revenue each year, that there should be increased wages for child care workers and educators, that this essential service is undervalued in our society and that more government funding was needed, but no one knew where the money should come from. It was essentially a typical discussion about a very real problem, but what I found most disturbing were the judgements being cast towards mothers (not fathers) on both sides of spectrum. Read more

SIDE ONE: Judging stay-at-homes

A male caller discussed the option of providing incentives for a parent (mother or father) to stay at home with their preschoolers. As a stay-at-home mother, I found the callers points quite valid as I also believe that this too is an essential service that is extremely undervalued (or rather NOT valued at all monetarily) in our society. The caller made what I thought was a valid argument, saying that a child’s parent is the best qualified carer and our tax dollars are going to a third party anyway, why not pay a parent. This was followed by an array of text jabs and calls along the lines of “I don’t want my tax dollars going to lunches and lattes” and “if you can’t afford kids don’t have them”. A young mother spoke about the pressure she was feeling to go back to work (not from her partner, as financially they were fine) but from other mothers. She went on to describe the looks she got when she told her “friends” that she would not be going back to work after both her children started school. I could totally relate with this caller. I recall a time when a close acquaintance said that she wasn’t some kind of appendage hanging off her husband because she had a job and made her own money. She then turned to me and laughed, “you’re an appendage”. Wow...harsh...left me speechless.

SIDE TWO: Judging workers

A female caller didn’t want any of her tax dollars going into childcare because a mother’s job is to stay at home with her children to teach them proper values. She went on to say that working mothers were selfish, thinking only of furthering their careers, having babies and then passing them onto to carers and school teachers to raise. Wow...harsh...left me speechless. This too was followed by a range of calls and texts from people in all sorts of situations; single mothers with no other options, career women making valuable contributions as well as lower income families. A working mother then spoke about the guilt she felt about having to go back to work. She was in tears when she recalled how she and her partner discussed the pros and cons, agonised over their budget and came up with a plan that would be best for their family. She was certain they had made the right decisions, her children were happy and well adjusted but she too felt judged. Comments like, “they are only young once” and “you’re missing the best years” from family and friends made her feel ill with guilt and had her doubting a well thought out decision.

ALL SIDES: Judging no one

I couldn’t help thinking, “we just can’t win.”

What if we all stopped judging? Generally speaking, families are in different situation but all striving for a similar outcome: happy, healthy, well mannered, successful children/adults. There can’t be a one size fits all solution. We are all doing the best we can with what we have available to us.

What if we gave each other the break? I sometimes think that we mothers are our own worst enemies. Maybe if we tried a bit of compassion and support instead of judgemental looks and comments, we’d all be happier within ourselves and better mothers.

What if we gave ourselves a break? A wise poet once said, “There is no love, like a mother’s love, no stronger bond on earth…” so I think it is safe to assume that every decision we make is in our children’s best interest. Our choices may not always be proven to be the best, but are intentions are, so let’s not beat ourselves up.

Sophia Stefanos

THE BUSINESS OF BOOK BUILDING: A Publishing Incursion

I’ve been thinking how I’d love to get back into the classroom and share my experiences as a publisher with kids! I’ve finally done it. I have completed one of four school incursion programs and I am excited to share it with the education community.

This cross curricular workshop is for Years 5-7. It focuses on highlighting the strengths and interests of every student by encouraging active contribution towards a common goal. Our aim is to get students excited about books and what better way to do that than allowing them to experience The Business of Book Building?

We begin with an exciting and inspiring overview of the publishing process, touching on every aspect from writing through to marketing and sales. Students are opened up to the prospect of developing a product and making real profits. They discover how (as a team) they can plan launches and events to boost sales and create their own publishing brand. Students choose their areas of strengths and interests and actually become writers, illustrators, editors, graphic designers, accountants, marketers and event coordinators.

Working in groups, they are provided with the guidance and information they need to enable them to devise a project proposal to present to their teachers and peers.

After the incursion, students’ initial plans will change and evolve as they delve deeper into research and discussions. They will be given access to the SYS publishing tool to create their books online as well as a framework of resources to guide them through each part of the business process. Students and teachers are encouraged to contact me with any questions or concerns they have. Upon completing their books they will receive an electronic version, however, it would be sensational to see their overall plan come to full fruition and actually print real books.

Printing comes at an extra cost but your amazing entrepreneurs will have planned how to offset their printing costs and even raise funds for your school. I will be available to provide support and guidance throughout the printing process and would enjoy the opportunity to attend your school’s spectacular launch or event.

For more a free brochure including curriculum links contact us

Pre-Schooler Reading

Tips for parents of preschoolers: It's never too early to start.

As a primary school teacher, my belief is that reading is by far the most important building block to learning and it is never too early to start. I also believe that the best possible outcomes occur when schools help parents educate children, not when schools do it alone.  As a young mother, I believed that early exposure to phonics would give my children the best chance at becoming fluent readers at an early age and give them the best possible start to their education.

Our three children are all at school now and doing really well, so I thought I’d share some things we put into practice at home when they were preschoolers. I am not making any great claims here, but it seemed to have work for us and it may be helpful to you. Read more

We read to our kids all the time. It may sound silly, but when I was pregnant and reading alone, I often read out loud; I figured it couldn’t hurt. After my children were born, there was rarely a night when my husband or I didn’t read to them. It became part of our bedtime routine and we always looked forward to it. Reading to them turned into listening to them read and now they are all independent readers who read every night. For us, it was about quality time and setting up good habits. Sometimes, when we just couldn’t read with them, we called upon an older sibling, the babysitter or a grandparent.

Books were everywhere in our home on book shelves, in the bath, in the toy box, among soft toys in bed, you still cannot get away from books in our house. Books come in all shapes and sizes. Plastic bath books and foam letters make wonderful bath toys. Lamaze is just one brand that creates wonderful fabric books, touch and feel books as well as sturdy board books.

I taught my kids letter sounds before letter names because in the classroom I noticed that beginner readers were often confused by letter names when sounding out words. ‘S’ is pronounced “ĕs” but its sound is “sss” when sounding out the word “sit”; and don’t get me started on Y and Q! I went straight to sound letter recognition. For example, if we were playing with a letter puzzle and Elena picked up an “e” we called it, “ĕ for Elena” and an “m” would be “mmm for mummy”. With vowels and letters such as ‘c’ and ‘g’ that have both a soft and hard sound, I just deferred to their most common sound; short vowel sounds and hard “c for cat” and “g for gate”. I am not saying that children shouldn’t learn the names of the letters and we definitely sang the alphabet song, but I believe that sounds are a priority.

I taught them lower case before upper case simply because lower case letters are far more common. My favourite resource for my preschoolers was Letterland where all the lower case letters are shaped like characters such as Annie Apple and Dippy Duck.

I kept the font style consistent as it could be confusing seeing several different forms of the letters like ‘a’ (a a) and ‘g’ (g g) . I deliberately chose Century Gothic font for this article as this is the style I found easiest for young children to work with. Once they were able to recognise their letters consistently, they would start to notice that some letters looked strange and by then it was easy to look at the variations without too much confusion.

We learnt a sound a week by setting up a sound table. Starting at the beginning and working our way through, I simply drew a large lower case ‘a’ on a piece of paper and stuck it on the wall above a small empty table. We looked around the house for things that started with ‘a for Alex’ (apple, ant, animal etc) and placed them on the table. Sometimes we found items during our outings to the park or supermarket that we could add to our sound table. It was fun and it really made the kids focus on that sound for the entire week.

Phonic games and puzzles were prominent in our house. There is a plethora of games and puzzles that are letter focused and they aren’t just for kids. The obvious ones are Boggle and Scrabble, but letter magnets, phonetic puzzles and electronic games by brands such as Leapfrog, Fischer Price and Imaginarium are fun, durable and good value, especially if picked up second hand.

Handmade word cards were stuck on things around our house when the kids were little. I stuck words such as, door, fridge, mirror, bed etc. on the corresponding items and it didn’t take long before I could take a few cards off at a time and the kids could put them back were they belonged.

Our kids see us reading often and since young children tend to mimic their parents, they would often pick up books and pretend to read.

One of my goals as a mother was to get my kids to love reading and books. It may have happened naturally without my intervention, but I wasn’t willing to take that risk. I thought that if my kids were good at it and they associated reading with happy times shared with loved ones, they would be well on their way to loving the entire book experience. Schoolyard Stories is something I developed from my love of teaching and books. I have seen the excitement of a whole school working towards the goal of publishing of book at it really is a great tool to help get kids get excited about reading and writing.

Sophia Stefanos