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If you’re considering some kind of teacher gift, I have a suggestion. Homemade cookies are always thoughtful, but the problem with cookies is that the teacher will eat them. And there's also all the other cookies and cupcakes they are given by the rest of the class.  Then they will like you for giving them cookies, but hate themselves for eating all of them.

Get them a book. Maybe your favorite book. The book you want to share with someone. That will let the teacher know you and your child actually consider the teacher to be a human--something they need to be told. They like being considered human.
Or ask your kid what the teacher is interested in and get them a book about that subject. The teacher will be surprised and delighted that someone was paying attention in class. And it makes sense to return to them some of what they are giving - it shows you take their work seriously. We gave books all the way through our kids’ education. It was a connection that has stayed, far beyond the years our boys had those teachers. They remember our kids by the books they gave, if not by their perfect behavior.

Suggestions for books? I asked my friend Pete Cowdin, who runs Reading Reptile, one of the best children’s books stores in America, in Kansas City, Missouri. Here are his suggestions:

  • A GIFT OF DAYS: The Greatest Words to Live By (by Stephen Alcorn) - perfect teacher gift for nearly any grade level.
  • WHEN YOU REACH ME (by Rebecca Stead) best 9-12 novel of the year - Newbery  Award frontrunner and deservedly so.
  • IT'S A SECRET (by John Burningham) a great picture book by a legendary picture book maker.
  • FUNNY BUSINESS (by Leonard Marcus) - good interviews with funny authors kids like - a nice addition to any intermediate classroom library.

Teachers will remember your kid. I’m not guaranteeing a free pass on the unfinished homework, but it will make a difference. Especially if you also give them some cookies.

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When you're sitting in class, There's a tickle in your nose

Then you let out a sneeze and it finally explodes

You look down at your hand, It's all covered with that goo,

Don't wipe it anywhere, You know what to do!

You gotta wash your hands (lávate las manos)

Wash your hands (lávate las manos)

Wash your hands (lávate las manos)

Wash your hands (lávate las manos).

I wrote this song several years ago for the Paul Cuffee School, and have just recorded it for the upcoming flu season. NPR's All Things Considered played it on Monday with an accompanying story on the swine flu.

You can have it for free!Go here  to the Bill Harley website and you’ll find both a long version (3:47) or a short (1:49) version.

We decided to not worry about money ( What, me worry?) and do what we could do to get the song out there before the H1N1 virus comes back with a vengeance. The Massachusetts Department of Health is distributing it to schools, and we're happy to give permission to other schools, organizations and agencies if they wish to do so. Contact our office (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) or call 508-336-9703.

And please spread the word to friends and families that we're making this offer. If you need a physical CD for your local radio station let us know - our WONDERFUL CD duplicators, Oasis, have generously donated the manufacture of a number of CD's for us to distribute.

It seems ridiculous to repeat this, but the greatest deterrent to the spread of communicable diseases is hand washing. Forget the high tech stuff and use soap and water! In order of importance (I know this now, since I seem to be involved with various Departments of Health!)

  1. Get vaccinated
  2. Cover your cough
  3. Wash your hands
  4. Stay home when you’re sick 

Lots more info about Seasonal Flu and Swine Flu, including how prevent the spread of flu at school and home.

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Every day for years, my wife Debbie put a note in our sons’ lunch. You can guess what they said – mostly those three little words, although they often commented on the tests they had to take that day, or the reports they were working on or just handed in. I must confess two things about this: First, it seemed like a little thing, and little things seem not all that important. Second, well, honestly I’m not very organized and on the days I got them ready for school,  it was all I could do to get their socks on the right feet and out the door. Oh, right, and breakfast—I usually gave them breakfast. But no notes. Not that big a deal.

But in the end, it is the small things that make a difference. I like to believe that my children love me as much as they do their mom, albeit in a different fashion. They come to me with broken things, or when they want to squirt someone with a squirt gun.

When my boys were in high school and middle school, respectively, my wife was away for five days visiting relatives, I was in charge, completely, at home. And honestly, I did okay. I cook pretty well. Cleaning’s not my forte, but I’m better than my two sons. I made their lunches, too. Everything they liked to eat. They complimented me. We had a good time together, and those two guys were happy to be with me.

At the dinner after my wife’s return, we got the story from her about her trip, and she got the stories about our week.

“Did you miss me?” she asked. She knew the answer, but it never hurts hearing it again.

They both nodded. “Of course!” They said. Then there was a pause.

“You know what I really missed?” the eighth grader said.

“What?” she asked.

“Your notes in the lunch bag,” he said.

“Really?” she said.

“Yeah, my friends did, too.”

The whole school knew about the notes.

I put nine notes in his lunch bag the next day to make up for the lost time. But it’s not the same. It’s the everyday things that matter.

Little things are big. Especially when they come with a peanut butter sandwich.

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I know very well that children learn by example, but there are some times I would rather not be reminded of it.
When my sons were locked firmly in pre-adolescence, I noticed certain words creeping into their vocabulary I didn’t want to hear. Where did they get that stuff? They would say the words then look at meto see how I reacted. I said I didn’t like that language, and they shouldn’t use it in public places, even if the public place was camped in front of the television watching a movie in which the actors used the language I was objecting to.
It went on. It was a test of my authority. It lowered the level of discourse.  
Civilization was at stake.
So I introduced the age-old institution of the potty-mouth jar. Or swear jar. You know what I mean – a jar in the kitchen that someone puts money in every time they break the rule. “It will cost you a quarter every time you use one of those words,” I said.  
My children immediately made me define exactly which words I meant.  “You know what I mean,” I said.
It was shortly after that that I made a startling discovery.
I didn’t realize I used those words, and when I did, I thought I was using those words only in the privacy of my own personal universe. Replacing plumbing fixtures, for instance – you would think that would be a private experience.
Not when you yell really loudly.
Or when I got cut off in traffic.
Or waited on the phone for forty minutes to talk to someone at the Deparment of Motor Vehicles.
“Twenty-five cents, Dad,” my children gleefully announced.
“#%@!!!!#!” I said.
When I realized who was putting the most money in the jar, I cleaned up my act, declared victory, and retreated.

“No more swear jar,” I announced. “You’ve learned your lesson.”
And we all behaved reasonably well until they reached adolescence. Suddenly, it wasn’t language, it was attitude. Somewhere on their way to adulthood, my boys had become the most sarcastic beings on the face of the earth. Nothing escaped their cynical comments.
So I got a glass gallon jar and wrote on its side “Sarcasm Jar – 25 cents”
I introduced it at dinnertime.
“This will stop your sarcasm,” I said. “I’m serious. Every time someone’s sarcastic, they owe a quarter.”
“Dad,” my older son said, sincerity plastered across his face, “we’re not sarcastic.”
“Yeah, right,” I said.
“Twenty-five cents, Dad!” my younger son.
“That’s not fair!” I said. “You’re trying to make me sarcastic.”
“Dad, we would never do that,” the younger one said.
“Oh, sure!” I said.
“Twenty-five cents more!” the older one said.
They were both in hysterics.
“Forget the sarcasm jar,” I said. “I hope you learned your lesson.”
“We learned from the best, Dad,” they both said.
Like I said, there’s some things of which I don’t want to be reminded. Like that my sons are smarter than me.
Tagged in: Bill Harley
Parents often come up to me after a concert and ask what they should do to get their child interested in music. When should you start lessons? What instrument is best?
There are many approaches to getting children interested in a hobby or art or sport. Regardless of the approach I think one essential element is this: Whatever you want your kid to do or learn, leave it lying around the house.

At our house, there were always musical instruments lying around. My good ones I tried to put away, so I wouldn't find peanut butter on the guitar strings, but I figured that we would donate some relatively inexpensive but adequate instruments to the life of the house. There were guitars there they could strum on. Pianos they could plink on (and unfortunately, in an unmonitored moment, carve their name into). Ukuleles appeared, and eventually, despite my hesitation, an old drum set showed up in the basement.
(Warning: No amount of insulation protects you from the pounding of the snare drum.)

Some of the instruments were never used. Some of them were picked up, then put down and not picked up again. Some of them were broken. This is part of the cost of learning.
It's not just instruments, either. If you want your kid to read, leaving piles of books around is another good strategy.

Or computers. Or broken clocks to take apart.

Do not leave clothes lying around. That is a bad message. My wife reminds me of this. "It's your fault they're like that," she suggests. Maybe she's right. I suggested it was an educational approach. She wasn't impressed.

But by leaving tools around the house that will help them grow, you send the message - "These things are part of life - tools for you to use". And the underlying truth for parents is "Children honor what is honored in their environment."

Of course, there's something else - using those things yourself reinforces their value. Teaching by example is better than nagging. (Okay, nagging is basic to all parenting, but..) You don't have to be professional at anything. They won't remember if you were Yoyo Ma or Eric Clapton or Norah Roberts (don't you wish?). They'll remember that you sang, or played, or wrote, or tinkered. And they'll do it too.

Or course, there is the possibility that they will end up as musicians or writers. Eek.

Maybe you should leave plumbing equipment around the house. The world always needs plumbers.
We're thrilled that Bill Harley will be adding his unique voice to the SchoolFamily.com blog!

A two-time Grammy award-winning artist and recipient of the Magic Penny Award from the Children's Music Network, Bill uses song and story to paint a vibrant and hilarious picture of growing up, schooling and family life. His work spans the generation gap, reminds us of our common humanity and challenges us to be our very best selves. A prolific author and recording artist, Bill is also a regular commentator for NPR's "All Things Considered" and featured on PBS. He joined the National Storytelling Network's Circle of Excellence in 2001 and tours nationwide as an author, performing artist and keynote speaker.

Bill has a unique sense of humor and we're looking forward to having his "wit and wisdom" on this blog. I asked Bill for a sneak preview of the types of things he'll be sharing with SchoolFamily.com readers, here's what he had to say...
"I've spent thirty years singing songs, telling stories, and writing books about children and the world they live in (including the two my wife and I have raised) I'll share my thoughts on what I've seen in schools, families, and children's lives. From playground rules to unfinished homework to moldy growths in the backpack - that's my area of expertise. If you think your kid is the only one who would ever do what they just did, I'll be there to remind you we're all in the same boat."

Bill has some great video and audio clips of his work on his website - www.billharley.com. My favorite is "Grownups Are Strange".

Bill will be posting his first blog post in the next couple of days. Hope you'll check back often and add your own thoughts and comments!

Do you allow your children to watch TV or play on the computer before doing their homework?