Off the Mat: Homework Time

Homework Time

We’ve made it through another September. Once again, I successfully avoided the back to school shopping circus with my kid. Not yet fashion conscious, his drawer full of t-shirts proved sufficient. Still Minecraft obsessed, he made no request for a new backpack. And wondrously, our district provides the essentials: loose-leaf, composition books, and a stocked pencil box. I was shocked to discover this during Kindergarten orientation years back;  teachers, not parents provide school supplies?! Really??! Really. In our well-resourced town, the system provides the necessary study tools.  Read the rest of this entry »

Literary Guide for Lucy Frank’s “The Homeschool Liberation League”

The Homeschool Liberation League
by Lucy Frank

Download Literary Guide for Homeschool Liberation League

Speaking to teenagers’ need for independence, author Lucy Frank’s The Homeschool Liberation League follows Katya on her search for an alternative to traditional public education. Katya – who until recently went by Kaity – has just returned from a summer spent in the outdoors, immersed in experiential environmental education. While away from home at camp, she recognizes how liberating it is to be in a learning environment in which she has the freedom to let her curiosity lead her learning, and how powerful it is to have adult support while engaging in self-directed learning.

Back home in Connecticut, however, Katya’s new-found independence and worldview (and not to mention name) don’t mesh well with the firm belief in public education held by her parents. Katya is able to convince her parents to let her try homeschooling, even though their idea of homeschooling looks almost exactly like school – except that it takes place in her mother’s beauty salon. While spending time with her mother’s geriatric regulars turns out to be much more educational than anyone anticipated thanks to the power of intergenerational environments, Katya still feels stifled by the predetermined curricula fed to her via daily instructional matrices.  Read the rest of this entry »

HFVS Back to School Episode (Radio Show/Podcast)

Hilltown Family Variety Show

Listen to Podcast:

Back to School Episode

Saturday from 9-10am & Sunday from 7-8am
August 29th & 30th, 2015 (rebroadcast)
WXOJ LP – 103.3 FM – Valley Free Radio
Northampton, MA

FEATURED VIDEO:  Official video for song “Champion of the Spelling Bee” from album No School Today by Danny Weinkauf. Lead vocals by an 11 year old Kai Weinkauf. Video by Vanessa Appleby.

 Archived Podcasts Radio  Facebook Twitter


  • Imagination Movers – “First Day of School” [Juice Box Heroes]
  • Ernie & Neal – “Pre-School Punk” [Rock the House]
  • Milkshake – “School” [Bottle of Sunshine]
  • Adam and the Couch Potatoes – “Go to the Playground” [One Size Fits All]
  • Station Id: Princess Katie & Racer Steve []
  • Chuck Berry – “School Day” [His Best, Volume I]
  • Daddy A Go-Go – “School Bus Driver” [Rock of All Ages]
  • Rocknocerous – “School Bus” [Dark Side of the Moon Bounce]
  • Ernie & Neal – “Homework Blues” [Rock the House]
  • Tom Paxton – “What Did You Learn in School Today?” [Best of Tom Paxton]
  • Station Id: Steve Weeks []
  • Bill Harley – “The Teacher’s Lounge” [The Teacher’s Lounge]
  • Station Id: The Harmonica Pocket []
  • Barenaked Ladies – “Crazy ABCs” [Snacktime]
  • Little Monster Records – “ABC” [Soulville]
  • The Terrible Twos – “Consonants” [Jerzy the Giant]

Literary Guide for S.D. Nelson’s “Buffalo Bird Girl: A Hidatsa Story”

Buffalo Bird Girl: A Hidatsa Story
by S.D. Nelson

Written by S.D. Nelson, Buffalo Bird Girl: A Hidatsa Story opens readers’ eyes to life in a Native American village in the Dakotas. Based on Waheenee: An Indian Girl’s Story, told to an anthropologist by Buffalo Bird Girl herself, the story follows Buffalo Bird Girl through a full year’s worth of seasonal changes and activities, teaching readers about Hidatsa culture and the ways in which the seasons dictated their lives.

The book begins in the spring, with Buffalo Bird Girl helping to prepare fields and process meat from animals hunted by the village’s men. In the summer, readers learn about Buffalo Bird Girl’s responsibility to protect corn fields from animals, and her adventures berry picking and tuber-harvesting. During the fall, the entire village harvested crops and celebrated with a feast and dancing. In the winter, cold weather drove Buffalo Bird Girl’s village to migrate to a place with a milder climate, so as to be spared the harsh winter of the Dakotas.

The rich story teaches readers a wealth of information about Native American life and culture. The fact that the story’s protagonist is not an adult allows young readers to develop connections to her life more easily – they, too, can imagine doing seasonal tasks as chores to sustain their family and they, too, can relate to capturing rare free moments to play with friends. It is in connecting to Buffalo Bird Girl that readers will do most of their learning for, though they may find many similarities between their lives, the cultural divide between our lives today and that of Buffalo Bird Girl is deep and wide. Though here in western Massachusetts, the seasons dictate many of our activities, they do not force such drastic change upon our lives as they did upon the lives of members of Native American cultures. Read the rest of this entry »

Literary Guide for Rebecca Stead’s “When You Reach Me”

When You Reach Me
by Rebecca Stead

What grows when it dies, but eats when it drinks? This and other riddles provide an intriguing and puzzling pre-read warmup for Rebecca Stead’s Newbury Medal-winning book, When You Reach Me. Classified as a science-fiction mystery novel for young adult readers, the story is a riddle-filled puzzle that will intrigue and fascinate savvy tweens and almost-tweens.

When You Reach Me is set in New York City in 1978, and is centered around the mysteries filling the life of a girl named Miranda. Miranda’s favorite activities are watching The $20,000 Pyramid, reading her favorite book (A Wrinkle in Time), and adventuring through her Manhattan neighborhood with her best friend, Sal – who helps her navigate the surprising and sometimes slightly scary things that they encounter nearby. The story truly begins when Sal and Miranda drift apart, which begins after a mysterious boy punches Sal in the stomach while they walk down a street together. After losing her best friend, Miranda encounters some other strange events – the spare key that she and her mother keep hidden is stolen, and Miranda gets a strange note from a mysterious source. Though she and her mother change the locks and assume the trouble is over, Miranda keeps getting notes – and must stay silent, though she knows not who is writing them or what they are pushing her towards.  Read the rest of this entry »

Literary Guide for Mildred Pitts Walter’s “Alec’s Primer”

Alec’s Primer
by Mildred Pitts Walter

Alec’s Primer is a story of freedom – a true one. Based on the real-life experiences of a man named Alec Turner, the book follows a young boy born into slavery through childhood on a plantation, fighting for the north during the Civil War, and finding freedom in Vermont. Though born a slave and forbidden to learn literacy skills, young Alec learned to read with the help of the plantation owner’s granddaughter – who insisted that Alec learn the alphabet despite the trouble that he would be in if he were to be found out. In learning the foundation of reading and writing the English language, Alec gets his first taste of freedom and dreams of someday escaping to Vermont – though he does suffer punishment for learning to read. Read the rest of this entry »

Literary Guide for Mordicai Gerstein’s “The Mountains of Tibet”

The Mountains of Tibet
by Mordicai Gerstein

Literature Guide: The Mountains of Tibet

An accomplished writer, illustrator, and animator; local author Mordicai Gerstein‘s books for children are moving, beautifully illustrated, and feature deep themes that children of all ages (and the adults in their lives) can relate to. In The Mountains of Tibet, Gerstein weaves a lovely story about kite-flying and the passing of time with a lesson about reincarnation and Buddhist culture. Not only do readers learn to think about what happens after death, but the story inspires them to think about the many different belief systems that exist in cultures all around the world – helping to open their eyes to the vast diversity amongst humans.

The Mountains of Tibet focuses on a young boy who lives in a small village, high up in Tibet’s mountains. His favorite activity is kite-flying, and he spends his childhood imagining all of the places in the world that he might travel to when he is older and dreaming of all of the adventures that he may have in other parts of the globe. Despite his dreams of travel, the boy grows up to be a man who remains at home in his small village, serving as a woodcutter amongst the community in which he spent his childhood. Eventually, once he has accomplished much and becomes an old man, he dies and finds himself posed to make an important decision. Finding himself in a strange place that is somewhere between the earth and the rest of the universe, the man is given a choice: to remain as part of the endless universe, or to choose his own reincarnation without knowledge of his previous life. The man chooses reincarnation and, in a heart warming twist, he revisits his own hometown and experiences another life there as a kite-flying young girl.

Read the rest of this entry »

Literary Guide for Jeanne Birdsall’s “The Penderwicks”

The Penderwicks
by Jeanne Birdsall

Literature Guide: The Penderwicks

Our first chapter book featured in this series, The Penderwicks – which takes place in the Berkshires – is a fantastic family summer read. Featuring a quirky cast of characters, a bit of mystery, and a healthy does of adventure and mystery, Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks is a story that can appeal to readers of all ages. While the accompanying literary guide is designed for use with 5th grade students (ages 10 and 11), the story is appropriate for young elementary students (though they may need some support with comprehension), yet can be enjoyed by tweens, teens, and adults – especially when done as a family read-aloud. Read the rest of this entry »

Literary Guide for William Steig’s “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble”

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
by William Steig

A Caldecott Medal-winning book, William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble has been well-loved by multiple generations of children. Published in 1969, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble seems timeless – the fable-like quality of the story paired with Steig’s simple illustrations have allowed the book to appeal to young readers for decades without the story losing its popularity as American culture evolved.

An excellent read for children who are early on in their elementary school careers, the story is about a young donkey named Sylvester and his discovery of a surprising pebble that grants wishes. Unfortunately for Sylvester, however, soon after his discovery of the pebble and its magical powers he encounters a lion, and wishes to be a rock so that he doesn’t have to be afraid. Of course, the pebble turns him into a rock and, as his rock-body has no arms, Sylvester drops the pebble – making him incapable of wishing himself back to being a donkey. Months pass, and his family and neighbors miss him terribly and search high and low for him. One day, his miserable parents decide to have a picnic in order to cheer up. In a serendipitous chain of events (the likes of which can only be found in children’s books), Sylvester’s parents happen upon the magic pebble and accidentally-on-purpose wish him back into their lives. Read the rest of this entry »

Literary Guide for Arthur Dorros’ “Abuela”

by Arthur Dorros

Literature Guide: Abuela

Set in urban Manhattan, Arthur Dorros’ story Abuela combines magic, memories, and bilingual text to tell a beautiful and imaginative story about childhood, family, immigration, and Hispanic culture. Paired with beautiful images created by illustrator Elisa Kleven, Abuela is an excellent example of a bilingual and multicultural children’s book.

In the story, young Rosalba and her abuela (grandmother) are returning by bus from a trip to feed the birds. During the ride – perhaps inspired by recent interactions with feathered friends – Rosalba wonders what it would be like to fly, and to see the city from the sky. She and her grandmother go on a wonderful imaginary adventure, exploring some of Manhattan’s greatest sights from a new angle. They examine the shapes of clouds, pay a visit to the Statue of Liberty, and greet the rooftops from above. Alongside the events of Rosalba’s imaginary journey are stories that her grandmother tells of her life before she immigrated to New York. Inspired by Rosalba’s ideas, the stories teach Rosalba (and readers of the story) about her abuela’s cultural roots and what her life was like before she immigrated to New York City.

Abuela is a fantastic story to pair with studies of Hispanic culture, and presents families with an opportunity to learn some basic Spanish phrases together. Read the rest of this entry »

Literary Guide for Esther Averill’s “The Fire Cat”

The Fire Cat
by Esther Averill

Sometimes, you just need a silly story.

And Esther Averill’s The Fire Cat is exactly that.

A Harper Collins I CAN READ book, and originally published in 1960, The Fire Cat tells the story of a spotted cat named Pickles, who has big paws and lots of trouble figuring out what to do in life. After bumbling around a bit, and receiving help from the wonderful Mrs. Goodkind, Pickles is eventually adopted by a fire department, and learns to be a fire cat! He uses his big paws to do all sorts of fire cat jobs, and grows into himself more and more the longer he stays at the fire house. Read the rest of this entry »

Literary Guide for Patricia Polacco’s “My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother”

My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother
by Patricia Polacco

Beloved children’s author and illustrator Patricia Polacco has written countless classics, covering everything from dyslexia to raising chickens. In My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother, Polacco shares a story of sibling rivalry infused with aspects of the Ukrainian culture in which she was raised. Set in Michigan on Polacco’s grandparents’ farm, the story follows Patricia through a variety of older-brother-related frustrations, mostly based in his habit of challenging her to contests that he always won. In the story, Patricia endures intense frustration and anger – the special kind unique to childhood. Eventually, Patricia beats her brother at something, but it involves riding the carnival merry-go-round for so long that she faints and falls off! Her determination to win the contest is obvious when her brother discovers what has happened, and their relationship is forever changed.

Read the rest of this entry »

Literary Guide for Elly Mackay’s “If You Hold a Seed”

If You Hold a Seed
by Elly Mackay

Looking for ways to enhance you family reading time? Hilltown Families has a wealth of resources for supporting families with kids of all ages in expanding the stories that they read together into deeper learning experiences.

Our 2014 Summer Reading Resource series will be featured here on Hilltown Families every week throughout the summer, sharing downloadable guides to children’s literature written by graduate students in the Integrated Learning teacher preparation program at Antioch University New England. Each literary guide pairs a featured book with suggestions for ways to help children expand their thinking, create connections to the text, and allow their literacy skills to grow. These guides contain outlines with discussion topics, critical thinking questions, and suggestions for many other activities that are designed for use in classrooms but can very easily be adapted for supplemental education use at home. Weekly featured titles will cover a wide variety of themes, lengths, and levels of difficulty – meaning there’s something for every family, and for every reader! Some are classics and some are lesser-known gems, but all of the books present lots of potential for helping families use their reading as a foundation for further learning.

The books included in the series include both picture and chapter books, and cover all of the ages and developmental capacities typically found in grades K-5. Check back weekly for a new guide, or check out the resources offered in our 2013 series.

The first guide in this summer’s series is Canadian author/illustrator Elly Mackay’s book, If You Hold a Seed.

Read the rest of this entry »

Literary Guide for Astrid Lindgren’s “Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter”

Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter
by Astrid Lindgren

Our Summer Reading Resource series is coming to a close with our seventh and final installment, Astrid Lindgren’s Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter.

Originally written in Swedish, this a tale of adventure that shares themes with literary classics such as Romeo and Juliet and The Adventures of Robinhood. The story’s protagonist – Ronia – is, as the title states, the daughter of Matt, the fearsome leader of a band of robbers. Ronia is raised at her parents’ fort, the headquarters for Matt’s ring of bandits. Surrounding the fort is a vast, dense, and magical forest, which provides beautiful scenery and fodder for Ronia’s childhood adventures.

The major conflict within the story is centered around a friendship that Ronia develops with a boy named Birk, who is just about her age and is every bit as interested in exploring the forest as Ronia is herself…

Read the rest of this entry »

Literary Guide for Robert McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings”

Make Way for Ducklings
by Robert McCloskey

Make Way for Ducklings, written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey, is our featured title this week in our Summer Reading Resource series.  Make Way for Ducklings tells the story of the Mallard family – made up of a mama duck, a papa duck, and eight little ducklings with silly rhyming names. After investigating New England’s rural landscape, the Mallards decide that the countryside is filled with too many threatening predators for their liking (and for the safety of their future ducklings). They settle, instead, in busy Boston, and hatch their eggs amongst skyscrapers and busy streets. Once the ducklings are born, readers travel throughout the city with them, experiencing all of the excitement that Boston has to offer from a duckling’s perspective, and discover – with the Mallards – that city life presents its own unique set of obstacles, just like country life. Their main problem? Cars won’t stop for the family to cross the street! Luckily, the Mallards find a friendly police officer to help them, which leads to citywide police escorts helping to ensure their safety…

Read the rest of this entry »

Literary Guide for Kevin Henkes’ “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse”

Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse
by Kevin Henkes

This week as part of our Summer Reading Resource literary guide series, Kevin Henkes’ classic, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse is featured. Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, a silly yet meaningful story, is the tale of a young mouse who is quite enamored with some of her most favorite possessions and has trouble containing her excitement! Lilly, an elementary school student, brings her favorite purple plastic purse to school, filled with fancy movie star glasses and three big, shiny quarters. She is eager to show of her goodies with her classmates, but isn’t able to find a way of doing this that fits with the class routine and expectations. Unfortunately, her teacher (whom she normally loves) takes away her purse and its contents until the end of day, leaving Lilly frustrated and disappointed. She even draws a mean picture and puts it in her teacher’s bag in order to get back at him.

By the end of the story, Lilly has learned a few important lessons. Able to share her prized items the next day at school, she learns the proper etiquette for bringing things from home into the classroom. She also learns to apologize, and learns that in working to curb her excitement, she can avoid such situations in the future…

Read the rest of this entry »

Literary Guide for Kate Banks’ “Max’s Words”

Max’s Words
by Kate Banks

Learning words can be incredibly exciting for young children, especially those who are just beginning to read and are developing the skills to decode words on their own. Kate Banks’ book Max’s Words captures this time in life beautifully, and uses a boy’s enthusiasm for vocabulary to weave together a tale of collecting, autonomy, and developing self-confidence, and is the featured title this week in our Summer Reading Resource literary guide series. Young and old readers alike can enjoy the book, but it speaks in particular to early elementary-aged students, as they likely share similar experiences with the protagonist…

Read the rest of this entry »

Literary Guide for Roald Dahls’ “Danny the Champion of the World”

Danny the Champion of the World
by Roald Dahl

Beloved and quirky children’s writer Roald Dahl is known for his strange yet fascinating tales that capture the curiosity and imagination of kids of all ages. Dahl’s characters are often just on the verge of being unbelievable – they are balanced perfectly in between the real world and the realm of Dahl’s imagination. Each story creates a world for the reader that features a special kind of fantasy – the events that take place could never happen within the reader’s world, yet somehow they are not out of place within a similar context in the story.

Our Summer Reading Resource literary guide series continues this week with Danny the Champion of the World, one of many Roald Dahl classics. The story focuses on Danny and his father, an oddball pair who live in a gypsy wagon behind a combination gas station/repair shop. The two are often bullied by their wealthy (and snobby) neighbor Mr. Hazell, and their mutual dislike for the man leads to the pair hatching a plan to exact revenge upon him. However, in the process, Danny ends up learning one of his father’s biggest secrets – a secret that leads to Danny grappling with a challenging moral dilemma. In the end, the two beautifully execute a hilariously sneaky (yet morally questionable) endeavor that does, in fact, satisfy their desire to teach Mr. Hazell a lesson…

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Literary Guide for Mo Willems’ “City Dog, Country Frog”

City Dog, Country Frog
by Mo Willems

Our Summer Reading Resource literary guide series continues this week with Western Massachusetts author Mo Willems’ City Dog, Country Frog,  a beautiful tale of friendship throughout the seasons. The tale begins in the summer, when the weather is warm, plants are green, and flowers are in bloom. City Dog visits the country, where he meets Country Frog – a curious amphibian whose habits, games, and surroundings are quite different from those of City Dog. Nevertheless, the two become great friends, and they discover that they each have much to teach the other. City Dog visits Country Frog during each of the seasons, and their activities reflect the energy and aesthetic of the transformation of their surroundings. During the summer, they focus on fun and games in the warm sun, and in the fall they decide to play remembering games – an activity that allows them to think and reflect, and to take in the beauty of the fiery fall leaves and the still, crisp air. When winter comes, City Dog takes a visit to the snowy countryside only to discover that his froggy friend is nowhere to be found. He waits for him to appear, but to no avail – Country Frog is mysteriously gone. Once spring comes and the ground thaws, City Dog visits again. Country Frog doesn’t turn up, but City Dog makes a new friend, Country Chipmunk, and the clever ending implies that they two are about to embark on a journey of friendship that will reflect the changes in season just as beautifully as City Dog’s adventures with Country Frog did.

While the text is fairly simple – making it ideal for younger students – the themes presented within the story can be accessed by students of all ages…

Read the rest of this entry »

Literary Guide for Jane Yolen’s “Letting Swift River Go”

Letting Swift River Go
by Jane Yolen, Illustrated by Barbara Cooney

Our new Summer Reading Resource series will be featured here on Hilltown Families every week throughout the end of August, sharing downloadable guides of children’s literature from graduate students in the Integrated Learning teacher preparation program at Antioch University New England. Each literary guide pairs a featured book with suggestions for ways to help children expand their thinking, create connections to the text, and allow their literacy skills to grow. These guides contain outlines with discussion questions, art projects, outdoor adventures, and many other activities that are designed for use in classrooms but can very easily be adapted for use at home for supplemental education. Weekly featured titles will cover a wide variety of themes, lengths, and levels of difficulty – meaning there’s something for every family, and for every reader! Some are classics, some are lesser-known gems – but all of the books present potential for helping families build upon the stories that they read together.

Our first featured title is this series of literary guides is Letting Swift River Go by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Barbara Cooney…

Read the rest of this entry »

PBS LearningMedia: Digital Media for Educators

PBS LearningMedia: Online Media Educational Resources for Educators

PBS LearningMedia is an online educational service offering media resources appropriate for PreK-16 curriculum, for use in classrooms, homeschool, and informal educational environments, such as after-school, community facilities, and museums.

Every season, family activities tend to follow a common thread, dictated by changes in weather and routine, the foods that are in season, and the activities that kids are participating in. Life has a way of presenting learning opportunities to kids that easily relate to the things they’re experiencing, and if the opportunities don’t present themselves, kids are quite skilled at finding ways to satisfy their own curiosity. However, their ability to do so is dependent on the resources available to them. There are endless books available from libraries, and the out-of-doors offers a plethora of possibilities, but some topics are difficult to learn about without digging deeper.

PBS Learning Media provides a wide variety of educational resources to help curious families expand their learning! The extensive content, presented in the form of videos, still images, games, audio clips, rich text, and lesson plans (which can easily be adapted for use at home!), covers almost every possible topic and is designed to reach kids from pre-K through 12th grade…

Read the rest of this entry »

Expressing Appreciation to Teachers & Administrators as the School Year Draws to an End

End of the School Year Gratitude & Appreciation

Do you have suggestions on gifts to give teachers and administrators to thank them for the past school year? Add your ideas to our reader recommend list!

End of the school year is fast approaching and many families are looking for creative ways to express their gratitude of the teachers and administrators that educate and support their children throughout the school year!

Gift ideas can range from making something from scratch in your kitchen, to pairing up store bought sweets for a fun association that expresses your appreciation, to a summer themed gift basket for enjoying their time off, or a clever presentation of a gift card. Check out these terrific ideas!

As always, Hilltown Families’ readers are a great resource for ideas! Take a look at their recommendations shared in our post, End of the Year Teacher Appreciation Gifts, get inspired, and share your own ideas too!

HFVS Back to School Episode (Radio Show/Podcast)

Listen to Podcast:

Back to School Episode

Saturday from 9-10am
Original Broadcast: August 20th, 2008
WXOJ LP – 103.3 FM – Valley Free Radio
Northampton, MA

New Podcasts ♦ Archived Podcasts Subscribe to Podcast
Radio  Facebook Twitter


  • Imagination Movers – “First Day of School” [Juice Box Heroes]
  • Ernie & Neal – “Pre-School Punk” [Rock the House]
  • Milkshake – “School” [Bottle of Sunshine]
  • Adam and the Couch Potatoes – “Go to the Playground” [One Size Fits All]
  • Station Id: Princess Katie & Racer Steve []
  • Chuck Berry – “School Day” [His Best, Volume I]
  • Daddy A Go-Go – “School Bus Driver” [Rock of All Ages]
  • Rocknocerous – “School Bus” [Dark Side of the Moon Bounce]
  • Ernie & Neal – “Homework Blues” [Rock the House]
  • Tom Paxton – “What Did You Learn in School Today?” [Best of Tom Paxton]
  • Station Id: Steve Weeks []
  • Bill Harley – “The Teacher’s Lounge” [The Teacher’s Lounge]
  • Station Id: The Harmonica Pocket []
  • Barenaked Ladies – “Crazy ABCs” [Snacktime]
  • Little Monster Records – “ABC” [Soulville]
  • The Terrible Twos – “Consonants” [Jerzy the Giant]

Q&A: What Do You Wish They Taught More Of in School?


Angela Santaniello would like to see more cursive, science, social studies and art taught in school. How about you? Share your thoughts in the comment field! (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

Are there subjects/topics you wish schools WOULD teach your kids? How about ones you wish they WOULDN’T?

  • Laura Hoffman replies, “I’m beside myself that they are choosing not to teach cursive anymore…”
  • Tonya Lemos replies, “Wish they did carpentry, more geography and less history… or maybe different history…don’t get me going on this topic!”
  • Soma DiNicola replies, “They should teach sign language.”
  • Jackie Amuso Dolby replies, “I just wish my school would have more extra curricular activities for my kids to be involved in. My kids don’t like sports so there is nothing for them.”
  • Michele Lussier replies, “Foreign languages earlier; music earlier; history globally and more balanced; logic at a young age in puzzle form; addition should be taught with multiplication (as addition’s short cut cousin); community service… I could keep going.”
  • Angela Coulopoulos Santaniello replies, “Cursive, science, social studies, art. More freedom to choose what they want to learn. That’s why we homeschool now.”
  • Marya Zilberberg replies, “Wish they would not teach them “subjects,” but how to think and pursue knowledge.”
  • Susan Lillie Robert replies, “How about life skills such as managing money, shopping, how to live on your own…”
  • Kara Kitchen replies, “After teaching high school for 11 years, I would say civics and how to be a productive/responsible citizen+community member!”

Q&A: Alternative Kindergarten Programs


Do you have an alternative kindergarten program in Western MA to recommend? Leave a comment below and share your recommendation.

Lori Peters writes, “My son is kindergarten age next year and I am thinking about school options. I know that kindergarten isn’t mandatory in Massachusetts and I am wondering if anyone has tried an alternative program. Are there part-time kindergarten programs in the area? I work full-time so home schooling for that year isn’t a great option. I would love some feedback.”

  • Holly Alexander recommends, “Our son goes to the Greenfield Center School. It is full day, except on Wednesday, which is half day. It is as alternative as possible and a perfect fit for us.”
  • Christine Moynihan Huntley recommends,Mountain Brook Children’s Center has a kindergarten program (in South Deerfield). It is fantastic and science oriented. They have flexible schedules.”
  • Myssie Casinghino recommends,The Hill Institute in Florence has a half day option.”
  • Lyza May recommends, “You can do 5 mornings and 2-4 afternoons at The Common School in Amherst for kindergarten. We LOVE it.”
  • Katryna Nields recommends,Full Circle School in Bernardston is afternoons only, Monday thru Thursday. My friends there love it. Does Red Gate Farm (Buckland, MA) have options for you?”
  • Barbara Nichols Zaccheo recommends, “We love Bement School in Deerfield- very nurturing, educational and fun kindergarten.”
  • Lori Peters replies, “I will look into these. We are in Goshen so most are a hike. I wonder if there are any programs up here?”

[Photo credit: (ccl) Jack Amick]

Berkshire Family Fun: A Few More Weeks of Summer

Back to reality? Not yet

Feeding the animals at Whitney’s Farm Market in Cheshire, MA (Photo credit: Kelly Bevan McIlquham)

I have been spoiled this summer. I took a five-day family trip to Alabama. I’ve been to Hampton Beach twice for day trips and took a brief road trip to Cape Cod to pick up a sea- and homesick 12-year-old boy. I’ve spent a few days enjoying my childhood vacation haunt, York Beach, Maine, with my mom, sister, our kids, plus one extra (he’s like one of the family) and I’m even sneaking away with my husband for a few days in Boston for some much-needed grown-up time. Did I leave out that we were given free preseason Patriots tickets for today? But even better than all that is the fact that I’ve gotten to enjoy an absolutely gorgeous season in the Berkshires with my husband and children, and though the summer is slowly winding down, I’m not ready to return to reality quite yet. So out with the back-to-school fliers and trips to chain stores for supplies, I’m taking a few more weeks to simply explore and enjoy the Berkshire surroundings with my family — and you can, too.


We’ve been introduced to Glendale Falls in Middlefield this summer and thanks to a rare single-kid day last week, my youngest, Shea, was finally introduced to the beauty that is Wahconah Falls in Dalton. But the falls wasn’t the only highlight to our Wednesday last week. The day began with Shea and I heading to the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail, a 11.2-mile trail that runs from Lanesborough to Adams, with our bikes, beginning at the entrance of the Berkshire Mall. Despite a few grumbles from Shea in the first mile or so, we made the approximate 3.5-mile jaunt up the trail to Farnum’s Road in Cheshire and enjoyed a snack and a beverage on a bench overlooking Cheshire Lake. After a breeze sent a nauseating whiff of goose poop our way, Shea decided it was a good time to hop on our bikes and head back to the car, but I had a surprise in store for him.

After a little over a mile or so (before any complaining arose), I veered off the trail towards Route 8 and made a stop a Whitney’s Farm Market for lunch and a few farm-fresh veggies. (Sorry folks, I can’t remember the name of the road that you take before you hit Route 8, but you can see Whitney’s from the trail.) Shea and I ventured inside and decided on some fresh tomatoes, apples, salsa and guacamole for our dinner that night and a delectable roast beef, lettuce, tomato, and avocado Panini on herbed bread to savor at the picnic tables. Yum!

After a relaxing lunch, Shea fed a few of the animals at the petting zoo and climbed around on the wooden playground ship for a while, while I sat back and watched parents chase their children up and down the slides and wooden tractor structure. At one point I spent a few scary seconds scanning furiously around the playground to help a grandmother locate a “misplaced” grandchild. Note to readers: If you take a trip to Whitney’s and find yourself in a similar predicament, the lower-level of the boat structure makes for a good hiding place.

Shea and I wrapped up our trip by biking back to our car, grabbing Dad at his office and stopping by Wahconah Falls off of Route 9 in Dalton to introduce our poor neglected son to one of the area’s natural wonders. It was a rare occasion to spend this day with only one child, but it is something Shea and I will surely make time for again.

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Berkshire Family Fun: Chocolate, Black History Month and More in Western MA

Baby, it’s cold (and snowy) outside

O.K. Enough already! When there is too much snow to even snowshoe in the Berkshires, I’d say we’ve had enough. But as I sit here writing this column, taking periodic glances at The Weather Channel app on my iPhone, it is clear that Mother Nature doesn’t agree with me. It seems she’ll be dumping enough snow on us this week to last through to the month of June. Let’s just hope the following family-friendly events in the area are still a go and if they are, let’s hope people can unbury themselves from the storm to attend.


O.K. mom’s (sorry to discriminate here), but do I have an event that has your name written all over it — the Chocolate Berkshires Kickoff Party. Yes, I said chocolate and party in the same sentence, and you can bet there will be plenty of both at Chocolate Springs in Lenox on Tuesday, Feb. 8, from 2 to 3:30 p.m. The event kicks off the February monthlong chocolate festival in the Berkshires. Yes, I said that, too. Let me repeat it: THE BERKSHIRES IS HAVING A MONTHLONG CHOCOLATE FESTIVAL. Chocolate Berkshires is organized by “Berkshires own Willy Wonka” Joshua Needleman of Chocolate Springs and the Berkshire Visitors Bureau and, according to its website, the monthlong event’s goal is to bring “friends, neighbors, local businesses, winter visitors and likely some chocolate-loving skiers” together as they dip the Berkshire Hills into a fragrant concoction of CHOCOLATE. The kickoff party will include complimentary hot chocolate and other treats while visitors mingle with other chocolate lovers and local businesses. For more information about upcoming chocolate events visit


Shirley Edgerton and members of Youth Alive are shown here at the January 2009 Inauguration of President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. Youth Alive has kicked off a chocolate fundraiser in conjunction with Berkshire County’s monthlong chocolate festival to benefit the organizations Rites of Passage Empowerment Program for Girls. (Courtesy Youth Alive)

If you live in or near the Berkshires chances are you have heard of Shirley Edgerton. If you haven’t, then listen up. Shirley is the executive director of Youth Alive, a community-based performance arts program with a mission to engage participants in performance arts and educational activities, to promote positive development, to provide an opportunity to experience success and develop leadership skills, and to learn teamwork. Last spring Shirley began offering another program through Youth Alive, Inc. — Rites of Passage and Empowerment Program for Girls, an initiative designed to celebrate and honor the entry of adolescent girls into womanhood and provide them with skills and knowledge that they need to be successful, independent and responsible young women. In conjunction with the month long chocolate festival in the area, Youth Alive has kicked off a chocolate fundraiser where people can indulge in some of “the best chocolate fudge ever,” while supporting this program. All you have to do is order your fudge from the Mill Fudge Factory and 20% of the money from the orders will benefit and support Youth Alive. Order by midnight Feb. 9 and receive your order by Valentine’s Day. And if you have never seen the Youth Alive step, dance and drumline troupe, then make sure to bookmark their website so you can stay up-to-date on their upcoming performances.


‘Escape from Slavery: Underground Railroad,’ by Jerry Pinkney is on view at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge as party of the museum’s “Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney” exhibit. Pinkney’s art celebrates and brings to life the contributions of important African-American freedom fighters. The museum will be offering a “Witnessing History” performance series in conjunction with the exhibit in celebration of Black History Month. (Pinkney: Courtesy Norman Rockwell Museum)

February is Black History month and there is plenty to do in the area to commemorate the monthlong celebration and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge is leading the way with their “Witnessing History” performance series. The series, presented in conjunction with the museum’s current exhibition “Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney,” celebrates and brings to life the contributions of important African-American freedom fighters. The series began Jan. 29 with “I Can’t Die But Once: The Story of Harriet Tubman” and will continue at 5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 26, with “Ain’t I A Woman: The Story of Sojourner Truth” and “On God’s Green Earth a Free Woman: The Story of Elizabeth Freeman” on March 26. If children are too young to sit through one of these performances, take a trip and wander through the art of Jerry Pinkney, a master of the American picture book whose powerful, heart-warming stories reflect personal and cultural themes, and explore the African-American experience in words and pictures. ($$$)


There are myriad playgroups and story times throughout Berkshire County, but no one does it quite the way the Family Resource Center of Northern Berkshire in North Adams does. From toddler and preschool story hours to parent discussion groups to Science Saturdays the center has a little something for every member of the family. Upcoming events include: Toddler Time story hour at the North Adams Public Library every Tuesday at 10 a.m. for children ages 1 to 3; preschool story time each Wednesday at 10 a.m. for children ages 3 to 6; Make and Take Valentine Workshop, Saturday, Feb. 5, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. for children ages 5 and up at the North Adams Public Library; Parent Discussion Group, a group for parents that focuses on self-awareness, self-care and support, Wednesday, Feb. 23, from 6 to 7 p.m. at the Haskins Center located at 210 State St. in North Adams (free child care, transportation and refreshments included); and from 10:30 to 11:20 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 12, the Science Fun for Families, a hands-on science workshop where children and their parents will explore the properties of common, everyday substances found in the kitchen! Families will have a chance to enter and win a free science book featuring science experiments they can do at home. Space is limited so call 413-662-4821 to register.


Who says you can’t play in the garden with nearly 5-feet of snow on the ground? Not the folks at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge. The Youth Education Office at the Garden is presenting a series of Saturday family-friendly workshops throughout the winter for parents and their children. Next up: “Make Your Own Paper,” on Saturday, Feb. 12, from 1 to 3 p.m., where participants age 5 and up will learn the craft of paper-making from beginning to end and take home their own homemade paper designs. The Berkshire Botanical Garden is located at Routes 102 and 183 in Stockbridge. To register for the workshop or to learn more about upcoming programs call 413-298-3926 or go online to


The Family Beat will celebrate its Feb. 10 launch with a party that same day from 3 to 5 p.m. at Bousquet Ski Area in Pittsfield with a variety of free activities and treats for the whole family. (Courtesy Photo: Family Beat)

For the last few months at my “day job” with The Advocate ( my editor and I have been working furiously to get ready for the launch of our new Family Beat magazine on newsstands Thursday, Feb. 10. That day, from 3 to 5 p.m. at Bousquet Ski Area in Pittsfield we will celebrate the launch with a free family-friendly celebration with free food, free raffles, free door-prizes, free crafts and more. Also while families are there they can hit the slopes for or try the tubing hill ($$). What could be a better way to spend an afternoon? To learn more about The Family Beat visit the magazine’s Facebook page or log onto our website at


Kelly Bevan McIlquham Berkshire Family Fun

Kelly Bevan McIlquham writes our bi-monthly column, Berkshire Family Fun, sharing update, events and activities for families in the Berkshires.  Kelly is a psychotherapist-turned-writer who resides in Hinsdale, MA with her husband, three children, a chocolate lab, a very fat cat, a turtle, and a few goldfish. She is the Features Editor for The Advocate and the Editor of The Family Beat in the Berkshires. Kelly also dabbles in writing for children and has had her non-fiction published by Wee Ones online family magazine. When not writing or editing, her favorite pastime is cheering on her children at various football, soccer, basketball and baseball games. — Check out Berkshire Family Fun the first and third Thursday of each month.

Screening of “Race to Nowhere” in Northampton on Jan 30th

The Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School in Haydenville, MA writes:

The Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School (HCCPS) is joining the Smith College Department of Education and Child Study and the Smith College Campus School in sponsoring the screening of the important film, “Race to Nowhere” on Sunday Jan, 30 at 3:30 pm in Wright Hall on the campus of Smith College (33 Prospect Street) in Northampton, MA. A discussion will follow the film. All parents, educators and other interested adults as well as Middle and high-school age students are invited and encouraged to attend. There is no charge!

“Race to Nowhere” was made by a concerned mother turned film-maker. The film’s focus – the pressure on students to perform and the resulting consequences, seems both timely and appropriate for many students in our area. The portrait the film paints is one where cheating is commonplace, stress-related illness, depression and burn-out are rampant and ironically, young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired.

Following the screening viewers can share ideas and reactions with a spectrum of folks from around Western MA. Contact HCCPS for more information about the screening: 268-3421.

Back-to-School Episode: Hilltown Family Variety Show (Podcast/Radio Show)

Listen Now

Back-to-School Episode

Saturday from 9-10am & Sunday from 7-8am
September 11th & 12th, 2010
WXOJ LP – 103.3 FM – Valley Free Radio
Northampton, MA

Featured Video: Our friends over at Boston Children’s Music turned us on to this new video,Bookmobile Submarineby John Hadfield.

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  • Chuck Berry – “School Day” [His Best, Volume 1]
  • Imagination Movers – “First Day of School” [Juice Box Heroes]
  • The Not-Its! – “Welcome to Our School” [Time Out to Rock]
  • Station ID: Charity and the JAMband []
  • Charity and The JAMband – “Jump into the Middle” [Rock Your Socks Off]
  • Ernie & Neal – “Pre-School Punk” [Rock the House]
  • Duplex – “Figure 8” [Album]
  • Jack Johnson – “We’re Going to be Friends” [Sing-a-Longs & Lullabies for the Film Curious George]
  • Opus Ditty – “Folsom Preschool Blues”
  • Rocknocerous – “School Bus” [Dark Side of the Moon Bounce]
  • Tom Paxton – “What Did You Learn in School Today” [Best of Tom Paxton]
  • The RTTs – “Learning My Letters” [Turn It Up Mommy!]
  • Adam and the Couch Potatoes – “Go To The Playground” [One Size Fits All!]
  • Clint Holmes – “Playground in My Mind” [Radio Hits of the ’70s]
  • The Terrible Twos – “Playground” [Jerzy The Giant]
  • Ellis Paul – “I Like To Swing” [The Dragonfly Races]
  • Rebecca Frezza & Big Truck – “Carnival Ride” [Special Kind of Day]
  • Lisa Loeb – “It’s Not Goodbye” [Camp Lisa]
  • The Sweet Colleens – “The Terrible Twos Step” [The Monkey Dance: All The Kids Are Doin’ It!]Music
  • Key Wilde & Mr. Clarke – “The Rattling Can” [Rise and Shine]Music

Tips for a New School Year

Dads’ 10 Tips for the New School Year
By Joe Kelly

Our children and stepchildren are starting the new school year. Dads & Stepdads are a valuable resource for kids in school. Here are a few simple tips to help you help them get the most out of this year (pronouns alternate because we dads have both girls & boys):

1. Listen to what’s happening. If she’s stressed or upset about cliques, teams, new subjects, or anything else—give her your attention. Provide her time to get things out and do some processing before jumping in with judgments or suggestions.

2. Help him keep perspective. Gently remind him that there are more important things than who’s wearing what, or who is going out with whom. Let him know (in word and deed) that you love him for who he is, no matter what.

3. Set the stage. Ask your child what a successful school year would look like for her—friends, sports, activities, dating—and then have her tell you about how important each goal is to her and if she thinks each one is realistic. It’s OK to discuss your expectations regarding grades, but remember the important lessons learned outside the classroom and all the pressures which face our kids today.

4. Nurture your special father-child bond. Go out for ice cream, go swimming, shoot hoops, or do something you know he loves. The beginning of school is a great time to begin a new tradition. How about a lunch date the last Saturday of every month?

5. Let her cope and experiment. School can be a great place for her to learn important personal and interpersonal skills which will serve her later in life. Don’t rush in to solve every problem – listen. But never back down where her personal safety is concerned.

6. Walk a mile in his shoes. Try to imagine what he’s experiencing and what it means to him. Your understanding and empathy can help him make it through his own trials.

7. Celebrate success. We dads sometimes tend to focus more on what’s not going right than we do on what is going well. Be sure to let her know how proud you are of her talents and accomplishments—even if they are not readily recognized by others.

8. Be his hero. Stay always mindful of his unique spirit and give him your loyalty, kindness, acceptance, respect, and support. Your influence in his life is unique, so make it as positive as possible.

9. Tell stories about yourself. Many things have changed since you were a kid, but most of the important stuff is still the same. Share your own youthful struggles with staying true to yourself, your values, and your friends. Don’t make every story into a lecture, and be sure to admit your mistakes—they can teach her a lot (starting with humility)!

10. Honor his interests. Even if his passion isn’t your first choice for fun, be there for him, let him teach you about his interests, and learn why he’s passionate about them. Your validation is a huge help to him.

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