When Philip Jackson heads back to class this fall, he won't tell
his students at the Chicago Grammar School that the countless hours
of SpongeBob SquarePants they watched over the summer were a
complete waste of time.
"We are in a modern world and they need to know SpongeBob to fit
in socially with other kids," Jackson says. "That's a good
Jackson's philosophy, a classical method on which his school's
curriculum is based, is that learning happens best when it's part
of a continuum-when each bit of learning is placed into social
context. The more seemingly unrelated connections kids can make
between history, literature, science, math-and even television-the
more tools they have at their disposal to become creative
As a prominent speaker and self-described "research junkie,"
Jackson, a graduate of the University of Chicago's master's
teaching program, says modern educational studies are focusing on
the effects of music and visual arts on the way children learn.
Unlike many traditional schools, where arts and music programs are
being scaled back, the Chicago Grammar School makes the arts part
of the core curriculum.
"People always have said if you're good in music, you're good in
math," Jackson says. "Research has come out that makes that tie."
It has shown that doing rhythm work in music classes increases a
child's ability with spatial and temporal tasks, which can have an
effect on math.
"Think of all of the nonverbal reasoning that has to be
happening when someone plays the drums," he says. "They are doing
different things with each hand as well as an entirely different
task with the foot. Sure it's applied to drums, but think about all
the other life aspects to which a child can apply those
Reading is also demanding for many children. Jackson says it's
important to provide children a huge array of books and then pay
attention to what they're plugged into. He even recommends removing
the books they don't like from the shelf so that they start making
the connection that books are interesting and not a bore.
He also recommends finding a good story, which is usually all it
takes to keep them excited.
"That's why we use history as a basis for teaching," Jackson
says. "It's filled with good stories. Star Wars, The Lord of the
Rings, Star Trek; these stories are all based on mythology. It
speaks to kids today, and if you use these familiar, engaging
history lessons as a starting point, they have a more positive
attitude about reading."
His methods appear to be working. Last year, the school's
inaugural third-grade class (the school adds a new grade level each
year) took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills: 73 percent of the
students ranked in the top 6 percent of the nation in math and more
than 50 percent of the students were in the top 8 percent in
"I am really pleased that the theory of our program is showing
up in test results against national norms," Jackson says. "I hope
more people plug into the value of what we're doing because it is
Matthew M.F. Miller is a Chicago dad and freelance writer.
Four ideas to get your kid school-ready
1 Get cooking: Philip Jackson says nearly every
aspect of being in the kitchen could be a math lesson-and your kid
won't even initially understand it's about math. Talk to them about
how measurements add up to a whole. Explain the chemistry of
heat-changing molecules, so that instead of a puddle in the oven
you get cake.
"Connect the most mundane stuff to everyday living," he says.
"Even telling them what makes up water is a great lesson."
2 To the dogs: Feeding the dog doesn't have to
be simple. Talk to your child about why dogs need different
nutrients than humans, and what kinds of foods dogs like to eat and
which ones they shouldn't. When it's pet bath time, discuss the
anatomy of the dog as you wash her. Even grooming a dog can be a
learning opportunity, Jackson says.
"If the dog has burrs or weeds stuck in her fur, talk about how
seeds spread from place to place. Ask your child, 'What do you
think the dog would do to get clean if she was in the wild?' It's
all bigger than just brushing the dog."
3 On remote: Contrary to popular belief,
television is not evil. Neither are video games. Jackson says that
many times parents put their kids in front of the TV as a way to
get more done around the house. Turning "passive entertainment"
into a learning experience should be the focus. He recommends that
parents talk to their children about what's occurring on television
as it happens.
"Talk about why SpongeBob is doing what he's doing," Jackson
says. "Talk about why fish can breathe under water or how a sponge
works. It takes a conscious effort to spend time talking and having
engagement, expressing ideas, but it helps to expand vocabulary and
to establish correct grammar."
4 Rewards: Getting your kid to pay attention to schoolwork
doesn't mean they have to be driven toward a long-term goal.
Jackson says kids don't know they want to be lawyers or
accountants, but they do know they want to please you. Set up a
points system that buys your child more exposure to their favorite
"A reward can be as mundane as the fact that they really like
playing ice hockey and they'll do anything in order to do that," he
says. "Know what motivates your kid and reward them
Even if you think they shouldn't do homework just for the
reward, start out that way. As they get older they won't need it.
Jackson says they'll begin to do it for other reasons that aren't
so mercenary. You want to help kids develop good habits and a
parent should use any means possible to get it started, he
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