Saturday, June 28, 2008

Helping my 6 year-old learn to read

Long-time readers of this blog may remember the less-than-smooth toddler years my son Robby enjoyed. There were the febrile seizures (now outgrown, thankfully), the strabismus in his left eye requiring eye surgery in both eyes, and the speech and developmental delays that were thankfully diagnosed early (and for which he received regular speech and physical therapy). Compared to the more extreme situations many parents have faced, we considered ourselves quite lucky – and having recently completed kindergarten here in San Ramon, we’re quite proud of his progress. (Particularly on the speech: he was briefly in speech therapy here, only to be told after a month or so that he was sufficiently progressed that he no longer needed ongoing therapy.)

Every child is different, and the fact that his older brother was reading fluently by the middle of kindergarten was not in and of itself troubling. But we knew that entering first grade without reading comfortably would make first grade more stressful for him – so this morning I set out to see if I could find a good computer-based aide to help him read. (Tutoring was going to be tricky – we have a lengthy trip back east next month that’ll have the kids out of town for almost a month – so that seemed to be a non-starter.)

I quickly found two web-based solutions – ClickN KIDS and Starfall. The former was a sponsored link at Google in my early queries; the latter showed up in a couple blog posts I found from teachers talking about various in-class tools they used.

ClickN KIDS is $60 for one student, but it gave us a couple sample lessons, which I let Robby try. The interface was quite straightforward – it’s a Flash-based app, which means that we can do the lessons from anywhere we have a browser. (Given next month’s trip, this was a huge plus over installed software, which I’d have to install on multiple computers.) It acts as more of a self-guided program – which I like not because I don’t want to help Robby, but because I want him to learn to use the computer without me (or his oh-so-helpful brother!) guiding him along. We read to Robby quite a bit, and I wanted this to be something he could do on his own and feel a sense of accomplishment with.

Starfall, it turns out, was what Ricky used in his kindergarten. It’s free, but seems to work best in a teacher-led (or parent-led) environment. Early interactions were good – Robby enjoyed the stories and did well at the tests. We may refer to it occasionally as additional material, but ultimately I chose to sign up for ClickN KIDS instead.

What sold me on ClickN KIDS were a couple things: the lesson-based interface gives Robby discrete tasks to accomplish, and each one focuses on progressively more advanced phonics, sight words and letter combinations (the program goes from K-3rd grade levels). And it gives me a comprehensive report to show how he’s doing individually and compared against all users on the system, along with indications for each lesson of particular words or sounds that he struggled with.

He’s already done 3 lessons today – and he loves it. I’ll report back after we’ve been at it for a couple weeks to see how much progress he’s made – but I’m pretty optimistic so far.

BTW – if you’re interested, you can get $10 off the sign-up (and they’ll give me $5 too, for what that’s worth) if you use my e-mail address ( as your promotion code.

Anyone else have recommendations for computer-based reading programs? Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments.

Zemanta Pixie

Friday, June 27, 2008

Illinois campaigns: stop spamming me

I’ve lost count of the number of campaigns who’ve added me to their mailing list in the last year, but it’s hitting a crescendo and I’ve grown tired of the countless e-mails I’ve sent asking to be taken off of their lists. Only one of the campaigns so far is using a real e-mail distribution service (like Constant Contact, for instance) – every other one just sends a blast e-mail with no indication of how to be removed.

The first few I ignored, recognizing that as a former party chair in the state I was bound to be on some lists. But by winter I’d grown mildly curious: where were these guys getting my address? I’d keep making it clear I didn’t live in Illinois, I’d keep asking to be removed, and sometimes they’d acknowledge receipt (not often) and remove me. Too often my e-mail went unanswered, and I’d get the next randomly-timed e-mail blast from them, repeating the cycle.

If this were one or two campaigns I’d let it slide. But it’s growing – I estimate at least half of the Congressional races in Illinois have added me to their list. Where are they getting my name from? My blog is linked to from Rich Miller’s influential site – and they are apparently spamming everyone on that list. (Three of the campaigns have admitted this is where they got my name from; no clue if the others are following suit, but it sure fits the pattern.)

This raises a couple thoughts: first, these guys shouldn’t be spamming everyone on someone’s blogroll. Reach out. Offer to introduce the candidate, host a bloggers conference call, or forward some info that appears related to something that I care about. Impersonal spam is bad. Blank e-mails with Word docs attached (Press Releases!) are worse. I understand that they’re under pressure, everyone’s talking about Barack’s success online and translating that to “I gots to get me some blog action” but good God: is it really so much to ask to put 10-15 minutes worth of time into thinking this through?

When I left Illinois I was cautiously optimistic about where things were headed. The Democratic Party in DuPage County is stronger than it was when I left; Bowen ran a great race for Bill Foster in the 14th and won Denny Hastert‘s old seat. That tall guy with the funny name’s running a pretty good operation out of Chicago. But if the stream of spam in my inbox is any indication, the state of online campaigning at the Congressional level in Illinois is stuck circa 1998.

Here’s some free advice, guys. Talk to your constituents. If you have some bloggers in your district (chances are you do), engage them. Meet them for coffee. Call them. Invite their feedback on what the candidate should be doing. (Bonus tip: Listen to what they say! Their ears are often closer to the ground than yours.) If you’re doing something noteworthy online, take time to explain how it’s worthy of attention. (Second bonus tip: attaching Word docs to your e-mail is a near guarantee that no matter how innovative you think your online efforts are, they aren’t. No, really.) Don’t add people to a distribution list without giving them an option of being removed. Don’t send an e-mail without including a way to automatically remove themselves from the distribution. (Yeah, yeah: you’re a non-profit and CAN-SPAM doesn’t apply to you. But just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly annoying. And I’m pretty sure the “Getting Elected for Dummies” book doesn’t have a chapter about how annoying voters leads to earning their vote.)

And please, please, please. Take me off your list. I’m not naming names this time. Can’t promise I won’t be so aggravated that I’ll resist the urge a second time.

Zemanta Pixie

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Wii Fit is a hit in the Klau house

Wii Fit

Image via Wikipedia

Thanks to Naperville buddy Mike Marusin, we’re the proud owners of a new Wii Fit. We hooked it up last night, and I have to say: big win. The yoga is surprisingly effective – this coming from a guy who would never even imagine trying yoga. (I guess if they could find a way to make tofu blink I’d consider eating it. But that’s another matter.)

We’ve loved the Wii since we got it 18 months ago. And I’m amazed at how effectively they’ve catered to the various family interests: the 6 and 8 year olds are huge fans of Lego StarWars (both the Game Cube and Wii versions); I love Guitar Hero III and Wii Sports, and now Robin has her very own favorite. (Though I confess that the competitive instincts in me make me want to one-up Robin, leading to some pretty hysterical competitive yoga scenarios. Which I think isn’t reallyt he point of yoga. But I could be wrong.)

Kids haven’t had a go at the Wii Fit yet, but will probably get set up on it once school’s out this week.

BTW, saw Fred Wilson’s positive comments about Zemanta and decided to give it a look. If I understand what’s going on, it’s evaluating my post in real time, auto-tagging posts based on a textual analysis of what I’m writing (see the tags associated with the post), and giving me a gallery of images, blog links and contextual links (to Wikipedia, Amazon, IMDB, etc.) to enhance the post. Early impression: whoa.

Zemanta Pixie

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


Senior advisors from both campaigns are confirming a series of Town Hall meetings across the country. Said Sen. Clinton of the plan, “As Congressman Paul and I both continue our quixotic quest for the already-decided nominations of our parties, we felt it important to let the American people see how narcissistic and counterproductive our campaigns had become.”

No word on when the Clinton/Paul Town Hall meetings will begin, but all signs point to the series continuing indefinitely.