Four free, valuable “back to school” items


You won’t find four of the most valuable things students can take “back to school” for sale on line, or at any store.  They are free.  These are things families can provide at absolutely no cost – but they are extremely valuable.  We’re talking about a positive attitude toward learning and school, a willingness to help out the school in some way, well-rested students and an enjoyment of reading.  Let’s take them one at a time.

  • Love of reading: The last column I wrote, early in the summer, quoted some of the more than 30 educators around the state who were asked to offer recommendations for families. More than 90% of them cited encouraging reading as very important. Do your youngsters see you reading? Do you take them to the library? Do you spend a few minutes each week reading something together as family members? A recent study found that even reading books and magazines about movie stars produced achievement gains for youngsters. Reading is something a family can and should promote (and libraries are free!)
  • Positive attitude toward learning, schools and teachers: As you talk about school, are you as parents and grandparents recalling some wonderful things that happened in school? No one’s experience in school was wholly wonderful. But almost everyone had some great teachers, powerful learning experiences, gratifying experiences in some kind of extra-curricular such as drama, speech, journalism, athletics, music, etc. Please talk with your youngsters about such experiences this month. Avoid negative comments like “you’d better enjoy your freedom while you can” or “I hated school too.”
  • Willingness to help out the school in some way: Virtually every school could use some assistance. We’ve posted a list of 50 different ways that families can help a school – from sharing a hobby, to going on a field trip, serving on a committee, helping to build a loft, translating for families that don’t speak English, etc. It’s at

    Many fine schools start the year off with a family/student/teacher conference, in which one of the things discussed is how families will help out.  But if your school does not do this, you can take the lead by calling the school’s principal, or one of your youngster’s teachers, and offering to help in some way.  Educators remember and prize families who do this.

  • Make sure your youngster(s) is/are well rested for the first few days of school. Yes, it’s easy to allow them to go to bed late, and sleep late, for the last few days of summer. But teachers really appreciate youngsters who come to school alert. Think of this a bit like spring training for baseball players, or the last summer practice for pro football teams. They’re getting ready – so should your youngsters.

That’s four free ways to help youngsters do well this fall.  Clothes and school supplies matter.  But attitudes, well rested youngsters and family involvement matter much more.

Joe Nathan won awards from parent, educator and student groups for his work as an inner public school teacher and administrator.  He now directs the Center for School Change, Macalester College