February 02, 2013

We’re killing kids’ ambitions. Why?

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By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

Over the holiday break, my kindhearted, hardworking, straight-A niece was in distress: She was facing her first F – ever.

I’ve seen her toil away at school – taking AP English with the school’s notoriously harshest grader, staying behind to study while our entire family hit the slopes – and in life – keeping her promise to babysit when tempting plans arise and feeding those darn turtles (again!) while certain neighbors are away. She’s capable and ambitious, saving money to buy a camera to make documentary films – and then entering a contest I sent her on a whim (she become a finalist with this film). She’s a nose-to-the-grindstone kind of girl, so when she’s facing an F (or maybe a D), it’s not because she’s suddenly become a slacker.

Terrified to tell her mom, she tested the waters by telling me. It’s a moment, I told her, when you really see what you’re made of: character. Will she slink away, or buck up and try again?

But as we talked, I realized she was facing a divergence of two paths worthy of Robert Frost. You see, she’s taking both science and humanities classes in her second year at college. At the same time.

In college, I did the same thing for a year and a half. I remember getting A’s in UCLA’s North Campus humanities classes and struggling to get B-‘s and C’s in the South Campus science and math classes. I also remember a 95 on a humanities paper being a straightforward A, while a 30% (what I assumed was an F) on a chem lab could magically become a B+ with the curve. I worked hard in both – maybe harder in the STEM classes – but it felt like the writing was on the wall. When you consistently earn higher marks in one area, maybe that’s a sign, right?  

Now, watching it happen to my niece, I realize it’s not writing on the wall. It’s a matter of assuming that grades at the same university are somehow comparable. They aren’t. I urged my niece not to give up just because STEM teachers are harsh graders, not to take it as a message to ditch those arduous science courses.

I told her she’s not alone, it happened to me and I let it steer me away. But if my anecdotal experience isn’t enough, a new report released yesterday has the numbers to back me up. Here are the dismaying trends from a new study about STEM in America (they polled 55,000 teachers and reached 95 percent of U.S. high schools to generate their data, trends, and projections):

  • There’s incredible STEM attrition. Some kids (thankfully more now than 10 years ago) start out interested in science, engineering, and math, but as they progress through 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grade, kids lose interest – 57 percent of them, in fact.
  • The remaining few who hang on in college (like my niece), well, they drop like flies: 4 out of 5 ditch STEM subjects in college.
  • To make matters worse, in the past two years the STEM gender gap has grown.
  • Finally, while 60 percent of schools have programs that encourage STEM, only 25 percent (of that 60 percent) think they have a program that’s working.

Of course, grading isn’t the only culprit, but I believe it’s part of it – and something I hope schools consider as they improve (Stat!) STEM engagement programs. I’m not saying hand out easy A’s – that’s neither motivating nor inspiring. But many kids, looking for feedback about their career prospects,  may do the same side-by-side comparisons of their grades, feel their STEM interest start to wane, and make erroneous decisions about whether or not to move forward. 

Here’s another take on this situation: Richard Rusczyk, a former Math Olympiad winner and the founder of the online math program “Art of Problem Solving,” advocates changing grading expectations. He’d agree with me about not handing out easy A’s, but he would characterize what happened to me – and almost happened to my niece – as falling prey to the “tyranny of 100%.” His argument is: “It’s supposed to be hard — if you’re getting 98% in a class… it may be too easy.” Read more about Rusczyk’s take and the upside to lower grades in STEM (particularly math) here.  The problem with overcoming the “Tyranny of 100%” is that, right now, if you opt out, you’re on your own. By choosing to struggle and accepting lower marks, you may be forfeit your spot in a prestigious graduate program.

By the way, my niece committed to retaking the course, working hard, and doing better. Then, she got her grade. The final grade, with the curve, was a B.

January 19, 2013

Tutors, tutors everywhere

Fifth grade3


By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

One of my favorite pastimes is picking up on telltale signs of an era or a generation. Like ironically nerdy glasses on hipsters. Or "mom jeans" on young baby boomers.

And I enjoy the generational tics you can’t see, too, like millennials’ need for praise that my friends (yes, we’re Gen X’ers – and we wear our bad-idea tattoos like a badge of honor) like to joke about.

Last month, the New York Times pointed out a new hallmark of Gen Z (aka "Gen Me") that I think is going to stick: tutors as a mainstay of a normal education. When I was in school, I had a tutor to help me learn French – but only because it wasn’t offered at my school and we were moving to Montreal. Otherwise, tutoring wasn’t a common affair. When a kid was failing – or at least falling behind – that’s when tutors were called to the rescue.

Does every child have a tutor now?

Now, though, tutors are much more ubiquitous: every kid seems to have one. And their parents are grateful that the tutors help keep the kids on track and their grades up. I didn’t recognize this as a trend, and then…

Thwap! I read Abby Ellin’s article “Some Tutors Are Shouldering a Wider Load.” 

The article begins with a compelling anecdote about a college freshman at NYU struggling to juggle life in the city, register for classes, get books, and the like. There’s no doubt that period of life is hectic and difficult – and more so for this girl because she’s a student athlete. But her mom’s reaction surprised me: worried that her daughter was foundering, she hired a tutor.

"Ms. Borbridge [the tutor] spent about 30 hours helping Ms. Barnes [the freshman] manage her schedule, pick classes and generally feel more comfortable in her new life," Ellin writes.

But that’s not all; the tutoring persists. "They are in touch daily by phone or e-mail, and work together in person anywhere from 15 to 22 hours a week."

Tutor, or life coach?

In this case – and in many cases, it seems – the tutor isn’t just helping with homework or a specific subject. Instead, it’s ongoing support in all subjects and, "also a source of general life support," Ellin writes.

Ellin quotes Dr. Sandi Ayaz, executive director of the Florida-based National Tutoring Association, who describes the phenomenon a different way: today’s tutors are, "more academic coaches," she says. And these academic coaches start – and may never stop – working with the kids on schoolwork and other things – like life skills.

One mom said it transferred the role of homework nag to an outsider, so she could focus on a more nurturing role for her child. One tutor said he’s like an unofficial counselor.   

In some ways this trend shouldn’t come as a surprise; this generation of kids has become accustomed to helpfully hovering helicopter parents since day one. Still, isn’t a little angst and confusion when you leave home for college a normal part of growing up? Should "Gen Me" be spared even that slight discomfort?

The director of a Manhattan-based tutoring company said that any stigma with tutoring has all but disappeared. That’s wonderful, but should we be worried about the flip side: the prevalence of tutoring as an ongoing practice? Does it make for yet another haves versus have-nots divide in education?

A 19-year-old student quoted in Ellin’s story said she, "never hid the fact that she had a tutor, partly because 'you were lucky if you had one.'"

Is your child lucky enough to have a tutor? Is this a trend you embrace? 

December 18, 2012

What parents should know about the Common Core

Math_by_StuartPilbrow

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By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

Last Spring, I became intimately familiar with the new math and English standards – at least for Kindergarten through 5th grade. Not just because I’m a nerd, which I am, but because GreatSchools was publishing free worksheets for teachers and parents to use, and our COO casually suggested I peg each worksheet to the new standards. Piece of cake! (Famous last words.)

Now, as teachers across the country are getting a taste of the Common Core cake and students will soon be tucking into their daily dose, everyone (including us) is trying to figure out what parents need to learn about the educational standards that may transform their children’s learning. U.S. News & World Report jumped into the fray with a quick-n-dirty little blog highlighting four things parents should know about the standards.  

Four things to know about Common Core Standards

Click through for the write-ups, but here are the four things from the U.S. News blog (with my commentary):

1)      They are consistent from state to state. If your family needs to move from one of the 45 states that have adopted the standards (aka not contrarian Texas, Alaska, Vermont, Virginia, Nebraska, and Minnesota), theoretically your child will enter a class working on the same math skills. Now, that’s often not the case since states follow such different standards.

2)      They dictate what your kids learn, not how the skills are taught. If you think Singapore math is the best thing since sliced bread, you can still look for a school using that system. The standards only say that your second grader must learn to fluently add and subtract up to 20 using mental strategies. But teachers may teach that skill in any way they choose.

3)      They go deeper. “The Common Core gets away from instruction that is a mile wide and an inch deep, and instead drills into skills students need to succeed in college and the workforce,” writes U.S. News blogger Kelsey Sheehy. Honestly, I’ve read this selling point a lot and I’m repeating it here as part of the blog list, but I don’t buy it hook, line, and sinker. Whether instruction “goes deep” is probably far more dependent on the skills and predilections of the teachers – not the standards.  It’s great that the standards attempt to remediate drive-by curriculum by outlining that teachers need to, say, get kids to think critically, but let’s face it, educational depth varies from classroom to classroom and the standards may or may not improve how deep a teacher goes.  

4)      They are rigorous. “Students will take algebra in middle school and precalculus in high school under the new standards,” writes Sheehy. (Pre-calc being the new minimum requirement; presumably good high schools will continue to let kids learn through AP Calc II and beyond.) In many cases the standards introduce more rigor, but not in all cases – such as Massachusetts, which some have argued has higher standards than the Common Core already.  

A few surprising examples from the new Common Core Standards

It’s a nice overview. But as a parent, other than giving you license to move, did it help you understand what’s going to happen in your second grader’s class? That’s what we’ve been struggling with. We aim to help parents get the best possible education for their children. So here are just a few things that surprised me as I poured over the standards last spring:

  • Kindergartners will do a lot of academic things we were never required to do: count to 100 by ones and tens, they’ll also count syllables in spoken words, and be asked to identify the author and illustrator of the books they read.
  • Starting in first grade, kids will be expected to develop digital and technical skills that were never a part of our elementary school education: using “a variety of digital tools to produce and publish writing.”
  • And beginning in second grade, elementary schoolers will not just write a lot, but be expected to do things I never learned until 6th grade, such as revise and edit their writing.

In the ramp up to Common Core there are going to be a lot of people attempting to translate this technical bullet-point-crazy document into parent-friendly information. Sheehy’s blog seems like a pretty good start, but for someone who has spent way too many hours poring over the details of these standards, I wonder how relevant these general ideas about standards are to parents. Did her points address your concerns about the Common Core Standards?  Do you have other more pressing questions?  Do you even care?

As we work on the best way to help parents navigate the new standards (the good, the bad, and the ugly), I’d love to know what you find helpful, informative, and excessive. 

November 30, 2012

This year, should we give girls guns for Christmas?

Sweden_gender_reverse_toy_catalog_girl_gun

By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

Here's a picture from the Swedish version of an international toy company’s catalog. In keeping with Sweden’s focus on gender equality both at work and in society, this catalog is gender-neutral. In the U.S., the toy gun advertisement above would show a boy aiming the gun, not a girl. But this is the Swedish version. (Click through to a Wall Street Journal article to see more pictures from the catalog showing boys styling hair and wielding toy irons.) 

For the catalog's U.S. version, apparently, the same photo set-ups are actually used – but with boys playing with battle toys and girls playing with dolls. And this, my friends, is how we urge innocent kids to accept the pink/blue, girl toy/boy toy world I fear we've created.

If you are the parent of a young girl in the United States, you may sometimes feel you are drowning in a sea of rhinestone tiaras and tulle-and-taffeta cream puff gowns. Even though Disney stopped churning out so-called princess movies at the end of 2010, the pretty-pink-princess craze has lived on. But it wasn’t always so.

I was reminded of just how un-princessy my childhood was as I sorted through the honest and hilarious comments in response to our GreatSchools Holiday Toy Survey.  Of the 500 parents who shared their terrible toy stories and rave reviews, the majority (67%) are Gen-Xers like me. When we grew up, there wasn’t such an exaggerated gender divide as there is today. I wore brown Zips, for goodness sakes, because they were the “fastest” running shoes. And I’m pretty sure my bike was – gasp – blue!  

For our survey, we asked parents which toys they liked as kids – and what toys kids like today. It turns out that many toys are still alive and kickin’, like Legos. Others, like Lite Brite and Speak-n-Spell have been eclipsed by LeapPads and even pricier tablets.

One striking difference the survey results highlight is this generation’s toy-gender divide: superhero worship. As kids, Gen-Xers had a serious passion for superheroes: 57% of now-adult-men loved GI Joe, 28% had a thing for Batman and Robin, and a quarter of men were into the Six Million Dollar Man.

In those days, girls had their own superheroes. Some 42% of now-adult-women adored Wonder Woman, 25% liked the Bionic Woman, and 19% were into Superman and/or Superwoman. (For me, no outfit was complete without my Wonder Woman Underoos.) Now, it’s different.

Sifting through our toy survey results, I was sad to see that nowadays, while young boys are still passionate about superheroes (particularly Spiderman, followed by Batman and Robin and the Power Rangers), girls are not. In our survey, no superhero garnered even 20% support among girls, and a mere 16% of girls like Spidey (compared to 54% of boys).   

My first reaction when I saw the data was dismay. Did princesses primly push superheroes out of our daughters’ worlds, replacing power with all things pink? Thankfully, no. In fact, princesses aren't as universally popular among girls as you might think. Our survey results show princesses enrapture only 10% of 4- to 12-year old girls (which is only slightly more than the 7% of girls who still worship Wonder Woman and her truth-telling lasso).

I’ll take that good omen for now. Next year, though, I’d love to see the gender-neutral version of toy catalogs in American mailboxes. Wouldn’t you?

(For more on our toy survey, see how families celebrate the holidays and best, worst, and most popular toys.)



November 26, 2012

9-year-old girl outruns the boys, takes hits, and shines in football reel

I don’t love football, but I do love this football video!

Even next to her adorably pee-wee-sized opponents, Samantha “Sweet Feet” Gordon looks faster than a speeding bullet. Cute! Then, you see her take a couple hits. Bam! Ooh. Ouch.

Samantha Gordon of Utah also plays soccer, but she decided to try out for her brother’s football team after acing a few speed drills. Then, her dad put her reel up on YouTube… and the rest is cyber history in the making. Wheaties honored her with a cereal box (not for sale, sadly, at least not yet!) – and she’s the first female football star to earn this honor. Check out her adorable response on ESPN’s Sports Center

She’s now also my favorite football star – ever. (Joe M., I trust you’ll understand.)

October 31, 2012

New study finds unexpected key to helping bullied girls

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By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

One of the many heartbreaking moments in the documentary Bully was when Alex – after enduring endless torment on the bus and in the halls at school – comes home to his parents (who I’m sure wanted to help but didn’t know how) almost mocking him for being bullied.

Middle childhood (think 10 years old) is a critical stage in a child’s identity development. On the downside, mental disorders and psychological issues often emerge around this age. On the upside, research has identified “protective factors” that can boost a 10-year-old's emotional well-being and healthy development – including your child’s relationship with… you!

So reports a new study published this month in the Journal of Happiness Studies. Researchers set out to better understand the effects of bullying in 10-year-olds. Building on previous research that shows bullying can lead to increased anxiety and symptoms of depression, this study found a four-way interaction between bullying, gender (girls), relationships with adults, and friendship with peers: “victimization [is] particularly strongly associated with low life satisfaction, low self-esteem, and high depressive symptoms for girls with low self-reports of peer and adult connectedness,” write the five co-authors of the article “A Population Study of Victimization, Relationships, and Well-Being in Middle Childhood.”

Bullying rates among 10-year-olds

The researchers found that about half the kids reported at least one instance of bullying in the past year. About 1 in 7 girls and about 1 in 6 boys – all 10-year-olds – report being bullied several times per week. For girls, bullying primarily took the form of social victimization, followed closely by verbal abuse, then physical abuse, with far fewer instances of cyberbullying. For boys, social and verbal victimization were the most prevalent, followed by physical abuse, with far fewer reports of cyberbullying. These findings are concerning for many reasons – not the least of which is the association between being bullied and developing low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and low levels of life satisfaction.

However, this study – featured in a journal devoted to Happiness Studies breaks ground by finding an association between “protective factors” and mitigating the effects of bullying. “Some of the most powerful factors are of social nature:  Positive social relationships with adults and peers are strongly associated with children’s resilience, well-being, health, and competence,” the researchers write. They warn that protective factors don’t necessarily counteract the negative effects of being bullied, but the evidence shows that – especially for girls – social support from adults and peers may buffer them. Unfortunately, this moderating effect wasn’t found for boys, so further research is needed to determine what may have a buffering affect for boys.

How you can buffer the effects of bullying

So what’s in this secret sauce to create a connection between you and your 10-year-old? Among the questions the 10-year-olds answered: “Does a parent or some other grown-up at home listen when you have something to say?” “Does a parent or some other grown-up at home believe that you can do a good job?” “Does a parent or some other grown-up at home want you to do your best?” Even if the study doesn’t prove these parental efforts are equally effective for boys, I can’t help but think that Alex would have benefitted, in a large or small way, if he'd been able to answer, Yes, Yes, and Yes. 

October 11, 2012

Electioneering at your kitchen table: what are you teaching the kids?

By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

Raise your hand if you can explain the electoral college to your curious 7-year-old.

We tried this at our GreatSchools laboratory (aka on our own children at home) and quickly figured out how tough it was.  

How do you teach your kids about something you don’t understand all that well yourself? That’s where we aimed to help. Keeping in mind that we want kids to be engaged, not glazed, we envision great fun and election education all wrapped up in a series of activities that would work for a range of kids (and might even teach us grown ups a thing or two.)

A virtual scavenger hunt!

Back at the drawing board, we mapped a plan to create something fun and useful.  Entertaining and educational.

Here’s what we did:

  • Because kids think paperwork is fascinating and fun, we let them register to vote.
  • Because there really are words your child needs to learn, we made a fill-in-the-blanks story.
  • Because we think all kids should think about being president if that’s their dream, we have silly speech-writing, creative poster-making, and inspirational White House design activities.

And because the best way to understand something is to do it yourself, we include a ballot so your child can vote.

How you use these materials is up to you. But try the activities with your child, share them with your child’s teacher, and tell us whether you think we helped turn your curious grade schooler into a well-informed, thoughtful, future voter. 

Download the election booklet here or see it here.

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September 26, 2012

She was picked as a joke – but the joke’s on them

Tiara_Robynlou8_picPhoto by Robynlou8

By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

No matter how (un)popular you were in high school, Whitney Kropp’s story hits home.

Imagine this: she’s sitting in math class as the homecoming court is announced over the PA system. She’s surprised – and thrilled - when she hears her name in the homecoming line up.

"She's just sweet. She doesn't have a mean bone in her body," Whitney’s mom, Bernice Kropp, told The Detroit News (as reported in a wonderful article, “Town turns tables on school prank”).

But the surprise quickly turned into a nightmare: it turns out that Whitney was picked as a joke. The 16-year-old found out, via Facebook and word of mouth, that “popular” kids put her name in the running as a prank. Hysterical:  an unpopular girl in the homecoming court! Right?

Wrong. But what makes this act of bullying different is that it wasn’t hushed up or ignored. Covering up incidents of bullying ostensibly protects the victim, but it can also send the message that the bullying target is somehow at fault; it also lets the bullies off the hook.  But that’s not what happened in this case. Instead, Whitney’s sister told her friends, who told their parents, who told their friends, The Detroit News reported.

Word spread and people rallied around Whitney in support. Someone created a Facebook page in support of Whitney, and it has more likes than the rural Michigan town has residents. Local business owners are donating their specialties so Whitney will have her hair and nails done, new shoes and a gown, a nice dinner, and even a tiara to wear. But it doesn’t stop there: Friday night’s game promises to be packed with residents wearing orange “Team Whitney” t-shirts.

The overwhelming support is heartwarming, and the outright rejection of 1980s John Hughes-esque high school meanness is inspiring. I love how this town has turned the tables on these small-minded bullies; this kind of community support is what could finally put an end to bullying once and for all.

Do you think this could happen in your town?

Read the article here and support Whitney on Facebook here.

Want more tools to combat bullying? Read our articles:

September 05, 2012

Study maybe?

By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

Okay, okay, maybe you’re a little sick of “Call Me Maybe” parodies. After all, everyone from President Obama (disclosure: the President did not make this video) to the U.S. Olympic Swim Team and the Harvard baseball team have entertaining takes on Carly Rae Jepson’s hit. But I love this version, called “Study Maybe,” by teachers at a Florida high school taking a break as they ramp up for the new school year. Here are three reasons why it’s so great:

1)      These teachers really parodied the song (trust teachers to stay true to the definition of parody) – adding their own revised lyrics. The new chorus is, “But I’m your teacher, so study maybe,” followed by gems such as “When I push you, you may hate me,” and “It’s hard to pass class when you’re lazy.”

2)      Studying is a tough topic. It’s boring and, as parents know too well, it’s hard to talk about without nagging or lecturing, much less sing about. This video takes a fresh look at the topic and makes it funny (Just look at those teachers dance!) and catchy; it provides an entrée into a conversation that parents need to have with their kids now and all year long. If you can make this conversation fun now, maybe you can change your household’s tune about studying throughout the school year.

3)      Seriously, the teachers sing and dance!

See what you think…

Can’t see the video? You can also watch it on YouTube.

August 30, 2012

Confession of a crammer

By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

Cramming was the secret to my school success, the bread and butter of my academic career, one of the few things I did really well from a young age. I would study and do my homework, of course, but the lion’s share of my effort was always the night before. Was sleep sacrificed? Oh, yes. But I was a firm believer in the power of sleep banking: I always made up for my lost zzz’s on the weekends.

So there's a bit of payback in the news released by my alma mater this week: research findings that show my study methods were total hooey based on rationalization, not reason. In fact, if I’m anything like the kids in a new study called “To Study or to Sleep? The Academic Costs of Extra Studying at the Expense of Sleep” by UCLA researchers (published in Child Development), then my last minute, stay-up-all-night approach to studying probably created more academic problems than it solved.

For the study, researchers asked 9th, 10th, and 12th graders to complete daily diaries for two weeks documenting their study time, sleep time, and academic functioning, and the results were clear: sacrificing sleep for study time takes a toll on learning and academic performance.

But if you’re raising a hard-working, college-bound student, it can be hard to get her to close the books and go to sleep. (Just ask my mom.) The struggle over sleep goes on in households across America – and a new school year is the perfect time to instill new habits. So here’s a little wisdom to back you up next time you want your tween or teen to turn out the lights (all quotes are from the UCLA study).

Study time is likely controlling your child’s sleep time

“Study time is one of the most significant determinants of high school students’ sleep time, more so than time spent with friends or family or time spent using media.” Sharing this info may backfire when you’re trying to limit screen time, but I’ll bet this nugget sticks with your child.

Staying up to study may be hurting, not helping

“Thus, our results suggest that regardless of whether or not students had a test, study time became increasingly associated with academic problems such that, by 10th grade, nights with longer than average study times tended to be followed by days with more academic problems.”

The 8 hour a night myth (Hint: 8 hours isn't enough)

“In high school, sacrificing sleep to study may be especially problematic because, in general, high school age adolescents are chronically sleep deprived… the vast majority of high school students (62%) get insufficient sleep… In 9th grade, the average adolescent sleeps for 7.6 hr per night, and this time decreases to 7.3 hr in 10th grade, 7.0 hr in 11th grade, and 6.9 hr in 12th grade” So it’s building over time – and wreaking havoc on your child’s learning abilities. Part of the problem is the amount of sleep kids need is constantly misstated (check out the chart below). According to the National Sleep Foundation, 8 hours may not even be enough for adults – and it’s definitely not enough for a school-aged child.

How_much_sleep

As for my sleep banking theory, the researchers make it clear that it doesn't work:, “other studies have demonstrated that even beyond total amounts of sleep, irregular sleep schedules are associated with lower academic performance.”

Time management to the rescue

So what’s the answer?  If there are too many demands on your high schoolers' time, don’t let it affect their sleep, researchers say. Instead, encourage your child find ways to use school time more effectively, watch less TV, and take a hard look at extracurriculars.

And when it comes to studying for a test, students should do a consistent, manageable amount of studying every night and then go to bed at a reasonable hour. “In and of itself, this is a generally effective study strategy—experimental research has demonstrated that spacing study time evenly across a number of days results in better academic performance than studying in one massed session, even if the total amount of study time is the same.”  

In other words: no cramming!

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