All posts by donna burke esgro

The Goal of True Education


“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.


From the time we first encourage a toddler to share his toys we begin the process of building social emotional skills. In truth, it begins before that-with the first touch, the first eye contact, the first whispered words…building intelligence and character begins at birth and follows us to our last day on earth.

Education is not just about schooling-but as children spend most of their time at school from an early age, school is a vital part of their foundation. The task is: How do we, as educators, create schools that teach children to think intensively and critically-schools that build character?

I believe it begins with respect. When we respect the child and, at the same time, model respect for others, including the immediate and extended environment, we create an atmosphere of love and trust. We must not forget to respect ourselves, as well-use our time wisely and live healthily, both in body and mind. It follows that if adults eat junk food and watch junk television children will see this as the ideal.

A focus on testing rather than true understanding of materials is detrimental to thinking critically as it programs a child to memorize, repeat, and forget. In order to foster an ability to think intensively, subjects cannot be taught superficially. Teachers would be better served to delve deeply into less subject matter, rather than race to complete an established and expected curriculum.

I know children who have gotten A+’s on their Native American unit in fourth grade without a clue as to what the Dakota Pipeline Access is all about. We must make our teaching relevant!

As a society, it is important that we place a high value on education and strive for an elevated quality at every grade level. Our modern schools have not changed much since the Industrial Revolution, although our society is changing more and more rapidly. Our children will inhabit a world that we cannot entirely imagine. It is, therefore, of extreme urgency that we nurture creativity and innovative thinking. But creativity without compassion is a hallow achievement.

Experts in the field of human development tell us that empathy is a wired emotion, part of our instinct for societal survival. Yet why is there such an arc of empathy in any one particular classroom? Although certain emotions are part of our DNA, these emotions have a plasticity that is subject to changes that are environmentally dependent – in the same way that a child with a high IQ is not necessarily going to do well in school or beyond. Compassion, like any instinct, such as the ability to walk and talk, must be practiced, refined, and nurtured.

I liken it to a seed with the potential of becoming a tree. The seed will not reach its limbs to the sky, its roots will not dig deep into the earth, branches and bark will not become home for hundreds of creatures, the tree will never bless us with its life giving oxygen, if the rain and the sun and the fertile ground are not present. We must be all of that for our children, not just as parents and professional educators, but as a society. We must embrace all children as our own.

Let’s go back to the teacher explaining to the toddler that she should share her toys. A situation faced millions of times a day in every school throughout the world. How does the teacher communicate to the child? Does she explain that the other child is sad? Does she use a gentle and caring manner that reflects compassion for both sides of the argument? A child cannot develop empathy if the child does not have an understanding of how others feel.

I have seen, in the classroom, how compassion fosters compassion. Yet, it is not enough to teach our children to feel. Just like the toddler unselfishly handing over her toy, we all need to take action on our feelings. By taking personal responsibility we show our children that it is possible to make changes, both small and large.

When we develop a caring attitude about each other we listen, and in this listening we begin to see the world through prisms other than our own. This is the key to true understanding-the kind of understanding that grows as the child grows, developing not only deeper cognitive abilities but the kind of benevolent character traits that will be essential for the survival of our planet.

The Adaptation of Children’s Literature

“Words are a net to catch beauty.”

Tennessee Williams


Publishers who abridge, adapt, and condense children’s literature use the classics as a commodity. Although the expressed intention is to introduce these writings to a younger audience, this is not a enterprise done with love of prose in mind. These summarized novels are more like CliffNotes in terms of their inability to bring depth and understanding of the original works to children.

I was working with a fifth grader this holiday season and suggested that she read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. She pulled a paperback down from her shelf and told me, listlessly, that she had already read it.  I glanced at the book and saw that it was an abridged version.

A Christmas Carol is a novella, short in length, but opulent in sensual imagery and fervid emotions. Books, unlike films, do not need to fit into certain time frames which necessitate condensing. The only reason, then, to abridge the work is to “dumb it down” so that the young reader has less work to do to get through what often is fancifully arcane and luxurious language.

But, isn’t that one of the gifts of reading the classics? To allow words to transport us, to give us the sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes of exotic places and to teach us, through this process, that human needs, fears, passions, cruelties, jealousies, hypocrisies, insecurities, and reckless braveries have always and will always be a part of the elegant tapestry that makes us human.

By reading only the adapted version of A Christmas Carol, my young friend missed such stunning passages as:

“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling, “Tell me why?”

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

Instead reading:

“You are tied in chains, tell me why.” “I am a prisoner of the chain I made for myself during my life. I chose to wear it.”

I don’t blame any child for not being impressed with such insipid language. I suppose ”fettered” and “forged” are considered to be too archaic? The lyrical rhythm of the language, the repetitions that bring the readers’ attention to the importance of the ghost’s statement, have disappeared in the effort to be economical and simplistic with words.

Our children are more capable than they are often given credit for. A fifth grader should be able to read Charles Dickens without it being predigested for her.

Begin the process of introducing the sometimes odd, yet lovely language in classic children’s literature to your child when he is too young to read the originals himself. Resist the colorful Disney paperbacks of Winnie the Pooh or the Fairy Tales and instead read A.A. Milne and Hans Christian Andersen. Trust that your child will listen, and in this listening, not only become enchanted, but begin to build an understanding of the unique experience that reading can be.

A Christmas Carol was written almost 200 years ago, yet the story, because it is based on essential truths, is immortal. Don’t be a part of the wrong thinking that believes that the rewriting of the classics for easy consumption is a gentle introduction.

These works are a precious legacy from a passionate group of writers. Each carefully chosen word should be valued and respected.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) said about his writing,

“I tried to discover, in the rumor of forests and waves, words that other men could not hear, and I pricked up my ears to listen to the revelation of their harmony.”

And Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) stated:

“Words are a net to catch beauty.”

Every word in a classic book, whether it be War and Peace or  The Little Prince, is vital. You might as well take the “excess notes” out of Mozart, Bach, or Vivaldi to make the melodies easier to follow.

We live in an age of sound bites and texts. It is healthy to balance this diet with something that demands an exacting focus. Better to read less dense classics such as as Charlotte’s Web or Charlie and The Chocolate Factory unabridged than to give your child an abridged version of Treasure Island, Peter Pan, or The Secret Garden.

Reading more difficult text builds both critical thinking (which stems from analyzing, predicting, and imagining) and self esteem (which builds as the child succeeds at tasks that at first seems arduous). When your child feels an eagerness to get back to the characters in a book and a vague sadness when the story has ended, that’s when you know that the bridge between learning to read and becoming a reader has been crossed.

If your child begins to read a classic and then discards it as being too hard, please help her manage, as you once held the back of her bicycle when she went from training wheels to two wheels. Read aloud to her. You may only need to read the first few chapters before she is pedaling on her own.

In the chaos that our modern life so often is, there is nothing more meditative than learning to turn to a book to remind you that although turmoil has always existed, so has abundant spiritual generosity and unbounded love.


May Our New Year Shine Gloriously Bright with Hope.

Happily Ever After – The Role of Fairy Tales in the Young Child’s Life



Unicorns do not exist

They only think they do

Unicorns do not exist

They’ve better things to do


Watching the intensity with which children pretend to be Belle, Ariel, Elsa, Batman, or a Jedi Knight, I am struck by the vital importance of this kind of play in the child’s understanding of who he is and who he aspires to be.

When a child creates scenarios based on her belief of how a heroic character would act under certain circumstances, she engages in fundamental questions about the meaning of life. What looks like the simple wearing of a blue sparkling dress is really a ceremonial act with roots in ancient rites of storytelling and mythology.

Because a child’s thinking is animistic, he readily believes that a beast can turn into a prince, that wind can speak, or that creatures such as mermaids exist. Children see the world subjectively. Until they are able to understand the complexities of life in a more objective manner it is not only counter productive, but harmful to the psyche to point out that such things as dragons, unicorns, or fairies are not real. Fairy tales speak directly to the child’s subconscious which intuits the hidden truths inherent in the stories. Explaining that these tales are imaginary, as some well meaning adults are wont to do, only makes the child distrustful of his own inner voice that so vibrantly tells him that these lovely creatures are real. It robs the child of the solace of believing that with a valiant heart, even the very small and weak can overcome the big and powerful. Fairy tales provide a secure foundation that will only later be understood as metaphor. Dorothy melting the Witch, and Jack outwitting the Giant become over time solid beliefs that evil can be vanquished by good.

The hero in any fairy tale begins as an innocent, thrust into a position in which she must face grave dangers. With courage and honorable deeds, she wins out over all obstacles and lives happily ever after.

Fairy tales acknowledge what the child instinctively knows to be true. Bad thing exist, and sometimes he will make bad choices himself, be unkind, greedy, jealous, lazy, or go down the wrong path – the dark one, full of monsters. Fairy tales are profoundly moral stories that emphasize the power of honor, courage, humility, generosity and love. That reassure the child that mistakes and missteps will ultimately be of no consequence and happiness will prevail if the heart is pure.

A child feels empathy for the archetypal character who is at the mercy of unkind fortune, who is the youngest, the one often thought of as a simpleton, or with the least strength, because this is often how he perceives himself. The magic of the fairy tale is not in the dragons and castles, but in the idea that an ordinary boy or girl can be transformed into a hero.

In the classic fairytale being abandoned, lost, orphaned, or forced by fate to leave one’s home represent the inevitability of having to grow up. The symbolism of life’s journey resonates with the child’s realization of what her future will contain. The hero must preform a series of tasks or tests to prove herself – often with the help of seemingly ordinary creatures who bestow invincible totems as rewards for such simple gestures as kindness or politeness. The boy or girl acts solely out of sympathy and in turn is given an item that is invaluable in performing an otherwise impossible mission. This motif tells the child what she already perceives to be true – that growing up will not be easy, will not happen all at once, is full of wonder and mystery, and requires great fortitude.

Fairytales may seem outdated, irrelevant, or even too scary to a modern day parent. But it is important not to apply adult sensitivities to these stories which acknowledge, and pacify natural fears that the young child grapples with daily. If a fairytale truly alarms you, then choose another, there are hundreds of them from all over the world. But trust that these classic plots, which are repeated throughout all cultures, have very good reasons to have lasted for thousands of years.

Fairytales can be disturbing, but never in any one of them have I been so horrified as I was at this recent attempt of the NRA to use these stories to indoctrinate our youngest…

Fairytales celebrate the true, the honest, the kind, the trustworthy, and the virtuous . They offer hope and redemption. This twisted idea from the NRA of what strength and courage is corrupts the very meaning and purpose of the fairytale.

Although Disney has become the modern cantadora of fairytales, don’t leave this rite of passage entirely to a giant corporation whose singular interpretation is marketed and templated. Read to your children, let their imaginations soar, and you will be holding hands across generation after generation of parents and grandparents who have participated together in this mystically beautiful and ancient tradition.

Believing in the possibility of happy ever after achieved by goodness of heart and nobility of spirit at once brings a sense of order, power over wickedness and inspiration on how to live to the child.


I wanted Yoda to be the traditional kind of character you find in fairy tales and mythology. One of the basic motifs in fairy tales is that you find the poor and unfortunate along the side of the road, and when they beg for help, if you give it to them, you end up succeeding. If you don’t give it to them, you end up being turned into a frog or something. It’s something that’s been around for thousands of years, a concept that’s been around for thousands of years. -George Lucas






Where Environmentalism Begins


Clockwise:  Michael, Donna, and Laura Esgro                                                    ©donnaesgro


Do we want our children to care about protecting the planet earth? Then, we must make sure that they are in awe of its myriad wonders. It can be as simple as taking your child outside to star gaze – as singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. This humble song has raised children’s awareness of the preciousness of the night sky more than all the warnings of what pollution is doing to the visibility of the heavens…because it is about love. It is about loving the stars, especially one little star among all the rest. This is how we learn compassion. Children look to us for guidance in all things, small and in this case infinite. To tell a child who has never pondered a sparkling sky that if we don’t reuse and recycle we will one day be unable to see the stars has no meaning. To tell a child who has no knowledge of sea horses, of anemones or tide pools, who has never heard the songs of dolphins and whales that we are poisoning our oceans, is an empty threat that cannot be understood with the senses and so, will have no meaning.

We can site statistics about the vital importance of preserving our forests, but can a child understand why? Not unless the joy of trees is in his consciousness-until he has climbed onto a fragrant low hanging branch, watched a bird arduously building its nest, or day dreamed in the dappled light of a leafy dome will he understand viscerally the vital link between a tree and himself. A tree might as well be playground equipment if there is no emotional or spiritual connection.

It is difficult for young children to think abstractly. This is why stories, either from books or experience, “Your grandmother was a brave gypsy who wore scarves threaded with gold…” resonate in ways that facts never can. I know that I love the ocean because my mother swam in it all the while I was in her womb.

Sometimes knowledge is first hand, tiny fingers touching a spiny sea star, but often it cannot be. This is where books can fill the gap -opening up the awareness that is necessary in order for a child to treasure his environment.

As a young girl I read The Secret Garden over and over. Oh, how I longed for a garden of my own! A place where I could grow vines of snap peas and pick flowers to wear in my hair. Books like this helped shaped my image of who I was and who I aspired to be.


Over 100 million marine animals are killed each year due to plastic debris.

How does a child understand the dire weight of this information? Does she know about the majestic sea turtles who eat plastic bags thinking that they are jelly fish and die? To be told that it is a good idea to reuse shopping bags is one thing, but to be aware of the plight of the sea turtle is an other.

Silent Killers – YouTube

We can hear about natural disasters, floods, famines, but finally, it is the faces of the victims that make us understand the depths of their suffering. Our hearts must ache with sorrow or joy before our heads can understand. So, go outside with your child often and show reverence for all living things. Read books that celebrate the exquisite magic of our fragile planet.

“Everything you can imagine is real.” Picasso

Imagine a world that works as one to save itself, from global warming to the horrors of war. Imagine clean oceans and skies, respect for all creatures, and the power of love. Show your children the glory of this blue marble cast into the infinite that we are blessed to inhabit. Plant a sunflower, build a sand castle, listen for crickets on a summer evening, look for spider webs after a rain… Show them your joy in the bounteous gifts that surround us, and you will inspire them to care.



Reading is Cool




“When I read Rimbaud’s works, the bells went off.” Bob Dylan


Reading is not something that can be measured by a standardized test. Reading is unique, it is universal, and it is cool. Ask Jack Kerouac, if you don’t believe me. From William Blake to Sherman Alexie – It is very hip to be literary.

In her memoir, Just Kids, the iconic rock star Patti Smith speaks fondly of her love of old book stores and states that the 19th Century classical poets Rimbaud and Baudelaire have been keen sources of inspiration in her work.

Bob Dylan, vagabond of cool, was influenced in his writing by such philosophers of literature as Ferlinghetti and Bertolt Brecht.

The 80 year old Dalai Lama, scholar of Buddhist scripture, and Noble Peace Prize recipient, is globally recognized as having a “cool factor”. This highly erudite man can recite arcane Buddhist texts from memory.

Writer, musician, actor, performance artist, painter, and Renaissance Man, David Bowie, was frequently found browsing the famous New York book stores McNally Jackson and The Strand. Bowie felt so passionately about reading that he posted 100 of his favorite books on his website. The list includes such literary works as Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and Juno Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

 The original rebel without a cause, James Dean, the young man that made motorcycle jackets the uniform of cool, was an avid reader. Knowing how much he loved Antoine De Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, a close friend chose a quote from the book, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” for Dean’s memorial plaque near the scene of his tragic automobile crash.

images-1 copy

©Dennis Stock/Magnum Photos

In Cyrano de Bergerac, the beautiful Rosalind falls in love with the poet, not the handsome pretender – that is the tragedy and truth of this wondrous play. Being well read makes you attractive, interesting, and desirable to the opposite sex. Pretty Cool!


A reader is an explorer, a seeker, a visionary. One on a quest for something deeper, truer, stronger and more meaningful than what modern culture can offer. Readers are not content with status quo. This makes them defacto non conformists-quintessentially cool. They do not measure truth by what is currently popular. Readers are curious, passionate people with hearts full of wonder. They have discovered that books are passageways.

When teenagers are asked “What is cool?” One character trait comes up consistently:


Throughout history an important theme in literature, whether for children or adults, is the importance of standing up for what you believe in, even when you stand alone.

The Oxford dictionary defines “radical” as “essential and fundamental”, Malala Yousatzai, the young radical who wrote I am Malala, one of the coolest young women in the world, speaks out in her autobiography about how she risked her life for the right of every one to be allowed an education, no matter what sex they are born into.

Role models do not necessarily have to be living. Characters, whether in fairy tales or novels (see previous post on To Kill a Mockingbird) have the ability to help people make transformative decisions; have the power to remind us to treat one another with empathy, decency, and without exploitation.

When reading to a child about characters who are strong and honorable, who courageously choose good over evil, who forge their own path and are triumphant, we offer a compass with which to navigate. The enhanced empathy that early readers acquire helps make them leaders, not followers, as they mature. Good books can teach us to be more compassionate and humane, can encourage us to fight for a kinder, wiser world- that is cool.

Even those with aware, informed, open minded, and educated families cannot possibly be exposed to all the ideas and ways of seeing that books can offer. Books are the ultimate autodidactic key to knowledge. In many dystopian novels, the banning of printed material is both a symbol and a warning of not only the loss of freedom, but a certain kind of imprisonment without bars – the imprisonment of only being allowed to think what those in charge allow you to think. To be illiterate is to be suppressed, as Mahala knew well.

“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451

Only thorough education, through knowledge (and this is attainable not only through formal schooling – but through the vast stores of historical material both fiction and nonfiction available to all of us in free countries) do we gain the power to accept or reject the status quo, do we gain the strength that allows us to make important changes in this world. Reading is a right and a privilege, and should not be taken lightly. Teachers have an obligation to let their students in on the value of this precious resource, and not to let the loud circus of modern technology drown out the power of a book’s soft whisper in the darkness.

Two junior high school teachers, who with a little creativity, succeeded in getting their students excited about reading:

Read about more teachers who care in David Denby’s Lit Up:

Books (the old fashioned paper kind) are almost the only activity left that doesn’t require technology or specialized equipment. They are also one of the only places you can escape to in which you not only don’t have to spend any money, but won’t be bombarded with advertisements for things you can’t possibly live without.

In a world obsessed with speed, in which people are more often treated as consumers than not, reading requires that you sit down and slow down and it has nothing to sell. Become reflective. Choose your companion for the night, whether it be Holden Caufield, Titania- Queen of Fairies, or Charlotte the spider.

Reading opens up our hearts and minds. We fall in love with characters because of how they think and how they feel, not because of how they look or what they wear. Books express universal feelings, and yet are deeply personal-no one imagines the same pictures when they read. At a time when we are most lonely, books remind us that we are not alone. They teach humbleness, authenticity, connectiveness, and encourage us to dream – all very, very cool traits.


You can never in a lifetime read all the books you want to read. But if you’d like some of the “coolest” to start with, here you go: A link to the 100 best books for children chosen by the NY Public Library:




 “If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Can Harper Lee Rest In Peace?

art scan001-2

drawing courtesy of Lucy Raymond, age six


“Remember, it is a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Atticus Finch – To Kill a Mockingbird

In memory of Harper Lee   1926 – 2016


To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic, a novel of profound significance to millions of people all over the world. Just beneath the surface of the dappled watercolor and heady magnolia scented streets, the gentile Southern hospitality and firefly nights, lies hatred, violence, cruelty, and hypocrisy. Through the painstaking writing and rewriting that produces a work of genius, Harper Lee created characters that reflect both how glorious and depraved humanity can be. She gave us Atticus Finch, the gentle and dignified hero who acts courageously on his deep beliefs of justice, shining a piercing light of truth through the dark labyrinth that was the moral norm of 1930’s Alabama.

Go Set a Watchman, the first draft of what later became To Kill a Mockingbird, reincarnates Atticus into a despicable bigot, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” Painful words to read coming from any character’s lips, but from the man who has become a symbol of the redeeming power of compassion in the human heart, it is wrenching.

Atticus Finch, who, in Mockingbird, inspired millions to recognize the sacred nature of honor was originally drafted as a self righteous, hate filled racist. It was only because the author was encouraged by her brilliant editor, Tay Hohoff, to rethink the novel, take a different slant and go back twenty years in time, that Atticus, who had originally represented all that was evil in the repugnant segregation of southern culture, was elevated into the man who reminds us that our souls are noble, a legendary character that belongs to the elite legion of heroes of modern mythology.

 If this novel truly was a sequel, if Harper Lee had spent years perfecting it into a well written novel, if she had a compelling message to tell, a reason to take Atticus off of his pedestal, a believable evolution, and if she was of sound mind when making the decision to publish, then that is to be respected. But, from the start, the release and grandiose promotion of this first draft, the continual reference to it as a “Sequel” or “New Novel by Harper Lee”, has been suspect.

 Joe Nocera, journalist for the NY Times, in an article entitled Harper Lee The ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Fraud (7/24/15) stated that “Go Set a Watchman constitutes one of the epic money grabs in the modern history of American publishing.” Harper Lee was almost 90 years old, a stroke victim, wheel chair bound, living in a nursing home, hard of hearing, nearly blind, and with extremely limited short term memory, when her first draft was “discovered” by her new lawyer, Tonja B. Carter, not long after the death of the previous gate keeper of Harper’s estate, her sister Alice Lee, also an attorney. The senior vice president at Harper Collins said that the publishing company had never spoken to Ms. Lee about the second manuscript and that all negotiations were made through her agent and recently hired lawyer.


One winter after having worked arduously for over two years on rewrites of what would become Mockingbird,  Harper Lee became so frustrated and enraged with her inability to get what she wanted on paper that she threw the manuscript out of her apartment window into the snow. It was only because she called her friend and editor Tay in tears, who insisted Harper rescue the damp pages immediately, that the tedious work of all those months and meetings was saved. Does this seem like the action of someone who would want the public to read an early, rejected, draft of her work?

Harper Lee had many vital years in which both her publishers and the public begged her for more material. All the while her first draft was in her files, yet she declined to publish it.  She polished To Kill a Mockingbird until we could see ourselves in its’ mirror. This is what she set out to do and this is what she won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, The National Medal of Arts, and the Pulitzer Prize for. What better legacy could an author wish for?

 Trying to cash in on Harper Lee’s fame (Go Set a Watchman sold over one million copies the first week it was available to the public) by publishing a discarded early draft after the author became infirm, lost her sister’s protection, and was less likely to resist, is shameful in and of itself, but when it ruthlessly destroys the memory of a character that has imbued hope in generations of hearts, it is a betrayal of the very integrity that the novel stand for and is, indeed, a sin.


“To Kill a Mockingbird represents a sense of emerging humanism and decency”

Andrew Young, former United Nations ambassador, veteran of the civil rights movement, and colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr.


To Kill a Mockingbird has been translated into 40 languages, has sold over 30 million copies, and has been a vital part of middle and high school English classes the world over for over fifty years.



The Power of “I Don’t Know”

photo (1)



It is difficult not to idealize our children, and in fact, unconditional love promotes security and self esteem. We believe that our child will move mountains. But expecting too much from children can be unrealistic and detrimental. When we proudly display only A+ papers and gush over accomplishments, we set our child on a pedestal, a lonely and uncomfortable perch. Our love becomes conditional in the child’s mind and she believes that she will not be valued unless she consistently performs well.

Expecting to see disappointment in a parent’s face at a less than stellar grade, a child may feel shame and try to hide what he perceives to be a failure by making excuses, “It was the teacher’s fault.” “The room was too noisy.” “The boy next to me was talking.” The wish to bask in the limelight of being superior is tempting. Awards bolster this position and second or third place becomes not good enough. This begins, in the young student, a process of over functioning – dysfunctioning by another name.

An extolled child is not allowed to be forgetful, messy or dreamy. Being gifted carries the weight of the gift. Adults ask what the child wants to be when he grows up and act less than satisfied if the answer isn’t in the PhD range. After a time a child will internalize this search for the Holy Grail of Harvard, and self doubt will grow as he wonders, as anyone might, if he is up to the task, and if not, is he still special?

It is difficult for a child labeled as exceptional to say “I don’t know.” yet this simple sentence is a powerful knock on the door of knowledge. Saying “I don’t know.” allows the child to take off the genius mask and just be herself. It gives her room to realize her own limitations, to accept having them, and to gain self-respect by bounding beyond them. “I don’t know.” is one of the most intelligent sentences anyone can utter. It drives scientific discovery, exploration, innovation, insight, and creativity.

“I am always doing what I cannot do, in order to learn how to do it.” Pablo Picasso

No one likes a “know it all” because we sense how false this stance is, how ego driven. Admitting our ignorance of a particular subject makes us vulnerable, in the best of ways. It opens us up to ideas, new ways of seeing, epiphanies! and it takes courage. Thinking one “knows already” can lead to a shutting out of other’s opinions – a form of narrow mindedness and prejudice that is unhealthy, unadvised, and not something we wish to instill in our children.

“The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.” Leonardo da Vinci

When children ask questions it shows that they are listening and thinking. It is important to take every question seriously, even if it seems silly. In doing so we show by our attitude that not knowing, and seeking out answers, is as honorable as any gold plated trophy. As tempting as it is to Google answers to inquiries, use curiosity to instill a respect and appreciation of books. Let questions lead directly to the local library, where, whatever the subject, from worms to shooting stars, dozens of books are available to take home. Let your children know that you don’t judge intelligence by grades, that a lower score is not a stigma but an opportunity, and an important part of how everyone learns. It is how one handles mistakes that defines one, not the errors themselves.

“…if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.” Neil Gaiman

Knowledge is not only a cognitive pursuit. It is an emotional and spiritual one as well, that thrives in an atmosphere of freedom. Your child may well be bright, but let him embrace enigmatical darkness, it is often by candlelight that the most profound truths are revealed.

(Big) Barbie is Watching You



“Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull.”  

George Orwell – 1984


WATCH (World Against Toys Causing Harm), a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, recently released its “Ten Worst Toys for 2015” list:

1. Bud Skipit’s Wheely Cute Pull Along – Potential for choking injuries

2. Jiefeng Foam Dart Gun. Realistic toy weapon – Potential for mistaken identity

3. Stats 38″ quick-folding trampoline – Potential for head, neck and other injuries

4. Poo-Dough – Potential for wheat allergy-related harm

5. Splat X Smack Shot – Potential for eye injuries

6. Kick Flipper – Potential for head and other bodily injuries

7. Leonardo’s Electronic Stealth Sword – Potential for blunt force injuries

8. Kid Connection Doctor Play Set – Potential for ingestion and choking injuries

9. Pull Along Zebra – Potential for strangulation and entanglement injuries

10. Jurassic World Velociraptor Claws – Potential for eye and facial injuries


Although some toys are just obviously dangerous, there are others with a potential for harm more insidious and subtle. According to the latest statistics from the American Psychological Association (APA) more than 90% of all children play video games, and 97% of all teenagers.

Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Wii U have all set new bars for graphic depth, continue to put simulated weapons right into your children’s hands, and have ramped up the violence, blood, gore, and fatalities for the holiday season. Most child development experts agree that these games can become addictive, and may lead to various developmental and emotional problems in young players. New studies continue to reveal disturbing facts surrounding this controversial issue:

But, while we were looking the other way, at the dangers of violent video games, choking hazards, and hoverboards, a new toy, produced by Mattel and Toy Talk, was introduced this year. Designed for three to nine year olds, and cleverly disguised in the familiar pink plastic perfect body with straight long blond hair. Hello Barbie, a doll with Advanced Artificial Intelligence, is no Talking Elmo.

She doesn’t just talk. She listens. Or, to be more precise, a mega-million dollar corporation listens – to your child’s most intimate thoughts, wishes, dreams, and desires – and stores them in the cloud for future referencing.

Hello Barbie has been preprogrammed with scripted lines designed to engage young girls in conversation. Whatever your child reveals, whether it is joy, anger, loneliness, insecurities, or precious secrets, adds to Barbie’s digital bank of information-just like a “real friend” Barbie can refer to a comment made several weeks after having been told. If your child shares with Barbie that, “Nobody likes me.” Several days later Barbie may say, “Have you made any new friends at school?” But, unlike a fickle “real friend” Barbie will always remember your child’s likes and dislikes while being perennially sycophantic . No matter what the subject, her face will remain expressionless except for a permanent pert smile.

The doll is designed so that the more that a child tells Barbie, the more reality and fantasy merge. For young children, who already have a strong disposition to anthropomorphize, this blurring has a potential for psychological damage in ways that we can only guess. Do you want your child exposed to anything that executives at Mattel decide to tell her? Do you want them to know what your child is most afraid of and what she most desires? In the name of profit, our children are being used as guinea pigs in a global mass social experiment. And because the effects won’t be as obvious as head injuries or lead poisoning, and because every child is different psychologically, it will likely be sometime before the impact of this new way of playing is understood.

Magical thinking is a beautiful part of being a child. Imagining that you and your friends live in a castle or believing in faeries and unicorns, enrich a child’s life and develop creativity. This kind of play is a positive developmental step, a form of story telling that a child has control over. But what happens when imagination is stifled and much of the story telling is preprogramed pap? Imagination is infinite, wild, and free, it changes as a child changes, from day to day. Hello Barbie has a predetermined personality, which has been scrubbed thoroughly to be politically correct. Although Barbie is able to extrapolate and reference information, she is, of course, completely unable to feel. At an age when developing social skills is critical for necessary personality development, having a “friend” like Hello Barbie does not gender realistic expectations about how a real friend would act and is simply a plastic personification of a warped and unhealthy relationship.

Although Hello Barbie will not make any dangerous toys list and her saccharine coated words won’t leave the kind of scars that Jurassic World Velociraptor Claws might, there are other ways to be wounded in our rapidly evolving culture of Artificial Intelligentsia.

“Best of all, this is cool, she has Wi-Fi capabilities so all her content is stored up in the cloud so we can actually push new data to her.” Mattel Representative


When is “Dark” Young Adult Fiction Too Dark?


copyright ©donnaesgro


Imagine a few well known stories with different plots: The witch in the gingerbread house is a sweet old lady who loves children…Oliver Twist is a well fed happy school boy…and Romeo and Juliet marry with their parent’s blessings…What would these stories be missing? Would they be as potent and still be read as avidly centuries after having been written?

“Fairytales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” ~ G.K. Chesterton

 Good stories, whether fairy tales, Shakespearean plays, or Young Adult novels, are more than entertainment; they are conduits to understanding ourselves and others, connecting us intimately and immediately to our innate nature. Evil exists, but with strength and fortitude it can be overcome. We all, especially adolescents, get lost and need guidance. Reading a variety of authors who again and again confirm that strength comes from within and that triumph is possible whether it be over the evil witch, the classroom bully, or, as in some YA novels, rape, incest, and drug abuse, can be a solace in an often confusing world in which tragic events seem to have no beginning, no end, and no easy answers.

We all want our children to be protected from the ugliness of the world, but how realistic is this desire, and what harm could it potentially do? When sensitive authors, such as E.B. White, can create sympathy for a big grey hairy spider, or when Jean-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (Beauty and The Beast-Eighteenth Century) can have us fall helplessly in love with a hideous beast, they are on to something big. They teach us in a simple, visceral, timeless way, that even very young children can understand, that we need to look deeper; that patience, kindness, truth, and honor are powerful defenses that lie within us all.

When I was a young I read Black Beauty, Of Mice and Men, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, over and over again, crying every time at their messages of fierce sorrow. I remember sitting cross legged on my rumpled bed, the sounds of the household dim in the background, feeling the rise of emotion, knowing it would lead to tears. Why did I pick these books, knowing that each held such grief? What was it about the stories that compelled me to read and re-read?

Great books, the ones that pass down through the generations, have many qualities in common. One is that they tell the truth. Good literature unites us in our humanity. Feelings of isolation, apartness and disconnection fall away. We are transported into the very souls of the characters.

Letting tears fall while reading profound and universal truths in fiction is something I have always accepted as an important part of an empathetic immersion experience with the characters in a story. Being emotionally wrenched was a testament to the art of the writer. So a recent experience that I had while conducting a fifth grade book club surprised and unnerved me. We were reading Lois Lowry’s riveting classic The Giver. The members had excellent questions as we read carefully through each chapter. One scientifically minded child asked “How did they make everything seem black and white even though it actually had color? Wouldn’t that be impossible unless they did some kind of operation on people’s eyes?” I posed questions such as, “Would you like to live in a world like this one, everything in order, no crime, no poverty, with everyone the same?” I wanted them to think and I wanted them to feel. I thought that all was going well…until Chapter Nineteen.

The point of view in The Giver is through the eyes of the protagonist, a twelve year old boy named Jonas. The skilled author unfolds the story page by page, so that the reader sees and feels everything simultaneously with the main character.

(Spoiler Alert)

Jonas watched as his father bent over the squirming newchild on the bed. “And you, little guy, you’re only five pounds ten ounces. A shrimp!” His father turned and opened the cupboard. He took out a syringe and a small bottle. Very carefully he inserted the needle into the bottle and began to fill the syringe with a clear liquid…his father began very carefully to direct the needle into the top of the newchild’s forehead, puncturing the place where the fragile skin pulsed…he pushed the plunger very slowly, injecting the liquid into the scalp vein until the syringe was empty…”He killed it! My father killed it!” Jonas said to himself, stunned at what he was realizing.

 At this climactic moment one of the book club members threw the book from the table. “I hate Lois Lowry! She wrote this book for children! FOR CHILDREN!! I’m not reading it.” He jumped up, outraged, got some tape and began taping up the book so that no unsuspecting reader would ever open it. He grabbed a pen and furiously wrote, “Worst Book EVER! NEVER READ, EVER!” and taped it to the cover. He walked away from the rest of the members and sat on the couch staring straight ahead.

I was shocked, perplexed, and guilty. What had I done? This was a 12 year old who had sat through movies with aplomb that were way to scary for me. Who had told me that the video game Five Nights at Freddy’s was “not so bad”.  I had never expected this. I went to him and encouraged him to keep reading with us. That Lois Lowry was trying to warn us against this kind of world, that she wasn’t being ‘mean’ as he called her. He refused. When I told him that I thought it would help if he kept reading to the end, that things were going to work out, he was unable to be comforted. We broke for the day.

Later I discovered that he wouldn’t discuss his feelings with his mother, telling her that, “it was too terrible for her to know”. After much urging he did finish The Giver with the rest of the group and felt proud that he had shown the courage to see this difficult book through to its cathartic ending. We discussed how brave Jonas had been to escape the monstrous society he lived in and postulated on why the author might have written such a book. Reading the novel had been a powerful and meaningful experience for all the members of the book club, including me, who had read it many times before.

Where do we draw the line between well intentioned guiding and banning?

How do we determine good and bad taste? And who decides?

Although I abhor the idea that some authors who write for the YA market may use horrendous images, sexuality, and abundant profanity simply to spice up an otherwise poorly written novel, I believe that it still comes down to the fact that it is better for some badly written books to be out there than for such authors as J.D. Salinger, D.H. Lawrence, Oscar Wilde, Allen Ginsberg, and even Walt Whitman, who write of ideas that do not appeal to everyone, be censored.

When authors as acclaimed as Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley, or George Orwell confront the reader with harrowing views of spiritual dystopia, what are they attempting to communicate? If I had held a book back from these 12 year olds, not wanting to hurt them, wouldn’t I be guilty of perpetrating the exact “sameness” that Lois Lowry is so desperately warning us against in The Giver?

Books allow us to experience the unimaginable, to peer safely into the abyss. Without despair the word hope is meaningless. That books, in this age of emotionally distancing communication patterns, still have such power to touch us is truly wonderful.

However, I did decide to give my book club members a breather and picked Chris Grabenstein’s delightful Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library for our next book. They are going to need a break before I introduce Fahrenheit 451 next year.

Most Likely To Succeed


©Barbara Smaller-The New Yorker – Conde Nast Collection


Many public schools begin a Kindergartener’s education by sorting the child into one of two groups, “gifted” and well… “not gifted”. 
In one of our local schools, this determination is made during a fifteen to twenty minute assessment test given at the end of summer, just before Kindergarten begins.

Little children, who have recently celebrated their fifth birthday, and who have generally been taught not to talk to strangers, are sat down alone with a stranger and asked a series of questions designed to determine if they are gifted. These children are then placed in two separate classes-one for the advanced tract and one for all the rest. They are not evaluated again until the end of their Kindergarten year, at which time, should a child prove to the powers that be that he is “worthy”, he will be admitted to the first grade advanced tract.

A Kindergarten teacher that follows this practice admitted that once a child is excluded from the advanced class it is very difficult to get in, and only becomes harder as the child grows older and the curriculum more complicated. 
Even public schools that do not practice this whimsical sorting are mandated to give standardized tests to all children during the first weeks of school. Kindergarten teachers, rather than focusing on age appropriate social skills, creativity, and hands on problem solving, are required to meet curriculum standards formerly expected of children at least one year older. While expectations have changed, developmental milestones, emotional needs, and children, have not:

The practice of labeling children is egregious enough, but at such an early age and in such an arbitrary way, it is shockingly unfair. 
How can educators who have chosen the vocation of guiding young hearts and minds become so misguided themselves as to send a clear message to more than half the student body that they are just “not as smart” as the rest of their peers? Not only “not as smart”, but chosen to be placed in a separate classroom so as not to slow these “super kids” down?

And don’t think that even very young children won’t know. They understand that they are being categorized and, what is worse, believe it: “How could all these grown-ups be wrong about me?” The pressure on teachers to churn out stellar students who “test well” begins at the federal and state levels and trickles down to each school district. Schools that perform well on standardized tests are rewarded with much needed additional funding-a system that encourages teachers to “teach to the test”.

It is not only the children classified “not gifted” that are affected. Labels in any form hurt the growing mind. The documentary “A Class Divided”, still as relevant today as it was over twenty years ago, clearly shows how vulnerable children are to suggestion and how dangerous any kind of labeling can be, no matter if one is deemed superior or inferior.

IQ (Intelligence Quotient) tests are designed to assess ephemeral and elusive cognitive abilities. These evaluations have no ability to measure creativity, innovative thinking, leadership, compassion, curiosity, wonder, or social skills. It is commonly agreed by child development experts that intelligent children often “overthink” test questions, realizing that there could be more than one answer. This “outside the box” thinking causes them to become confused when asked to check just one “box”.

Limitation of IQ testing is well known and found to be unreliable, especially at the pre-K level, yet IQ Test Prep is a multi-million dollar business that has grown rapidly to support parent’s fears that their child might be among the ones passed over. Books and test kits designed to prepare children as young as two and a half years old for WISC IV, WPPSI III, WAIS III, and other early IQ assessments are readily available on the internet and range in price from forty to seven hundred dollars. These tests help a child to be evaluated for such things as: short term auditory recall, sequencing ability, and processing speed. All this for children who often still pronounce their “R’s” as “W’s”?

Standardized evaluations practice exclusivity-judging children without regard to background, cultural variations, what a particular child has been exposed to in the home (familiarization), introversion, physical state (tiredness or hunger), what type of learner a child is (many of these tests demand the viewing of photos or drawings – best for a child who is a visual learner, but certainly not suited for tactile, auditory, or kinesthetic learners.) No allowance is made for children who tend to be perfectionists and freeze at the idea of failure, or for the fact that, often, there can simply be a bad chemistry between the subject and test giver. There are innumerable reasons why individuals may not be at their best at a particular time of a particular day. To have children tested for something as important as class placement by these standards is fuzzy science at best.

So parents, be wary. While your young child who longs to be outside running, laughing, exploring, jumping, building, collecting, climbing, pretending (in other words, learning), is being tested for things he cannot yet pronounce: VCI, PRI, WMI, and PSI (verbal comprehension index, perceptual reasoning index, working memory index, and processing speed index) should become irritable, bored, restless, inattentive, resentful, distracted, or day dreamy, there is a chance that the test giver, whose job it is to apply labels as she sees fit, may determine that your child is neither gifted nor not gifted, but instead, a possible qualifier for ADHD treatment.


“The mind grows by self revelation. In play the child ascertains what he can do, discovers his possibilities of will and thought by exerting his power spontaneously. In work he follows a task prescribed for him by another, and doesn’t reveal his own proclivities and inclinations; but another’s. In play he reveals his own original power.”

Friedrich Froebel – founder of the first Kindergarten