All posts by donna burke esgro

Where Environmentalism Begins

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Clockwise:  Michael, Donna, and Laura Esgro                                                    ©donnaesgro

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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.

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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

 

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©donnaesgro

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

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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.

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©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!

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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:

Independence

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:

http://abcnews.go.com/Lifestyle/mississippi-schools-literary-lockers-give-cool-factor-reading/story?id=33159515

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.

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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:

http://www.nypl.org/childrens100

 

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©AmericanLibraryAssociation

 “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?

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drawing courtesy of Lucy Raymond, age six

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

In memory of Harper Lee   1926 – 2016

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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”

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©donnaesgro

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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

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

George Orwell – 1984

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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.

https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2015/08/violent-video-games.pdf

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:

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/d-brief/2015/05/20/video-games-brain/#.VnL1m3i4mWs

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

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=RJMvmVCwoNM

 

When is “Dark” Young Adult Fiction Too Dark?

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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.

http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/censorship/bannedbooksthatshapedamerica

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

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©Barbara Smaller-The New Yorker – Conde Nast Collection

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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:

http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/10/the-joyful-illiterate-kindergartners-of-finland/408325

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gRnRIC9JQTQ

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.

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“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

Are Shakespeare’s 500 Year Old Works Still Relevant?

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“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

– King Richard III (Act V, Scene IV).

My assignment was to tutor a seventh grader. Her grade in English had slipped dangerously and now it was time for the final test: Shakespeare’s As You Like It. We were at ground zero. She not only had no idea what the play she had studied in class was about, she had very little interest in finding out. I had twenty-four hours. How could I help a modern teenager, fan of Taylor Swift, Texting, and Twitter, feel empathy for a troupe of actors from the 16th Century? She was, first, surprised to hear that the key players were her age. In As You Like It, the lead characters are teenagers on their own, without adult supervision, adrift in an alluring forest, and falling deeply and madly in love.

Really? This boring play is about the things I am most interested in – friends, freedom, and love? She looked skeptical.We began to read the play aloud together, stopping often to clarify or answer questions. After a short while she was reading with expression and comprehension. “I get it!” she said, with a note of wonder. As we sat in her fuchsia colored bedroom with a spangled cell phone on mute beside her, she read the exquisite lines of passion, rivalry, longing, betrayal, and rebellion, written centuries ago. Lines that will be as true and pertinent hundreds of years from now because the emotions that they evoke are universal. Particularly for teenagers, who feel life so keenly and wrenchingly; who can’t eat, who can’t sleep, who can’t think of anything except the beloved, who rage against the status quo, who grapple with uncertainty and insecurity, whose hearts are quickly broken and quickly mended, who experience bewilderment and bedazzlement daily – feelings that ring true whether they are expressed through the lyricism of hip hop or the pen of Shakespeare:

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/12/06/word-kelefa-sanneh

There is a definite prejudice against Shakespeare – one that assumes the text will be too hard. This prejudice probably began for most of us in high school, where the required Shakespeare Unit is often taught by dispassionate teachers. Hamlet is young, unsure, handsome, troubled, vulnerable, angry, fatherless, confused, misbegotten in love, distrustful and suicidal. How could any teenager not relate? Shakespeare plays offer murder, insanity, treachery, fools, fairies, ghosts, humor, prostitutes, thieves, witches, wizards, beggars, and the greatest love stories ever told. His works help us to understand what it is to be human. Noble heroines, like the strong and independent Rosalind in As You Like It, continue to be inspirational. We are encouraged when evil is exposed and punished in a logical way, as in Macbeth’s guilt ridden descent into madness, and we long, in these technocratic times, whether we are aware of it or not, for ephemeral and ethereal midsummer night’s dreams. In an age in which most teenagers communicate with monosyllables, we need such flights of fancy as this:

“Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow.” Romeo and Juliet

Or the quintessential Shakespearean rogue’s remark:

“I would challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see you are unarmed.”

Students should be exposed to Shakespeare in school as early as possible, because the longer one waits, the more daunting it becomes. Get them interested in the story, make it personal, accessible, and relevant to their daily lives, break the text down into understandable parts, and the confidence that the novice Shakespearean scholar will feel will be matched by the enchanted consciousness of having been touched across the centuries by magic:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=72pyUuNLuoE

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“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on,  and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.”

Prospero – The Tempest

From Picture Books to Chapter Books

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Taking the step from picture books to chapter books is a natural process for the early reader. Just as children gradually grow from learning almost exclusively through the senses into more abstract thinkers, they will be able to understand and enjoy the process of combining the technical skills of reading with their growing use of imagination to create their own wondrous images from words. Let your child’s interests guide your choice of books. Typically, throughout early childhood, a child goes through heightened stages of interest in which certain concepts fascinate him for an indefinite period. Look for early chapter books with these themes. A child will be more likely to keep the sustained interest that chapter books demand if he is curious about the subject.

Be wary of early chapter books that pander to what some publishers think children will ask parents to buy- mean spirited, frenetic stories geared for boys in which the word “gross” often appears, usually featuring a cartoon character on the cover. Often, though not always, these books are churned out, not well written, and designed so that children are encouraged to look at the illustrations and read just snatches of dialogue or captions. I think that children deserve more respect. Although there are those who disagree with me:

http://www.ala.org/offices/resources/gross

The lesson here is to look over the plot of any book before you hand it over to your child.

I like the My Father’s Dragon trilogy by Ruth Stiles Gannett. In addition to being a classic story of heroism and adventure, each novel is short (about eighty pages) and printed with larger typeface than the norm, which makes it an inviting challenge for a young reader. Other excellent choices, are Cynthia Rylant’s Lighthouse Family series and Johanna Hurwitz’ Park Pal Adventures. All of these early chapter books have lovely illustrations that help to create a bridge between books with mostly pictures and books with mostly words.

Although a child has begun to develop the skills to be able to read and comprehend chapter books, don’t give away all of his picture books. Children find these familiar stories soothing and will often turn to them for enjoyment as they are transitioning. Chapter books demand much of an early reader who may still be struggling with technical skills and unused to the increased attention span that a chapter book requires.

But, by no means wait to introduce chapter books until your child has mastered the skills to read by herself. Begin the transition by reading from some of the books that were your favorites. Your child will be excited by the idea that you read this very same story when you were little. Continue to read interactively, as you have done with picture books, stopping frequently and asking such questions as, “Why do you think Winnie the Pooh said that?” or “What do you think Piglet will do now?”

Interactive reading brings a deeper and more personal understanding to the story. It is certainly all right to paraphrase – part reading, part telling – from time to time to help comprehension. I would rather do this than read an abridged version as I believe that an introduction to unusual vocabulary is one of the delights of literature. When reading a particularly obscure book, with antiquated wording, such as Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling, this approach is advisable or you may completely lose your listener. However, part of the joy of chapter book reading is being exposed to interesting use of language and different ways of seeing, so be judicious before paraphrasing such beauteous language as the following:

 “In the sea, once upon a time, O my Best Beloved, there was a Whale, and he ate fishes. He ate the starfish and the garfish, and the crab and the dab, and the plaice and the dace, and the skate and his mate, and the mackereel and the pickereel, and the really truly twirly-whirly eel.” (Rudyard Kipling)

Even if a child does not fully grasp the meaning of each word, he will, undoubtedly, be enchanted by the very sound and rhythm of the language, especially if you are. Children have acute sensibilities and know when an adult is truly enjoying the time spent reading or is just performing another necessary chore. So, pick a time (everyday) in which you are unhurried and able to relax with your child over a book, though it may only be 15 minutes before bedtime, it is a very worthwhile time together that will help your child to form deep and positive attitudes towards literature.

Is it Possible to Praise too Much?

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“So long as men praise you, you can only be sure that you are not yet on your own true path but on someone else’s.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

“Wow!”  “You rock!”  “Good job!”  “Awesome!”  “You’re the best!”

When a child begins to learn to read and write it is only natural to praise him for his accomplishments. Praise is certainly good for all of us, but lavishing extravagant praise on your child might actually be detrimental to building both self-esteem and creativity. Praise generally focuses on the result, rather than the process. Constant praise leads a child to believe that the glory is not in the absorbed and engaged feeling she had during her endeavors, but in how successful the results have been. Children may begin to depend on a continuous loop of praise from adults in order to determine the worth of their efforts.

When a child offers you her first efforts at printing asking if she did it right, it is important to remember, that in answering the question in either a positive or negative way the result is that, in the child’s mind, what you are praising or criticizing is the product and not her perseverance and persistence. Parents too quick to correct, “It’s great, honey, but your L is backward, let me fix it.”,  although they have every good intention in mind, give a clear message to their child that they were expecting better. Children begin to strive for perfection in order to be to be applauded, rather than becoming one with the extensive and deeply creative process of learning.

When I was in school there was a hierarchy of stars given out for various achievements –red, green, and blue were on the lower end of the reward spectrum, silver was second best, but gold was parceled out stingily and only for excellence. In our goal oriented schools, with their focus on achieving higher and higher test scores, the overriding missive is: You are worth what others think of you, not what you think of yourself. Children are thrown off course early, desiring their parents and teachers praise, they work, not for the joy of satisfying their innate curiosity to learn, but for the highest grade. They want to make the team and get the biggest trophy, instead of enjoying the exhilarating feeling that comes over your body and mind when you are doing your personal best at any activity from reading to running.

Encourage your child by commenting on how hard he has tried. Ask your child questions about his work, why he chose a particular subject or color. In this way we individualize our praise, showing value for our children’s choices rather than the final effect. One child may take a long time drawing a butterfly which looks nothing like a butterfly. Ask her why and you may be surprised at the response, rather than a lack of fine motor skills, the child may tell you that the butterfly is flying around a garden, or hatching out of chrysalis. This use of imagination is far more valuable in establishing and strengthening the creative cognitive skills of true intelligence, than is the drawing of a “perfect” butterfly by rote. Sadly, it is the child with the perfect drawing that normally gets his work displayed and the child who happily scribbles, lost in his own world, that stops drawing because nobody noticed.

It is not only important in terms of understanding your child to ask about what she has done, and why she has done it, it also builds language skills, so necessary in early literacy. Writing down your child’s words on her drawing further extends these skills by reminding the child that writing is, simply, the spoken word on paper, a means to communicate to all. This subliminal lesson in the purpose of reading is invaluable. My experience is that children are very particular about the words they tell you to write, often speaking slowly and asking you to read their own words back to them so that they know you got it right. In small attentive ways we continuously show a child our interest and respect without, the sometimes, hallow words of praise.

Celebrate your child for who he is and not what he can do and self-confidence will grow. Praise sets up a fear of failure in the same way that criticism does. The child believes that perhaps what he attempts won’t be good enough, so he stops trying. Although no loving adult would tell a child that his work is awful, praise and criticism revolve around the same basic point – is my work good or is it bad? Ironically, no one can learn, either socially, artistically, academically, or physically, without failing. Therefore, fear of failure is paralyzing. When adults express either pride or disappointment they overlook the vast field of learning that lies between the two.

Independence leads to self-esteem. If a child is working to please someone else he is not developing independence, but interdependence. He is not trying his own inventive ways to get to a particular solution, but relying on those around him to tell him the “right” way to do it. So, gently encourage rather than overly praise, and you will see your child blossom. Whether children are learning to read, to play a musical instrument, or to hit a ball with a bat, share your joy in their efforts rather than their achievements and they will naturally gravitate to the things that they are passionate about doing-the true secret of success.