Category Archives: Education

Art is Not a Luxury

 

art-therapyArt work by Suha Wanous, a Syrian refugee child

Conservative estimates are that 10,000 children have died from the Syrian War. Art therapy programs have helped to heal the survivors who have wounds that can’t be seen.

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

 Ray Bradbury

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Last week Trump released his budget proposal in which federal funding for the renowned Corporation for Public Broadcasting is cut to zero and the highly respected Institutions of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities are eliminated completely. If Congress concurs, this will be the first time in American history that a president has pulled the federal arts program from the people.

In support of these cuts, Trump’s administration has stated, “ Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs? The answer is no. We can ask them to pay for defense, and we will. But we can’t ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.”

CPB, NEA, and NEH combined cost the average citizen about $1.35 per year

Our country deserves better and our citizens deserve more respect. Trump clearly disregards the intelligence of those who struggle and the dreams they have for their children’s future by dismissing such illuminating shows as Sesame Street, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, Masterpiece Theater, American Masters, Independent Lens, Live From Lincoln Center, Front Line, PBS News Hour, Ken Burns, NATURE, Bill Moyers, NOVA, PBS Kids and PBS America as unnecessary excesses produced by and for the elite.

Particularly in a country in which preschool is not available to all, and many local libraries have been shut down because of the cost of maintaining them, public television and radio are some of the only free inlets of unbiased information, objective journalism, and commercial free educational programing. It is no surprise then, that the same president who “loves the poorly educated” and considers journalists “the enemy” would not believe in funding universal access to knowledge. Public Broadcasting may be the only window on the world that impoverished children are exposed to. Ask yourself why looking through that window is not something that our current president wants them to do.

Art, in all its forms, is an expression of our shared humanity. We still gaze in wonder at ancient works, identifying with the emotions and thoughts of people that lived centuries ago. Art, then, connects us, not only as a viable expression of modern culture, but across the ages and around the world. It encourages us to think, to feel, to see other points of view, to be exposed to the lessons of history, and to learn about other cultures. Art tears down walls and builds bridges. It seeks out the truth and it helps us heal. It is for all of us, from the preschooler’s first self portrait to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Trump’s plan clearly reveals his vision of a dystopian future in which the arts not only hold no value, but are dismissed as irrelevant.  Universal access to the arts and support of artists is a sacrosanct principle that we cannot let slip away.

One of my personal heroes, Fred Rogers, makes a plea for federal funding for children’s programming – May 1, 1969

https://youtu.be/fKy7ljRr0AA

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The Vital Importance of Diversity

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“The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky

Are also on the faces of people going by.”

What a Wonderful World – Thiele & Weiss

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If we care about mankind and its future, if we care that the most powerful nation on earth has a leader who does not believe in science and who puts immediate gratification above concern for future generations, then it is time that we make a radical shift in how we view education within a global society. The mill of school grinds along, and we are glad that it does, but changes in how we teach at the fundamental level have now become critically important.

“Most of what we teach children today is going to be completely irrelevant to the job market in 2040 or 2050.”

Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens

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 We cannot survive, much less thrive, if we build walls and keep people out. It is through the permeable sharing of ideas and cultural nuances that we build on our own reservoirs of knowledge, compassion, and the ability to live in harmony.

No one would dispute that teaching our children to share is a good thing, one of the basic elements of social-emotional relationships. When we share, we learn. We show others our good intentions, and they show us theirs. Bridges are built and alliances are formed.

The concept of respecting one another begins at the earliest levels of education. Even preschoolers can understand that their blue marble of a world spins in a beautifully complex solar system. They can grasp the idea that there are lands across the seas where people speak differently and go about their day in different ways, yet share the same joys and sorrows that we do.

We cannot coexist in any kind of peace if we fear each other, and we cannot imagine anything better if we don’t begin to encourage critical thinking skills and the uses of imagination in our schools.

Children feel a close affinity with the creatures of air, sea, mountains, and forests that share the world with us. Have you, lately, looked at a picture book of animals as closely as they do? They have an innate curiosity and empathy that, rather than dismissing as ingenuous, we need to recognize for the wisdom that it holds.

The question “Why?” is asked primarily by children less than seven years old and the greatest philosophers and scientists of all time. Think about that.

Yet we proceed, beginning in elementary school, to encourage students not to ask,  but to answer questions- to memorize facts, figures, and formulas. It is no wonder, then, that the trajectory of education becomes a long distance race to get into a good college, secure a high paying job, and then, finally, get down to the business of living.

The way our competitive education system works is that children learn early on that it is better not to think outside of the box. That imaginative thinking, flights of fancy, and creativity, at best lowers their grade point average and at worse, gets them labeled “weird.”

We are, grade by grade, inadvertently teaching our children not to think more deeply than a test requires.

Worldwide-scholars, tech companies, scientists, educators, politicians, medical researchers, and thousands of others share knowledge; effectively creating networks of ideas that often lead to radical breakthroughs in their fields. When we think and feel and work together at the global level, we nurture compassion for the hungry, the suffering, the refugees of war, all those in need, because the faces and the voices of humanity become real to us. We cannot understand others without interacting with them, any more than we can understand what water is just from knowing its chemical formula. When we  foster bonds with different nations we all benefit. Our minds expand in many different ways as we share thoughts and our hearts grow in equal measure as we become more viscerally aware of others.

Without making a definitive change in both our education system and our budding nationalistic and isolationist politics we are in serious danger of losing our ability to engage innovatively and diplomatically. It is unwise, if not foolish, to be unaware that our entire planet is an eco-system, not only from the standpoint of biology, but on deeper levels of cognitive connectivity. We need clean air and water and we need to believe in and take responsibility for climate change, but we must also believe in mutual respect and tolerance despite different skin colors, religions, or ideologies. It is vital that we begin to teach, starting at the earliest levels of education, that we are the caretakers of our world, not its rulers.

 

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/mar/09/epa-scott-pruitt-carbon-dioxide-global-warming-climate-change

Resist

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“A machine that, when you touch the button, it makes the ocean clean for the whales and dolphins and even the sharks.”  Ava – Age 6

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Dr. Seuss – Zen Master

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“So please, when you step, step with care and great tact.

And Remember that Life’s a great balancing act.”

Oh! The Places You’ll Go!  –  Dr. Seuss

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Read across American month began this week with celebrations all over the world of Dr. Seuss’ birthday. Dr. Seuss would be delightful to read even if his books were just pure fun. But, there is more than silliness under that tall striped hat.

In The Uses of Imagination, Bruno Bettelheim states that “The child intuitively comprehends that although fairy tales are unreal, they are not untrue.”

This is the nexus of the genius of Dr. Seuss – His ability to create whimsical characters with wild hair, gangly bodies, and furry feet that touch our heart with their humanity.

Dr. Seuss, born Theodore Seuss Geisel (1904), was an artist, an intellectual and a seeker of knowledge. His very first children’s book  And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street (rejected twenty seven times by publishers) encourages using one’s imagination as a way to see the world in many different ways. He poses the question: What is reality?

But Mulberry Street didn’t sell well and his career as a children’s author seemed doomed when Life Magazine published an article in 1954 that exposed America’s children’s poor reading abilities. John Hersey (author of A Separate Peace) was quoted in the article as saying that children were illiterate because the primers in school were so boring and that authors like Dr. Seuss should be writing them.

Shortly after, Theo was approached by a major publishing house and asked to create a primer using 220 vocabulary words. The result , The Cat in the Hat, made him a household name. Fame brought lucrative offers by corporations eager to exploit his popularity. The ever unconventional Geisel turned down every proposal. Even when he was wooed with an unprecedented amount of money just to use a short unpublished verse on a Christmas billboard, Theo, showing unusual moral fortitude, refused, stating that he did not want to be associated with products for sale.

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!

What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store

What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!

 

And what happened then? Well…in Whoville they say,

That the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day!

How The Grinch Stole Christmas – Dr. Seuss

Throughout his career as a children’s author, Dr. Seuss emphasized the importance of integrity, caring, tenderness, courage, and the interconnectivity of all creatures.

He held his head high and he threw out his chest

And he looked at the hunters as much as to say

“Shoot if you must but I won’t run away.”

I meant what I said and I said what I meant…

An elephant’s faithful One Hundred percent!

 Horton Hatches the Egg – Dr. Seuss

 

In The Sneetches he addresses the absurdity of prejudice, and in Oh! The Places You’ll Go! he gives us, in classic Seussesque style, both warning and encouragement:

You’ll come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly there darked.

But Dr. Seuss reaches a lofty zenith in his darkly beautiful and profoundly environmentally aware treatise The Lorax, who “speaks for the trees.” The author’s brilliance lies in his ability to show us a believable glimpse of a tree’s soul – albeit one with a small orange furry body and a ridiculously large yellow moustache.

Teach your children to be on the look out for them.

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“When I let go of what I am I become what I might be. When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need.” Tao Te Ching

 

“If things start happening, don’t worry, don’t stew. Just go right along

and you’ll start happening, too.” Dr. Seuss

 

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The Adaptation of Children’s Literature

“Words are a net to catch beauty.”

Tennessee Williams

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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.

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May Our New Year Shine Gloriously Bright with Hope.

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The Theater Must Always Be A Safe Place

imagesWoody Guthrie – This Machine Kills Fascists

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 “We have art in order not to die of the truth.” Nietzsche

After a performance of Hamilton (a Broadway musical based on the story of one of the United States’ founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton) the lead actor, Brandon Dixon, formally addressed our future vice president, Mike Pence, from the stage. He began by thanking Pence for attending the performance and stating that, “ We hope you will hear us out.”

“We sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

This respectful and thoughtful delivery was attacked by our president elect the next morning via his favorite form of communication, Twitter: “Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing. This should not happen!” In a second tweet Trump stated, “The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!”

On the campaign circuit Trump repeatedly belittled the press and the first amendment, even suggesting that he would like to change the law to make it easier to sue his critics. Trump, with these comments, has made it clear that he does not believe in political expression (unless it is favorable to him) and would use his power as president to silence the press through legal actions. In his tweets he clearly states that Dixon and the cast of Hamilton were wrong to lawfully and nonviolently exercise the power of their constitutional right of freedom of speech.

Since ancient times, art has served as a powerful method of challenging the status quo and inspiring social change. The Roman goddess of poetry was also the goddess of wisdom. Art has the unique power to open our eyes to another way of seeing-the beginning of wisdom. Historically, art has been a vehicle for social change, justice, solidarity, and raising consciousness-a formidable weapon against violence and oppression.

“Many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills and dare scarce come thither.” Shakespeare/Hamlet – 1602

In Sophocles’ Antigone (441 BC) the heroine defies the King’s command, even though it means certain death, because his orders are at odds with her conscience.

From the satiric plays of Shakespeare and Moliere with their wry mockery of the pompous noble class, to the searing work of Bertolt Brecht, Arthur Miller, and Edward Albee and their brutally honest unveiling of corruption in society, the theater has been a forum in which artists are able to lift their voices for those without a voice.

The Novelists Emil Zola, Victor Hugo, Dostoyevsky, Charles Dickens and John Steinbeck have all written from an urgent sense of need to expose hypocrisy and reveal the tender and human faces of the dispossessed, the lost, the lonely, the hungry and the homeless – as have poets and songwriters Garcia Lorca, Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Bruce Springsteen, to name just a precious few.

We have been warned by passionate artists such as the novelists George Orwell and Ray Bradbury, and film makers Fritz Lang, Jean Cocteau, and Terry Gilliam, to lift up our heads and see what the future may hold, if we are not mindful.

Goya’s wrenching paintings continue to shock us more than 200 years after they were painted. There is intense pain, and compassion for that pain, in each of Kathe Kollwitz’s works, while Picasso’s Guernica (1937) has become a metaphor for the brutality of war.

The photographs of the victims of the Dust Bowl were instrumental in bringing relief to thousands of suffering  families and Nick Ut’s heartbreaking Pulitzer Prize winning photograph, “Napalm Girl” is said to have been the final statement that ended the Vietnam War.

The list of legendary artistic luminaries is endless, with more creating works each day. The arts give society depth and provide inspiration for personal, social, and spiritual change. But when the individual with the highest power in the land sends tweet after tweet designed to create fear of personal expression it casts a chilling shadow.

Art is a life line to freedom. As funding for art and art history in our schools, already threatened to extinction, continues to decline, we cannot leave the holistic education that we want for our children entirely up to government funded schools. It is our moral  and ethical obligation as parents and educators to bring this trove of knowledge to our children.

Trump may believe that art should be a “safe place”, a comfortable fantasy outside the realm of politics, but, should he build his wall, may artists everywhere be inspired by those such as muralist David Siqueiros (1900’s) and the guerrilla street artist, Banksy, and paint Trump’s infamous and infernal wall with the vibrant colors of all the rage against injustice and abundant universal love inherent in the human heart.

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The Surviors – 1923 -Kathe Kollwitz

Books vs. Bullies

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Walk as though you’ve been given one brown eye and one blue

Body & Soul…Charles Wright

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Bullying is a complicated socio-psychological issue. Bullies have always been among us in one form or another, but with the advent of the internet and the unprecedented prevalence of teenage texting it has reached pandemic, twenty four hour a day, proportions. The heart breaking stories of teen suicides brought on by severe cyber bullying have shocked and wounded us all and served to create a keen cultural awareness of the seriousness of bullying. Many articles have been published on the subject, programs implemented in schools, and anti-bullying laws put in place. Yet, statistics show that these interventions have little effect on day to day bullying in the playgrounds and corridors of our schools.

If aggression is part of human nature, then so is empathy. Bullies are made, not born. Our society, as a whole, needs to take responsibility for having created a culture in which bullying exists in every middle and high school in the country. How do we reinforce the empathetic nature in our children and discourage the aggression in a milieu that justifies violence as entertainment, is fascinated by power, sees mean spiritedness as humor, and glorifies only a certain body type as attractive?

I believe that when home and preschool environments value, teach, and practice kindness a foundation that prevents bullying later in life can be built.

Normal behavior at the preschool level involves constant experimentation on how to get along with others. Although children have an innate desire to make friends they must learn how to do so. Anyone with a toddler knows that basic social skills, such as sharing or waiting for your turn do not come naturally or easily, yet, even very young children enjoy being around their peers and overflow with affection for others. Children learn by imitation, following the lead of parents, teachers, and older siblings. Modeling thoughtful words and actions is extremely important, but there is more-attention needs to be paid to raising a child with a strong sense of self worth. Bullies are able to hold power in an ambiance of hierarchy and fear. Feeling powerless themselves, they prey on those who they sense can be intimidated.

At the earliest stages of a child’s life, there should be a concerted effort to create an atmosphere of respect that values each and every living creature precisely for their unique qualities; an atmosphere that not only appreciates others but that also honors the self.

“Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.” Dr. Seuss, Happy Birthday to You!

Books can be extremely helpful in fostering a climate that encourages reflection and instills empathy. Who doesn’t suffer with the ugly duckling or feel angry at the mean swans? In both fairy and modern tales the most important quality, and one not lost on the child, is character. There is a great power in language, and reading to your child is a wonderful way to fill their hearts with caring. There is no need to focus only on books that specifically address bullying (and there are many fine ones for all ages). Books that address diversity such as David McKee’s Elmer the Elephant, champion courage, like Watty Piper’s classic, The Little Engine That Could, or promote individuality as in Kevin Henkes’ Chrysanthemum, help children understand that being little does not mean being incapable and being different does not mean being an outcast. Books of this nature are helpful in beginning conversations that allow the child to examine and express feelings difficult to articulate.

Unconscionably, studies show that children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be victims of chronic bullying directly related to their disability. (Marshal,Kendall, Banks, & Gover (Eds.) 2009). It is a short distance from being bullied to bullying one’s self: I’m ugly, I’m fat, I’m gross, I’m worthless..words that become a endless reel in the victim’s mind, leading to anxiety, anorexia, depression and other unbalanced emotional states. When parents and teachers cultivate an awareness of others, and introduce an early exposure to people of all colors, ideas, cultures, and disabilities, they are planting the seeds of empathy. While it may be difficult to expose a very young child to this broad family of man, books can take us all over the world, through time and space, and into the thoughts and feelings of a vast diversity of people.

30% of all school age children are either bullies or bullied while 70% look the other way. More than half of all bullying situations stop when a peer intervenes on behalf of the student being bullied. (Hawkins, Pepler, and Craig, 2001) The statistics speak for themselves. Bullying is a cultural phenomenon. There is tremendous strength in the 70%. Let’s raise our children to be courageous, to speak up for injustice. We may not be able to change the reality of bullying, but we can work, from the very beginning, to raise empathetic children, with a sense of individual pride and dignity who will use their 70% majority to speak up for what is right-beginning in the school corridors, and spreading from there out into the world.

Local Hero:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l91cgdFCkJ0

Learning to Listen

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A child must learn to listen before he can listen to learn. Experts agree that the conditions which most affect  literacy take place in the home, long before a child enters school. Children listen, understand, and speak before they read, write, and spell. Without the former, the latter is impossible. It follows that the more developed a very young child’s language skills, the easier time he will have learning the academics of literacy. Reading to your child from the very beginning will help develop listening skills that are invaluable later in life. At first your active baby won’t have the attention span to allow you to read all the words of a book to her, but just sitting together enjoying books, talking about the illustrations, is enough to start. As time goes by, a young child who has access to a bookshelf will soon be seeking out books and sitting quietly pretending to read. This activity is not, simply, adorable. For a child, the act of pretending is a major step in learning a new skill.

In order to help a child learn to listen, keep the home environment as free of unnecessary distraction as possible. Turn off the background noise. This simple act will help to create a more peaceful atmosphere conducive to contemplation…and to reading. Music is not usually a distraction, but the news and commercials that accompany radio and television certainly are. Children are sensitive and their hearing is acute, try to shield them from the constant advertising and, more importantly, the disturbing violent events that are, sadly, so often in the news.

Another aspect in teaching children to learn to listen is to listen to them! The respect that you show when you pay careful attention to a child’s stories and questions teaches him the importance of listening. Ask interactive, open-ended questions that offer the child not only an opportunity to express himself but to develop cognitive skills. Avoid “baby talk” or talking down to a child. Children love “big” words; adults often underestimate their insatiable curiosity and innate ability to learn them. Books add a multitude of new words not used in daily life that enrich and enlarge your child’s vocabulary exponentially. The art of thoughtful listening is fast becoming obsolete. Help your child become attentive in a culture rife with sound bites, twitter, and the abbreviated language of texting. It is only in listening closely that we truly learn.

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To teach is to share knowledge joyfully; to learn is to listen with equal joy.  Teachers are all around us: