Category Archives: Literacy

The Way of the Reader

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“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

 

We live in a distracting world, but we fool ourselves when we think that, by doing more than one thing at a time we are being efficient. To be mindful, fully present in the moments of our lives, sounds deceptively simple, but, especially in this electronic age, is a decided discipline.

Reading, because it slows one down and encourages uses of imagination and focus, can be a gentle bridge to serenity.

As more and more children abandon reading for electronics, neuroimaging research shows that excessive screen time damages the developing brain by creating structural and functional changes in the regions that control emotional processing and cognitive control.

Of particular concern are findings that show damage to areas of the brain that equate physical attributes, such as facial expressions and body language, with emotion. This kind of damage, combined with the rapidly growing trend to spend more time socializing online than face to face, are a cocktail that severely impacts healthy social emotional development.

Conversely, reading develops brain connectivity, particularly in the left temporal cortex, the area of the brain associated with language and in the the sensorimotor region, the region of the brain responsible for something called embodied cognition, the ability to empathize.

Studies show that daily reading also increases connections between the brain’s hemispheres.  These neural pathways aide in the growth of a multitude of complex cognitive functions.

Undoubtedly, reading makes you smart. But does it also make you wise?

When we read to our children we encourage them to be still in body and mind, to listen attentively, and to focus intently. We offer a refuge from the jangle of the modern world and give them our full attention in a joyful and quiet way.

Reading develops Theory of Mind (ToM), the ability to understand that others have needs, desires, thoughts, and feelings that may be different than one’s own. These early stirrings of compassion are the foundation on which tolerance is built.
Reading, by its very nature, takes us outside ourselves. We become emotionally and intellectually sympathetic to characters who often are quite unlike us. This creates, in the child, an attitude of acceptance in which he or she is not threatened by foreign ideas…the seeds of a peaceful world.

Like a spiritual practice, reading offers a time to reflect, to ask questions and to examine one’s own life. It helps to foster what Albert Einstein called “holy curiosity.”
It makes us receptive, open to new concepts that inspire wonder, creativity and clarity…Deep reading allows us a singular meditation even in the midst of chaos and confusion.

In an often dark world, books illuminate.
Statistics show that, after their schooling is completed, almost half of the population of the United States never reads a book again.

So, if you ever find your children reading under the covers with a flashlight, quietly close the door and let them stay up late, their growing minds and hearts filled with vivid imagery and emotion as they follow their own singular bumpy twisty  roads to enlightenment.

 

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Be Inspired

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“Sometimes you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.” John Green – The Fault in Our Stars

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The first story I remember being read to me was Honey Bear, by Dixie Wilson. The cadence of my mother’s voice, the enchantment of the illustrations…I couldn’t get enough of this little book…its Belle Epoque watercolors and rhyming verses like the bells of fairies. It took me to a place I never knew existed, a wondrous place. I was inspired, in the true sense of the word, filled with the spirit of literature.

Yet the feelings this story aroused were not simply of joy, but also, like all epiphanies, laced with longing. I traced my fingers over the delicate illustrations…the glowing cottage in the dark woods…the garden blooming with anthropomorphic flowers. I yearned to be there, a part of this loving family in their rapturous world.

The next book that hit me like a thunderbolt was E.B.White’s Charlotte’s Web. I was seven and longed with all my heart to be Fern…raising a baby pig, sitting silent in the barn privy to the conversations of animals…brave and tender Fern, who stood up to her father to save a helpless runt…reckless Fern, swinging out from the high loft of the barn on an old rope…circumspect Fern, who deeply listened before she spoke.

As an awkward ungainly preteen, the intelligence and independence of Nancy Drew seemed out of reach. Yet, I collected, read and re-read the dozens of blue cloth covered editions…her ordinary world so extraordinary to me, the wide tree lined streets, the stately homes with their generous porches, her stalwart convictions, her steadfast fight for justice while speeding around jauntily in her roadster without a blonde hair out of place.

I abandoned Nancy when I discovered Jane. Austen’s heroines were women I could imagine myself becoming…snubbing high society’s mores while strolling through formal English gardens…exposing hypocrisy while dancing in gilded ceilinged ballrooms.

The spiritual journey that books set me on is a never ending one..sometimes an Autobahn, sometimes a labyrinth, but mostly a twisting path that splits into many side roads…from Anna Karenina to Chekov, Turgenev, and my first true love, Dostoevsky…from a short story by Guy de Maupassant to Flaubert, Victor Hugo, and Proust. Today the books on my nightstand spill into stacks on the floor.

“So many books, so little time.” Frank Zappa

Although it is important to allow a child in a library or bookstore free reign to explore, it is also a good idea for the parent to be aware, just as he or she is aware of what foods are nutritious for the body, what books develop a child’s mind in healthy ways. Publishing for children is, after all, a business, one which is heavily researched and marketed to be delivered in bright shiny packaging designed to lure your child. So be aware, there are books that exploit rather than respect the child. The next time you take your child to pick out books, be involved in the process, find stories you loved as a child and point them out. Don’t forget to get a book for yourself, too. Your example, by way of the value you place on reading, is truly inspirational.

Of course, great children’s literature doesn’t have to be fiction, wonderful nonfiction books such as those by Gail Gibbons, Charlotte Zolotow, and Tana Hoban broaden the child’s knowledge of their immediate environment and answer many of the child’s unasked questions about how the world works.

Below is a link with a list of some outstanding children’s books:

http://www.readingrockets.org/article/75-authorsillustrators-everyone-shouldknow

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Books provide escape and comfort, but they also introduce the eternal questions, Why am I here?, ponder good vs. evil, and inspire us to wonder. My daughter, in her devotion to one of literature’s greatest female role models, Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, would not take off her ruby slippers for weeks, even to go to bed.

Whether you find your inspiration in Candy Fairies or Candide, whether you are reading from a rare first edition or a Kindle, books will always be a journey of egalitarian enlightenment. Follow your heart. The world today needs inspiration.

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So please, oh please, we beg, we pray

Go throw your TV set away

And in its place you can install

A lovely bookshelf on the wall

Roald Dahl – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

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What books have inspired you or your children? I’d love to hear from you.

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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Reading is Cool

 

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

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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: