Category Archives: Uncategorized

(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.

Imagine a Road Trip Without Electronic Devices

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“I wouldn’t have gone without you, and then I might never have seen that – that swan, that sunbeam, that thunderbolt! I might never have heard that entrancing sound, or smelt that bewitching smell! I owe it all to you my best of friends!”

The Wind in the Willows

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From Fairy Tales to Star Wars many of the greatest of stories are about journeys. Despite the fact that the world has gotten smaller via our ability to travel faster and communicate instantly, our daily lives, in many ways, have become more insular with much of our information filtered through the same media, rather than through personal experience. Imagine a family trip without electronic devices. Imagine non-virtual adventure and exploration, tide pools alive with spiny life, and hills of fragile wildflowers. Imagine watching the clouds change from white to rose to silver-gold, or traversing an ancient lakebed where once dinosaurs left giant footprints in the mud.

Video games, with their pretend mastery of pretend enemies that rack pretend points redeemable for pretend awards, distract from all the real wonders that surround us. What do we teach our children metaphorically when we teach them to enjoy the journey? That life is to be experienced now, with all of our senses acute. That life is joyful, sad, anxious, hilarious, soft, hard, sharp, and shiny…that the funny looking mountain just ahead used to be an active volcano, and that the stars above are far, far away and to innumerable to count. When we pick up a book instead of an electronic device we lead our children to a place of respect for literature, enlarge their base of learning, reinforce their comprehension, increase their vocabulary, and introduce a certain knowledge that books are valuable keys to both information and magic.

So, whether your journey is 300 or 3,000 miles, whether you are traveling by car, ship, or airplane, bring books, maps, and guides, instead of electronics. Let your child be involved in the planning process by picking out both fiction and nonfiction reading material pertinent to your trip. Even the very young enjoy creating their own trip journal. Let her draw or paste souvenirs in a blank book while you write down what she has to say. Children are fascinated by seeing their spoken words in print. This technique is often used by teachers in early childhood education as a tool in the attainment of early writing skills. Older children will be proud of being able to draw a picture and write a few sentences by themselves.

Teach your child to navigate, how to use a map scale, and what a compass rose depicts. Math and geography become relevant when one is calculating how far the fragile Monarch Butterfly migrates each year. Imagine your child unfolding a map and tracing the butterfly’s vulnerable 2,000 mile odyssey from Canada and northeastern United States to the high mountains of Mexico. The calm ocean stretching to the horizon becomes alive when you open a book about Pacific Shore Life and learn that bright orange Garibaldi, harmless leopard sharks, and bat rays are just a few of the creatures who play in underwater grottos just off shore, and that deep below, below even where whales swim, there are fish that glow in the impenetrable dark. Children are eager to hear new words: Paleozoic, migrate, metamorphoses, bioluminescent, and will absorb even scientific terms readily when there is a direct connection to the real world. Neurobiologists agree that the mind is wired to learn in a sensory, interdisciplinary, and interactive manner, and that hands on learning has a definitive impact on neuronal connections in the developing brain.

“We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions and helping them explore the things they are most interested in.”

John Holt/educator and author

Synthesized media is, inevitably, a part of a modern child’s daily life. Vacations are designed to free one’s self of daily routine, to see the world, or to simply see the world in new ways. A trip without devices allows time to think, time to imagine, even time to be bored…and to figure out creative solutions to fight boredom. When you get home from your trip, go to the library and pick out more books about the places you have visited. Reflection deepens and broadens first hand experience. There is no telling what will excite your child, perhaps he will want to learn more about fossils, or asteroids, or entomology. Books will open door after door into these new worlds, for it is only when we approach a subject with passionate interest that we truly learn.

So, this summer, build sandcastles instead of Minecraft, take detours, find adventure in unlikely places, and enjoy the journey.

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Man misses breaching Humpback while texting

A Few Thoughts On Annotation

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“In his blue gardens, men and girls went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne, and the stars.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

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Imagine a roomful of high school Sophomores, their paperback Great Gatsby novels decorated with a rainbow of day glow highlighters.

They are preparing for this quiz:

In 3 -5 Sentences:

1. Describe Gatsby

2. Describe Daisy

3. Describe Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship

The tumultuous relationship between Gatsby and Daisy is a many layered, psychologically and socially complex one.

“No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

The meaning behind the two protagonist’s relationship is a question that even experts in the field of modern American literature continue to ponder. And what does “Describe Gatsby” “Describe Daisy” mean? Physically? Emotionally? Intellectually? All in 3-5 sentences? These kinds of questions, for which annotation is supposed to help one prepare, cheapen the extraordinary beauty and depth that F. Scott Fitzgerald so elegantly crafted into The Great Gatsby – the quintessential 20th Century novel that most literary scholars believe is his best.

When reading classic literature, there is a bond that forms between writer and reader. The bond flows back and forth page after page as the reader becomes more immersed in the story. There is certainly no book without an author, but there is also no book without a reader. Without a reader a book is like the sound of a tree falling alone in the forest, or the sound of one hand clapping. The writer and reader fall deeply into a metaphysical conversation, a meeting of minds. Annotating – pausing, highlighting, writing question marks in the margins, etc., disrupts this. Imagine being in a deep, meaningful conversation with someone and interrupting every few minutes to write down pertinent points.

Classic literature enchants. We are meant to fall into the dream of the writer. If the reader doesn’t note all the metaphors, similes, and symbols, don’t worry, leave her free to fall in love with the author’s voice and she will go back to the story again and again-each time learning something new. We bring ourselves and all our assorted opinions, neurosis, and desires to the reading experience. An English teacher’s view of life is going to be very different than a fifteen year old’s. Let the children read in peace. What is the point of analyzing the character’s every move? Students will feel the character’s emotions, and isn’t that far better? And, what does it matter if one doesn’t perform well on a multiple-choice quiz? Has there ever been a multiple-choice quiz that enriches a literary experience?

English teachers ask their classes to annotate key points throughout an assigned book. How are the students to know what is key to the plot in the first few chapters? Let the book reveal its mysteries in its own time-as the author wished.The only reason to annotate a text is to prepare for an exam. The highlighter’s purpose is to lead the student to key characters and events that could pop up in a pop quiz. Sometimes a story is not unlocked until the very end. The author will hand you the key when he or she is ready. Tests are not for the students, they are for the teachers, to prove in black and white that they are teaching something-that their pupils are learning. That is why, so often, teachers “teach to the test” – a practice that is anti-learning, particularly in subjects that are open to interpretation, like literature. Tests on literature are “inside the box” tools, pre-thought out conclusions that demand a “correct” answer, although, often, there is none. How I understood Daisy in High School, and how I understand her now are quite different. Who is to say which interpretation is better? richer? more what the author intended? How can these kinds of responses, which are what reading is all about, be tested and graded for accuracy?

Throw away the highlighters, the flash cards, and the spark notes. Find some dappled shade and just read. Read for fun, read for enlightenment, read for joy, read for pleasure, read to journey to other lands and other centuries, read to learn-about yourself and all the wonders of the world, but don’t read to pass an exam.

“I didn’t know what to say. I felt like crying, Goddammit everybody in the world wants an explanation for your acts and for your very being.”  Jack Kerouac, On the Road

In Praise of Battered Books

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“Do you know that books smell like nutmeg or some spice from a foreign land? I loved to smell them when I was a boy. Lord, there were a lot of lovely books once, before we let them go.”     Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451

I remember my mother sitting on a blue wooden bench absorbed in a paperback detective novel. She was a New Yorker, familiar with bus, train, and subway stations. As soon as I was old enough to read, she advised me, “Always carry a paperback book with you-that way you will never mind waiting.”

And that’s how it began – my collection of battered books. Library books stayed at home, but there was absolute freedom in a paperback, sand in-between the pages, blowing in the wind. It all began with a little girl in blue glitter glasses reading Nancy Drew on the school bus and The Secret Garden in the back seat of the car.  Then, my best friend in middle school introduced me to the dark, lovely, literary, wildness of Ray Bradbury. I’d spend the night at her house, the two of us reading Something Wicked This Way Comes, from one paperback book, under the covers, eating M & M’s, long into the night. As a restless young teenager, I walked the tree lined residential streets of Santa Monica with Walden’s Pond in the back pocket of my jeans. Sitting under the tall Eucalyptus, I’d pretend I was alone in the woods. And then there was the lanky intense boy, one year older, who read Dostoyevsky aloud to me on my front porch steps until the houses around us turned into sharp silhouette and the porch lights blinked on. Our sweet sixteen love lasted one jasmine soaked summer, but he left me Fyodor, and a paper back The Brothers Karamazov whose cover has been taped back on a dozen times.

I was accompanied by Salinger, Ferlinghetti, and Hermann Hesse on my first plane trip to San Francisco. I was seventeen and free – drinking out of tiny cups at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park with my book propped on the table.

I have an old Art Deco style glass case protecting the first editions in my home. When I open the intricately carved doors the musty smell of old paper wafts and mesmerizes. But in my handbag, I have a revolving assortment of paperbacks, content to be jostled about, ignored for days, then read non-stop for hours-like old friends who can be silent together until it’s time to talk deeply.

I have a great reverence for books, and turn the pages carefully in my old and valuable ones, but paper back books get thrown into back packs, go with you on hikes, on camping trips, or barefoot to the beach on a sweltering summer day. They can be left out in the dew all night, and not lose their beauty.

Read them, share them, and when you are ready,leave them behind on a blue bus bench in memory of my mother:

http://www.bookcrossing.com

Why Should You Read the Book Before You See the Movie?

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Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid quests for an Immortal Soul

Disney’s mermaid, Ariel, quests for a Prince Charming.

My fourth grade Book Club recently finished reading James and the Giant Peach. Each meeting was spent reading a chapter or two out loud, taking turns being different characters, and talking about what the words made us think or feel. Raoul Dahl’s descriptive language made is easy to imagine both the scenes and the characters: “For suddenly, just behind him, James heard a rustling of leaves, and he turned around and saw an old man in a crazy dark-green suit emerging from the bushes. He was a very small old man, but he had a huge bald head and a face that was covered all over with bristly black whiskers.”

I was reading from an edition with the original illustrations by Nancy Ekholm Burkert, while the children’s books were more recent editions, illustrated by Quentin Blake. We used this difference to contrast and compare the illustrator’s interpretation of the story. Everyone noticed that my book’s drawings were eerie and mysterious, while theirs were humorous. This led to a discussion about Dahl’s style, how, indeed, his stories were both strangely frightening and oddly funny.

Each one of us imagines a different world when reading James and the Giant Peach, each envisions a different old man. But what if one sees the movie before reading the book? Whose vision would he see? Viewing a movie first limits the ability to imagine own’s one scenes and characters. It stifles the individual’s ability to conjure an alternate reality-one of the truly enchanting aspects of reading. “As with all great art, the fairy tale’s deepest meaning will be different for each person, and different for the same person at various moments in his life. The child will extract different meaning from the same fairy tale, depending on his interests and needs of the moment.” Bruno Bettelheim – The Uses of Enchantment

In the 1996 film adaptation of James and the Giant Peach, Aunt Spiker looks like Joanna Lumley, and Miss Spider is a heavily made up French vamp in a beret and high black leather boots. Not that these portrayals aren’t brilliant, but they are not one’s own. Our imaginations are limitless. Imagination, like dreaming, is a uniquely personal experience; movies, a group one. There is also a very good chance that once a child (or an adult) sees the movie version of a book she will lose interest in reading it. This is especially true of children who are struggling with reading, or teenagers who live in such a fast paced electronic whirlwind that they lose patience with the time it takes to read a novel, particularly a classic novel with somewhat arcane language. If the only experience one has with a particular book is through the movie version, he is missing out on a deeper, richer interpretation of the story. When a child reads a book before seeing a movie he understands the source of the story, makes the connection between written words and the images in the movie. The movie is not seen as an isolated experience. Having read the book allows the child to understand the movie in greater depth. There are many great authors (Pamela Travers, author of the Mary Poppins Series) who have been extremely disappointed with how their works were translated to film. Others, such as Raoul Dahl and Theodore Geisel had works sold posthumously to movie producers because the authors just didn’t believe that the experience that they wanted the reader to have could be translated well into film. Neither Victor Hugo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), A.A.Milne (Winnie the Pooh), nor Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) lived long enough to comment on the animated version of their classic works. So we can only wonder…

Letter, written in 1957 from J.D. Salinger regarding movie rights to Catcher in the Rye:

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http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/29/why-j-d-salinger-never-wanted-a-catcher-in-the-rye-movie/?_r=0

I love good films and would want every child to see the classic 1939 production of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. But read the book first. Let your child step into Dorothy’s slippers and walk the yellow brick road herself before the charming Judy Garland and the rest of her immensely talented companions, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, and Ray Bolger, completely capture her imagination. When a child first reads The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, she will discover that L.Frank Baum wrote a series of Oz books – all quite magical and wild, and rarely read by children today. One good book leads to others.

With very young children there may be other reasons to read the book first and wait until they are older before they see the movie. Child experts have noted that separation anxiety is frequently used as an emotional hook in Disney films. And, although children’s imaginings, when reading or being read to, are profound, they do not normally traumatize as many a villain in Disney movies have.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eO1VvWAVg9Q&feature=youtube_gdata_player

Charming as Disney characters can be, it is important not to lose site of the fact that Disney is a multi-billion dollar industry, thanks to your children. Although there have been recent attempts to break the traditional Princess roles, generally female characters in Disney films give young girls an unrealistic, highly commercialized standard of beauty that reinforces extreme and one dimensional gender role stereotypes. When reading the original fairy tales, there is much more emphasis on the idea that beauty is used as a metaphor for goodness, and not for selling back- packs. There is no question that movies, even those made specifically for children, have become more violent, and more realistic in that violence. This, paired with the easy access to movies in the modern home through internet streaming, cable, etc., is cause for concern. Children today watch far more movies than previous generations. The fast paced editing, garish coloring, casual violence, and loud sound tracks stimulate children who often internalize the conflicting emotions that arise – feelings which, with many children, can cause restlessness, anxiety, and aggressive behavior. Books calm children down, develop their cognitive abilities, and help them feel in control of their emotions. Rather than desensitizing them to violence, books help develop empathy and compassion for others. Often, young children are media illiterate and believe that what they see in the movies is true. They are better able to understand the role that “pretend” plays when reading a book.

In my experience teaching, I am surprised to see how many children don’t realize that their favorite movies began with books, and that some of these stories are over 100 years old – that someone had to first imagine a story and then write it down before a movie could be made. Understanding such simple facts broadens historical perspectives and helps comprehension. I don’t want my young students to think that they know the story of Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Winnie the Pooh, or Alice in Wonderland based on the popular animated versions. I want them to be explorers in the world of literature. I want them to realize the art, truth, and beauty of these original stories.

The key to captivating children on the sultry beauty of language is to start early. Make it a family rule that your child reads the book before he sees the movie. If he is too young to read, read to him. I am a great believer in parents continuing to read stories to children long after they can manage the reading themselves. It is a delightful shared practice that tells your child how much you value literature, and how important it is for you to share that appreciation with him. If you pick the right books, especially those that you loved as a child, you will not regret it. It is a wondrous thing to read great stories aloud.

Finally, reading, because it is active rather than passive, helps to develop logic and cognitive skills. It improves concentration, comprehension, vocabulary, and writing skills. Or, put in a more succinct way:

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Albert Einstein