20 October 2013

Ripples of Kindness

October 16 was Blog Action Day with a focus on human rights.  I missed the actual date, school and life have been hectic this fall, but I wanted to participate, even if my post is late.

When teaching young children about human rights, the focus is different than when talking to older children or adults.  I believe that the foundation of human rights is universal respect and kindness.  If we can teach children to respect others and value differences, and if we instill in them virtues like kindness and tolerance, then, hopefully, their futures will be ones in which people's God-given rights are ensured.

Jacquline Woodson's book Each Kindness offers a lesson to children about how their actions can have a larger affect.  A young girl and her friends ostracize the new girl in their class whose clothes do not fit, whose shoes are never right for the season, who doesn't speak English well, and whose toys are old and battered.  They turn away when she looks on their group longing to be asked to play and rebuff her overtures of friendship.  Then one day the girl is not at school.  A lesson about how an act of kindness is like a pebble dropped in a pool of water -- the effects cause ripples which grow and spread farther than we can see -- makes the main character reflect on how she has treated the girl who was different.  She realizes that she missed an opportunity to be kind when the teacher tells the class a few days later that the girl will not be returning because her family has moved away.

Many children's books wrap up conflicts like this very neatly and offer a resolution that makes the reader feel like, in the end, everything was okay.  Woodson does not offer her readers that pretty package wrapped up with a nice big bow.  The book ends with a feeling of regret and sadness.  But the reader has hope that the next time, when the new girl walks in the class looking different and sounding strange, she will be welcomed and included.

It is not only children who need a lesson on the effects of kindness.  How many of us adults know someone who would benefit from a reminder?  How many of us could use the reminder ourselves?

We will never all agree or believe the same thing.  And it is not necessary, or desirable, that we do so.  But it is necessary that we come to a point where a person's beliefs or way of life are not a seen as a threat because they are different from our own.  And it is necessary that we teach our children that kindness to others in words and in actions is a basic human right.

20 September 2013

Barbarians at the Gate

Fangbone by Michael Rex

A review by Isaac (typed by Mom)

The book was about a boy from a different planet who was a barbarian named Fangbone. And he traveled from that planet to this planet and he ended up in a junkyard.  There was a school nearby so he went to that school and tried to blend in.  He had to fight all these crazy monsters along the way.  And he has a friend named Billy.

There was a war between these crazy monsters because they wanted the Toe of Drool and the leader of the barbarians gave the Toe to Fangbone so he could come this planet.  He becomes Billy's friend.  He goes to Billy's house and tries to find a snack.  He finds hot wings and Fangbone eats the hot wings and his face starts turning red.  He swallows the hot wings and he says to Billy "why did you think I would like this?"  Billy says, "because you are a barbarian.  I thought you would like something hot and spicy."  Then, Fangbone takes Billy to the garage and finds good sports gear to dress up to fight the crazy monsters.  The Toe begins wiggling which means that there are monsters nearby.  A monster starts coming out of the ground and it was a Hound Snake.  It had the head of a hound, the body of a snake, a helmet, and two sharp snake teeth.  They fight the Hound Snake and couldn't defeat it.  Then Billy remembers the hot wings and Billy runs to grab the of wings out of the refrigerator.  When the Hound Snake comes toward him, Billy throws the hot wings in its mouth and it jumps over the fence.  Then they drop the Toe of Drool and a bird picks it up. They chase the bird and Fangbone throws a worm at the bird.  The bird drops the Toe but a squirrel picks it up and they chase the squirrel. Then Fangbone throws an acorn at the squirrel.  The squirrel drops the Toe of Drool and they get it back.

I thought this book was cool and crazy and it was kind of weird that a barbarian traveled to this planet and started going to school.  I think it was a crazy, weird idea that the author wrote this book.  I want to read more about Fangbone and I think other people should, too.

11 September 2013

12 Years

The stories have been shared around the internet all day -- 12 years ago I was . . .

Beginning my teaching career, still in graduate school, working in an elementary school library.  I don't remember how I first heard about the attack, probably through a co-worker who had heard it from someone from outside the school.  Because they didn't want the TV's on in the classrooms, teachers came into the library to watch the news when they had a few minutes away from their students.  I caught snippets of the reports throughout the day, then went home to sit in front of the television and try to make sense of what was going on.

12 years later it still does not make sense.  And teachers have the unenviable task of taking an event like 9/11 and putting it into a context that our students will understand, whether they are 5 or 15.  I remember having conversations with classes one year after the attack and trying to prepare the students for what they might see on TV that night as the nation reflected back on how America had dealt with and been changed by what happened that morning.  I remember hoping and praying that their parents would be present to help them process what they heard and saw.

Now I teach children for whom 9/11 is an unreal event -- they were not born when it occurred so for them it is distant history.  But as a teacher I still have a responsibility to help them process what they hear and see and to help them make sense of this part of our history.  I do that through books.

I have used a handful of stories in the past twelve years to teach about 9/11.  These are some of my favorites.

Fireboat by Maira Kalman I mentioned already when I reflected on our trip to NYC this summer and our visit to the 9/11 Memorial.  This book was the topic of much discussion among my colleagues when it was first published in 2002.  The image of the planes flying into the towers, even as a painting, was thought to possibly be too traumatic for children to see so soon after the attack.  At that time the actual video and images were still shown on TV with regularity.  It was felt by some that children did not need to see it depicted in a picture book.  I used it anyway with my older students.  I believed that if they might see it on TV, possibly without an adult with whom to talk about the image, then seeing it painted in a book I shared with them would certainly not be any more traumatic.  And the story of the crew who took this little boat to fight the fires caused by the falling towers is a lesson in bravery that the students needed to hear.

New York's Bravest by Mary Pope Osborne is also one that I have used many times around the anniversary of the attacks.  It is the retelling of a legendary firefighter who worked in New York in the 1840's.  His feats of heroism had the people singing his praises until he disappeared in a hotel fire.  Until 9/11, this was just another entertaining American tall-tale.  The story gained new meaning, however, in the aftermath.  Osborne included an historical note about the legend and dedicated the book to the 343 New York City firefighters lost that day.

A newer book that is a lovely and touching tribute is 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy.  In 2001 a young man from Kenya was studying in America.  After the attacks, he returned home and told the story of what he had seen and experienced.  His people, the Maasai, dedicated a gift of 14 cows to the people of America to show their support and honor their sacrifices.  This book was published a decade after the attacks and reminds readers that 9/11 did not just happen to America.  It affected the whole world and we have many brothers and sisters who felt our pain.

Just so you know, I cannot read any of these books without crying.  Crying in front of my students is not my preferred presentation style, but every now and then I like to let them know that I am human.  These books touch my heart and I think my emotional connection with the stories helps the students understand the impact of an event that they may not internalize the significance of, but that has had a profound effect on their lives.

09 September 2013

No Matter What

Raising an 8-year-old boy can be hard sometimes.  Friday morning in our house was a prime example.  Isaac and I both ended up in tears on the way to school, Matt was up early and grumpy from having to intervene, and the "I hate (insert parental moniker here)" was thrown out for the first time ever.  All around it was a pretty horrible morning.

We made it through the school and work day and met up back at home in better moods than we had left, but then had to go our separate ways again for football practice and other commitments.  I was drained and all I really wanted to do was spend some time repairing my bond with Isaac and relaxing with Matt so we could reassure each other that we weren't the worst parents in history.

Before we left school Friday afternoon, I put Oh No, Little Dragon by Jim Averbeck in my bag.  It seemed like something Isaac and I needed to read together.  It is a picture book and not on Isaac's reading level, but reading it with him wasn't about moving him up to the next level.  It was about reminding both of us that I love him no matter what -- even if the "what" is a kicking the seat, hitting the headrest, screaming at the top of his lungs tantrum on the way to school.

Little Dragon loses his spark and fears his mother won't love him anymore.  I am not sure if Isaac worried that I didn't love him.  I wondered how he felt about me, though, in the middle of the catastrophe that was our Friday morning.  But Little Dragon's mother reassures him that her love is always with him, which warms him up inside and reignites his spark.

Before Isaac went to class on Friday, I hugged him and told him I loved him.  He hugged me back and we both held on a little longer than usual.  After football practice that evening, the boys made me pumpkin cupcakes for my birthday and we sat down and watched a movie together.  It didn't erase what had happened that morning, but it was an affirmation that we are a family -- we will fight, we will forgive, we will cry and laugh, and we will love each other no matter what.

30 August 2013

Still Marching

I had a TV hooked up in the library with MSNBC playing in the background while I worked on Wednesday.  It was only the third day of school and I hadn't started teaching lessons yet, so I didn't have to worry about the noise disrupting classes or distracting the students with the commercials.  I still missed the first part of Obama's speech, though, since he was beginning as our dismissal bell was ringing.  But I was back in time to hear this line: "That tireless teacher who gets to class early and stays late and dips into her own pocket to buy supplies because she believes that every child is her charge -- she's marching." I had tears in my eyes.

I went to get Isaac out of the after school program so he could watch the broadcast of King's "I Have a Dream" speech with me.  I had played a video during my children's sermon on Sunday because our scripture was about loving all God's people, but we hadn't talked about it much other than that.  I told Isaac the story of how King improvised the "I Have a Dream" portion of the speech and we watched and listened for the shift in tone.  And he brought me tissues when I teared up again.  

I was rather disappointed that the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington fell the first week of school.  So much is going on those first few days that it is hard to stop and take the time to teach about an event like that.  We were focused on teaching procedures and rules and creating community in the classrooms and building relationships.  All of those things are essential to a successful year, but I feel like we missed an opportunity.

Over the past decade I have read and taught with many books about the Civil Rights Movement.  There are so many good ones.  Some beautiful picture book biographies about Dr. and Coretta King have been written in the past couple of years.  Last year Kadir Nelson illustrated the text of the "I Have a Dream" speech.  The combination of the words and his paintings will bring tears to your eyes.  He also illustrated Ntozake Shange's biography of Coretta Scott King.  Nikki Giovann's biography of Rosa Parks, illustrated by Bryan Collier, who also illustrated Doreen Rappaport's Martin Big Words, is a lovely tribute to that Civil Rights pioneer.  

Those are all wonderful biographies of people that the students learn about every year.  But the books that really bring the struggle home to me, and that I like to use with students, are the fictional stories that depict the era from a child's point of view.  Wednesday night I read Isaac The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson.  It is the story about two girls growing up in the south in a town with a fence dividing them -- blacks on one side, whites on the other.  They overcome this physical hurdle to become friends despite the scorn of their peers and the worry of their mothers.  It ends with a hopeful picture of a future when the fence will no longer exist.  This evening I read him Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles.  This story is more raw than the sweet innocence of two girls in Woodson's story. Two best friends, one black and one white, look forward to swimming together in the newly integrated town pool in the summer of 1964, only to get there and find that it has been filled in with asphalt, the towns people preferring to do without the summer past-time rather than share it with the blacks in their community.  Both of these stories had Isaac going to fetch me tissue, but for different reasons.  I cried reading The Other Side because it made me hopeful.  I cried reading Freedom Summer because it made me angry.  

The other book that I can never read without crying when I try to teach with it, and which I have not yet read to Isaac, figuring one teary book a day is enough, is Goin' Someplace Special by Patricia McKissack.  In this story, a young black girl convinces her grandmother to allow her to go to "someplace special" by herself.  Reluctantly her grandmother sees her on her way.  On her journey the girl is subjected to racism and scorn that her grandmother usually shields her from, but she finally reaches her destination -- the Nashville Public Library, the first integrated library in the south.  Yes, I am tearing up even writing about the book.

I could list so many other books that are well-written and beautifully illustrated and that give homage to the people who have worked to make Jim Crow laws and "Whites Only" signs a thing of the past.  I could also send you to the Coretta Scott King Book Award page to see the books that have been awarded honors for demonstrating "an appreciation for African American culture and universal human values."  Or I could invite you to visit a school and see white and black and Asian and Hispanic children playing and learning together, because that is where King's dream is being lived out and taking root in another generation.  It is not fully realized yet, but it is still growing in the hopes and dreams of the children who read these books and hear these stories.  And I am thankful that I get to be one of the teachers who is marching to help nurture them.

26 August 2013

Summer Reading in Review

School started today.  It was Isaac's first day of 3rd grade. He turned 8 three weeks ago and he is now making his own lunch and learning to do his own laundry.  He is definitely not the baby I brought home from the hospital what seems like an eternity ago.

Okay, enough maudlin nostalgia.  

Over the summer I shared with Isaac some of my favorite characters from books I loved when I was growing up and he read a book that was assigned by the third grade teachers.  

I remember reading Beverly Cleary's Ramona books when I was Isaac's age.  I love reading series and I devoured Cleary's books about the precocious Ramona and her family.  I also read every Henry Huggins book she wrote.  On a trip to the library I let Isaac pick out one and we brought home Ramona's World to read.  This one came out when I was an adult. I had read it when I first started working in the library, but I didn't remember the plot.  Books that I read as a child have stuck in my head much better than books I read last month, so it was like Isaac and I were reading it together for the first time.  We would read a couple of chapters a night, just enough to keep Isaac's interest piqued so he would want to continue the story the next evening.  Ramona is a universal character -- one that boys and girls can both enjoy.  She is sweet, yet mischievous, but rarely purposefully mean.  She is a typical kid whom children can still relate to after decades in print.  I like her so much better than Junie B. Jones and I think Isaac does now, too.

Another series I loved was Encyclopedia Brown.  We have ebooks at school and Isaac and I had read a digital version of the first book in the series, then he picked out another one at the library this summer.  These books are a good example of how text complexity is important when helping children choose books.  Isaac and I read these books together and while the book is technically on Isaac's reading level, I often had to explain how Encyclopedia came to his conclusions or solved the cases.  The scenarios were just a little too advanced for him to understand or they required background knowledge that he didn't have.  Isaac really likes the books though, and the format is easy to read since each chapter stands alone as a "case," so I think I will encourage him to revisit these books next summer.

For school this fall, the third grade teachers wanted the rising third graders to all read Freckly Juice by Judy Blume.  They have a beginning of the year unit planned around the book, so we checked it out of the library.  I made Isaac read at least twenty minutes most days during the summer, but I also read aloud to him.  Since this book was an assignment, I made him read it himself.  I don't remember reading this one as a child, so I couldn't tell from Isaac's abbreviated summary if he had actually read it or not.  The week before school started I decided we would read it again, together, so it would be fresh in his mind for this week.  Unfortunately, it was not his favorite story and he found it "boring."  But I am confident that the teachers will make the unit fun, and there are great themes in the book that we explore at the beginning of the year as we build classroom communities that Isaac will be able to connect to.  Maybe they will even make "Freckle Juice."  Isaac wasn't interested in making it at home and I have to admit, I wasn't too keen to try it either.

We read other books, too, this summer -- some comic books, a Ripley's Believe It or Not style fact book, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants, Sports Illustrated for Kids.  Isaac still loves being read to, but is less enthusiastic about reading for himself.  Third grade is often considered the grade when students are no longer learning to read, they are reading to learn.  So, it is important for Isaac to be able to read and comprehend since instruction will be heavily focused on information and non-fiction.  But it is also important for him to want to read -- to be curious and engaged.  Finding the right balance and the right fit is going to be a major part of our reading journey this year.

25 August 2013

Promoting Faith

It was promotion Sunday today at church.  Each August, at the beginning of the new Sunday School year, our church hosts a breakfast at which they introduce the Sunday School teachers and recognize students who are moving up to a new class.  Children who are changing classes receive a new Bible or a book to help them along their faith journey.

A child who grows up in our church receives seven books between their dedication as an infant and their graduation from high school.  And each time, the church renews its commitment to the children to be a community of faith which supports and nurtures them.  

Today Isaac moved up to the 3rd-5th grade Sunday School class and was given a new Bible, the NIV Adventure Bible.  He has a wonderful group of teachers who will be guiding him this year in his new class.  He has now been given four of the seven books that he will receive from the church.

These are the words the congregation said after the children were recognized this morning:

Renewal of Commitment to the Children and Youth of College Park
Children and youth of College Park, as your church family, we affirm that you are children of God, beautifully and wonderfully made in God's own image.  We value the uniqueness of each one of you, and we commit ourselves to being a place of steadfast love and support as you continue in this life journey.  We promise to teach you the gifts and stories of the Christian faith; to encourage you as you question, challenge and explore your faith; and to model for you the radical ministry of Jesus Christ, so that you too might boldly live out your faith with others.

Four years ago, when he moved from the toddler class to the 4 year-old Sunday School class, Isaac got an illustrated book of the Psalms.  I think this is one of my favorite moments ever and one I pictured today.

Once again, I was reminded how lucky we are to belong to a church that loves our son so completely.

18 August 2013

Beginning Again

It is the beginning of a new year.  Summer usually refreshes me and by the middle of August I am ready to return to the routine of the school year.  But, this year, as I looked toward the week of teacher workdays and the first day of school, I was already tired.  It has been a hard summer for educators in North Carolina.  I worried, as I prepared to work with my colleagues to get ready for our students, what the atmosphere will be like.  Will morale be low?  Will everyone be stressed out before we even begin?  The other day as I drove through town I wondered how much longer I could or would do this.  Maybe, I thought, it is time to find something new.


This morning at church our friend Daniel preached about leaving work unfinished.  Often we grieve or feel guilty that we have not accomplished what we set out to.  We focus on the result.  Daniel reminded us that we need to focus on the process of our work, rather than look for an end to it.  

Teaching is a process.  We are one stop along our students' paths and we may or may not find out where they end up.  August is not the beginning of something new as much as it is a continuation of what came before.  June does not bring an end to our work.  It is merely a pause in the process.  

I am fortunate that my position allows me to follow students through their elementary years and see how they grow from chubby kindergartners to sophisticated pre-teens.  I can follow their progress throughout the year, wish them well for the summer, and welcome them back in the fall.  Eventually they move on to middle school, but the work has not ended.  The process continues. 


We started camping again this summer.  We took weekend trips, slept in a tent, cooked over a camp fire, went to bed shortly after sunset and rose shortly after sunrise.  I left my e-reader on my nightstand and read "real" books.  On a couple of the trips I even left my phone at home.  I floated in a lake, sat in a camp chair and watched the flames dance in the fire pit, gazed at the stars, and enjoyed the sound of the crickets.

I allowed my body to set the schedule on these trips rather than the clock.  I enjoyed sitting and doing nothing.  I disconnected from the world and reconnected with my family and myself.  I didn't worry about what had to get done.  I left things at home unfinished and was okay with that.


Daniel's message was exactly what I needed to hear this morning.  I needed the reminder that I will not get up tomorrow and every day after and go to school to finish my work.  I will go to engage in a process that is valuable, if sometimes not valued.  I will not see the results of my work in a few days or weeks or months and that is okay.  

And I needed to remind myself that it is okay to take the time to recharge and disconnect, to withdraw from the process briefly so that I can more fully engage in it when I return.  


Isaac is excited about going to school.  He wishes he started tomorrow rather than next Monday.  I may not be able to muster the same level of excitement.  It would, after all, be nice to be back in the tent tonight listening to the crickets with my alarm clock far away, able to wake up with the sun, not before it.

But I will get up in the morning and I will get ready for the work ahead.  I will remind myself that my purpose is not to be finished at the end of the day, it is simply to be ready to keep going.  It's true, you know, "a teacher's work is never done."   Daniel reminded me this morning to be thankful for that.  

07 August 2013

The Games We Play

We have always been a family that plays games, board and card games that is.  Matt and I played a lot of Scrabble and Monopoly when we were first married.  I also taught him how to play Cribbage so I would have someone to play with besides my grandfather.  We periodically had friends over for game nights and have added to our collection of fun group games.

We started playing games with Isaac as soon as he was able, which we insisted was younger than the ages noted on the boxes and in the game instructions.  We went through Candy Land and Don't Break the Ice and have added to our collection of "kid" games in the past eight years.  Some we have also given away as soon as Isaac would part with it.  Hungry Hungry Hippos is just so loud!

Last year we started playing "Euro" games.  These games are more strategy based and are usually focused around economic rather than military themes.  We started with Settlers of Catan and have expanded our repertoire in the past few months.  We still like to play as a family and look for games that can be played by three players and that we think Isaac will be able to learn.

On many Friday nights you can often find us at Geeksboro Coffehouse Cinema for game night.  A local game club brings in a collection of games for people to play.  It is rare that Isaac does not ask to go.  We try to find a new game each time and also play something that is familiar.  It has become one of our favorite family outings.

I thought I would share some of the games, Euro and traditional, that Isaac has particularly liked over the years.

Stratego: We have an old version.  The box is disintegrating.  This war strategy, capture-the-flag game has been around forever.  Matt taught Isaac to play it when he was four.  Isaac likes to cheat.

Chuck-It-Chicken: This is silly kids' game, but one that I find less tedious than others.  Players try to get their hens to the rooster at the top of the henhouse while other players attempt to knock their hens down with a rolling egg.

Marvel The Incredible Hulk Smash:  If I never have to play this game again I will be happy.  The set up is a pain since you have to build your pieces out of playdo.  Then players move pieces around the board or Smash other players' pieces to keep them from reaching the finish line.  Obviously, the smashing part is where the fun comes in.

Uno:  We taught Isaac this game a few years ago.  This series is great for number and color recognition.  Our deck is a Batman: Dark Night version we found at Target on clearance.  Isaac has never seen the movie, but knows all of the characters.

Pictureka:  This is a timed picture recognition game where players are trying to win cards by spotting the picture first. Not my favorite.

Cirkus:  This is a strategic tile game where players are trying to score points by completing shapes before their opponent.  Isaac beats me almost every time.

Swap/Ratuki/Skipbo: More fast-paced card games.  These are also great for quick number recognition.  Games do not take too long so these are good to play when attention spans are short.

Loot:  In this game players are trying to win treasure by playing their pirate ships.  You have an edge if you are holding one of the captains or the admiral.

Blackjack:  Matt taught Isaac this card game to help him with his math skills.  It was scary how quickly he caught on.

Yahtzee:  More math skills.  I played this a lot with my family growing up.  It was nice to continue the tradition with Isaac.

Settlers of Catan:  Our first Eurogame.  Players try to earn victory points while building roads and settlements.  Lots of strategy involved and some cooperation is needed as players barter and trade.

Ticket to Ride:  In this game, players try to connect cities on a map by building train tracks.  Failing to connect all of your cities will lose you the game. I know this first hand.

TransAmerica:  This is similar to Ticket to Ride, but Isaac likes it better.  It is faster paced and players can piggy-back on to tracks other players have put down to help them reach their destinations.  Both of these "train track" games are good at beginning map recognition.  Isaac is not necessarily learning detailed American geography, but he is starting to recognize the names and locations of major American cities.

Flux:  This is a card game that is different each time you play.  Players try to match a goal by playing different kinds or cards.  The rules change throughout the course of play, hence the name.  A game could take ten minutes or a half hour.

Aquarius:  Another card game.  This one reminds me of dominoes as players try to connect seven cards that match their picture goal, which is one of the seven earthly elements.  The player with the longest hair always gets to go first.  Score!

Love Letters:  Matt and I flummoxed that this has become one of Isaac's favorite games.  It is a deceptively simple 16-card game in which players try to get their love letter to the Princess.  At the end, the player whose card is closest in rank to the Princess wins.  It is a game of nuanced courtly intrigue, which Isaac doesn't understand at all.  But he knows which cards beat what and don't think he won't win.

We bought a few more games this past weekend at a nice game store in Wilmington -- Smash Up, Spot It and Befuzzled.  Smash Up will be a favorite with Matt and me and I think Isaac will like it once he learns.  (It is always best to learn and play the game at least once before trying to teach an eight year old.)  We hope to try the other games soon.

Anyone want to come over for a game night?

02 August 2013

5 Conversations This Liberal Christian Will Have With Her Son

Before we went to New York a few weeks ago, I downloaded 5 Conversations You Must Have With Your Son by Vicki Courtney.  I didn't know much about it -- it was one of those that showed up as a recent upload as I was browsing through the digital library one day.  It was fairly short so I thought it would be a quick read for the plane flight.  It ended up taking me about two weeks to finish.

Courtney is an Evangelical Christian who has developed a ministry around youth culture and parenting.  I am a Christian, but not an evangelical.  You could say I am a progressive.  You could even go so far as to say that I am a liberal Christian, though I do have conservative tendencies (it's hard to completely shake your upbringing).  I have been Dutch Reformed, Methodist and now non-Southern Baptist.  I belonged to the student Christian group in college and have been to retreats and prayer meetings and study groups.

The reason that what I thought would be a quick read ended up being a two week endeavor was because I was so distracted while reading the book by the disconnect between Courtney's language and my personal experience.  I have never been comfortable with evangelical language -- terms like prayer warrior, Godly person and the like cause me to move away from a conversation rather than draw me in.  And my personal beliefs are much more fluid than the black-and-white views espoused by many evangelicals.  I am also not comfortable with Biblical quotes being used out of context to support an argument or with scriptures thrown into a sentence as an example of appropriate behaviors.  For me, the Bible is a complete work with a large message and extracting small pieces to use in a debate or to give credence to a belief without providing context within the larger work is counter to its intended use. 

I soldiered through the book because, despite the rather large gulf between my approach to some situations that Courtney uses as examples and her way of handling them, I thought there were some lessons that I could take away.  I am, after all, raising a son and there are issues that are universal for all mothers and parents as our sons grow up.  So this is my interpretation of the 5 conversations that Courtney lays out in her book as being essential when raising a boy to adulthood.

Conversation #1 -- "Don't define manhood by the culture's wimpy standards. It's OK to be a Man!"

In this first conversation, Courtney describes what it means (to her) to be a man.  Think Wrangler Man, rather than an effeminate metro-sexual (or worse if you read between the lines).  Her message is for boys/men not to follow popular culture's less-than-manly examples and be the man that God intended them to be.  While I have differing views on what I think my son needs to hear about the kind of person he should emulate, there are good points in this chapter for mothers of sons to remember.  She reminds moms that boys need adventure, they will be daredevils and more than once our hearts will leap into our throats when we hear of their latest dangerous escapade.  Boys will be boys, and we need to let them.  She also reminds us not to be "helicopter" moms.  Boys will learn from their mistakes only if they are allowed to make them.  If mom is always there saving the day, the consequences of their actions will never become real to them.

I agree with Courtney that the image of a "man" that popular culture has defined may not be the one that I want Isaac to follow.  But rather than holding up an alternative image for him, like that of the Wrangler Man, I would instead encourage Isaac to look around and define for himself what he thinks a man should be.  He has many great examples in his life to go to for inspiration.  And in the end it will be up to him to define the kind of man/person he will be.  My job is to help him explore who he is so that he will have a strong sense of self.  My prayer for him is that he will feel comfortable being himself in whatever form that takes despite the pressure he may feel to fit in with others' expectations.

Conversation #2 -- "What you don't learn to conquer may become your master."

In this second section, Courtney explains how important it is to teach our sons self-control.  Boys tend to act before they think.  Hence the times that our mom hearts will be in our throats worried about them.  She delves into brain research that shows that male brains are not wired for self-control early in their lives.  They do not naturally think through consequences before taking action.  Obviously, this is not true for all boys -- there are always exceptions to the rule.  But she does cite Michael Gurian and other brain research about boys and I have seen evidence of this trait in my teaching and in my own parenting.  So, it is our job as moms to help our sons understand that actions have consequences.  A large part of this section was centered around talking with sons about the danger of pornography and the harm it can cause for themselves and their future relationships.

I agree with Courtney that it is important to teach Isaac to be able to moderate his behaviors.  My conversations will be less about temptation and sin, however, and more about responsibility and compassion for others.  One of my issues with the Evangelical message, at least the message that I hear as someone outside the movement, is the lack of focus on our responsibility as Christians to help others.  For me, being a Christian is not mainly about what I can do or not do to get into Heaven.  It is about what should I be doing to help my fellow man, Christian or not, and what should I be learning from the scriptures as a whole rather than from a passage here or there.  My job is to help Isaac learn to think for himself -- that includes thinking through how his actions will affect his life and the lives of others.  My prayer for him is that he will think more often about how he can help others than how he can help himself.

Conversation #3 -- "Not everyone's doing it! (And other naked truths about sex you won't hear in the locker room.)"

Courtney basically has one message in this section -- don't have sex before you are married.  She goes through physical, emotional and spiritual reasons for abstaining, but her message is black and white.  No sex before marriage.  She refers back to the self-control that boys need to learn from the second conversation which will obviously be needed for boys, or girls, to follow this path.

As much as I may disagree with the way Courtney delivers this message, as a mother I would prefer that my son abstain until he meets the person he decides to marry.  But, I think I have mentioned before that I am a realist.  I don't expect that to happen.  There are aspects of Courtney's conversation that I find valuable.  Teaching boys (and girls) what sex is and is not is important.  Teaching them to have a healthy and realistic attitude about sex is important.  But teaching them that abstinence is the only way is not responsible.  My main concern when it comes to sex is Isaac's physical and emotional safety.  He will need to know how to protect himself and his partner from diseases and from pregnancy.  He will also need to know how to choose a partner that will value him personally not just physically.  My job is to help Isaac grow up with a healthy and responsible outlook on sex.  My prayer for him is that he finds a partner(s) who fulfills him emotionally and enriches his life in other (not physical) ways.

Conversation #4 -- "Boyhood is only for a season.  P.S.: It's time to grow up!"

This conversation is probably the one that I gleaned the most helpful information from.  Courtney addresses the tendency among many men (and really all young adults) to delay independence.  Some of this problem can be attributed to those "helicopter" moms who did not prepare their children to be on their own.  Some of this problem is due to the financial mess that our country has been facing.  In this section the message is to grow up, move out, and take responsibility for your life.  She also spends a part of this section discussing what she sees as the problem of people getting married later in life.  This connects back to her message of abstinence, which is a more palatable message if a young person thinks about getting married in their early 20's rather than their late 20's as Courtney encourages them to do.  For me, outside of the marriage discussion, this part of the book offered more practical, usable advice than the rest of the conversations combined.

Most mothers want their sons to grow up and have lives of their own.  But they cannot achieve that without our help.  Courtney explains some ways that she and her husband helped prepare their children to be responsibly independent -- agreements and contracts when they got their licenses and first cars, talks about finances, contracts when going to college and expectations that were individual to the child.  So many young adults get caught up in debt or have unrealistic expectations about what it will be like to live on their own.  Many are not prepared for the responsibilities of paying rent, buying food, paying bills, holding down a job.  Children need to see examples and learn what their lives may be like, good and bad, once they are not under their parents' roofs anymore. My job is to teach Isaac to be able to take care of himself and to let him go once he is ready to do that.  My prayer for him is that he will find success and happiness as he builds a life of his own.

Conversation #5 -- "Godly men are in short supply. Dare to become one!"

Courtney stresses in this section the importance of male role models for young and teen boys.  To understand the kind of person they should want to become they need to see that kind of person living out their life.  She tells moms that if they do not have a role model in their son's life to find one.  And, of course, your son's role model should be a "Godly" man who exemplifies most, if not all, of the attributes that she has noted previously in the book.  Good luck finding that!

Positive male role models are important to boys.  But I also think it is important for boys to see many different types of men.  There are men of other faiths who I think are good role models for Isaac.  There are gay men whom I think he can look up to.  There are Christian men whom I would warn him to look at critically and heterosexual men whose lifestyles I would not want him to emulate.  No role model is perfect because they are human.  And boys need to see that, too -- the imperfectness of their heroes.  Sometimes the imperfection can kill the hero worship.  Sometimes it can make that person an even stronger influence because the boy can see how his idol overcomes his weaknesses.  I want Isaac to be able to look around him and discern what examples he should hold in his heart and which ones he should dismiss.  He will only be able to do that if he is exposed to people outside our group of friends or outside our church or outside our community.  My job is to broaden Isaac's world view and bring him into contact with people who will help him grow and from whom he can learn.  My prayer for him is that he will be surrounded by people who love and support him throughout his life and that he remembers that people will see God through his actions.

26 July 2013

"Dappled and Drowsy and Ready to Sleep"

Isaac decided a few years ago that he is going to own a zoo when he grows up.  And Matt and I are going to work there.  This idea has stuck, though it has morphed a little -- now he will own the zoo and Matt and I will work there while Isaac is an absentee-owner off playing pro-football.  I am not sure how to realistically support his football dreams, but I am all for him following the zookeeper path.

We have spent a lot of time at zoos in the past 8 years.  We have a nice zoological park less than an hour away and in town there is an impressive smaller zoo that we like to visit.  On vacation last month we went to the Prospect Park Zoo and the New York Aquarium.  I am glad to provide Isaac with experiences to support his interest.  There are worse goals in life than to take care of animals, and most zoos are involved in conservation and environmental education efforts -- endeavors which I believe are important.

On my end, I have decided that if I am going to be working at a zoo, shoveling animal poop and creating enrichment toys, then I want to work with the sloths.  I kind of like these funny looking animals and their outlook on life, though not as much as Kristen Bell does.  Isaac likes them, too, so I am confident he will include them in his exhibits.  We saw a sloth when we were in Costa Rica a few summers ago, though we were looking through a magnifying scope at the sloth sleeping in a tree a hundred feet or so above us.  But the experience of seeing this exotic, elusive animal, even from so great a distance, has stuck with Isaac.

At book fair last spring, there was a book that can only be described as adorable that Isaac picked out.  It is adorable because of the subject matter -- baby sloths.  A Little Book of Sloths by Lucy Cooke chronicles the adventures at the Sloth Sanctuary in Costa Rica where baby sloths lounge around, play and cuddle.  Reading this book meets your cuteness quota for about two years.  There is not much factual information about sloths in the book.  The author and photographer is more focused on showing the animals' personalities than explaining their biology or habitat needs.  But for a kid (or adult) who is fascinated by this deceptively lazy animal, this book provides beautiful and entertaining images.

I can't look at a sloth or read a description of their "laziness" without also thinking of Eric Carle's book "Slowly, Slowly, Slowly," Said the Sloth.  In this story, jungle animals passing by the sloth, who is hanging out in his tree, ask him why he is so lazy.  His response refutes their assumption and offers up a smorgasbord of fun, rich vocabulary words.  He is not lazy -- he simply likes to take his time and do things slowly.

Isaac has taken to describing himself as a sloth, mainly because Matt and I frequently express our frustration about his reaction time to our requests, usually ones that he would prefer to pretend not to hear.  But it is summer and it is time for us all to take a lesson from a sloth.  We are not being lazy -- we are just choosing to do things, slowly, slowly, slowly.  As Simon and Garfunkle remind us, "Slow down, you move too fast."

20 July 2013

No Princes Needed and Other Thoughts

I have some comic book recommendations to pass along.  Matt and Isaac are bigger fans of comics than I am, but I have found a couple recently that I really like.  I am even thinking of setting up a subscription at our local store to make sure that I do not miss any issues.


Matt discovered Princeless a little over a year ago.  We recommend it to friends who have daughters, but it is great for boys, too, and Isaac likes it.  The story is about the Kingdom of Ashland and its Royal Family, the Ashes.  They have seven daughters and one son.  As each daughter reaches marriageable age, their father the king locks them in a tower to be rescued by a brave knight.  This works fine, except the knights, though brave, are not able to defeat the dragon/curse/monster/etc. that guard the girls.  The next to youngest daughter gets impatient and frustrated waiting to be saved and thinks it terribly unfair that she and her sisters have to be locked up.  She saves herself by befriending her dragon, disguises herself as a knight, and sets off on an adventure to save her six sisters.

I had a mentor early in my career who got excited whenever a new children's book came out that featured a strong female protagonist.  She loved books like Alice the Fairy by David Shannon and
Apples to Oregon: Being the (Slightly) True Narrative of How a Brave Pioneer Father Brought Apples, Peaches, Pears, Plums, Grapes, and Cherries (and Children) Across the Plains by Deborah Hopkinson because the girls in them were interesting and independent.  During my first few years teaching my mindset was also attuned to looking for books about strong girls.  My colleague has since retired and the focus in education has shifted due a concern that boys are not reading on the same level as girls.  And I am raising a son now so we read books at home that interest him.  It is conventional wisdom that girls will read books with main characters of either gender, but boys are less inclined to read books about girls.  For the most part, this holds true.  But there are books about girls that cross-over to boys.  When Isaac bought How to Steal a Dog, I was surprised and pleased.  The main character is a girl but the plot is one that will engage a boy.  

I think Princeless is one of those cross-over books.  There is adventure and Adrienne, the main character, has a sarcastic wit that will appeal to boys.  There is also a message that girls are just as strong as boys and should be valued on their abilities, not on their looks, that boys will benefit from reading.  Pixar tried to do with Brave what Jeremy Whitley has accomplished with his comics.  I ranted about Brave last year, so I won't repeat myself.  Princeless succeeds in creating a story about a girl who doesn't need a prince to save her that is fun and entertaining for girls and boys without having to emasculate all of the male characters in the story.  (Sidenote: Whenever I read this comic I also hear in my head Jonathan Coulton's song "The Princess Who Saved Herself.")


In the Free Comic Book Day bag this year was an issue of Finding Gossamyr.  It is the story of siblings Denny and Jenna.  Denny, who is autistic (or so the story leads you to believe) solves a theorem that opens a portal to another world in which everything is governed by the principles of mathematics.  The siblings are transported and their adventures begin.  There are good guys and bad guys, and good guys who may be bad guys, and vice versa.  People are healed with a magic derived from a math formula and answers are solved by working out long equations.  There are three chapters published, so the story is just beginning.  I really like this one so far and am looking forward to following the series.  


When we stopped by our local comic store yesterday, the owner recommended a new Batman comic to us, Batman '66.  It is based on the old 1960's TV show starring Adam West and Burt Ward.  The characters are drawn to look like the actors from the show and the story reads like a script from one of the episodes, with some modern ideas thrown in.  It was fun to read (I actually read this one to Isaac myself last night).  The story is much sillier than more modern Batman stories, but the show was pretty silly itself.  Isaac and I enjoyed this new one and will be reading more.


I provided links to the comics I mentioned so that you can see what they look like.  I would encourage you to purchase them at your local comic book store rather than buying them online or from a large retailer.  You will get more personal help from people who know the genre and maybe even discover something new.  In Greensboro, check out Acme Comics/Acme Comics Presents on Lawndale.

And if you like Coulton's song "The Princess Who Saved Herself, check out his Zombie song.  It is Isaac's favorite.

16 July 2013

Who are Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman? A letter to Isaac explaining as best I can.

Dear Isaac,

Last Sunday on the way to church, you asked that question in response to a story we heard on NPR.  It was the big news of the morning because the jury had come to a decision the night before and many people in the country had been waiting for the verdict.

Your father and I explained the basic facts of the case and what the jury had decided. But they do not come close to explaining who Trayvon Martin was, who George Zimmerman is, or what the case was really about.  Based on what the law says and the evidence that was presented for the jurors in the courtroom, I believe that the decision that was handed down was the right one.  That does not mean that I also think that what George Zimmerman did was right or that I defend his actions.  But we are a nation that is governed by the rule of law and a system is in place to ensure that the actions of men and women in our country are brought before our courts.  A person's guilt or innocence is decided based on facts, not emotions or biases. If the facts prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the person is punished in a way that has already been determined by the law.  If the facts do not prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the person is free. This system protects people from being punished for crimes they did not commit or from being punished too harshly.

But Isaac, we have to remember that our government and our laws were created, written and are carried out by people who are not perfect, who make mistakes and who view the world through their own sets of biases and beliefs.  The system does not always work and our laws are not always fair.  Though I know that it does not always work the way it was meant to, I believe that our system of government is a good and just one.  It is people who corrupt it and people who hurt others.  There are a few questions that I hope will be looked at more closely as a result of this case by people who come to the table with a mind to heal the hurts, not simply bandage the wound.

Why was George Zimmerman patrolling his neighborhood with a loaded gun?  This is an important question for me.  I don't want you to think that I don't want people to own guns, but knowing that someone is walking around our neighborhood with a loaded gun looking for troublemakers would not make me feel safe.  Zimmerman's gun gave him the power to protect himself at the cost of Trayvon Martin's life.  But what if the gun had gone off during the altercation and killed an innocent bystander?  By having a gun, Zimmerman felt powerful.  That power, possibly, made him engage in an interaction that he otherwise would have avoided.  It is one thing to drive around your neighborhood and make sure nothing "funny" is going on and alert the authorities if you see anything that looks suspicious.  It is another to take on the role of neighborhood protector/defender.  Isaac, if you ever own a gun -- and let's face it, since you are your father's son, you probably will at some point in your life -- you need to remember that ownership of a gun means that you need to be more careful, not less so.  Having a gun does not mean you are automatically protected against threats.  It means that you need to take great care to protect others against the threat you pose once you hold that weapon in your hands.

What is self-defense?  Your father and I have told you that we would support you if you struck back at someone who hits you first.  You would be defending yourself. (But, please never do this on school grounds, at least not at as long as I am still teaching.)  But if you hit someone because you believed they were about to hit you, then, I am sorry son, you would be in a world of trouble.  But, by definition of the law as it stands in Florida (and other states), you would be within your rights.  By law, George Zimmerman did not have to be in imminent danger, he just had to believe that he was in imminent danger before he defended himself, in this case with a lethal weapon.  We were not there.  We do not know what was actually happening -- who was the aggressor, who hit whom first, who was holding whom down.  But to take violent action against someone because you think he might be a threat to your life is not self-defense.  Not by my definition.  And this, Isaac, is where I think the law is wrong.  But I am not a legal expert.  That is simply my gut feeling.  And if someone walked into our house and I thought he was going to hurt you, I cannot say that I would not find a weapon and make sure he could do no harm to you or anyone else, ever.  And I would probably claim self-defense. I do not know what it feels like to wonder if I am going to live through the next few minutes, and I pray that I will never know what it feels like to wonder if you will live to see your next birthday.

Why do we have gated communities?  I think this is the most troubling of the questions that I have asked myself as the incident was flushed out through various news outlets, and as the trial went on, and now as the analysis of the process and the various opinions are written in the aftermath.  Throughout history there have been the "haves" and the "have-nots."  There have been the privileged classes who live inside their walls so they do not have to interact with the lower classes.  George Zimmerman was patrolling his gated community because there had been break-ins and trouble from, supposedly, people who did not belong in the neighborhood.  He saw Trayvon Martin and assumed he was one of the people on whom these "troubles" could be blamed.  Martin did not belong there.  He was an outsider and Zimmerman was suspicious of anyone who was not part of his community.  Now in reality, Isaac, Trayvon Marton, was visiting a friend, had walked to the store and was on his way back to the house he was visiting.  He was a guest in that community.  Instead of inquiring where he was going and trying to interact with this guest, Zimmerman was suspicious and angry that Martin had come within the boundaries of his safe haven.  Martin was unknown and therefore not to be trusted.  Isaac, I hope your father and I have taught you to be open and welcoming to people outside your "group."  If our society continues to put up walls, then there will be more Trayvon Martin's and more George Zimmerman's.  You are being raised in a church family, Isaac.  And it is a church family that, I believe, is good at opening its doors to outsiders.  It will be up to your generation to take down the gates and the walls and the tracks that divide society.  As long as they stand, the message of love and tolerance and equality that we are supposed to take to heart will be muted by the false boundaries that these boundaries erect.

What image do you project to society?  This, Isaac, is where I go a bit right-wing on you.  Brace yourself.  You are not quite eight as I write this and we have not had major battles about how you dress.  I do not fuss about whether your athletic shorts match your t-shirt and I only make you "dress-up" for special occasions.  I try to respect who you are and what makes you comfortable.  Thus far, you have probably assumed that I sympathize with the people who are angered by Trayvon Martin's death and George Zimmerman's acquittal.  This is where I switch things up.  Trayvon Martin was wearing a "hoodie" pulled up over his head and "walking slowly" the night Zimmerman confronted him and was shot.  What Martin did after that we will never know because he is not here to tell us.  What we can assume, though Zimmerman did not take the stand to testify to this, is that what he saw when he looked at Martin walking down the street was a young man who was part of a culture that was identified with unlawful activity.  In short, a "thug."  Isaac, I am not sure you have caught on yet, but I do censor what you wear.  I will never buy you a t-shirt with a slogan that I think portrays an attitude of disrespect or angst.  And I will never let you buy one.  It may not be fair, but "you are what you wear."   If you show society an image that is subversive or antagonistic, then you will be thought of as subversive and antagonistic.  If you dress to emulate a certain culture then you will be seen as belonging to that culture.  I do not know whether or not Trayvon Martin was a thug, but he was dressed like one.  Is it fair to judge him for that?  No, but society does and Zimmerman did.  If he had been dressed in a polo shirt, khakis and a peacoat with a pair of loafers on his feet, I would not be writing this to you today.  Isaac, know this -- you will be judged by the culture with which you choose to identify -- rightly or wrongly.  Choose wisely and make sure your actions always emulate the values that you have been taught.  And if you try to walk out of the house wearing something I deem inappropriate, then game on, son.  If you will not safeguard your image, then I will.

Isaac, I wish there were easy answers to your questions and I wish that I could say that the jury's verdict was the final word.  But there aren't and it most certainly is not.  I wish that I could say I believed that by the time you were raising children of your own that cases like this would not exist.  But I don't.  All I can say is that I hope you will keep asking questions because that is how you learn about the world around you - the good and the bad, the right and the wrong.  Be open to new experiences and be curious before you give in to suspicion.

And I pray that you will always feel like you can ask me or your father anything.  If we don't know the answers, then we will discover them with you.


13 July 2013

Visiting the City That Never Sleeps One Book at a Time

You can take the children's librarian away from her books, but you can't stop her from associating everything she sees with a children's book.

We were on vacation in New York City last week.  We spent seven days wandering around, seeing sights, navigating the subway, and having our senses overloaded with new images, good food and interesting characters.  One thing I realized during the trip is how much what I do for a living informs how I experience the world around me, especially new places.  I had grown up visiting NYC on field trips with school and scouts, and on occasional family trips, but most of the places we went on this trip were new for me.  And at every spot I had a children's book to associate with it.

I had a few must-sees for the trip, the 9/11 Memorial being one of them.  It was an emotional experience, as I suspected it would be.  Matt and I both walked around with tears in our eyes as we viewed the pools that have taken the place of the towers and read the names of those who lost their lives.  I have visited the Vietnam Memorial in DC a handful of times, and it struck me how much more visceral my response was to the 9/11 Memorial. They are very similar experiences, reading names of the dead carved in stone.  But having lived through 9/11, having watched it unfold on TV, and having experienced the aftermath gave me a different association with the Memorial.  We did not take a family picture at the Memorial.  It didn't feel right to pose together with smiles on our faces in this place that made us feel so somber, despite the many families around us doing just that.  I couldn't help, though, thinking of some of the children's books that I pull off the shelves each September.  We visited just a week after Nick Wallenda walked across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope.  Since that image was in my head, I thought of the book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein about Phillipe Petit who walked a tightrope between the World Trade Center Towers in 1974.  And I thought of the many who came to help that day, some of which are written about in Maira Kalman's Fireboat about the John J. Harvey and her crew who were called into service.  They are both stories about determination and hope and the indomitable spirit that our nation showed during the tragedy of 9/11.

Another must-see, for me, was the New York Public Library.  Fortuitously, the day we visited was the last day they had the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights on display, documents that are rarely on show simultaneously.  That was another emotional experience, seeing these two documents, written hundreds of years ago, that are the foundation of the freedoms that are at the heart of who we are as a country.  Visiting on the heels of the recent Supreme Court Rulings concerning DOMA and California's Proposition 8, I was reminded that, though our laws do not always reflect it, our country was founded on the principles of equality and fairness and eventually we will figure out how to apply those beliefs to every one of our citizens.  Also at the time of our visit to the NYPL, there was a special exhibit on children's books called The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter.  It was an historical perspective on the importance of children's books to childrens' development and how they have evolved and been used over the past couple hundred years to educate, indoctrinate and entertain.  Examples of English 18th century readers were on display along with books from other countries and comic books from earlier this century.  They also had examples of original artwork by illustrators.  I pointed out to Isaac an especially complicated collage by Ashley Bryan so he could see what the picture looks like before it shows up as a flat image in the book Let It Shine.  Throughout the exhibit the curators had posted quotes from educational theorists and explanations of the evolution of how children's books are seen to fit into a child's education and emotional development.  That visit was very affirming for me -- the two exhibits reminded me to be hopeful that Isaac will one day live in a country that truly does give all of its people their God-given rights and to be thankful for the opportunity to be in a profession whose purpose is to share the joy of books with children.

The Highline was a must-see for both Matt and I, having heard about it on NPR, read about it online and been told about it by friends who live in the city.  It is a reclaimed rail line that has been made into a public park.  To me, it is a wonderful example of how the initiative of a few people can take root and become a movement that benefits all.  It is another example of a place that is filled with hope and a spirit of determination.  There isn't anything to do on The Highline but walk and sit and soak up the atmosphere.  Outside the edges of the park the bustle of the city was taking place, but inside the boundaries was a calm oasis created by and for the people to preserve the city's history and offer respite from its present.  I remembered the book Home by Jeannie Baker.  It is a wordless book that tells the story of a family that moves into a run-down city neighborhood and slowly helps transform it into a vibrant community where trees grow, children play in grass-filled yards and neighbors help and support each other.  It is about community, and I think that is what the Highline is about -- finding and preserving community.

Matt and I were doing most of the planning on the trip -- deciding where we would go and when.  But Isaac had a couple of must-sees, as well.  One of his was the American Museum of Natural History.  He specifically wanted to visit the Planetarium.  I was interested in visiting, too -- that was one place that I had visited as a child that I wanted to experience again, and there was a book connection that I had in my mind the entire time we were there. Finally after watching Journey to the Stars, seeing various exhibits on ancient cultures, and viewing the Squid and the Whale, I told Matt I had to find the wolf diorama.  If you have read Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick then you know the importance of this exhibit to the story.  If you have not read it, I will not give it away.  But seeing the actual diorama and remembering the narrator's description of it from the book brought the story alive for me in a new way.  That was one of my geekier moments on the trip.  I think I could have walked straight to that small hallway, viewed the wolves, and walked right back out and felt like I had gotten my money's worth from my visit.  But I think that is something that books do for us -- they help us experience the world around us, sometimes by broadening our perspective and other times by helping us hone in on specific experiences.  I may not remember anything else from our visit to the AMNH, but I will remember those wolves.

We filled our days in NYC and visited other spots.  Another must-see for Isaac was a baseball game.  We opted for a minor league Brooklyn Cyclones game over the Yankees or the Mets. And I was reciting "Casey at the Bat" in my head while we watched the game.  We chose to go to the Prospect Park Zoo rather than travel out to The Bronx Zoo, and I was picturing Mo Willems' Knuffle Bunny books since we were in his neighborhood.  Matt had to visit the Museum of the Moving Image and the old film equipment brought to mind another Brian Selznick book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  We were guided around the Metropolitan Museum of Art by our friend who works there and, of course, I was thinking of Konigsburg's classic book From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

And then there was the night, July 4th, when the friends we were staying with fired up the charcoal grill, Isaac and I played badminton in the backyard, Isaac caught fireflies in a mason jar, and we all ran down the street following the music of the ice cream truck.  We listened to the fireworks going off around the neighborhood, enjoyed the company of friends, and relaxed in lawn chairs until Isaac declared it was time for bed.  It was a peaceful evening in the middle of a busy, adventure-filled week.  And it was just about perfect.

01 July 2013

Father's Day (a bit late)

Matt doesn't wear a tie often, so neck-wear has never been a go-to Father's Day gift for us.  Most of the time when I ask Isaac what we should get his father for Christmas or a birthday or Father's Day the answer is "a video game."  That is usually a good choice because it is something the two of them enjoy doing together.  But this year we went with books.

Matt had a book in mind that he wanted, Joker: A Memoir by Andrew Hudgins, and it just so happens that Carl Hiaasen's newest novel Bad Monkey was coming out that week.  So he got something he had been wanting and I got to surprise him with something he wasn't expecting.  We had a book fair the last week of school, so Isaac picked him out a book, too, Because I'm Your Dad by Ahmet Zappa.

Recognize the last name of that author?  Because I'm Your Dad is written by Frank Zappa's son as a tribute to his father and his happy childhood.  It was really the perfect story for Isaac to give Matt -- many of the things the father and daughter do together in the book are things that Isaac and Matt enjoy doing together.  There are many books celebrating mothers, but not as many for fathers.  This is a fun one that is quirky and sweet.

Isaac hit the jackpot when it comes to his dad.  I don't celebrate him or their relationship enough, but Isaac would not be the cool kid he is if it weren't for Matt.  We don't make a big deal out of holidays like Father's Day or Mother's Day, or any other random "Day" that the Hallmark commercials want you to buy cards for. But we do recognize them in small ways.  This year on Father's Day weekend we went camping for the first time with Isaac, got to see the moon and Saturn through some whopping telescopes, and had fun spending time together.  It was the best way to celebrate our family, Isaac's awesome dad, and their relationship.

27 June 2013

Interesting Stuff

Isaac and I have been visiting family in Florida this week.  Since I am separated from my treadmill for a few days I have been braving the Florida humidity to take my daily walks.  And since I cannot read while I walk around my mother's neighborhood like I can when I am on my treadmill in our family room, I have been listening to podcasts.   I thought I would share a couple I thought were interesting and sort of fit with my theme.

The first one is the more intellectual of the two.  It is a Lexicon Valley podcast from Slate titled "How to Raise Verbal Children."  The hosts, Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo, talk about the research that was published in the book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children by Betty Hart and Todd Risley.  In a nutshell, the research which was gathered over a decade long study of children from varying socio-economic backgrounds shows that children who are exposed to more and better quality language interactions as infants and toddlers have an advantage over children who are not.  And, as can be surmised, the children who have the advantage are from the better educated families in the higher socio-economic strata.  Not surprising results if you are a teacher, or anyone with common sense.  What was surprising about the research was that programs like Head Start were not effective in bridging the educational gap for poor children because by the time the children were four years old the differences in the language they had been exposed to was so distinct that the gulf was almost impossible to breach.

The research, and thus the conversation between the hosts, focused on verbal language and conversations that children engaged in before they were 4 years old.  Books and reading were never mentioned, but I would put forth that language development and how parents talk to children goes hand in hand with reading to children.  So just as it is important in a child's development to be talked to and engaged in positive conversation, it is also important to be read to and exposed to a variety of literature during those same years.  When they are read to, children are listening to language, hearing new words, and working on comprehension skills just as they are when they are listening to a conversation.

Not all of the answers to finding ways to give every child an equal footing when they enter the doors to their kindergarten classrooms can be found in one research study.  But this one is interesting.  And talking to and reading with our children can never hurt.

The second podcast that I wanted to share is a Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast from How Stuff Works titled "The Boys of Summer: The Man Behind Wonder Woman."  The hosts Cristen Conger and Molly Edmonds highlight William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman.  Their conversation looks at his reasons for creating the character and his personal brand of feminism, as well as the different views of women the character has portrayed since her emergence in the 1940's.  Wonder Woman does not have a large presence in our house outside Justice League cartoons.  I don't know much about her other than the Lynda Carter TV show I watched as a child.  But the history behind her creation and the evolution of her character is interesting.  Isaac and I may be reading some Wonder Woman comics this summer.

26 June 2013

Good Choices

My deal with Isaac at school book fairs is that he gets to pick out two books and I get to pick out two books.  Then of course Matt will pick out books and we will buy books for Isaac's teacher and then I may find something else that I can't pass up, so we rarely end up with just four books.  But the initial effort to economize is there.

The deal really stems from an insistence on my part that we buy something with some literary value, rather than the tv-character driven books that the book fair company supplies in abundance or a book that lists the 10 grossest things ever seen. 

At our spring book fair Isaac made some pretty good, and surprising, choices.  As I noted already, he is intent on reading chapter books, so unless the book had pictures of a grotesquely tattooed Ripley's-Believe-It-Or-Not exhibit he was only interested in novels.  A book that he chose as one of his two to purchase was How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O'Connor.  I know that he initially picked it up because the title was intriguing.  Don't most of us do that, unless it is the cover art that captures our attention first?  So I made him read the summary on the back cover before making his final decision.  Even after perusing the book fair every morning before school he decided that he wanted that book.

How to Steal a Dog is set in a small North Carolina town.  The main character is Georgina Hayes. She, her younger brother Toby and their mother live in their car after their father left them and they lost their apartment.  Georgina is angry with her father and her mother and desperate to hide the situation her family is in from her friends and teachers.  After seeing a reward sign for a lost dog, Georgina hatches a plan to steal a well-loved dog owned by a rich family, certain that the owner will immediately offer a reward, which she and her brother will claim allowing her family to afford an apartment and again have a real home.  Of course, things do not go as she expects and Georgina is forced to reconsider her plan.  In the end, Georgina's family gets a home, though her efforts to earn reward money fall through.  It is not a simple happy ending -- the family still has struggles ahead -- but it is hopeful. 

As we were reading I wondered how Isaac was following the story and if he was even interested.  Reading out loud to an active seven-year-old is often an exercise in patience for me.  He is rarely still and has a habit of unconsciously humming (his teacher loved that this year).  We wouldn't read the book each night, but every few evenings he would ask to return to it.  He was interested in finding out how the characters solved their problems and concerned about what would happen in the end.  We talked about the choices the characters made and the moments of grace that they experienced. 

I read the end of the book with tears in my eyes and clogging my throat.  Isaac usually looks at me like I am crazy when I do that.  This time he seemed more sympathetic, though there was no way he was going to cry over a story.  I think he did a pretty good job of picking out a book. 

25 June 2013

Evolving and Adjusting

I haven't been posting this year about what we are reading because how we read with Isaac has changed so much.  Second grade is a transformative year for many students as they become better readers.  They begin to be able to read "in their heads" rather than having to read out loud.  This helps them become more independent readers and they move into chapter books, leaving behind picture books and read-alouds or shared readings.  As a school librarian I get frustrated by the shift from picture books to chapter books so early in childrens' reading development.  I won't go into the reasons I think it happens -- but I get concerned that they are missing out on wonderful literature because they are "supposed" to be reading "harder" books. 

It has been difficult for me to adjust to the fact that Isaac doesn't need me to read to him anymore.  He can sit and read to himself for the 20 minutes that he is supposed to be reading each night.  And, while I like reading chapter books to him, it is just not the same as sharing a picture book and looking over the illustrations together.  He is outgrowing some of my favorite authors/illustrators and that makes me sad.

Now I would be the first to argue that you never outgrow a well written and illustrated picture book.  But it is hard sometimes to convince a seven-year-old boy of that.  All of this is not to say that we do not read with Isaac anymore or that he does not like being read to.  We still have an (almost) nightly storytime.  Matt may read Farside or Calvin and Hobbes with him as he has done for years or they may read through Isaac's latest issue of Sports Illustrated for Kids.  I may read a chapter or two from a novel or force him to sit through a picture book that I choose.  And there are rare occasions when he pulls a picture book off of the shelf.  It is still an important ritual and time to share, but our time reading together, as things tend to do, is evolving as time moves on. 

There have been some moments in the midst of this change that I remember fondly, like the drive to Charlotte in November that Isaac spent reading a Captain Underpants book.  He read for almost the entire hour and a half trip.  And it was a real book, not an e-book on his Kindle.  And I am thankful that his reading is at a level that has him prepared for 3rd Grade.  Next year is a pivotal year for him educationally and there are many scary studies that have determined that students who are not reading on grade level by the end of 3rd Grade find it almost impossible to catch up later.  I am also thankful that Isaac's interests are becoming more defined and he feels comfortable asserting his likes and dislikes.  Unfortunately, his literary likes and dislikes are just about the opposite of mine, which makes finding something that we both want to read a bit difficult.

So what has Isaac been reading?  I mentioned Captain Underpants.  And, of course, he is reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  He likes graphic novels and has read some of the Bone and Sardines series.  This summer my goal is to read some Encyclopedia Brown and Ramona with him.  He hasn't shown an interest in Harry Potter yet, which is fine with me.  I think we can wait on that for another year or two. 

I hope we will always have a time that we set aside to read with Isaac.  As he grows it may not be every day, the purpose of the time will change, and it will look different than it does now.  But our reading time looks different now than it did last year or the year before that or  . . . well, you get the point.  And the purpose of the time is different, too.  It has always been a time to share and spend together, but before Isaac was reading on his own that time was necessary for his cognitive development.  Now that Isaac can sit on the couch with his Kindle and read for 20 minutes in silence, storytime is less cognitively necessary but just as emotionally necessary as it has ever been. At least for me.