Marina Koestler Ruben

Blog Posts: July 2011

Discussion Questions -- Oprah's Documentary Club: "Serving Life"

Yesterday I watched Serving Life (2011), the July pick for the Oprah Winfrey Network's (OWN's) documentary club.  This film follows four inmates in the Louisiana State Penitentiary maximum-security prison--a.k.a. Angola--as they train to be volunteers in the prison hospice.

The film includes scenes of dying patients; for parents thinking of watching this film with children, it's most appropriate for high schoolers and above.  Here are a few questions that can get you talking before/during/after the film:

1. Did this film change your perception of a maximum-security prison and/or of its prisoners?


2. If you were screening prisoners to determine who should be selected as hospice volunteers, what questions would you ask?


3. Do you think that inmates who work as hospice volunteers should have their sentences lessened?  


4. As the film asks, "Can [prisoners] claim redemption serving life?"


5. What do you think are the most valuable lessons the prisoners learn from working in a hospice?


6. Why do you think it is so important for "Boston" to tell his son that it was his (Boston's) fault that he ended up in prison?


7. If you haven't heard of hospice care before, research and read about a non-prison hospice.  How does it compare to Angola's hospice?


(Here, in an earlier post, are discussion questions for June's documentary: Sons of Perdition.) Read Full Post.

Unexpected Lessons from Bossypants

Earlier this week, I read Bossypants, Tina Fey's memoir-style humor book.  Knowing that Fey has a young daughter, I wanted to see if she'd say anything relevant to the parent-tutor mindset.  

She did, but not where I expected.

Fey wrote about mothering, but of greater value were her thoughts on improvisational comedy:

[The rule] of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND.  You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own.  If I start a scene with "I can't believe it's so hot in here," and you just say, "Yeah..." we're kind of at a standstill.  But if I say, "I can't believe it's so hot in here," ... and you say, "I told you we shouldn't have crawled into this dog's mouth," now we're getting somewhere....

Always make sure you're adding something to the discussion.  Your initiations are worthwhile.

What's true for the improv'er (need the apostrophe or it'd be improver, as in "one who improves things," which, interestingly enough, could be a synonym for tutor) rings true for the parent communicating with her or her child.  When your child expresses interest in a subject, don't let the conversation end there.

There's the simple "yes" route:

     YOUR CHILD: Today I learned about biodegradation of organic matter.

     YOU: Uh huh.

Or the "yes, and" option:

     YOUR CHILD: Today I learned about biodegradation of organic matter.

     YOU: Uh huh.  And what did you learn?

     YOUR CHILD: I shouldn't have left that peanut butter sandwich in my locker for two months.

Hmmm.  You get the point, though.  Ideally, your active participation in the conversation will help you connect with your child, both personally and academically.

Fey also says,

....THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities.  If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what?  Now I'm a hamster in a hamster wheel.  I'm not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike.

This advice really is improv-specific.  Let's adapt it for education: There ARE mistakes, but they can double as opportunities.  A student fails a test due to a series of mistakes, but each error can provide a valuable trial-and-error lesson that can increase overall comprehension and avoid another such result--so that next time your child looks more like a hamster.  Which is, of course, every parent's dream. Read Full Post.

Why I Love the Penderwicks

A How to Tutor blog reader (and mother of four), Sarah Lake, sent me this comment: 

I really love the way that you encourage parents to capitalize on teachable moments. I have spent years thinking that teaching my kids needs to be a formal affair, but that's far from true!  Such a nice reminder, as much of our education comes simply from life experience.

She pinpointed exactly what I'm trying to do on my blog and in my book.  While learning certainly can happen more formally--and often to good effect--I'm also in favor of building on life's many organic teachable moments.  These exchanges look less like workbooks, flash cards, and vocabulary lists and more like natural communication and experience.

I thought about this method of learning as I read Jeanne Birdsall's The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, the sequel to Birdsall's 2005 National Book Award for Young People winner, The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy.  (There's also a third book in the series.)

Birdsall's sequel was one of the best children's books I'd read in a long time.  It features a widowed father and his four daughters, ages four to thirteen, who institute the "Save-Daddy Plan" and attempt to sabotage their father's return to the dating world.  The perspective shifts from daughter to daughter between sections, engaging the reader in secondary plots about Aztec-themed school plays, a mysterious "Bug Man" in the neighborhood, and the lovely astrophysicist who moves in next door with her baby boy. 

Much as children can read the Percy Jackson series to get enthused about Greek mythology, Birdsall so naturally weaves educational references into The Penderwicks on Gardam Street that readers will come away eager to explore new subjects:

Jane writes novels about the fictional Sabrina Starr, Skye performs in a play about Aztec sacrifices, and even little Batty provides academic inspiration as she and neighbor Iantha document the progression of interactions between the Penderwicks' dog, Hound, and Iantha's cat, Asimov.

As an added perk, the children in Birdsall's books consistently model the value of friendly interactions between people of different ages.  Small children and teenagers and adults mix freely and positively, and all learn from each other naturally, as will these books' readers. Read Full Post.

Goodreads Giveaway!

Random House has provided three copies of my book for a Goodreads giveaway!  Winners will be selected (by Goodreads) on August 2, the book's launch date, and copies will be mailed then.

If you haven't used Goodreads before, you might want to check it out.  I started devoting time to it recently, and I'm enjoying it so far.  It's basically a social networking site devoted to books.  You can add friends (as you would on Facebook), but instead of learning that they graduated from Ridgewood School or are part of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or are in an open relationship with a Cornish Rex cat, you'll find out that a friend recently read Tina Fey's Bossypants and loved it, participate in a discussion about the age appropriateness of The Hunger Games, and enter book giveaways to win new releases.

I've never used Shelfari, but I'd imagine it's somewhat similar.  (Is that true?  Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.) Read Full Post.

The Reading Promise

In March 2010, the New York Times printed an article about "The Streak," a 3,218-night tradition: Jim  Brozina, a children's librarian, read aloud to his daughter Kristen every night, starting when she was in fourth grade and going through her first night of college.

Kristen--now going by her lit-inspired middle names, Alice Ozma--has written a memoir, The Reading Promise.  I expected a book rife with literary references, but it's more a story about Alice's childhood after her mother leaves the family and older sister leaves for college.  Alice ends up living with her father, a lovable eccentric who keeps the house at 52 degrees in the winter, wants his daughter to wear her costume from The Crucible as a prom dress, and thinks nothing of telling a friendly restaurant owner that his food is "greasy slop."

If you're looking for instructive material about The Streak itself, stick to the intro, which is written by Jim Brozina.  Here are the highlights:

After our readings I would often ask Alice about her day and what was going on in her life.  This became a natural way for us to keep in touch.

Smart.  Brozina has created a safe environment where his daughter can share information with him.  It sounds like Brozina's a natural parent-tutor.

From each [book] fair I would bring home a collection of titles that the two of us would mull over, reading selections from each until we had hit on the group of books that would serve our purpose.

In other words, Brozina makes sure to give his daughter ownership over the book selection process.

If you want to start your own reading streak, you should begin by taking your child to your local public library, where the two of you can look through the stacks for books that would fit your reading desires.  When either of you find something, show it to the other.  Let your child overrule your choices if he or she chooses, but be hesitant about rejecting those your child is excited about.  Remember, this is being done by you but for him or her.


When you have accumulated as many books as will serve your purpose for now, check them out and take them home.  Your child will be hopping with excitement as he or she anticipates the many good nights of reading ahead.  As time goes along, you will both begin to identify favorite authors and series.  Some of these you will want to return to again and again.  You may consider purchasing the most popular from your local bookstore or through the many booksellers online.  These treasures can be passed on from generation to generation.

Brozina goes on to point out that the Commission on Reading pointed to reading aloud as the "single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading."  They recommended that families read aloud "throughout the grades."

When was the last time your family read aloud?  If you need to ease back into it, try designating someone as a lector, or reader, on a long road trip.  (In the 1920s and thereabouts, lectors read aloud for the workers in Cuban cigar factories.  For an example of a factory lector, see the play Anna in the Tropics.)

Here's a list of some of the books that Alice and her father read: Full Post.

What Would Happen If You Vanished?

I recently read Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur, by Derek Sivers, the founder of CD Baby.  As he describes his company's rise, Sivers shares advice on success and happiness.  The book's a quick and interesting read.  One sentence struck me:

To be a true business owner, make sure you could leave for a year, and when you came back, your business would be doing better than when you left.

I've been thinking about how this quote applies to parenting.  If you left for a year, if you left for ten years, if you left for work--in your absence, what would your child know and do?

Assuming that your children were not distracted by your absence and had their other basic needs met, do you think they'd be (mentally) equipped to spend the year learning and growing?

Last year, the mother of an 8th-grade student told me about a collection both unusual and admirable.  On a shelf in her home, this mother stores books that, in case of her early demise, she wants her son to know she wanted him to read.

In How to Tutor Your Own Child, I ask parents about the contents of their homes.  If you were to vanish, what would the rooms in your home say to your children about what you want them to do?  Look around.  Do you feature reading matter?  Video games?  Musical instruments?  Think about what your children see and what message your home sends them. Read Full Post.

The Book Game

I enjoy recommending games to others, but I rarely find ones to add to my own list of favorites.  In recent years, I've preferred Outburst, Scattergories, and Taboo.  But I just read about a game that may trump all the others.  It's the "book game," as described by Dwight Garner on July 1 in the New York Times in "What's Scrabble When You Can Play Novelist?"

Perfect for families or groups of friends, the game expands players' knowledge of books and authors, simultaneously teaching about voice, providing writing practice, and getting players excited about literature.  I love it.  

Garner explains that you need paper, pens, and paperbacks:

Any sort of book will do, from a Dostoyevsky to a Jennifer Egan, and from diet guides to the Kama Sutra. But we’ve found it’s especially rewarding to use genre books: mysteries, romance novels, science fiction, pulp thrillers, westerns, the cheesier the better.

You don't have to stick with adult books.  You could adapt this game to play with younger children and their books.

Garner recommends that you play with four to ten people.

One player, the “picker” for this turn, selects a book from the pile and shows its cover around. Then he or she flips it over and reads aloud the often overwrought publisher-supplied copy on the back cover.

The other players absorb these words, and then write on their slips of paper what they imagine to be a credible first sentence....Players initial their slips of paper and place them upside down in a pile at the center of the table.

Meanwhile the picker — the person who read the back cover aloud — writes the book’s actual first sentence on another slip of paper. He or she collects all the slips, mixing the real first sentence with the fakes, and commences to read each one aloud. Each person votes on what he or she thinks is the real first sentence.

To keep score:

If someone votes for your bogus sentence, you get a point. If you pick the real first sentence, you get two points. (The picker doesn’t vote in this round.)

Everyone takes turns being the picker.  

In case you want to branch out from the book version of the game, Garner suggests a couple of alternative ways to play: player picks a quotation from Bartlett’s and gives the other players the author’s name and the years he or she was born and died. “Then each player,” Schlesinger said, “must invent a quotation to be plausibly ascribed to the author.”


Another excellent variant of the paperback game involves obtaining a poetry anthology and reading, say, the first three lines of a rhyming quatrain out loud. Players then compete to write a fake fourth line.

I'm so enthused that I think I'll have a "book game"-themed party just to try it out.  If anyone else ends up playing, please let me know how it goes.  Do you have other recommendations for how to vary the game? Read Full Post.