Marina Koestler Ruben

Blog Posts: April 2013

"The Power of Talking to Your Baby"

Throughout the day, my toddler and I chat about her interests (currently: carrot sticks, wearing Daddy's shoes, and the giraffe toothbrush holder on our bathroom mirror), but I've often wondered how much our talks really matter.

Quite a bit, as it turns out.  According to research done back in the early '90s by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley at the University of Kansas:

...the greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school.

Motivated by this type of data, the city of Providence, RI, recently received a $5 million grant to train pregnant mothers in the art of family conversations, as reported by the New York Times on April 10th in "The Power of Talking to Your Baby."  The city aims to reduce the disparity between the language abilities of higher- and lower-income children.  How big is that difference?  The statistics are shocking.  Here's what Hart and Risley found:

By age 3, a poor child would have heard 30 million fewer words in his home environment than a child from a professional family.

Broken down further:

Children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour. Working-class children heard 1,200 words per hour, and children from professional families heard 2,100 words.

In other words, children on welfare hear about 10 words a minute, working-class children hear about 20, and children from professional families hear about 35.

(Complicating the issue is Hart and Risley's finding that children's language abilities "level off" when children reach their parents' level of linguistic competency.  I'm still mulling over the implications of that finding.)

The Times article is worth a read, especially if you'd like more information about planned efforts in Providence.  In terms of parenting advice, here, for me, were the takeaways:

If you're interested in reading more about Hart and Risley's findings, the book they co-authored is Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Read Full Post.

Finally, an Intelligently Designed Building Toy for Girls

A couple of months ago, a friend brought Roominate to my attention.  It's a building toy designed for girls, intended to inspire females to enter the male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.  There are no excessive frills, glitter, or princesses.  Instead, girls (or boys) snap together basic wooden pieces to build rooms and furniture, then use circuitry to illuminate and otherwise electrify their creations.

According to this article from GOOD, the project has exceeded its requested funds on Kickstarter, sold out its initial 1,300 units, and has a waiting list for its next batch.  Parents, consider:

The women say they were all given the tools at a young age to eschew gender stereotypes. Brooks got a saw when she asked for a Barbie. Kessler loved to solve math riddles. Chen grew up building Lego creations with her brother, never being told that the toy was intended for boys.

I have had the pleasure of knowing several brilliant female engineers, and this strikes me as exactly the kind of toy that they (and I) would have liked as children.

Speaking of building opportunities, check out Brightworks, a project-based, private, nonprofit K-12 school in San Francisco, and Tinkering School, which aims to "explore the notion that kids can build anything, and, through building, learn anything" and runs summer programs in Austin, Baltimore, Buffalo, Chicago, LA, and Northern California. Read Full Post.

Extreme Parenting with Lisa Ling

Last night I paid our cable company to reinstate our access to the Oprah Winfrey Network just long enough to watch Our America with Lisa Ling, which was doing an episode about "Extreme Parenting."  Ling interviewed four families: wealthy "tiger" parents who pay $40,000/year/child for a year-round high-pressure school, unschoolers who allow their four children to learn through self-motivated pursuits and field trips, a father focused on his high schooler's NFL prospects, and the pageant-minded mother of two toddlers.

It was frustrating to see the show try to generalize about multiple educational philosophies over the course of only one hour (minus the time spent on commercials), especially given the small sample size.  It was hard for Ling to provide a balanced view of the four approaches in such a limited time.

Ultimately, all four parenting methods seemed to raise one question: What are you willing to have your children sacrifice to ensure their well-being?

While I bristled at some of what the tiger parents did, I felt that their methods could still lead to children with basically sound values.  But I found the pageant family's approach very troubling.  It saddened me to see them putting a spray tan on a crying toddler and popping what looked like Sweet Tarts into their daughter's mouth to help her stay "wild" enough to attract the judges' attention.  The parent of a slightly older (elementary school-age) pageant participant seemed to be pouring an energy drink between her painted lips.  It was heartening to see a commercial that indicated there will be follow-up with the pageant family next week and that the mother may be giving up the entire endeavor.

I don't think there's just one right approach to parenting or to education, but I do think that every family can strive for the same outcome, which is to have children who approach their family's educational philosophy feeling enthusiastic, engaged, and appreciative--and who feel that it's leading them toward a desirable outcome, whatever that may be.  Based on the show's brief exploration of these four families, my impression was that the unschoolers and the footballer were the children who best met these criteria.  Again, that doesn't necessarily mean these families are following the ideal system for their own children or anyone else's--just that they must be somewhat in tune with their own children's needs, which is a valuable goal.

  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.

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.

Don't Google Too Soon

In How to Tutor Your Own Child, I discuss the role that the Internet plays in students' intellectual development.  Though search engines may be an effective tool, I'm concerned about how the Web makes us so quick to Google for answers.  Think about the process of discovery that's lost in Googling.

Here's a non-academic example:

Can you name all seven of Snow White's dwarfs?  When I try, I come up with six: Sleepy, Dopey, Grumpy, Happy, Bashful, and Doc.

Of course, if I were to type in "seven dwarfs" on Google, I would get the answer right away.  But if I try to think of the seventh dwarf myself, my brain starts making connections:

Odds are that the seventh is another adjective that ends in a "y" and subtly casts aspersion.  Angry?  No.  Too close to Grumpy.  Frumpy?  No.  I don't remember any dwarfs in hair nets.  Clingy?  Burpy?  Was there a Snarky?

No luck.  So I start wondering about the other names:

I get the name Bashful.  It has a better ring than Shy.  But Doc?  Was he the only one with medical training, so he got to replace his earlier, less flattering name with a title?  Is he Doc né Nerdly?  Could Grumpy get knighted and change his name to Sir?

Admittedly, I'm not coming up with the answer.  But I'm thinking about parts of speech, synonyms, naming trends, and titles.  I'm thinking flexibly.  The unknown seventh dwarf's name could prompt hours of creative association and discussion at parties, around the dinner table, or at school.  

It might not occur to your children to slow down and brainstorm this way, so I recommend that you take the initiative to encourage them to keep their smart phones and Google at bay and/or model this behavior yourself when faced with an unknown, at least when time allows.

In Tim Kreider's New York Times op-ed piece "In Praise of Not Knowing," (June 18), he says:

I hope kids are still finding some way, despite Google and Wikipedia, of not knowing things. Learning how to transform mere ignorance into mystery, simple not knowing into wonder, is a useful skill. 

He's right.  Consider that so many great thinkers spent their days exploring exactly that mystery--that unknown.  Doing so is what led to some of human history's best theories and inventions.

That said, have you seen successes on a smaller scale?  Have you or your child ever found that NOT Googling something has led to positive results?

P.S. Here's a clue to the name of the seventh dwarf: a little mystery is nothing to sneeze at. Read Full Post.

Should We Limit Homework?

In "New Recruit in Homework Revolt: The Principal," June 15th's New York Times reports on the movement to reduce and/or ban homework, on the grounds that students are overworked, should be able to spend their free time playing or with their families, and aren't benefiting enough to justify the work.

Some schools have handled the alleged work overload by setting time limits for homework.  For example, kindergartners might have a ten-minute homework cap, with each grade's load increasing by ten minutes.  Of course, different students need varying amount of time to complete homework, which complicates this system.  

My high school didn't stick to these types of time limits for homework.  During my senior year, we certainly weren't limited to 130 minutes of homework.  The amount of homework varied by course load.  And shouldn't it?  Doesn't it make sense for a student in a more intensive class to spend more time on a subject?  

The article actually mentions my former high school:

Ridgewood High School in New Jersey introduced a homework-free winter break in December.

This kind of policy seems logical to me, though the article made an interesting point from a parenting perspective:

 In Coronado, Calif., the school board rejected a proposal by the superintendent to eliminate homework on weekends and holidays after some parents said that was when they had time to help their children

I'm not sure what I think about this.  How much should parent availability factor into a school's decision about assigning homework? Read Full Post.

My Letter to the New York Times

On June 8, the New York Times published "Push for A's at Private Schools is Keeping Private Tutors Busy," in which Jenny Anderson details the ubiquity of high-priced tutoring services in New York City's private school circuit.  

Private SAT tutors have been de rigueur at elite New York private schools for a generation, but the proliferation of subject-matter tutors for students angling for A’s is a newer phenomenon that is beginning to incite a backlash. Interviews with parents, students, teachers, administrators, tutors and consultants suggest that more than half of the students at the city’s top-tier schools hire tutors, an open secret that the schools seem unable to stop.

Hiring a private tutor to coach one's child through school is a pricey proposition.  But, for many families, the $795 they may shell out for an hour-long session is not their biggest cost.

What is?  Read my letter to the Times to find out.  (See the last letter on the page.) Read Full Post.

Parents and Children, on the Same Track

For me, "tutoring" a child doesn't necessarily mean that you're working on homework--or anything officially academic.  It's more a style of interaction.  It's what happens when a parent learns to engage with a child intellectually and encourage in that child a love of learning.

So what does tutoring look like?  A few possibilities: Discussing the local election over dinner.  Caring for a bird that fell out of a tree in the yard.  Playing guitar and recorder duets.

First and foremost, especially with an older child, it's important for the child to feel comfortable spending time with the parent and to know he or she can communicate openly.  

Dominique Browning explores this issue in a New York Times article, "Mothers and Sons, on the Same Track" (Travel, June 3), where she writes about a cross-country Amtrak trip she takes with her two sons, ages 22 and 26.  On the trip, Browning tries to create an atmosphere that will allow her children to feel respected and valuable.

Browning lays out what she learns.  Among her most relevant points:

1. "Turn it over to a younger power."  She puts her sons in charge of planning the trip: tickets, lodging, itinerary.  Even young children can research and plan a trip, whether cross-country or down the street.  Let them research it, map it, and take pride in sharing their plan with you.

2. "Don't say everything that pops into your brain" and "No more corrections of any sort."  The latter is extreme, but Browning's point is good.  When motivating and engaging with your children, try not to be overly critical.

3. "Do interesting things together.  Do anything together."  Self-explanatory.

4. "Listen and do nothing.  Or, do nothing and just listen."  Browning watches her children as they interact with another guest in the dining car:

I began to see my children as if they were guests at my table, rather than creatures who needed molding, or scolding or holding, or anything at all from me besides ... listening.

 Read Full Post.

Greek Families Spend 18.6% of Their Money on Tutoring

Greece tops the EU countries in total family funds spent on tutoring services. Read Full Post.

Memorial Day Weekend Sleep Diary

Use vacations and weekends to find out how much sleep your child really needs. Read Full Post.