Marina Koestler Ruben

Blog Posts: April 2013

The 7 Questionable Qualities of Beloved Baby Books, as Identified by Disgruntled Amazon Reviewers

I wrote this piece after noticing, to my amusement, that even seemingly innocuous products are subject to vitriolic reviews online.  My family owns and enjoy almost all of the books mentioned below, but it appears that not everyone feels so good about them.

Inspired by the comments of angry Amazonians, here are seven ways in which you might find a universally beloved children's book to be questionable.

1. It’s creepy.

A surprising number of readers fear Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown’s 1947 classic about a sleepy bunny.

“The red and green color scheme makes me uneasy,” writes a one-star reviewer.

Another detects something more serious in the author’s language.  “[T]here seems to be an unpleasant undertone,” he warns, displeased by the bunny’s association with a “bowl full of mush.’”

But, “Worst of all,” laments another anonymous reviewer, “I find it creepy that”--wait for it--“the rabbits own a cat.”

(No, the reviewer wasn’t bothered by the rabbits’ possession of a house, rocking chair, and picture of a cow jumping over the moon.  It was the cat that crossed the line.)

We own three copies of Goodnight Moon--all gifts--I know I also read it as a child. Personally, I appreciate the story's rhymes, repetition, and sedate images, but, admittedly, the sight of the book's cover makes me cringe. Is it just me, or is anyone else bothered by that missing comma between “Goodnight” and “Moon”?  Creepy.

2.  It encourages mischief.

The 1955 classic Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson, with its monochromatic illustrations of a boy who draws his way through a nighttime adventure, caused “pain and suffering in my household” for one Amazon reviewer.  Why?  “Purple crayon everywhere.”

In preparation for reading this book to my two-year-old, I have preemptively hidden our purple crayons, markers, paint, Play-doh, and pureed prunes.


3.  It has unclear illustrations that lead to trouble.

Case in point: Once Upon a Potty, by Alona Frankel, in which, as a disgruntled parent warns, “The potty they have looks like a flower pot.”  Eep.


4. It’s scientifically inaccurate.

One Amazon user cites the “poor scientific knowledge” in The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle, as the reason for her one-star review.  “Butterflies do not come from cocoons - moths do….  If you want your child[ren] to learn inaccurate science, use this book with them.”  Most butterflies come from chrysalises—though you can visit Carle’s website for his rebuttal to this concern, if you’re interested.

The same reviewer mentions nothing about the caterpillar’s Saturday feast of cupcakes, ice cream, and salami; presumably it is scientifically accurate.

5. It’s dangerous.

Reviewers want hands-on books to be hands-off.  Have you seen “Daddy’s scratchy face” in the classic touch-and-feel book Pat the Bunny, by Dorothy Kunhardt?  It’s a tiny swatch of black emery board that approximates a five-o’clock shadow.  It’s also “a piece of sandpaper which is so rough that I would not let my son touch it in case it hurts his soft skin.”

(Incidentally, I learned when I bought this book that “Pat” is a verb, not the name of the bunny, as did an anonymous one-star reviewer who deemed the book “a really [sic] disappointment.”)

P.S. It's not just children at physical risk from children's books; apparently parents have faced injury as well.  As “A Customer” says of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, “I'm going to give it one star anyway because I just stubbed my toe really hard and damn it, I blame this book.”

6. It’s defective.

The identity of this (aforementioned) book is obvious: “The bunny fur already came off in big clumps with the first pat.”

7. It messes with your routine.

Specifically, parents do not take kindly to books that threaten bedtime.  Beloved Sandra Boynton faced recrimination on Amazon over The Going-to-Bed Book. One reviewer "just can't get passed [sic]" Boynton's story, asking, "Had the author lost her marbles when she wrote this?"

Another reviewer threw the book away for including in the characters’ routine something that is “not a concept I want to promote with my child.”

What prompted the backlash?  A rabbit, dog, cat, bear, lion, and two rhinoceri run around to exercise.  After bath time.  As if that’s not bad enough, a pig stands on his hands, an elephant jumps rope, and a moose lifts a barbell.  Also after bath time.

To be fair, based on mounting evidence in my own home, I'm getting the sense that bedtime is difficult with or without this book.

Realistically, no book could possibly please 100 percent of parents 100 percent of the time, and no book should.  What I've learned is that a bad review--even one that raises valid concerns--isn't necessarily a reason to avoid reading a book with my daughter.  In many cases, I take the opportunity to point out any troublesome spots to her, thereby modeling the process of being a critical reader.  "Dat doesn't make sense!" our daughter has taken to exclaiming when she sees something odd, such as a moose lifting a barbell.  She and I giggle, and then we turn the page and keep reading. Read Full Post.

Gifts for the Globally Aware

If your holiday wishes include spreading awareness about global needs--and, by extension, making a big-picture difference in the world--consider the following gifts.

1. For even the youngest children, see Barbara Kerley's books, which feature her vibrant photographs of parents and children around the world.  Thanks to A Little Peace, my toddler knows that all it takes to make a difference is, as she says, "uhn hand!"  We also own You and Me Together, which has prompted discussions about everything from the brass neck rings of a Padaung mother and daughter in Thailand to the colored powder decorating a mother and child celebrating India's Holi festival.

2. Gerda Muller's beautifully illustrated picture board books serve as a starting point for discussions about each of the four seasons: WinterSpringSummer, and Autumn.  

3. If you'd like to make a monetary donation in your child's name, consider the International Rescue Committee, which provides support for refugees in humanitarian crises, and Heifer International, which allows donors to select from among 30 different animals to donate as a form of sustainable agriculture to families in need around the world.  To make a Heifer gift more tangible for a child--and to increase the likelihood that he or she will remember and think about this type of giving--attach a matching stuffed animal (or a small animal figurine) to a note in which you explain the donation.

4. Several photojournalists have used their art to document the differences between and within borders.  Peter Menzel photographed families posed in front of their homes with all their worldly possessions, a project you can see in Material World.  He's also put together a similar book focusing solely on women's issues and three others depicting what families and individuals eat.  (What the World Eats is intended for kids.  Menzel's other books are intended for adults, so you may want to pre-screen them to determine whether you think their content is suitable for your children.  Though fascinating, Material World contains sad background information about some of the families, and the extreme inequity between families could be too troubling for some readers.)

Another book along these lines is Where the Children Sleepwhich uses James Mollison's photographs and descriptions to document the range of accommodations in which children sleep, from mattresses in fields to luxury bedrooms in the suburbs.  (The same warning I issued in the previous paragraph applies for this book.  Perhaps best as a gift for an adult or older teen.) 

5. Also for adult gift recipients (or mature young adults), try the Half the Sky documentary (2012), an incredible look at the oppression of women worldwide--and the way that select activists are making a difference to females who would otherwise live without literacy, shelter, safety, or respect.  I have not read the Half the Sky book on which the documentary was based, but I've heard it's also outstanding. Read Full Post.

What I'm Reading: "The Art of Roughhousing" by DeBenedet and Cohen

I'm reading The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It (2011), by Anthony T. DeBenedet and Lawrence J. Cohen.  You might recognize Cohen as the author of the popular Playful Parenting (2002).

Here's roughhousing as DeBenedet and Cohen describe it:

[Roughhousing is] play that flows with spontaneity, improvisation, and joy.  It is free from worries about how we look or how much time is passing.  It is physical...interactive...[and] rowdy, but not dangerous.

DeBenedet and Cohen argue that play, roughhousing included, has intellectual, physical, social, and moral benefits for participants.  They back their claims with science, including the fact that elephants, whales, and ants engage in roughhousing as well.  In fact:

Animal behaviorists have observed that the smarter the species, the more its youngsters engage in physical play.

Through roughhousing, boys and girls learn to adapt quickly, to make mistakes in a safe environment, to practice managing emotional highs and lows, to find the line between play and aggression, to fine-tune their self-control, to express friendship, and, just as importantly, to experience joy.

The Art of Roughhousing suggests roughhousing activities for parents to try, with a few appropriate for toddlers and many others good up through the teenage years.  Diagrams help readers figure out such moves as the Steamroller (a rolling maneuver for ages six months and up) and the Hummingbird (a difficult standing flip to try with teens).  

Among the activities for the younger set (ages 2 to 5) is Rogue Dumbo, rated "Easy" and involving the essential skill "Twirling."  You grip your child's legs around your upper body, with your child facing you, such that you serve as the body of a "wild, rampaging" elephant and he/she can lean backwards and act as the trunk.  If you're adept enough, you can go for the "full effect...swaying, snorting, trumpeting, and spinning around the house."

Here are a few of the book's tips:

...reverse the roles when you play.  Let your child be the strong one--the monster, the scary dog, the doctor giving the shot, etc.--while you exaggerate being fearful or clumsy and incompetent.  This switch gives kids a chance to feel powerful and release their tensions through waves of laughter.


When in doubt, fall over.


If you do something that makes your child laugh, do it again.  And again.

I have a one-year-old, so we can't do most of the book's activities yet, but I have a feeling she's already old enough to appreciate the self-explanatory "1-2-3 cuddle." Read Full Post.

What I'm Reading: "Feel-Bad Education" by Alfie Kohn

I'm reading Alfie Kohn's Feel-Bad Education: And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling (Beacon Press, 2011).  The book is a collection of 19 of Kohn's previously published essays, each arguing against a component of traditional American education in favor of more progressive thinking.  He rejects the zero-tolerance policy, grades, homework, and standardized testing, citing research that shows all are counterproductive.  Kohn challenges educators to create academic environments of true critical thinking and to emphasize and model uncertainty and investigation in the learning process.

I love what Kohn says about how to discuss readings with a student.  He warns against the artificial simplicity that can result from asking if a child agrees or disagrees with a text.  Though he acknowledges that it's possible to improve upon that question by asking "Why do you agree or disagree?," he suggests an even better approach.  Ask your child, "What questions do you have that you didn't have before you read this?"

Add Kohn's question to your collection, parent-tutors and other educators.  With it, you can encourage students to think deeply, remind them of the importance of questioning, and prompt deep discussion.

Now I suppose I should ask--what questions do you have that you didn't have before you read this?  (If you decide you want to ask them, feel free to do so in the comments below!) Read Full Post.

Recommended Read: "The End of Molasses Classes" by Ron Clark

In 2008, before the Obama v. McCain election, the rap video "You Can Vote However You Like" went viral.  The rappers?  A group of middle school students with a passion for politics.  The teacher?  Ron Clark, founder of the Ron Clark Academy and teacher extraordinare.

At the Ron Clark Academy, a twisty blue slide starts on the second story and spits riders onto the main floor lobby.  A large wheel "sorts" (inspired by the Hogwarts sorting hat) new students into four academic houses, as the entire school cheers.  Educators from across the globe attend RCA's teacher training sessions and can observe classes in session in a school where teaching is definitely a performance art.

Clark is the author of The Essential 55: An Award-Winning Educator's Rules for Discovering the Successful Student in Every Child (2003), The Excellent 11: Qualities Teachers and Parents Use to Motivate, Inspire, and Educate Children (2004), and, now, The End of Molasses Classes: Getting Our Kids Unstuck--101 Extraordinary Solutions for Parents and Teachers (2011).

Having just finished The End of Molasses Classes, I can say that it's an inspiring read for all educators, parents included.  And if you don't know something, don't worry:

Whenever I am talking with my students an they ask me a question I don't know the answer to, I will say, "Oooh, let's look that up!"  I act genuinely giddy at the prospect of finding out information that I don't know.

As parents and teachers, that level of interest and curiosity is important to show our children.

I admire Clark's passion and his emphasis on a student's holistic well-being.  He's clearly interested, above all, in helping students feel empowered and competent, with a "constant thirst for knowledge" and an appreciation for high standards, both academically and ethically.

Highly recommended. Read Full Post.

My Reading List: 25 Books of 2011

Sometimes I'm overwhelmed by the number of books I would need to read to be a "well-educated" person.  Every time a colleague references a "classic" that I haven't conquered, I cringe and add it to a Word document full of unread literature.  I also fall prey to guilt-inducing, bookseller-funded Top Book lists:

"The Top 10 Books of 2011"

"The Top 10 Books of Last Week"

"The Top 10 Books of Yesterday" 

"The 150 Epic Poems Every Writer Should Reread Annually"

So it was a relief to encounter Joshua Bodwell's essay, "You Are What You Read: The Art of Inspired Reading Lists" in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Poets & Writers.  He opens with an epiphany--"I won't get to all the books I want to read in my lifetime"--and backs it up with statistics: there were 300,000+ books published in 2010.  As he points out, that's almost 900 books a day.  No one could get through them all, or even through all the good ones.  And, of course, there are the millions already out there on the shelves.  

Once you give up on the idea that everyone has to read particular books from a universal best-of list, you can embrace the idea that you have your own literary niche.  Relish the knowledge that you can follow a theme or author to its natural works of literature, replacing the should-reads with the want-to reads.

Bodwell made his own list of books, "Bodwell's Baker's Dozen," of books, both old and new, that inspired him over the past year.  I think this is a valuable idea for all of us--and for our children and students.  (You can do the same with movies, television shows, or even music.)

Any of these lists can provide an insightful look back into your mind over the past year.  In that spirit, here's my list:

Of the Books I Read in 2011, Here Are 25 Notable Ones (and Some Audio Books)

I read books about education:

And self-help:

Books for older children:

And much younger:

And books about children, including how to prepare for and then raise them:

And how others prepare for and raise them:

And how they cope when their children struggle or suffer:

I also used to listen to these plays, most of which I'd recommend, though generally for teens and adults:

Q&As from Parents at St. Patrick's in DC

Thanks so much to St. Patrick's Episcopal Day School (K-8, DC) for the well-organized book event yesterday!  A great group of parents packed into a classroom to hear my presentation about tutoring, and they asked smart questions.  I'd like to adapt parts of the Q&A here, for everyone's benefit:

Q: How do I encourage a distractable student to stay on task when I'm out of the room?

A: Ask your child how long a particular task should take.  Then set a timer and challenge your child to see whether he can finish by the time it goes off.  You can set your own alarm and check back at intervals (and at the end of the time) to see if the time pressure has helped your child stay focused.  This can also help your child develop time management skills and a more accurate sense of how long particular tasks take.

Q: My child works too quickly.  How do I teach him/her to slow down and check his/her work?

A:  If your child consistently rushes--for example, when working on math problems--ask him to talk you through the process of completing a problem.  As you do it, model the pace that you think is appropriate.  Then ask him to teach you how to check your work.  Do so slowly and deliberately, doing the process while speaking the language that you want your child to be using in his head while reviewing.  It can be hard to TELL a child how to slow down, but he may change his speed if you SHOW him how you'd do it.

Q: When my child reads a book that I haven't read, what's a productive way to engage him/her in conversation about it?

A: You can certainly try, "Tell me about your book," but if you want to get more specific with your questions, allowing your child to think about the reading in a new way, you can attempt these as well: "Would you recommend this book to me?  To students of a certain age or interest?  Why?"  "Who's the main character and what does he/she want?"  "Is there something that's standing in that character's way?"  "Did you think this author has a particular way of writing?" OR "Do you think you could identify this author by his/her writing?  Is there something unique about it?"  Asking more directed questions will allow your child to create focused responses, which will be a useful skill to have when responding to writing prompts or just trying to make a concise point in conversation.


I ran out of time at the event, so I didn't get to recommend two other ideas for reading matter.  One is the book I recently raved about, Guerrilla Learning.  The other is The Teacher's Calendar, an annual publication that lists each day's historical, literary, and cultural anniversaries.  It's a good resource for parents and children, providing fodder for interesting, timely, and educational conversations.  Enjoy! Read Full Post.

Essential Book for All Parents

It's rare for me to wholeheartedly endorse a book as being important enough that every parent should read it, but I've just finished one that's as close to that designation as I'm ever going to find.  It's Guerrilla Learning: How to Give Your Kids a Real Education With Or Without Schoolby Grace Llewellyn and Amy Silver.

I don't even know where to start.  I think I highlighted most of the book.  I just tried to go back through my Kindle to figure out what parts of the book I should write about, and it seems I marked 265 passages, some of which are multiple pages long.

Basically, Llewellyn and Silver make the point that, even if your children are enrolled in school, you can go a long way toward improving their educational experience with  your own positive influence and support.  (Yes, I partly like their book because it reminds me so much of my own.)  After laying out their thoughts on what doesn't work about the traditional school system and why you should stop stressing about "high-stakes" testing and other fabricated perils of mainstream "education," they go through each school subject area (science, math, history...) and provide suggestions for how to naturally and dynamically engage your child in that subject.  Their resource lists provide an incredible collection of books that you might want to read next.

This book is applicable for anyone with children, no matter what types of school they do or don't attend.

Llewellyn is renowned for her pioneering work in the homeschooling and unschooling worlds.  She's the mastermind behind the Not Back to School Camp, for unschooled teenagers, and the author of The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education and Real Lives: Eleven Teenagers Who Don't Go to School Tell Their Own StoriesRead Full Post.

Radical Unschooling

After investigating the difference between homeschooling and unschooling, I was curious about the definition of radical unschooling.  To get one educator's take, I read Radical Unschooling: A Revolution Has Begun, by Dayna Martin.  Here's Martin's definition:

Radical unschooling, which expands unschooling philosophy to parenting, means you extend that same trust to other areas of your child's life, like foods, media, television, video games--allowing them to eat, play, or watch whatever they want when they want.

This method requires the parent to trust that a child who is allowed to pursue his or her own passions (and, in many cases, his or her own schedule) will naturally focus on activities that have educational value.  The educational value of an activity may not be immediately obvious, but the idea is that children innately know what they need, so bouts of television viewing or video game playing that might trouble a non-unschooler are instead looked on as beneficial and natural.

There were some parts of Martin's book that made me hesitate--she's a proponent of the Law of Attraction--but others appealed to me.  Namely, Martin's description of a good unschooler was remarkably similar to my vision of a good parent-tutor:

My job is to expose them to as much of the world as possible from as many resources as possible, so they can realize and pursue their interests.

Martin then provides a list of resources, all of which would also be used by a creative parent-tutor: "internet, television, books, video games, day trips, vacations, community resources, and apprenticeships."

Does tutoring differ from unschooling?  I suppose it does in that a parent-tutor may be providing support for a school subject that a child does not particularly want to study.  But both the parent-tutor and unschooling parent are striving to help their children learn how to learn.  More than that, they're helping their children how to LOVE learning how to learn. Read Full Post.

The Difference Between Homeschooling and Unschooling

Until recently, I only had a hazy understanding of the difference between homeschooling and unschooling.  For clarification, I read Unschooling 101: Top 10 Questions About Learning Without School, by Sara McGrath.

Here's my current understanding:

When we talk about homeschoolers, we're talking about the broad category of students who learn outside of the full-time American school system.  

Unschoolers are a particular type of homeschoolers.  Similar to other homeschoolers, they may choose to follow an official curriculum, participate in group or individual lessons, and enjoy a personalized education.

What defines unschoolers as a separate group is that its students are never required to pursue topics or activities that do not interest them.  A homeschooling family might tell its children that they must study multiplication because the parents feel it's important; an unschooling family would not force an area of study on a resistant student.  Unschoolers learn voluntarily, as their passions direct.

(Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, homeschoolers and unschoolers, or to add any distinctions that I may have overlooked.)

Next I'll be reading Radical Unschooling: A Revolution Has Begun, by Dayna Martin. Read Full Post.

How to Build on a Child's Natural Interests

This weekend, I perused a review copy of Suddenly Homeschooling: A Quick-Start Guide to Legally Homeschool in 2 Weeks, by Marie-Claire Moreau, Ed.D.  This guide provides a 14-day plan for parents who need to prepare to homeschool very quickly--intended for a child who had to leave school unexpectedly, for example due to health, social, academic, or emotional reasons.

Though the book itself is geared toward a subset of homeschoolers, Moreau's website has broader appeal.  Among other resources, she provides articles that describe different styles of at-home education and videos about homeschool organization and approaches.  (Have you ever heard of Enki education?  I learned about it for the first time here.)

As part of Day Four of the Suddenly Homeschooling plan, Moreau prompts parents to list times when their children got excited about learning.  For example:

When he went to a friend's house and talked to the dog breeder.

When she learned how to edit her photos using the online tutorial.

Any time she talks to people about music.

Moreau advises parents to use this list to determine what materials students might enjoy using when learning (books, online lessons, etc.) and what subjects he or she might find most compelling.  Parent-tutors who don't homeschool can follow Moreau's advice as well.  Think about when you've seen your children really want to explore a subject.  Did your young son collect a handful of leaves at the playground?  Did your teenage daughter figure out how to dismantle and repair the DVD player?  Then consider what these examples say about your children's proclivities.  Are you encouraging your children to learn by way of these interests?  Maybe you can use those leaves to teach your son about the seasonal changes in deciduous trees.  Or you can encourage your daughter to learn more about the inner workings of mechanical devices and help her find out about college-level engineering programs.

Likewise, think back to your own childhood.  What did you do that fostered your love for a particular subject?  Think about whether your parents helped build on your interests.  If so, how?  If not, what could they have done? 

In short, make the most of your child's natural passions.  Your child's school may not have the time to educate each student this way, but it's a luxury that you, as a parent-tutor, can enjoy! Read Full Post.

What Talking to My Baby About Cats Has to Do with the Duggars

When I spend time with my four-month-old daughter, sometimes I get caught up figuring out how I'll explain things to her when she's older.  When she's two, I think, I'll talk about how cats have furry paws and tails.  When she's five, I'll describe what it means that they're mammals.  When she's seven, we'll talk about breeds, identifying everything from Siamese to Cornish Rex.

Talking a walk earlier, I realized I'd been so caught up in this line of thought that I wasn't saying anything at all to the baby.  I reminded myself that, though she's young, there's no better time to start with any and all of these "older-kid" discussions than now.  After all, what good does it do her if stay silent--or even if I restrict our cat conversation to her current level of comprehension?  "Caaa," I could say, pointing to a picture of a cat. "Caaa, caaa, caaa."  Those sounds are along the lines of the ones she makes, but why limit our interaction to one syllable?

One of the complaints about traditional school systems is that students spend too much time with children at the same level of development.  If we only ever communicate with our same-age peers, we may not be challenged or prompted to grow.

My two most recent posts have been about the 19-child Duggar family, all of whom have been homeschooled by their mother, Michelle.  This one is also inspired by the Duggars' educational philosophy as it relates to the ideas above, and as described in A Love That Multiplies: An Up-Close View of How They Make It Work.

Though the Duggar children range in age from newborn to adult, there is a time each day when they all sit around one table and participate in the same lesson.

The youngest ones may not understand the ideas the moment they hear them, but we believe the information goes into their brains and accumulates like a big pile of snow.  The snowdrift gets bigger and bigger as the children hear new information, especially when it's presented appealingly.  Then, gradually, as these children mature, the ideas they have heard start melting and soaking into their hearts and minds, and they begin comprehending.

In short, speak to your children in a way they understand--and, also, in a way they will understand. Read Full Post.

How the Duggars Homeschool their 19 Children

As part of my quest to learn about individual families' homeschooling experiences, I read The Duggars: 20 and Counting! Raising One of America's Largest Families--How They Do It, by Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar.  In case you're trying to reconcile this blog post's title with the book's, the "20" refers to Michelle, Jim Bob, and the 18 J-name* children who existed as of the book's publication in 2008.  Since then, Josie has been born; if you watch TLC's show 19 Kids and Counting, you may be familiar with the health struggles Josie faced after she arrived three months premature.

The Duggars: 20 and Counting! describes why the Duggars have so many children (they're leaving their family size to "God's will"), how small a space they've lived in with how large a brood (900 square feet with five children, 2200 square feet with 14 children), how large a space they now live in (7000 square feet!), and how they manage (lots of washers and dryers, not much sleep).

The book discusses elements of the family's homeschooling regimen.  Though the family lists the particular book series they use for their formal lessons, I was more interested in the ways they informally educate their children.

The Duggars give their children firsthand exposure to career skills.  When their son Josh was a toddler, 

I installed a toddler car seat [in the tow truck] so the little guy could come along on daytime towing calls, and he loved it!  We dressed him in little coveralls like mine, and he happily accompanied Daddy on calls all over the area.

As we rode together, I talked constantly to Josh, teaching him the names of the things we saw, even the names of the streets we were crossing.  Later, I did the same thing with our twins Jana and John-David.  Soon, going anywhere in Springdale with one of our little ones was like having our own personal GPS system!

The family continued this practice when Jim Bob worked as a representative in the Arkansas House of Representatives:

Just as I had done when I was driving the tow truck, I often brought one, two, or three of the six oldest children to work with me in the legislature.  They would watch the House proceedings from the gallery or sit in the audience during meetings.  Sure, some of the meetings ran long, but they learned a lot, and later we would discuss what they had heard to reinforce the lessons.

Michelle and I would chuckle, overhearing them "play legislature" back at home.  "Mr. Chairman!" one of them would cry out, trying to get the others' attention.  A little later we would hear, "All in favor, say aye."

The Duggar parents realize how effective it is to learn through action:

Michelle and I like to take our children with us when we vote.  We want them to learn how elections work, including what happens in the voting booth.

Have you ever done home improvements?  Consider how you could involve your child in the process.  The Duggars dealt with their need for more space by building their own house, which became another hands-on learning opportunity:

...the children studied the dimensions, square footage, and weight loads of the structure as well as all the processes involved in the new home's construction.

You don't need a huge family or a yard full of steel I-beams to implement the Duggars' practices yourself.  To the extent you can, share your work life with your child.  Likewise, share your passions.  When educating their children, Michelle and Jim Bob follow a maxim that writers also value: Show, don't tell.  They teach through movement and by doing.  You can do the same.


* Joshua, Jana, John-David, Jill, Jessa, Jinger, Joseph, Josiah, Joy-Anna, Jeremiah, Jedidiah, Jason, James, Justin, Jackson, Johannah, Jennifer, Jordyn-Grace, and (post-publication) Josie Read Full Post.

"Read This Before Our Next Meeting" -- Brainstorming Tips

Through the BzzAgent program, I've been getting free Kindle copies of publications by The Domino Project.  Most recently, I received Read This Before Our Next Meeting: The modern meeting standard for successful organizations by Al Pittampalli.  (Anyone can download the digital edition for free until Tuesday, August 9.)

The gist of the book is that meetings often hinder rather than help; Pittampalli describes how to run a "modern meeting" to maximize benefits for companies.

One section of the book addresses brainstorming, and it reminded me that students often skip this crucial step in the paper-writing process.  They shouldn't, because preceding a research or analytical paper with an idea-generating session is what makes for a rich, thoughtful paper.  Students can then group related material and use it to craft a strong, thesis-driven paper with logically organized evidence.  

In short, brainstorming gives you more to work with, which means students end up culling the best material from a pool of possibilities rather than straining to think of something to say and experiencing "writer's block."

Parents, keep in mind what Pittampalli advises regarding brainstorming sessions:

Let's praise liberally.  No criticism.... Let's make sure that the measured output of the meeting is the breadth and quantity of ideas.

You can encourage your child to aim for a certain number of ideas:

This method forces people to let go of their filters in service of meeting the target number of ideas.

Or set a timer:

It's toward the very end that people start flinging up last-minute ideas to meet the mark.

Try getting up from the table:

Encourage people to stand up, walk around the room.  In fact, get out of the room.

In all the fun of brainstorming, be sure your child keeps track of the ideas.  It may be hard to recognize what's most valuable until the end.  So:

Let's write it all down ... even the silly stuff.

Is there anything else that you think parents or children should keep in mind about brainstorming?  If so, feel free to share below! 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.

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.