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.

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.

How to Observe and Adapt, Inspired by Reggio Emilia

I recently attended the open house of a DC-area playgroup based on the Reggio Emilia method, an educational approach for young children that developed in Italy after World War II.  At the open house, the playgroup's founder emphasized the importance of a child's "third teacher," his or her environment.  (The first and second teachers are parents and teachers.)  She explained that she observes the babies and toddlers as they play, then adapts the classroom environment prior to the next session to cater to the children's current interests and development needs.

What a simple and seemingly intuitive move, and yet it's one that I rarely do at home.  Sure, I put away gear as our (now-11-month-old) baby outgrows it, but I haven't usually had a deeper strategy behind the way I arrange her environment on any particular morning.  After becoming aware that I could more consciously arrange Maya's surroundings, though, I started paying more attention to what I set out for her.  

When I noticed the baby sticking her hand into my glass of water and wiggling it around, I filled a pan with water and put it on the kitchen floor, where she played with it gleefully, splashing and exploring.

Later that week, a relative watched the baby and said she gravitated toward a pile of clean laundry--socks in particular.  My first reaction: Now we're going to have to refold everything!  My second reaction: The next morning, I presented her (the baby, that is) with a pile of socks, and she took great joy in tossing them in and out of her Bumbo seat, making little shrieking sounds.  Later that day, after I dumped blocks out of a basket, she began putting them back in, one after another, which is something she had not done before and which seemed inspired by the movements she'd done with the socks.

Then, the next day, I took the baby back to that pile of laundry.  (Even when we fold our laundry, we don't get around to putting it away that often.)  She was indeed passionate about playing with the clothes, and they led to a whole range of games: the what-color-are-these-pants sorting game, the can-you-find-the-rabbit cloth game, and that old classic, the up-and-down are-they-hats-or-boxers game.

It's not that hard to make minor changes to an environment based on a child's behaviors.  Consider doing so for older children as well.  Is your child excited about knitting?  Arrange a basket of yarn and/or library books about knitting on your coffee table.  If your child likes to bake, provide a shelf in the cabinet for appealing baking supplies, and occasionally add a container of sprinkles or a new cookie cutter.

You can also use this method to facilitate academics.  Did your child struggle to find sharpened pencils yesterday afternoon?  Rearrange your office supplies so that a cup in the living room  holds several sharpened pencils, with a small pencil sharpener resting on a shelf nearby.  Figure out where a stack of looseleaf or construction paper would get the most use, and place it there.  Move, add, and remove components of your and your children's environments to make the most of your space and their passion for learning. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Thrice-Read Books

In my last post, I mentioned a mother who got her son interested in Moby Dick and in Greek philosophy by introducing him to junior editions of the works.  

This mother's efforts reminded me of a reading system endorsed by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Bauer in their book The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home.  The Bauers recommend a twelve-year educational model that's comprised of three four-year studies of world history and literature:

The pattern widens and deepens as the student matures and learns.  For example, a first grader listens to you read the story of the Iliad from one of the picture-book versions available at any public library....  Four years later, the fifth grader reads ones of the popular middle-grade adaptations....  Four more years go by, and the ninth grader--faced with Homer's Iliad itself--plunges right in, undaunted.  She already knows the story.  What's to be scared of?

Check out The Well-Trained Mind for a detailed list of the books the Bauers recommend for each of the four-year segments. Read Full Post.

How to Turn Twilight into Dracula

I posted the following question on the How to Tutor Your Own Child Facebook yesterday:

If your child's friends like poorly written but popular books (e.g., Twilight), is it better to 
(A) convince your child to avoid these books in favor of better literature, even if no one else he or she knows has read these books 
(B) encourage your child to read lower-quality books so he/she can talk to friends about them?

Or is there a C option that's a better way to encourage a love of reading?

In retrospect, "poorly written" wasn't exactly what I meant to say.  What I was aiming to do was to draw a distinction between "popular" books ("beach reads," perhaps) and "literary" books.

The general consensus from FB responses and those I spoke with personally seemed to be that it's ideal for kids to read a combination of popular and literary books.  Some commenters had good ideas for how to transition between the two.  Tynessa, the mother of an eight-year old, used the junior version of Moby Dick to get her son interested in the story.  She did the same for Greek mythology.  This is reminiscent of what Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Bauer recommend in their book The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home.  (More on this in my next post.)

Another commenter (and friend), Eleni, suggested easing students from a pop culture book to a literary one that's somehow related.  Here's what she wrote:

So: "Do you like the vampires in Twilight? Cool... want to read a book from the 19th century that revolutionized the way we think of vampires? It's called Dracula." 

You can also use this method in reverse.  If you wanted your child to study Greek mythology, as Tynessa did, you could introduce your child to a relevant "fun" novel--e.g., Rick Riordan's Lightening Thief series.

Now for some practice.  

Let's say your child likes Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games series.  Can you relate it to anything more literary?

Or what if he or she likes Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series?  

Or Pretty Little Liars, by Sara Shepard?  Any ideas for these?  

Do any other pop-to-lit connections that come to mind? 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.

The Benefits of Being Alone

In How to Tutor Your Own Child, I emphasize the educational value of simplicity, silence, and boredom.  Along those same lines, I was struck by this quote about the benefits of aloneness from "The Writer as Psychotic," an article by author Philip Yancey:

Brain scans reveal that aloneness is central to the creative impulse; sensory deprivation allows the synaptic loops in the inner brain that lead to creativity.

I think Yancey's point holds true for everyone, not just writers.  While schools often emphasize group work, it is the absence of interaction--and of other stimuli--that can provide the space we need to create, allowing us to fill the void with something new.

Here are a few other ways that children can benefit from being alone:

Are there other ways that aloneness benefits children or students? Read Full Post.