Marina Koestler Ruben

Marina's Blog

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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."

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.

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!)

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.

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:

  • Anna in the Tropics by Nilo Cruz
  • Dinner with Friends by Donald Margulies
  • Great Men of Genius by Mike Daisey
  • Molly Sweeney by Brian Friel
  • Sight Unseen by Donald Margulies
  • Speed the Plow by David Mamet
  • The Tale of the Allergist's Wife by Charles Busch
  • A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller

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