Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Book Review--Howl's Moving Castle

Every day I miss homeschooling. 
Every day I’m thankful I no longer homeschool.

However, one aspect of what we loved as a homeschooled family has stuck with us even through these past couple of years of formalized schooling.  Reading aloud!  I admit, with working and the kids’ homework and activities, we don’t get to read as often as we used to but we still press on even if it takes longer to finish out the book.

It’s amazing how, even though now my daughter is the one who always requests we read, both the boys will meander in and end up in the same room to listen.  I love to read aloud and they love to listen to stories—it’s a perfect match!

One of our more recent books that everyone thoroughly enjoyed is one of my favorite books, Howl’s Moving Castle* by Diana Wynne Jones.

It’s one of those books that can’t really find a home in the stacks: adult, young adult or juvenile lit. so you should probably check your library catalog to find out where it is in your local library’s collection (and I should mention it's not a new book).  We all enjoyed it, though, and we span all of those categories between the four of us.

This is a fun fantasy with witches and wizards and, as the title suggests, a castle that moves about.  There are adventures and green slime and learning how to like yourself and be content.  And the lesson never to make a contract that includes more than you’re willing to lose. But you’ll meet Sophie, Howl, Michael and Calcifer and be chilled by the Witch of the Waste.  The descriptions are detailed but not bogged down and each character is vivacious enough it was easy to create a recognizable voice and tone for each.

Give it a whirl, you’ll never know what will happen when you set out to find your fortune.

*If you’ve heard of or seen the anime version of this story, please forget all about it and NEVER compare the two.  It’s like looking at before and after pics of celebrity plastic surgery.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Book Review--Real Talk for Real Teachers

If you have ever stepped foot in a classroom as a teacher (or substitute) and felt overwhelmed, Real Talk for Real Teachers by Rafe Esquith has something for you!

I spent the last school year as a substitute teacher in the public school, culminating with the last 12 weeks of the year as a permanent sub for 8th grade Language Arts.  I knew my subject and have a passion for it, I've taught in various informal setting and in small classes at the university level.  But I was not prepared for a classroom of 27 8th graders.  From the horrifyingly frustrating moment when a boy unhooked a girl's bra when we were supposed to be watching the afternoon news program to an irate parent wondering why her daughter didn't get the same grade as another student even though she didn't do the work, I spent many moments treading water, trying to gasp for breath.

That is all behind me currently as I am happily ensconced in my field of education and training: librarianship (although if you're read some of my earlier posts you'll see being in the public library brings its own challenges).  But I believe in learning all I can about any of the various endeavors I try so this book was a wonderful tool to that end.

Grouped into three sections, the beginning teacher, the mature teacher and the experienced teacher, Rafe Esquith addresses the challenges and benefits of each season of a long-term classroom teacher. For newbies, they will find comfort in the reassurance that all great teachers were once new teachers. For the teacher who has settled into his/her stride, encouragement to fight against the comfort of the rut.  And for the experienced teacher who has been at it for decades, the freedom to explore.

Esquith uses a combination of theory, explanation and real-life examples from his own classroom and other interactions he has observed between teachers and students.  Just when I thought he was becoming unrealistically optimistic, he would discuss an obstacle or a failure.  He also does not shy away from the turmoil that politics and standardization have created in the classroom.  Parental interactions are outlined in both the positive and negative.  And very, very frank statements such as "This job can kill you" ensure that new or prospective teachers will know what they are getting in for when they enter the classroom.

If you are even considering a career in education, this is a spectacular book to read to get a realistic account of what being a teacher is.  You will find successes, failures, lesson learned and encouragement in the pages of this gem of wisdom.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Kid-friendly vs. Kid-centric

I noticed something at my church the other day and it made me think, probably more than it should have, about the development of children.  Of all things, I was in the bathroom and opened the door to a stall (relax, nothing bad or unhygienic) and saw a cute little potty seat insert resting in the adult-sized toilet.  Oh, that’s right, the twins and a couple of other kids are at the potty training age, I thought to myself.  I love that, even though there is no daycare here, we still make things accessible for the kids of the congregation.  It also matched up with the stool for the sink and another stool for the water fountain in the Great Room (i.e. multipurpose room).

So what in the world would make me become so contemplative?

Let me try to break it down.
1.  I know who and how many kids at church are of an age to be potty trained.
2.  The potty seat was noticeable because of the lack of other child-oriented decorations.
3.  I was reminded of all the little short toilets and water fountains in schools and day-care centers (to be fair in the nursery room at church which is only sporadically used).

In lower elementary schools and day care centers, it is practical to have child-sized everything to facilitate the kids being able to do things on their own since they outnumber the caretakers (sometimes to an alarming degree—but that’s a subject for another time). Everything is geared around the small students so they feel comfortable and capable.

But my thought, brought on by the difference in a potty seat insert and a tiny toilet, is how much better it is for kids in the broader world to not have everything set up to cater to them, even if the consequence is inconvenience.

Historically, children were treated as small adults.  While they may have been smaller and weaker, they were still expected to do a proportionate amount of work for survival and were held accountable for decisions that they made, even to the point of punishing them as adults for crimes committed (see the first chapter of this interesting pamphlet) .  As agricultural and industrial advances lessened the urgency of survival work, there has been more time for children to spend without the pressure of heavy-duty work and more time to spend on learning and leisure activities.  Unfortunately, this has swung the other way.

Many children and young adults are no longer willing and able to do work that involves physicality or inconvenience.  From the struggle of reaching a sink to wash hands (and needing to problem solve to do it) to taking out the trash to deciphering a difficult mathematical equation, many kids give up the attempt.  Or look upon it with contempt (see this article published in the Wall Street Journal and another from a popular parenting magazine) [and, yes, I see the irony in this article as my own kids gripe about the chores that I assign them, minimal though they are].

So, how do we reconcile both of these views?  For one thing, I think it is important that we (when I say “we” I am referring to all of us as parents, or teachers, or society in general) remind ourselves of what kind of adults to we want in the future?  Do we want adults who cannot think beyond their own immediate wants?  Do we want people who make decisions based on only their immediate surroundings and instantaneous fulfillment?


Do we want adults who can identify with another point of view?  Do we want people who can think of others’ feelings as well as their own?  Do we want grown ups who can plan ahead and consider the ramifications of their decisions?  If that is the case, maybe we can remember that all of childhood and development happens through different stages.  The best-known listing of these stages is from  Piaget who did a lot of observational experiments.  Take a look at this particular stage, outlined on an understandable psychology webpage If you have worked with small children before, do some of these things sound familiar?  The concreteness of their thinking, the immediacy of their decision-making rationale, the me-oriented attitude are all things that we start out with but need to move beyond to achieve maturity.  For those of you who are Biblically oriented, maybe this verse can illustrate the point (this is talking about Christian faith maturity but the parallels are there): “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.  When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” 1 Corinthians 13:11

Where does that leave us?  With the thought that it is good to find examples of things that will encourage the thought process of developing maturity and not letting children stagnate in the whirlpool of “me” culture surrounding them.  As simple as it appears, the potty seat insert versus a tiny toilet is a good example.  A stool instead of a lowered fountain is another.  Using glass plates instead of plastic once children are school-aged is another.  Be prepared for breakage and consider those dishes casualties in the war against ego-centrism. What other examples can you look around and find?  

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Just say "thank you"

Beware of Disproportionate Positive Response

I like being nice.  Not in-your-face manic friendliness but just a nice smile and some polite conversation while I’m helping at the reference desk.  Everybody reacts a little differently. Some people are indifferent, some people are irritated, some people like it, some people appreciate it… and some people take it personally.

Indifferent people just nod and walk off when they are done.  Irritated people usually don’t linger.  People who like it may stay and chat for minute about the weather.  Appreciative people often say the rare “Thank you for your help!”  And then there are those who take it personally.

Not that they take is as an insult but that it means more than just general nicety on my part. These are the people (not to be stereotypical but 9 out of 10 of these patrons happen to be men) who linger and chat and give a lot more information about their lives than any random person needs to know.  They are the ones that give increasingly personal compliments and start to feel an investment in how I feel or act.
“Let me tell you about my… and then… of course… after that…”

“Oh, you have dog hair on the back of your shirt, you should clean that up; you want to look your best.”

“You’re so nice, can I give you something to say thank you?”

“You’re so sweet.  Can I adopt you?”

And the kicker---a rose with baby’s breath in a bud vase delivered to the library with just my name and the name of the sender… who I couldn't place with a face.

I typically don’t deal with monikers, just nameless faces that come up and need help.  Almost a week later and I still don’t know who it was because nobody has mentioned it, claimed it or anything.

On the surface this might seem like a very thoughtful gesture.  A piece of bygone chivalry that is now lacking in today’s society; an indication that some people will still go above and beyond when they feel it is truly necessary; a hint of romance in an era where gallantry is severely lacking.


The other piece of the equation is me.  Little old me.  Because now I have to discern the meaning behind this mystery gift and what might have prompted it.  Who gave it?  Why? Is it meaningless?  Is it portentous?  Did I give someone the wrong impression?  Is this person expecting something in return?

I think what I’m so worried about is that this person will show up and indicate they would like a bit more… personal interaction (e.g. date).  Now it is my burden to say no in a way that doesn’t hurt their feelings.  Several of my co-workers who have been working with the general public much longer than I have encouraged me to be suspicious, detached, private and essentially aloof (though polite).  One is now worried because the restraining order he had put in place against a particular lady is about to expire—these are legitimate concerns about the intensity of unreciprocated adoration. The problem with being aloof, detached, or suspicious is that it's not me.  I can’t do that which is probably what landed me in this fix to begin with.

So, I would just like to let it be known that no matter how appreciative you are of someone’s help, a simple “Thank you” is more than enough. 

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Testing (PARCC and others)

I have avoided writing about the educational standardized testing controversy because it is such a broad and involved topic, it is almost impossible to narrow down.  But I do have strong feelings about it like so many other parents and educators.  Since I could not decide what to focus on, I thought maybe I would just put some questions out there for people to ponder.

What is the goal of compulsory public education through high school?
            Productive citizens?
            College preparation?
            Something else?
What is the intended purpose of standardized testing?
            To make sure teachers are doing a good job?
            To ensure students know particular bits of information?
Who benefits financially from standardized testing?
            Big businesses?
Who writes and scores the tests?
            Qualified and trained individuals?
            Instructors who are familiar with the curriculum in use?
            Teachers who regularly interact with the grade level the test is geared toward?
What long-term benefits have been shown over the last 20 years of standardized testing?
            For this, I've got nothing to suggest and haven't seen any reports to this effect.

I think these are reasonable questions for people to discuss, bring to school boards and to congressmen and congresswomen.  The more level-headed discussions and evidence-based results out there, the better. Educated discussions should happen regarding the future of education for our students and ultimately for our country.