Thursday, December 26, 2013

Book Review: Coolidge

I've enjoyed watching Justin reading Amity Shlaes' Coolidge over the past few months. He would chuckle and say of Calvin Coolidge and his wife, Grace, "Those two remind me of us. The classic introvert and the classic extrovert." Given today's political climate it seems that this book is a timely one for us Americans and I look forward to reading this after I clear some other books of my GoodReads shelf.    

Enjoy Justin's review: 

Such a great enough to give you a good picture, but pretty tightly paced so it never drags.

Calvin Coolidge was a fascinating yet unassuming fellow who was loath to promote himself, preferring to work hard and be "in the stream" so that his excellence would be noticed by others at the right time. Shlaes speaks up where Coolidge himself may never have, poring through papers and letters to allow his choices and perseverance shine forth as the example for others he always hoped they would be. He comes across not as the cranky, taciturn caricature most Americans hold, but as a shrewd and calculating political operator with steely-eyed convictions and a keen eye for public perception. Moreover, he was quite family-focused, cherishing and protecting his wife through a life lived in public, holding onto his family land in Vermont throughout his presidency (even micromanaging his tenants at times), and suffering incredibly through the sudden loss of his 17 year-old son during the 2nd year of his presidency. Shlaes gives ample treatment to both his home life and his official capacities, offering a window into the sacrifices the whole family made for the sake of the country.

If there is a weakness here, it is that Shlaes focuses heavily on the nuts and bolts of Coolidge's policies, though I actually appreciated that. Economics and tax policy seems to be the stuff that rings her chimes, from other pieces I've read by her (and interviews, etc.), and the tone throughout the book suggests that she would clearly like to see those in the political realm revisit the inner workings of the Coolidge administration and apply some of his solutions to today's issues.

In all, a great read. I foresee that Shlaes book will have the same recussitatory effect on Coolidge's historical standing that McCullough's work had on Truman's.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Movie Review: Saving Mr. Banks (and a plug for Marry Poppins)

Our oldest (at age 2) dressed like Bert, the chimney sweep

Before I married Justin, he told me that one of his all time favorite movies as an adult was Mary Poppins. Though I loved the film too, my first reaction was, "But it's a kids movie?". In other words, I was saying, "I can't wait to show it to our children someday because I have that childhood nostalgia, too" but I soon learned that is not what he meant. I was like Walt Disney telling P.L. Travers in the Saving Mr. Banks trailer that he thought Mary came to save the children.

Justin knew Mr. Banks was the one who had to learn the lesson, not the kids. I think he was always in awe of how Disney was able to make Mary Poppins accessible to children, yet pack such a punch for adults. For instance, do you remember Bert saying this to the children?

Bert: You know, begging your pardon, but the one my heart goes out to is your father. There he is in that cold, heartless bank day after day, hemmed in by mounds of cold, heartless money. I don't like to see any living thing caged up.

Jane: Father? In a cage?

Bert: They makes cages in all sizes and shapes, you know. Bank-shaped, some of 'em, carpets and all.

or perhaps this interaction at the fireplace between Bert and Mr. Banks

Bert: You're a man of high position, esteemed by your peers. And when your little tykes are crying, you haven't time to dry their tears... And see their thankful little faces smiling up at you... 'Cause their dad, he always knows just what to do...

George Banks: Well, look - I...

Bert: Say no more, Gov'ner. You've got to grind, grind, grind at that grindstone... Though childhood slips like sand through a sieve... And all too soon they've up and grown, and then they've flown... And it's too late for you to give - just that spoonful of sugar to 'elp the medicine go down - medicine go dow-wown, medicine go down. Well, goodbye, Gov'ner. Sorry to trouble you. [Bert exits, whistling "A Spoonful of Sugar"]

Mr. Banks may not have been P.L. Travers' impression of her father, but Mr. Banks is certainly many people's father. Justin says that the full circle Mr. Banks achieves (where he becomes who he always needed to be) is because his identity changes. He is no longer George Banks the Banker, but George Banks the Father. He claims that Mary Poppins has the best 3rd act of any movie he's ever seen, the final beautiful, resolving chord at the end of a symphony. 

Here's where things get interesting though. You might think that after you've watched the Saving Mr. Banks trailer you're going to side with Walt Disney more than P.L. Travers. Well, you just might surprise yourself. I think this will particularly ring true with those of you who are avid readers. I'm talking about those of you who usually always read the book before watching (and screaming at) the movie adaptation. It hurts to see those characters (who you feel are like family) being turned into a "ghastly mess" :) The tone is wrong, the person's build is wrong, the clothes are wrong, the motivation is wrong. You get what I'm saying? Sometimes the movie version feels like a cast of strangers. I felt very much on Travers' side for most of the movie, all the way up to the scene with the movie's Hollywood premiere. I mean, I've read a Mary Poppins book and she is no Julie Andrews. However, as soon as they started showing clips from the movie, I started to cry. I just could not imagine my life (both as a child and now a mother) without having Disney's Mary Poppins for my family to cherish. I felt this uncontrollable emotional pull of, "Sheesh! Disney really did know what he was doing!" The movie somehow balances the highs and lows, the funny and the melancholy, the strict with the whimsical so well. After seeing Saving Mr. Banks, I felt like Mary Poppins the movie is actually the perfect marriage of Disney personality (carefree) and Travers personality (gravitas).  

As far as performances go, Emma Thompson is exquisite. I had high hopes for her and she did not disappoint. Tom Hanks is good at being Tom Hanks, the warm, lovable guy we all feel like we know. He doesn't convince me he's Walt Disney, especially with that accent. He tries so hard to be folksy he somehow ends up being Southern. It struck both of us that there was a grand irony in this -- Dick Van Dyke, the American, was roundly panned for his portrayal of a Cockney chimney sweep in Mary Poppins. Colin Farrell was an excellent choice for Travers' father. Every woman knows that Farrell is a handsome guy by his own right, but having him be that handsome, sanguine man in the movie added to the idealized version Travers clearly had of her father. As far as the Disney staff, the Ralph character was an unnecessary plot device, but the other important people on the Mary Poppins production team were endearing as they struggled to meet Travers' high (if not unreasonable) standards.        

So I can say that I heartily recommend this movie even if it was loosely based on real life events**


I came into this movie knowing that this "Disney version" of Disney events wasn't actually real. P. L. Travers went to her grave regretting ever signing the deal with Disney. She was initially on board with the movie after her consultation, but later in life she began to get aggravated with the film more and more. She never let the Disney corporation touch anything else ever having to do with Mary Poppins because she felt she they twisted her beloved creation.

It was very clear from reading up on P.L. Travers when I got home that her life was an outpouring of many unresolved emotional issues (see here for more on that) most of which seem to be daddy related. There was not any evidence that she had the emotional catharsis as shown in the movie. It's tragic to see someone succumb to such childhood trauma, to the point where it colors everything she is and does. However, wouldn't you say that personal suffering is how many of our most adored classics come to existence?   

Monday, December 16, 2013

Guest Post: 6 Ways To Change Your Learning Culture

We'll excuse the Pinterest typo just this once, Dos Equis man. 
"When you were growing up, you probably spent hours sitting in a classroom listening to teachers deliver lecture after lecture in school. Now, as an adult employee, the thought of sitting through company training seems boring, unproductive, pointless and wasteful compared to actual work you could be doing. And if that’s what you think, your colleagues are likely thinking the same thing." - Nate Magnuson 

I'm excited about a first on this blog -- linking up an article that deals with education in the workplace. This post specifically focuses on the idea of what company training could be with a new corporate culture, not just a "hot new strategy".

This post was written by a Bryan College friend (like most of my guest posts!), Nate Magnuson, who is a leadership development professional. He and my husband lived on the same dorm hall for 3 years and he is one funny and focused guy! I highly recommend you check out his personal website

The post of Nate's I wanted to highlight is called 6 Ways to Change Your Learning Culture. In it, he details how companies who don't embrace the fact that education is happening beyond training days are missing out on a lot of potential from their employees and volunteers.   

Here are some of the "old" ideas he seeks to move beyond in the workplace: 
    1. You can only learn when you go to training events
    2. The person leading training is the "expert"
    3. The company is in charge of the personal development of the employee
    4. Sweep mistakes under the rug  
    5. You can assess learning by tests
    6. If you pass the test, you're done with training
If you have ever been to a training seminar, you will probably know instantly why many of these methods of training can be outdated and unhelpful at times. They don't promote an attitude of lifelong learning. In fact, I recently published a blog post that featured a video of a teacher who says that $600,000 was used to train teachers for 2 weeks on technology. She details what the training consisted of (e.g. one WHOLE day was finding out what kind of "penguin" she was) and it sure didn't sound like money or time well spent. Stories like these aren't just cropping up in our schools though. They are happening at large businesses, small businesses, and non-profits. So why do we persist in doing the latest training trend devoid of a context of "culture" for the organization? A good leader will set the tone for its employees. 
I'm not saying that these 6 things never have a place in training, but considering the shifts that Nate suggests wouldn't be a bad idea if you're looking for a new workplace culture. Generally, I'm a late adopter for most any kind of technology, but I know the way people communicate with each other has rapidly changed over the last decade. I have more people ask me insurance questions through my personal Facebook than on my professional e-mail. You roll with the technology changes while creating an environment that promotes healthy, productive interactions (whatever that may look like for your organization).    

Feel free to share a time when your professional training has been unproductive or productive because of the learning culture.  

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

OCC: An Attitude of Gratitude -- Part 2

As you saw in Part 1, Operation Christmas Child is one of many ways families use to foster gratitude during the holiday season.

After volunteering there for 2 years now, I thought I might share some tips from the OCC warehouse for those of you who enjoy packing shoeboxes every year. Obviously, these are not official rules. I just wouldn't have known about some of these things if I hadn't volunteered there and seen it with my own eyes, so I'm trying to be helpful by showing you how to mostly ensure your items can stay in the box you sent.   

Tip #1 - Consider buying for the forgotten age groups. The age group that gets the largest amount of shoeboxes is the 5-9 range and girls get way more boxes sent than boys. For every 1 or 2 crates we filled for the 2-4 age range or 10-14 age range, we filled about 3 boxes of 5-9. Keep these age groups in mind when you're shopping. It's especially fun if your child or grandchild is in one of those forgotten age groups and they can pick out something they might like.

Tip #2 - Use the OCC boxes instead of odd shaped boxes. Samaritan's Purse tries to be a good steward of the money you send in which means trying to get as many shoeboxes in one large box to send to another country. When the box sizes are funky it's like playing Tetris to get them to fit. At the very least it means more shipping costs because not as many can go in one box. However, I understand why some people send the plastic ones so the child can have some extra storage for personal items.

Tip #3 - Try not to overstuff the boxes. Things frequently fall out of overstuffed boxes. Overstuffed boxes are extremely difficult to tape and difficult to fit into the larger boxes that get sent overseas. Consider maybe doing an extra box or giving someone else some items for their box instead of overfilling the ones you have :)

Tip #4 - Please read the what not to include list carefully. If you've been doing the boxes for a while you may think you know what not to include, but they change it up every year based on things they see happen during shipping. There were rumors they are going to ban candy next year because it causes so much trouble. When we inspect the boxes, people still send liquids like shampoo and lotions as well as foods which won't make it past customs. Those items get taken out of the box and donated to local charities.   

Tip #5 - Try to be sensitive about the commercialized American toys you buy. A lot of well-meaning shoppers don't think outside the American context. When we inspected one box, we found some "Bubba" teeth in one of the boxes. That may be funny to us who have great access to dental care, but at best it would be a joke that is lost on someone from another country, at worst a cruel joke to someone whose family can't receive or afford dental care. You may not bat an eye at Ariel or Jasmine, but someone in another country might. In other countries, especially Islamic dominated countries where the burqua or head scarves are standard dress, families would be offended by a gift like that.      

Tip #6- Track your box for no extra charge. One of the best things OCC has been able to implement is box tracking. Initially, it cost extra to track your box, but now if you charge the $7 per box to a credit card online at the Samaritan's Purse website, you get a pdf with a tracking barcode to print off and attach to your box. I think the ability to track is another great reason to send a picture of your family, a note, and an address where you have the possibility to hear back from the child who receives it. What a host of opportunities this could open up for you and your children to recognize God's larger story!

Tip #7 - Use this as a Gospel opportunity for your children. Obviously, a large part of OCC is that we get an opportunity to give out of our abundance and use God's resources to spread His Word to others in another country. However, it's just as easy to focus on what is going on over there and not explain to our own children about how salvation in Christ is so central and what motivates us to send the present in the first place. Role play with your children and transport them to a place where their box could be shipped. Walk them through how the Gospel gives hope and strength during a child's emotional and physical struggles and how it works the same way here at home even if some of our struggles are different. Find the testimonies from box recipients on the OCC website that can help bring the Gospel right where your children or teenagers are at.            

Do you have any more tips or stories from your family's experience with Operation Christmas Child?

Thursday, November 28, 2013

OCC: An Attitude of Gratitude -- Part 1

Since it's Thanksgiving, I wanted to share some thoughts about promoting an attitude of gratitude as a much needed part of our life's education. I want to share about a particular ministry that we (and many of you) choose to support to help get a vision for gratitude in our families and communities.

Are you familiar with the image featured above? Most people are this time of year. It's an Operation Christmas Child box! The idea is that you pack a box filled with toys, hygiene items, and school supplies to be sent to another country where a child will receive your package along with a chance to hear the Gospel and go through a discipleship program afterwards. 

Depending on which way you look at it, the name can be somewhat of a misnomer. Here in the States and in other countries, we push to get these boxes in to the distribution centers around Christmastime, but the reality is that the children may not get them until spring or summer. 

So why do we choose this ministry of Samaritan's Purse? There are a few reasons: 

  • Samaritan's Purse's headquarters are where my in-laws live.
  • My in-laws have church friends who work there and Justin and I have friends from college also employed at "The Purse". I love to hear all their encouraging stories about what God is doing around the world. My in-laws usually volunteer every year at the OCC warehouse and since we usually come up here for Thanksgiving, we try to serve as a family even if it's just for a few hours. From what I have seen over the years, Samaritan's Purse desires to do things efficiently and with a humble spirit believing the Lord is in control of their efforts to provide disaster relief and spreading the Gospel.

  • Many of the children that receive these boxes have never received a gift to call their own. Please don't translate this into, "Oh, those poor kids ought to get all the commercialized, material stuff we have access to here!!!" The leaders that hand them out (usually national workers, not Americans) have no idea what is in the box when they hand it out, but God provides exactly what the child needs. Even though the box is a small gesture, it can be the very thing that brings spiritual comfort to a child and shows them God has not forgotten them. The whole OCC concept is built on the Gospel premise -- being offered a free gift from God that we do not deserve, but that will change our lives permanently if we accept it. The physical shoebox gift, is a way to open hearts to the spiritual gift.   
  • It's a family-oriented way to teach multiple lessons about gratitude and the sovereignty of God. Many families take their children to a store and let them pick out gifts for a child in one of the age ranges provided. They get an opportunity to pray for the box, the Gospel being shared, and the child who receives it; they get excited thinking about where their box might go. It teaches stewardship of the resources God has entrusted to us for His purposes. I'll explore this topic more in depth, in Part 2.

  • In general, they don't tinker with the Operation Christmas Child boxes. The first time I volunteered we were told explicitly not to take anything out the boxes unless it was something that wouldn't pass customs (like food) or had liquids that could leak out and destroy other boxes. I'll be the first to admit, it's hard to abide by that rule when you see one child's box full of fun toys and candy and another child's box full of flashlights, batteries, and a hairbrush. However, along with that rule, they told us a story of one child who received a box full of socks. Now, we might look at that box and want to take some of them out and replace them with a soccer ball or some lollipops, but that child had fervently prayed for socks for his brothers and sisters. He cried tears of joy when he received that box stuffed full of socks. I heard a similar story yesterday about a boy in Africa who got snow gloves. He was so happy because his job in the family was to work with hot coals. People pray over these boxes and the volunteers must trust God with the outcome.             
  • You are more connected to a ministry when you invest not just your treasures, but your time. Even as I have said OCC is worthwhile, it can very easily turn into pat-on-the-back, do-goodism. It's way too easy for people in America to feel good about giving our money and our stuff and miss the whole point of the ministry. It's about recognizing God's bigger plan as you serve alongside others. Anyone can volunteer -- yesterday I worked with people from ages 18 to 80! Many of those people come at considerable expense year after year. This year, Samaritan's Purse launched a way for individuals and groups to schedule volunteering online. The lady working next to me at the processing center said that she and her husband were on two computers and two phones the minute it launched this year to get slots to volunteer. The way she described it, you would have thought she was trying to get rock concert tickets! 
Hope this was an encouragement to you today as you think about all things you are thankful for. Come back for Part 2 where I talk a little bit more about the shoebox process and offer some helpful tips on how to pack a shoebox based on what I've seen from the warehouse.    

Friday, November 22, 2013

Book Review: I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had by Tony Danza

Thanks to Nick at Nite I used to always love Tony Danza on Taxi, so when I saw teachers recommending this book I had to get it from the library. Danza always wanted to be a teacher, but life sent him some other directions before he rediscovered that passion right before turning 60. He had a degree in History, so he had to go through Teach for America to find a placement. Most schools didn't want him near a classroom because they thought he wanted to exploit the children for his reality show or he wouldn't deliver on the content because he was an actor (both of which were very unfounded fears). Turns out his teaching career for a year was exactly what I did -- 10th grade literature. What's not to like, right? Well, unfortunately, sometimes warts and all memoirs do not a good story make. Here is my take on the strengths and weaknesses of this book.        

The good:

- He has a teacher's heart. It's in the right place because he really does care about the kids and wants them to learn from his mistakes.  

- He displays the altruistic character that a teacher has to have -- it's not about the money or the prestige; it's truly about helping these kids see a better way out. I enjoyed reading his candid talks with the students trying to address their larger problems, not just about them "not caring about school".   

- He rallies people together and brings a fresh energy to the school. Teachers especially need a pick me up from someone with his enthusiasm and optimism. 

- I probably would have really liked him if I was teaching in a school with him.

- He works hard to come up with solid lessons; he makes the children enjoy learning some great aspects of grammar and literature despite all the junk going on at home in their home lives. Those kids will never forget him and vice versa because he made an indelible mark in their lives.  

- His crying all the time is authentic joy and frustration. Good for him for being transparent instead of feeling like he has to be macho. 

- If he wanted, he could be a regular teacher as long as he lowered his expectations for what he could accomplish with 5 times the load. At the end of the book, I wanted him to be a full time teacher! There's no way he would ever be a paycheck-casher; his conscience would not allow for that. He would quit before he would be a slacker and a sell out to kids and parents.   

- His story brings out all the things that many of remember about having that "special teacher" and it can lift your spirits knowing that there are other Tony Danzas out there in the classrooms every day. 

The bad: 

- Temperamentally, he's a sanguine like me, so I know all his pitfalls. He's a people pleaser and has a hard time not internalizing all the students' problems as something he alone has to fix. Knowing when to let something in a child's life go is difficult and heart-wrenching. He lets the kids affect him too much in that way. I used to unload on my husband all the time and there were times when he encouraged me to quit because of the relational anxiety I was bringing home with me every day.

- The too-oft phrase "my students made ME look good" is another instance of his sanguinity. Tony Danza admits he gets his identity from what he DOES. He never seems to understand what a dangerous idol "identity-from-job" is to have in your life. It's so egocentric -- all about keeping your reputation up with people so they will like you and approve of your actions (in this case to prove he could love and teach the kids). Though his motives are good, he can't shake being a "showman" by trade.    

- It was a bit creepy the many times he commented on the attractiveness of students, teachers, and other women. I'm sure his wife did not appreciate that even if they were separated.

- All of his get-togethers with teachers after hours involved drinks. I'm not saying that having drinks are evil. I'm just saying that because I don't drink that it would have alienated me (and other teachers who don't drink) right off the bat. Some of my best "after hours", philosophical conversations happened with other teachers by wandering into their classrooms after the bell rang.      

- His family totally got the shaft. He regrets that his own family (thousands of miles away in L.A.) was something he chose to sacrifice for this project. His family was one of many instances in his life where he sees he needs to do better and be a physical presence in their lives, but ultimately chooses the thing he is giving his all to right now -- teaching and his "other" children in the classroom. This "in the moment" attitude is a pattern in his life and those issues lead to his divorce after 25 years of marriage. I think this undermines the advice that he gives his students about persevering. Sanguines really struggle with dichotomies because we're not disciplined or balanced. At times, we can be 100% for one thing and 0% to something else. I had to make that same family decision once I had a baby. I could give my all to my classroom kids or my own kids.  

- On the surface, it looks like he's taking a knock at a hotheaded teacher who has no discretion about when to spout his views about "the system". But once he mentions that the teacher's kids are homeschooled, it seems obvious that Mr. Danza doesn't believe that homeschooling is a viable solution for those who have personal convictions about it. We're not all like that teacher. Unfortunately, Mr. Danza (whether he meant to or not) helps fuel the stereotype that all homeschool parents are "angry people" who hate (and think they are better than) public schooled folks.  

- He looks to the good in humanity to make things better. His humanistic worldview that man is innately good and can overcome anything if he just works hard enough is bad advice because it's not true. Yes, we need to have discipline and wisdom in our lives, but that comes from grieving over and repenting about our OWN sinful hearts and selfish behaviors. However, I know Danza's not a Christian, so I don't hold him that standard in this book. Just pointing out that of Danza's advice mostly comes across as unhelpful in the long run because it promotes "do-goodism" as a way of making yourself feel better about not being perfect. That's just medicating your issues until the next blow up comes along, leaving a string of emotional carnage in its wake.          

You won't miss anything earth-shattering by not reading this book because none of his solutions or even opinions were fully fleshed out (but maybe that shouldn't be as much of a criticism because it's a memoir?). Topics like standardized testing, parental failure, lack of student motivation, burned out teachers get woven in the story. You got a sense of how he felt about it, but no conviction about how to really change things other than supporting the overworked teachers in your school (which we should do, each in our own way). I am scared to think how the department of education could misuse someone with his kind of optimism and salesmenship to push an agenda for more money to blindly be pumped into the system. However, it was nice to read a book written by someone whose own experience was very similar to my own first year of teaching. It's nice to know I wasn't alone.  

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Caldecott Reviews: 2010, 2009

In case you missed the first reviews or the introduction to the Caldecott Project:
The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney - 2010 Winner

Rating: Recommended 
Age: 2+  

The cover speaks volumes, eh? Pinkney (who has won Caldecott honorable mention for several other books) has such a sense of color palate and shading! The technical skill he shows through pencil and watercolor is outstanding. The Lion and the Mouse, based off a famous fable by Aesop, is like the 2011 winner, A Ball for Daisy --  it has virtually no words other than animal sounds. That means you will have to self-narrate this story, but you will want to stop and look at every single meticulously watercolored page; it's truly a feast for the eyes (and I think your children will agree). You could stop anywhere in the book and ask your children about the colors he uses and how he achieves the textures he does. The closeups he does of the lion are spectacular and for your children it will be like seeing a real animal right in front of their faces!     

The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson and Beth Krommes - 2009 Winner

Rating: Recommended
Age: 2+  

If you have ever personally done the technique used to illustrate this book (which I did in 11th grade), you know how difficult it is to create texture, chiaroscuro, etc. You start with a paper covered in thick black ink. You use an etching tool to scrape away the black to create your scene. It's really a counter-intuitive thing because usually when we create art we add to a scene, but in this case you are taking away! So recognizing the level of skill needed can make you stare quite intently at each page. You'll be quite impressed with how many textures can be created just by using straight lines, curved lines, thick lines, thin lines, etc. I wasn't engaged with the content, but the book didn't win the award for content alone, it won for skill and originality in artwork. If your child is learning about this particular technique in art class, I would give it a must read.

Next review: 2008 - The Invention of Hugo Cabret (also made into a movie by Martin Scorsese in 2011)

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Caldecott Reviews: 2013, 2012, 2011

As I said in my previous post, I am going to read all the Caldecott Medal winners (children's books that get awards for originality and skill in illustration) starting from 2013 to all the way back to the beginning in 1938 (assuming I can find them). I am hopeful I can do most of them though, as the kind librarian told me tonight that they had they 1938 winner and it hadn't been checked out since last December!

Here is how I plan to rate the books: 

Must Read - Definitely put it on your book checklist
Recommended - Certainly worth a read at some point 
Meh - Take it or leave it
Kindling - Make the library sorry they spent money on so many copies   
I will also include what starting age these books would be good for though it's a bit tricky to do that given that many of these books are heavy on pictures (i.e. even an 18 month old could enjoy them). Just know that the older the kids get, the more they will understand the books and the nuance as you would, but that doesn't mean you can't start young with these classics. Your kids don't have to appreciate it on the level you are! 
I hope this series will encourage you to have as much fun exploring these books with your children as I have had already with mine!

This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen - 2013 Winner

Rating: Must Read
Age: 3+

This book is short on words and big on pictures. The concept for the book is very simple (a fish steals a hat) but that, like so many other children's books, is what makes it work so well. Without giving too much away, you'll be snickering from the get go when you see the narrative form. Younger kids may not totally get the humor, but if you take your time with the book it could be a great opportunity for working on anticipation and learning natural consequences for your actions. My 4 year old was laughing her head of when she read it for the first time. I admit, my husband and I were laughing right along, too. As for the illustrations, the shading on the large fish and the paint splat bubbles had me looking at the BIG pictures more in depth than a normal picture book. Paying attention to the pictures is a large part of the enjoyment of this book.

A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka - 2012 Winner

Rating: Recommended
Age: 2+

As you can see from the cover, Daisy is a cute and spunky little dog who loves her red ball. This book will hit a familiar theme for those who have had a favorite toy lost or broken. What's a bit unusual is this book has NO text, only watercolor illustrations. When a story is told without words, it heavily relies on the expressions and surroundings to speak for it. Daisy's expressions speak volumes even without the colors being terribly nuanced (i.e. no shading, no detailed lines, etc.) and could be used to discuss various emotions with your child. I can see why this book was picked for a Caldecott (other than the fact that Raschka is also a 2006 Caldecott winner). It's very "basics" of art design in its approach -- lots of curved lines, straight lines, circles, dots and such. I wasn't blown away by this book, but I know others might get more out of it, especially if you love dogs or have a family pet.               
A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Phillip and Erin Stead - 2011 Winner

Rating: Must Read
Age: 3+  

I think I fell in love with this book just by looking at the cover. I am a sucker for detailed sketches and by simply looking at Amos on the cover, my heart melted. He's the most precious grandpa figure that gives special care for his friends at the zoo where he works. He's such a faithful friend to the animals that when Amos eventually has to take a sick day his friends return the favor. Along with it being such a heartwarming story, the illustrations are astounding. You can see every little hair and wrinkle on Amos. The detailed shading of the animals give a softness to them which enhances the storyline. The illustrations make you wish you knew a sweet little old man like Amos! If you've read Goodnight Gorilla, it's a similar plot, but much deeper and less silly (though the silliness in Goodnight Gorilla is very charming).            

Next time I'll be reviewing The Lion and the Mouse (2010), The Night House (2009).

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Caldecott Project: Are You Ready?

Are you ready for my first really really ambitious reading project? 
I am going to read every single Caldecott medal book I can get my hands on from the two city libraries I have access to. Yep. I'm very deficient in children's literature, so I thought I'd beef my account, benefit others by knowing which books to recommend, and delight in some great stories with my girls by taking on this project. I'm not setting a time limit for completion, but what I plan for it to look like is to write a post after I have read 2 or 3 of them (in descending, chronological order) with a short review of each. 
I taught high school English, so I always got the Newbery and the Caldecott mixed up because they were for children's literature. I'm trying to correct that now. The Caldecott award (named after an influential illustrator named Randolph Caldecott) is for excellence in illustration; it was kind of an artist's answer to the Newbery awards already being given out for the content of children's lit. I have only read 4 books from this list a long time ago, so I know this will be quite a treat! I am curious as to what will come out of my reviews since I will be talking about both the illustrations AND the content. I will be honest if the book seems to be strong on one rather than the other.
I just ordered the 2013, 2012, 2011 winners from the library. Wish me luck and stay tuned! 
All you elementary school teachers, feel free to comment on some of these that you love or loathe.   
Here is the complete list of Caldecott Medal Winners from 1938 to Present:
  • 2013: This Is Not My Hat, written and illustrated by Jon Klassen
  • 2012: A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka
  • 2011: A Sick Day for Amos McGee, illustrated by Erin E. Stead, written by Philip C. Stead 
  • 2010: The Lion & the Mouse, illustrated and written by Jerry Pinkney 
  • 2009: The House in the Night, illustrated by Beth Krommes, written by Susan Marie Swanson 
  • 2008: The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick 
  • 2007: Flotsam by David Wiesner 
  • 2006: The Hello, Goodbye Window Illustrated by Chris Raschka, written by Norton Juster 
  • 2005: Kitten's First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes
  • 2004: The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein
  • 2003: My Friend Rabbit by Eric Rohmann 
  • 2002: The Three Pigs by David Wiesner 
  • 2001: So You Want to Be President? Illustrated by David Small; text by Judith St. George 
  • 2000: Joseph Had a Little Overcoat Simms Taback 
  • 1999: Snowflake Bentley, Illustrated by Mary Azarian; text by Jacqueline Briggs Martin 
  • 1998: Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky 
  • 1997: Golem by David Wisniewski 
  • 1996: Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy Rathmann 
  • 1995: Smoky Night, illustrated by David Diaz; text: Eve Bunting 
  • 1994: Grandfather's Journey by Allen Say; text: edited by Walter Lorraine 
  • 1993: Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully 
  • 1992: Tuesday by David Wiesner 
  • 1991: Black and White by David Macaulay
  • 1990: Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China by Ed Young 
  • 1989: Song and Dance Man, illustrated by Stephen Gammell; text: Karen Ackerman 
  • 1988: Owl Moon, illustrated by John Schoenherr; text: Jane Yolen 
  • 1987: Hey, Al, illustrated by Richard Egielski; text: Arthur Yorinks 
  • 1986: The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg 
  • 1985: Saint George and the Dragon, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman; text: retold by Margaret Hodges 
  • 1984: The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Bleriot by Alice & Martin Provensen 
  • 1983: Shadow, translated and illustrated by Marcia Brown; original text in French: Blaise Cendrars 
  • 1982: Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg 
  • 1981: Fables by Arnold Lobel 
  • 1980: Ox-Cart Man, illustrated by Barbara Cooney; text: Donald Hall 
  • 1979: The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses by Paul Goble
  • 1978: Noah's Ark by Peter Spier 
  • 1977: Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions, illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon; text: Margaret Musgrove 
  • 1976: Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears, illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon; text: retold by Verna Aardema
  • 1975: Arrow to the Sun by Gerald McDermott 
  • 1974: Duffy and the Devil, illustrated by Margot Zemach; retold by Harve Zemach 
  • 1973: The Funny Little Woman, illustrated by Blair Lent; text: retold by Arlene Mosel 
  • 1972: One Fine Day, retold and illustrated by Nonny Hogrogian 
  • 1971: A Story A Story, retold and illustrated by Gail E. Haley 
  • 1970: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig 
  • 1969: The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, illustrated by Uri Shulevitz; text: retold by Arthur Ransome 
  • 1968: Drummer Hoff, illustrated by Ed Emberley; text: adapted by Barbara Emberley (Prentice-Hall)
  • 1967: Sam, Bangs & Moonshine by Evaline Ness
  • 1966: Always Room for One More, illustrated by Nonny Hogrogian; text: Sorche Nic Leodhas, pseud. [Leclair Alger] 
  • 1965: May I Bring a Friend? illustrated by Beni Montresor; text: Beatrice Schenk de Regniers 
  • 1964: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak 
  • 1963: The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats 
  • 1962: Once a Mouse, retold and illustrated by Marcia Brown 
  • 1961: Baboushka and the Three Kings, illustrated by Nicolas Sidjakov; text: Ruth Robbins 
  • 1960: Nine Days to Christmas, illustrated by Marie Hall Ets; text: Marie Hall Ets and Aurora Labastida 
  • 1959: Chanticleer and the Fox, illustrated by Barbara Cooney; text: adapted from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales by Barbara Cooney 
  • 1958: Time of Wonder by Robert McCloskey 
  • 1957: A Tree Is Nice, illustrated by Marc Simont; text: Janice Udry 
  • 1956: Frog Went A-Courtin', illustrated by Feodor Rojankovsky; text: retold by John Langstaff
  • 1955: Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper, illustrated by Marcia Brown; text: translated from Charles Perrault by Marcia Brown 
  • 1954: Madeline's Rescue by Ludwig Bemelmans 
  • 1953: The Biggest Bear by Lynd Ward 
  • 1952: Finders Keepers, illustrated by Nicolas, pseud. (Nicholas Mordvinoff); text: Will, pseud. [William Lipkind] 
  • 1951: The Egg Tree by Katherine Milhous 
  • 1950: Song of the Swallows by Leo Politi 
  • 1949: The Big Snow by Berta & Elmer Hader 
  • 1948: White Snow, Bright Snow, illustrated by Roger Duvoisin; text: Alvin Tresselt 
  • 1947: The Little Island, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard; text: Golden MacDonald, pseud. [Margaret Wise Brown] 
  • 1946: The Rooster Crows by Maud & Miska Petersham 
  • 1945: Prayer for a Child, illustrated by Elizabeth Orton Jones; text: Rachel Field 
  • 1944: Many Moons, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin; text: James Thurber 
  • 1943: The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton 
  • 1942: Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey 
  • 1941: They Were Strong and Good, by Robert Lawson 
  • 1940: Abraham Lincoln by Ingri & Edgar Parin d'Aulaire 
  • 1939: Mei Li by Thomas Handforth 
  • 1938: Animals of the Bible, A Picture Book, illustrated by Dorothy P. Lathrop; text: selected by Helen Dean Fish 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Talkin ' Bout My Education: Part 6 - Crossing the US Border

This is my friend's last installment of international homeschooling. I am so thankful for her taking the time to document the good, the bad, and the ugly. I think the thing I took away most from her posts is her understanding that homeschooling ought to be a right in every country, not a "privilege". In those countries where it is seen as a privilege (or neither a right nor privilege), there are lots of disturbing and oppressive things being done by the government beyond just cracking down on homeschooling families. History has repeatedly shown what happens when there is that much centralized control in a society... If you're just joining us and want to start from the beginning, here is Part 1.

We began making plans to leave Scotland, which was quite an ordeal. Our household items were still stored in The Netherlands, and we had more things than we could carry onto an airplane with us in Scotland. It was a bit dicey, but we packed up our items in Scotland, and my husband carried them with him on the train and ferries from the UK to The Netherlands to be added to the container. He worked with the shipyard and got our container aboard a ship bound for Vancouver, BC, Canada. We were heading to the USA for a 4 month furlough before relocating to Canada, and the shipyard helped us to slow down our container, first in the Panama Canal, and then in the Los Angeles port, to give us time to get to the USA. We flew out of Glasgow and landed in Columbia, SC. We used the time in SC to visit family, supporters, purchase a vehicle, and homeschooling books.
Our next stop was Houma, Louisiana, where we stayed with our home church for two months. Our church was going through some financial challenges, so we “lived” in the two room nursery! We slept on the floor on air mattresses, had a bathroom with a child-sized toilet, and our “shower,” was a box placed in the courtyard with a garden hose hung over the top with cold water only! We cooked in the Fellowship Hall, and when there were church meetings and activities, we stored our things under cribs. Our homeschooling was interesting in this setting, working mornings on our book work and afternoons spent on field trips all over the Bayous.
The container arrived in Vancouver, and we had 48 hours to get up to Canada and unload it. My husband flew to BC, locating a missionary family who offered to store our items in their basement till we moved. The truck with the container arrived and my husband and one friend had exactly two hours to unload it all! My husband flew back to Louisiana, we packed up our Jeep, and headed out for the drive across and up the USA into British Columbia. We made a stop in Colorado Springs, CO, to visit some of our YWAM Amsterdam friends who had settled there, and I spent much of that time with the women discussing homeschooling in North America.
We arrived in BC and located a home in the top two floors of a barn on a working blueberry farm! It was charming, and we began our work in the, “Think Tank,” of YWAM King’s Kids North America. I continued to homeschool in the mornings.
The wife of the pastor in the church we were attending invited me to go to a meeting of homeschooling moms. I was anticipating finding support; however, I was hit with the reality of Canadian homeschooling instead. The leader of the group was an American whose husband served in a campus ministry, and she gave me a crash course on homeschooling in BC.
The first difference is Canadian provinces have varying policies concerning homeschooling. They’re not uniformed, nor are they similar, as each province determines their own laws, fairly separated from their federal government. It was illegal at that time in several provinces to homeschool. I was told to homeschool in BC (one of the more “homeschool-friendly” provinces), I needed to register at a school. The one used by this support group was a local Christian private school. We had to keep records, show them to the officials at the school, and participate in several of their courses. I made an appointment with the person at the school for later that afternoon; I needed to be “legal,” ASAP!
The biggest difference dealt with an attitude. In the USA, and UK (at the time we lived there), homeschooling was a choice parents had as a right. We could make that decision without much oversight. In BC, homeschooling was a “privilege,” not a right.
Practically, this meant all homeschoolers stayed in their homes in the morning until mid afternoon when the government schools were finished for the day. The only exception was for attending our courses at the Christian school. Field trips had to be planned for mid-to-late afternoons, and we were not to be in groups where it was obvious we were homeschoolers. After wonderful years of freely homeschooling in Scotland and during our furlough in the USA, this was a challenge. I was constantly looking over my shoulder and watching to see who was watching us! Our landlord on the blueberry farm knew we were homeschoolers, and he accepted my son being outside, playing and exploring in the fields during the day (the farm was somewhat secluded from the nearby village). We “played” by the rules, and our years in BC were without incident, by the grace of the Lord.
One aspect of our work in the, “Think Tank,” was regular traveling. It was very unusual for our whole team to be home in the office at one time. It was not out of the ordinary to be on our way to the airport, SEA-TAC (flights were cheaper in the USA), and to wave at some team members on the Interstate heading back to BC. We were constantly flying in and out of the airport to train, speak at conferences and meetings, and lead groups all over North America. Because I had paid attention to the homeschooling laws, we generally did not have trouble leaving and re-entering BC. We did have a close call upon one re-entry (I was carrying a small box of paper, envelopes, and pencils, made and purchased in the USA that our team had been using during a training event with some churches in the Portland, OR, area; I didn’t declare their worth, which was about $23. The guards decided to make an example; they pulled me over to the bays for a complete search, which involves removing bumpers, etc., of vehicles. Only the box was found containing opened and used items, so they challenged my son being with me instead of being in school (it was in the morning). The threat was issued to confiscate my Jeep, and I frantically called our team leader, Todd (who was home and not traveling), to come and help. The guards pitted us against each other in separate rooms, and finally Todd told them we would pay the fine for the $23 worth of used materials. The fine was $700 USD. Neither Todd nor I were allowed to leave the guard station, but we did finally locate my husband who was able to make a “clean” crossing into the USA, go to the bank, withdraw money from our team’s funds, return to cross back into BC, and give the money to us to pay. The most powerful “police” in Canada are their border guards).
The rest of our years as residents of Canada went fairly smoothly, and when we returned to the USA after leaving YWAM, it was a sweet and pleasant experience to be able to freely homeschool as our right. I do not regret any of the experiences, and I’m thankful to the Lord for His guiding our family in homeschooling. It wasn’t ever easy, but it was definitely worth it. I’m humbled to have been given the opportunity to educate our son in the values, principles, and Christian faith. I wouldn’t have changed a thing; well, except perhaps the angst from the Canadian border guards!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

From the Mouths of Babes

My 4 year old has been teaching me a few lessons about her education lately. Mainly that I need to chill out and have a little more faith.
This is not what we tried to teach the kids, but it felt like this to me!
Exhibit #1: As much as I have loved our classical homeschool co-op, I have had the hardest time teaching the science experiments to my class of 1st and 2nd graders. Let's just say that trying to do demonstrations on astrophysics to 6 and 7 year olds is not high on my priority list. I've struggled with science my whole life. I have a lot to learn myself before I can synthesis many words/concepts they'd need to follow along with the experiment (let alone make a hypothesis). Luckily, the point of the demonstrations is not that they "get it" but that they understand the scientific method. A lot of times I have to cling to that fact and know that singing "Purpose, Hypothesis, Materials, Procedure - clap- Results, Conclusion" to the tune of Pop Goes the Weasel may be the only successful thing that happens during the 30 minutes of science time. We've done these demonstrations for 7 weeks and have 17 more to go. I have cringed at the thought so many times and said to Justin on multiple occasions, "Why are we trying to teach this stuff to 4 year olds? Both your daughter and wife are not benefiting from something over our heads!" I found out a few days ago that I needed to take the word "daughter" out of that sentence.

One particular experiment we did 4 weeks ago used a pencil, thumb tack, and posterboard strips to demonstrate how we can still see Saturn through its rings because they are made of ice, rocks, space debris, etc. This week as we were headed to bible study my daughter picked up a sweet gum ball she had left in the garage after a walk with Justin. She held it by the stem, started spinning it and said, "Hey look! It's Saturn! I can see through its rings!"

It was then I decided to stop grumbling about the science experiments. 

In that moment in the garage, it was very clear to me that what I cared more about was ME looking stupid and not getting it, not my daughter or my students. Assuming that because I can't always teach it well, it's of no value to anyone. I was totally doing what I swore I was going to fight against -- projecting my educational baggage of not doing well with science onto my kids. I want them to be curious and awestruck by the complexity of God's creation; griping about His handiwork won't inspire wonder in my girls.   

Exhibit #2: Justin was listening to some podcasts from a Desiring God Conference on C.S. Lewis the other week and suggested that now was the time to start our girls on the Narnia series. We had talked about wanting to do it for a long time, but after a book club meeting, a friend (our parents' age) encouraged us to start now when she saw we had checked all the Narnia books out from the library.

I was a little skeptical because I didn't know if trying to read a British series to a 4 year old would go over well. I didn't want to start something and not be able to finish it because we wanted it so badly for our children and them not want it, too. I didn't grow up in a house where read-alouds were "a thing" and the few times I have been in the presence of read-alouds it just felt constraining. I know this sounds bizarre coming from an English teacher who loved taking Performance of Literature in college and reads to her children every day. However, for our own books, Justin and I both prefer to be "silent" readers. We might read a sentence or paragraph that catches our eye and then discuss the book afterwards. I just wasn't sure if read-alouds were going to be "our thing" now.

Once again my skepticism was proved unnecessary. As we were reading The Magician's Nephew (we decided to do the series chronologically), we'd stop after a page or so and ask our daughter what was going on. We were genuinely surprised when she gave a wonderful 4 year old synopsis! We really thought she might get weighed down by some of the British idioms or some of the longer exposition. In addition, there was a lot of wiggling, so we didn't know if she was actually taking in anything or just wanted to amuse herself by having us reading to each other! Since we started, she's been telling strangers about Polly and Digory and has asked to read more about them at several bedtimes.    

All this to say, I do not think that making science connections and being able to synthesis information is a particular trait for my 4 year old. Kids are capable of so much more than we often give them credit for. For all of us who chafe at the unfamiliar and see the big picture (while having a hard time seeing how the details add up to it), we need to take a step back and a deep breath.

God uses the mouths of babes to humble us and slow us down. Our children point out how much we can overanalyze things for them when, in a lot of ways, their needs are very simple.