Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Tale of Two Libraries: Differing Summer Reading Programs

Every year since my 1st daughter was born, I have signed up for summer reading at two libraries. It's not so much that I try to be an overacheiver, but that I try to support both city libraries equally. Six summers ago, both libraries had the same simple program -- list the books you read to your child and turn the list in by the end of July for some encouraging little library tchotchkes and a pat on the back from the eager librarians. I was accustomed to this mode of "book listing", as this is how it was done in the summers when I was a little girl.

Somewhere along the way I remember thinking, "Any kid can read books, but would they willingly read a magazine article, an autobiography, or a instruction manual during the summer? These library programs really need to get with a modern program and move beyond just books." At the time I'm sure I thought I was progressive genius, looking down among the others librarygoers who never thought to question these passe summer reading lists.

Ironically, without me ever uttering those elitist words out loud, the next summer the larger library system gave me my wish due to a bold, new administrator (who has also gotten rid of an ungodly number of printed books in her wake, much to the public's consternation). See picture below.

I'm not sure why I took a picture of this 2 summers ago... I may just be that nerdy.
That year I found that it was a lot harder to get that larger library's checklist done instead of cheering my daughter on to read whatever struck her fancy like I did for the smaller library. Maybe it's because she was too young to for some of the tasks, perhaps I was lazier that summer, or that I still didn't care for graphic novels (which are basically novels in comic book form), who knows... I do know that I berated myself that summer for not following through with my own silently requested modifications.    

Since that time, I have taken to heart 3 books about the nature of reading that have completely rid me of that former guilt: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, The Book Whisperer, and The Read Aloud Book. They all have a similar theme which is that if we back off trying to control someone's reading habits and tastes (as us teachers are want to do often) they will flourish as readers in many reading domains because the enjoy the act of reading. According to Jim Trelease in The Read-Aloud Handbook,

"A school's objective should be to create lifetime readers -- graduates who continue to read and educate themselves throughout their adult lives. But the reality is we create schooltime readers -- graduates who know how to read well enough to graduate. And at that point the majority take a silent vow: If I never read another book, it'll be too soon."

So which library is promoting the idea of the lifetime reader? The smaller library that by its program's simplicity beckons us to fall in love with as many different kinds of books as we can get our hands on or the larger library who sets parameters on what kind of reading we must do to be a "successful" reader? This where the mom and the English teacher war within me, but at the end of the day my money's on the smaller library. Why?    

Again, Trelease has this to say:

"It boils down to a simple, two-part formula:
  • The more you read, the better you get at it; the better you get at it, the more you like it; and the more you like it, the more you do it.
  • The more you read, the more you know; and the more you know, the smarter you grow"
The point is that having a more diversified portfolio of reading accomplished during the summer is NOT equal to imbibing a large quantity of books during the summer. Being a good reader doesn't happen overnight because reading is a skill that requires layering (i.e. much like using free weights at the gym, you have to continuously workout your reading muscle in order to strengthen its capacity). 

To my knowledge, the old "list your books" method is abolished at the larger library and while their goals are noble (and I can say that because I have taught students who wouldn't touch a non-fiction book unless someone threatened them), the better choice long-term might be for a parent who signs his/her child up for summer reading to approach the library as a world of infinite whimsy. As for me, I think I'll still do both summer programs but with the knowledge that just checking out the books is a reward unto itself.                  

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Keep School Momentum All Summer Long (And Have Your Kids Thank You For It!)

Would you call me a stereotypical teacher if I encouraged you to keep your kids doing some kind of school all summer long? Well, maybe some of you parents would be sympathetic :)

I'm going to offer up 3 simple and inexpensive ways to engage your kids during the summer in 3 different subject areas! Whether you have small ones, teenagers, or in between there's something for everyone here.

1. Khan Academy

Have you seen ads for this free website on TV?  On it you will find slogans like "You can learn anything" or "Our mission is to provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere". After using it for two months now, I believe it. I started using it to show my kids the excellent video series on the orchestra (it interviews the principal chair for most instruments) but soon branched out into Early Math with my almost 6 year old. It rewards you like a game where you get points and badges for doing tasks which keeps kids motivated. It allows for hints and videos on the concept if you get stuck. An older kid could use this independently with no problems.

Have a tween or teenager? They have Math for Kindergarten all the way through 4 or 5 types of Calculus as well as videos of science subjects like Biology, Chemistry, Physics, etc. They have Arts and Humanities, Economics and Finance and College Prep courses. Did I mention this is all FREE?! Forget paying a tutor this summer. Get on this website first and keep your kids curious.

Even if you don't have kids, this is a great way to brush up on your own skills in order to better help your children or learn something new. I never took past Algebra II in high school nor did I take Physics or Chemistry. In a few years I plan to tackle those subjects so I'm not left in the dark when my girls will need help. You work at your own pace, so it's doable for those who only have a chunks of time to work with during the week.            

2. Mad Libs

I'm sure we all have some silly childhood experience that involves Mad Libs. Writing normal words in blanks that turn stories into crazy stories. Here recently I have been trying to teach my oldest to differentiate some basic parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs). We've watched a lot of Schoolhouse Rock videos on parts of speech and done a few sorting games -- very basic. This morning, she successfully did a worksheet that was a small version of Mad Libs (even if all her adjectives were colors!) and it occurred to me that the combination of the silly stories and getting my child to apply her knowledge of what IS an adjective/noun/verb/plural/singular is a perfect way to keep her brain thinking about grammar all summer long.

Mad Libs really are a great way for the whole family to contribute to a game, so you could do this on a road trip or just right quick before dinner or bedtime for some giggles and guffaws. If you have an Ollie's nearby they almost always have Mad Libs for 99 cents.    


3. Doodle Books

My (almost) 6 year old's doodle
Also a purchase at Ollie's for $3. With over 200 pictures, this is a thick book! It is a great way to keep the imaginative part of your child's brain stimulated as well as developing his/her fine motor skills. It's like a book of writing prompts for people who like to express themselves in drawings instead of words. We pull this book out at the table while waiting for a meal or if there is just some free time during the day. I could see this being a good book to take if your child has to sit quietly during a meeting or a doctor's waiting room. You might be surprised at what creativity springs forth from your child's mind!

Those are my 3 short suggestions, but I would love to hear your inexpensive ways to keep your child engaged during summer, so please share!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Introducing... My Husband the Novelist

If you're friends with me on Facebook, you might have noticed me posting some things from my husband's new blog. Allow me to explain...

By day he runs Disciple Magazine (along with other communication-related jobs for AMG International). Ever since we were dating I knew he wanted to write the next "great American novel", but wondered how he would ever make that a reality? Everyone knows that writing fiction does not become a day job until AFTER you get discovered. And then unless your name is Harper Lee (who created a sort of media immunity for herself), there's tremendous pressure to follow up your first acclaimed work with something else worthy. The whole "writer's life" does not seem to fit with being a committed, financially stable family man.  

I digress...

So right after college we got married at 22. I was a high school teacher and he had his job at AMG. The years passed and I stopped teaching to stay at home when we had our oldest child at 25. We have had two others since then and life has just kept us really busy and shows no signs of slowing down. Any big career dreams are pushed by the wayside when you have so many competing needs in one house! For two people like us who tend to idolize stability, we knew that unless we either got a huge windfall of cash or someone wanted to go oldschool and patronize Justin to write, that a novel (or any serious writing project) would not write itself with a 9-5 job and three kids.

Enter a new season of writing.

We decided that he ought to take some time to write after work at the library some nights. Not an easy sacrifice for me, but if time wasn't carved out for him it wasn't going to get done. Not because Justin is lazy or unmotivated, but the exact opposite -- because he works SO hard for our family. He serves us until he doesn't have energy for his own writing, so we both wanted a way to make sure he was getting the outlet he needed.

I suggested that he also start a blog and a personal Twitter account to get his thoughts and writings out there. This idea was initially repugnant to him because, like most good writers, he loathes anything that smacks of self-promotion. Yes, it's a catch-22. Unfortunately, it seems that in order to be noticed these days you have to get a following on social media. You have to PROVE to publishers that your fan base will support you if they take a chance on your work.

This is where you come in.

We're not going to get a Kickstarter campaign to fund his work (unless you know some filthy rich people that are game for that sort of thing -- then talk to me!) and he's not quitting his job (see preceding paragraphs about paying the bills), but I do ask that if you enjoy his writing, please share it with others. Facebook it. Tweet it. Google Plus it. E-mail it. Text it. Print it off and snail mail it. I believe in the power of grassroots movements and social networks and I know Justin would love for people to engage with his work or just briefly tell him that he's got a good thought going. His blog is called Hardscrabble. Go ahead. Click the link :) While you're there you can sign up to receive his blog updates (usually once or twice a week right now) in your e-mail box. In its fledgling stage, it's a mix of thoughts, poetry, short stories, theological musings, and whatever else original he feels compelled to share.

We have no idea where, if anywhere, his career in writing is headed, but it's got to start somewhere. We need you -- friends and family to jump on board with encouragement and engagement.            

Thanks in advance,

- Rachel and the family

P.S. If you want a feel for his writing style, I've posted many of his book reviews previously on my blog: 

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Justin's GoodReads of 2014


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Book Review: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Justin and I are both big fans of the Gilead/Home/Lila trilogy by Marilynne Robinson. In fact, we were so eager we got Lila from the library the very first day it came out (last October). Justin favors Gilead and I favor Home, but we both feel the same way about Lila. Here is his "in a nutshell" review:  

"Taken as a whole, Marilynne Robinson's 
Gilead(Ames/Boughton) trilogy is the finest American literary work in more than a generation. Gilead alone is a masterpiece; Home back-weaves onto the existing pattern a drop-shadow to underscore its beauty and pain.

Then Lila came along, doing to the story the same thing its title character did to John Ames, upending settled realities and causing reflection on and reinterpretation of past events.

The story is undeniably beautiful, this time told in a stream-of-consciousness style that manages kinship with the two previous books while striking a tone all its own. Lila's "cornered-animal" psyche (and her slow growth into trust and hope) that is only hinted at in Gilead and Home is fleshed out more fully, explaining her without squelching her mystery and strangeness.

What makes this trilogy stand out is Robinson's unabashed metaphysics, framing the characters and the story in Scripture, theological reflection, and spiritual realities. Because of nature of this story, the problem of her throwaway universalist statements in the last three pages of Lila snatches that humble, worshipful significance from the whole collection.

As insightful and polished a thinker as Robinson is (read her essays to get a flavor for that), she has the weakness so common to American Christian thinkers of believing her particular theology more than she believes the Bible. Lila is a story of unsought, unmerited grace (with John Ames playing the part of redeemer) flowing from the fount of Calvin and others. By the end, though, that grace becomes so sloppily irresistible (pouring down even on those who completely reject it and the God who gives it) as to be utterly meaningless. 

If Robinson's conception of the Day of Lord were true, the hard-fought faithfulness of Ames, Boughton, and their loved ones is reduced to pitiful farce."

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Honey for a Child's Heart: The Next Generation

If you're a mom you've probably received multiple copies of a book called Honey for a Child's Heart or its sequel Honey for a Teen's Heart (if you haven't, I suggest you check it out!). It's a book with a definitive list of tried-and-true books for parents who want to know where solid books for their children can be found.  

If you've been reading my blog, you know that I check out quite a large number of kids' books. As in, nothing makes me happier than to go through aisles of kid books and flip through them for hidden gems for my girls. For the new year I decided I was going to look to several sources to get book recommendations for them -- now 5 1/2, 3 1/2, and 4 months. One of those sources was Honey for a Child's Heart. However, when I opened my copy I saw it was published in 2002. Most of the hundreds of books I have already read weren't even on one of its lists because they were newer than 2002. I checked Amazon and it said there was a new edition for 2010, but, alas, our public library (not surprisingly...) does not carry any edition.

So what was my not-so-methodical way of approaching the Honey list I had? I just picked an author and checked out every book Honey listed for them (assuming the library had it). Maybe I just hit the wrong author right off the bat (William Steig), but I started finding that I disagreed with a few of his books that made it on the list. Not on major levels, but enough where I started marking things to note that I wouldn't check them out again and if someone asked me I would probably direct them to another book or author.            

So, here's the question I pose to you parents... Let's say someone wrote their own version of Honey -- what would YOU like to see in a book list?

  • What categories?
  • Book Reviews -- long or short or just-give-me-the-name-of-the-author-and-books?
  • Would you like thoughts/commentary on what constitutes a "good" child's book?
  • Certain disclaimers?
  • Any other ideas?

    Please leave feedback so we can all learn from each other's preferences or experience!  

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Justin's Good Reads of 2014

These are my husbands's book reviews for 2014 (as seen on Disciple Magazine's website). Obviously some of them are going to overlap with mine because we're in a book club together. Besides when you're married and you both like to read you swap books pretty often when they come into your home. Enjoy!

Theology/Christian Living

The Cross of Christ by John R. W. Stott
From my review: “Stott’s magnum opus is among the finest expositions of the central truth of the Gospel the Church has produced. His focus on every page is on Christ, captivating the reader with a portrait of the cross as the culmination of the weight of sin, the absoluteness of God’s holiness, and the depth of His love. As a theological treatise, The Cross of Christ ranks with the classics of Church history. Like the best of those classics, it is not merely excellent theology, but a good book—Stott’s prose is engaging and his argument flows well from beginning to end. He comes across not as a calculating academic, but as a man on fire with the joy of his salvation and a pastor eager to lead others to see the beauty of the Gospel in its manifold glory.”

The Meaning of Marriage by Tim & Kathy Keller
I went through this with my discipleship group this summer: really a first rate look at the significance and purpose of marriage from a biblical perspective. The Kellers offer a condensed and persuasive counternarrative to the dominant cultural view of marriage as either an outmoded and repressive institution or an idol for self-gratification. Clarity of thought abounds here, whether you’re newlywed, long-married, or still single. If you know, me, you’ll recall that I shy away from (”actively revolt against” may be more accurate) spiritual/relational “how-to” books, so my recommendation is a declaration that this is not among those.

Taking God at His Word by Kevin DeYoung
Kevin DeYoung writes with humble authority on many of the key theological, ecclesiological, and cultural issues facing the church today. His short, witty books are disarmingly challenging, and he somehow manages to write a new one almost every year (a feat which he credits to his congregation’s generous offer of 4-6 weeks of “book writing” leave from pulpit ministry each year). Using Psalm 119 as his starting point, DeYoung here embarks on a wonderfully pastoral exposition of the doctrine of Scripture in all its facets (inerrancy, perspicuity, sufficiency, etc.) that should shore up any believer’s faith in God and His revealed Word and give seekers and skeptics much to chew on.


The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote
It’s hard to imagine that anyone other than Shelby Foote could have written this. His family ties and sentimental roots in the South give the book somber, almost mournful overtones that honor the fallen and cry out “never again” with no hint of triumphalism. His urbane libertinism and self-important literary mind keep it balanced enough that both sides are given a fair shake–Union heroes and villains abound as much as their Confederate counterparts. Is this book long? Obsessively (3,000+ pages in print, 131 hours in audio). Is it tedious? To a fault. Yet both qualities render it readable and enduring in ways that less exhaustive accounts lack.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Click for his full review.

Histories and Fallacies by Carl R. Trueman
Delightful, witty, insightful. A quick read and a good reminder to those of us who read history (or philosophy, theology, etc.), that the writers thereof are human and fallible. In other words, this was a great overview of common pitfalls to avoid when writing history and to be wary of when reading it (anachronism, category confusion, reification, oversimplification, etc.). Of course, the biggest recommending factor for this helpful little book is its author, Carl R. Trueman, a professor of Church history at Westminster Seminary Philadelphia. He is, as someone once put it, “one of those Brits who writes in such a way as to remind you that they invented the language.”


Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
This selection from one of our book club members was a welcome surprise –  particularly the affirmation that there are many good authors still working in contemporary times. Enger’s characters are real and knowable, the narrative moves along with all the force of the classic westerns on which it was modeled (complete with an outlaw on horseback, even in the 1960s setting), and his vision of God’s hand in all our dealings gives the book a not-unpleasant mystical flavor. I found the ending somewhat unsatisfying, but it works as a mirror of life, which unfolds in myriad interesting and shocking ways, with billions of individual sorrows and dissatisfactions. Read it and then take the advice of Enger’s narrator, Reuben, and “make of it what you will.”

Home by Marilynne Robinson
The vagaries of parenting, personality, and the difficulties of fleshing out an intellectually understood faith underscore this quietly beautiful novel. Its piercing phrases of recognition moved me to reflect on my own life choices and family in new ways. Not quite as theologically probing or historically profound as Gilead (covering, as it does, a different angle of the same story), but in no way a bad book. Robinson’s extended rumination on how the routine dysfunctions of family beautifully and painfully intertwine with time and place may not change your life, but it adds a sweet savor to life as it is.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
Another book club selection. Graham’s most Catholic of stories draws with chiaroscuro beauty the story of the last surviving priest (and an immoral, alcoholic priest at that) in a Mexican state that has outlawed the church. The palpable darkness gives way to hope through death. I think it can well be read more broadly  as a tale of how none of us is worthy of God’s call, but that He nevertheless calls and sustains those whom He will. This line sums it up well: “How often the priest had heard the same confession–Man was so limited: he hadn’t even the ingenuity to invent a new vice: the animals knew as much. It was for this world that Christ had died: the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater the glory lay around the death; it was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or civilization–it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.”

Honorable Mention

Collected Poems by T. S. Eliot
I took a stab at learning to read and to like poetry this year (and even to write a bit), and T. S. Eliot helped immeasurably. His bleak, bemused thoughts  on the decline of the West in The Love Song of J. Alfred PrufrockThe Waste Land, and The Hollow Men were avant-garde in the 1910s, 20s and 30s, but today ring eerily prophetic. His musing on the Christ and Christianity in later works (Ash WednesdayThe Four Quartets, etc.) offer hope in the midst of doubt. Poetry is to prose as whisky is to beer–the same substance  distilled to a strength that must be handled with care. A little goes a long way, but it is often strikingly beautiful and can boost your overall use of language tremendously. Among the “finds” of linguistic beauty from Eliot: “Here were decent, godless people: their only monument the asphalt road and a thousand lost golf balls” (Choruses from The Rock). “These are only hints and guesses, Hints followed by guesses; and the rest is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action. The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation” (The Four Quartets). I also enjoyed reading much of W. H. Auden’s work, and have been savoring this gem: “O stand, stand at the window as the tears scald and start; you shall love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart” (As I Walked out One Evening).

The Children of Men by P. D. James
A taut, provocative thriller, this is sci-fi/dystopia for grown ups (envisaging a world in which no children have been born for over a quarter century), full of enduring themes and a banal plausibility that makes it the more chilling. James wrote this in 1992, near the height of the 20th century crime wave and the peak years of the abortion industry, so some of the story’s sociological punch has faded (her “future” setting for the action is now just 6 years away). Still, it touches on the some of the core fears of humanity and does so with deep religious sensibility, often explicitly Christian–James, a lifelong Anglican, peppers the novel with quotes from Scripture and the Book of Common Prayer. The story moves along briskly, almost too quickly for robust character development, but the themes carry the day

The Tyranny of Cliches by Jonah Goldberg
Goldberg’s work always strikes an balance of irreverence, wit, and insight that makes him a most enjoyable read, though I suppose that enjoyment may be tempered if you find yourself on the receiving end of his irreverence. Though the primary target here is the political left, Goldberg is delightfully uncharitable to the mushy mainstream as well. It is a political book, but perhaps more a book of language and culture. As a writer, I appreciated the focus on deconstructing those pernicious things we all say without knowing what we mean–a helpful discipline regardless of your occupation or beliefs. I recommend the audiobook version read by the author.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Good Reads of 2014

Here are some of the highlights of my 2014 reading. If you've read any of these, I'd love to hear your thoughts:

The Everything Gets Put On Hold book -- Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

Like many, I prefer to read the book before I see the movie. I knew this based-on-a-true-story movie was coming out at Christmas, so I thought I had better read it quick. I didn't realize that I could have it done in a matter of days because I could NOT put it down. Why? Because in every chapter you think, "Could it get any worse for this guy?" and then it does. Louis Zamperini's story is better than fiction, as they say, and masterfully written by the author of Seabiscuit. Only the power of Christ allows Louis to offer forgiveness, giving real meat to the words we talk about in church every Sunday. Don't miss out on this book that illuminates a dark time in many nations' histories while offering incredible hope.    

The Book I Cannot Stop Talking About -- Home by Marilynne Robinson

Home is the second of three books in a series. The first is Gilead and the third (that just came out in October) is Lila. Home mainly deals with Jack, the black sheep of a pastor's family, and his sister Glory who care take for their father in his old age. If you have family members who have always perceived themselves as "never fitting in" and can't explain why, this is the book for you. It deals with the tension of Jack wanting authentic faith but not knowing how to attain it (which is vexing as a pastor's son who faith should be "easy" for). It delves deep into dysfunctional, passive-aggressive family relationships and people who can seemingly forgive everyone but themselves. A heartbreaking, beautiful, thought-provoking story unlike any I have ever read.    

The Godfather of Mystery book -- The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

My husband and I started a book club about a year ago and recently someone from the group picked The Moonstone. We had never heard of it before, but it did not disappoint. If you like British mysteries in the vein of Poirot, Miss Marple, etc. you will enjoy this mystery that preceded them all. Leaves you guessing until the end because there are many characters who each narrate the chapters and give "their" perspective.  

The Finally An Uplifting, Funny, Original Idea Juvenile Book -- The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt

Lately I have been struggling to find good juvenile literature that I can pass on to my kids when they are in middle school. This one passes muster. Without giving too much away, I enjoyed this book because it has realistic characters and an original plot involving rats, the Vietnam war, and Shakespeare plays. It does not insult juveniles nor does it cater to their baser impulses in its writing (Twilight anyone? Gag.).

The Ultimate Parenting Book -- Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan

My husband and I laughed about every other line in this book. Jim totally knows what it's like to have multiple children. Whether it was him talking about what it takes to get 5 pale kids out the door with sunscreen and accouterments for an afternoon at the park or how the more children you have the more of an excuse you have to never go to other kids' birthday parties, he tells it hilariously like it is (i.e. what we're all thinking from time to time as parents). If you've seen his stand up routines a lot, you might feel like you've heard it before. If you're like us who are just now getting around to hearing about Jim Gaffigan, it'll be a breath of fresh air that someone else can relate to your season of life. 

He has a new book out called Food: A Love Story that we just got from the library and we're looking forward to it! The first chapter is called I'm an Eatie, Not a Foodie :)

The Book That Should Have Been Better -- Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

I love learning about people's temperaments. I love introverts. I am happily married to an introvert. I did not love this book. It not only stereotyped and severely demeaned extroverts as loud, selfish, partying pigs, but it was just poorly written (even my husband who by all accounts should identify with this book said these very same things when he read it). The tedious personal stories and poor assumptions made me realize that if you get to do a TEDTalk you apparently get to have a book deal. It's a shame she didn't do some more research that shade people into 4 categories of temperament instead of the broader introverts/extroverts. Both the introverts and extroverts she talks about are much more complex than she gives them credit for. Don't bother.    

The Make 'Em Laugh Book -- The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak

Saw this on GoodReads's Best Kids Books of 2014. My 5 and 3 year old girls thought this pictureless book was hysterical. I have enjoyed reading it just for the sheer enjoyment of watching them laugh. It has no hidden meanings, just good for a laugh. Here's a clip of the the author (B.J. Novak from The Office and Saving Mr. Banks)  

I wonder what the books of 2015 will bring? I guess you'll just have to wait and see!