July 22, 2010 at 2:52 pm | Posted in Reading with Kids | 8 Comments

“Who’s Henry Ford?”  Sweetie Junior wanted to know.  We were talking about the concept of paying your workers enough to afford your product, and his name happened to come up.

I explained that he pioneered the concept of mass production in American manufacturing.  (We left Eli Whitney out of the discussion).  My man Rocket Scientist added that his name still appears on cars today, and added, “And no, Chevrolet wasn’t someone’s last name.”

I said, “No, that was his wife.”

Then it struck me.  If she’s managed to make it past her freshman year in high school without knowing who Henry Ford is, who else doesn’t she know?  So I asked.

“Do you know who Thomas Edison was?”

Slow head shake.

“How about Alexander Graham Bell?”

Crickets.  I kneed RS under the table.

He began, “We’re going to need to…”

“…home school!” I finished.

Then I asked, aiming for the easy ones, “Who is Benjamin Franklin?”

“Didn’t he invent the light bulb?” said our little bunny.

It just goes to prove what I’ve said time and again.  It doesn’t matter if your kid, like ours, gets straight A’s and high standardized test scores, goes to all the accelerated classes, and spends hours a week reading.  You have to get in there with the mental crowbar and start digging around to find out what they actually know.  Or, in this case, don’t know.

“E is for Ethics”

April 13, 2010 at 5:42 pm | Posted in Nonfiction, Reading with Kids | 3 Comments

I picked up this terrific little book, E is for Ethics: How to Talk to Kids About Morals, Values, and What Matters Most, in the hope that it would apply to all ages of children.  I suppose it could, but our sardonic 15-year-old is at a particularly cynical stage.  Mr. Corlett, if you can hear me, here is my plea for a similar book aimed at teenagers!

Product Details

I came into my step-daughter’s life when she was already 10 years old.  I’ve worked in as many subliminal messages as I can think of, from healthy eating to housework to academic focus, but ethics has proven the hardest.  If you’re a parent with young kids, run, do not walk, and pick up this book.  I think it’s impossible to reinforce these concepts too much.  Look around any time you go anywhere in public – especially in traffic – and ask yourself how many adults around you were shortchanged on ethical instruction as children.  Phew.

We’re reading Sophie’s World this month, though right now we’re still in the materialist philosophers.  So far we’ve learned (from our kid) that you’re a good person if you think you are, and you’re the only person who can decide whether you live a good life.  So evidently if you feel self-satisfied, that’s the only contribution you need to make to the world.  I guess all that self-esteem building education really works, huh?

If anyone has any suggestions for remedial moral training, please by all means pass them on.  I’m hoping it isn’t too late!

Kids Who Read Too Much

February 25, 2010 at 3:16 pm | Posted in Reading with Kids | 7 Comments

My nephew, Li’l Brain, looks more like me every year.  He takes after me, too; he’s bright, he’s good at spelling, he’s bossy and a bit of a know-it-all, and of course he wants to read all the time.  His poor father, who suffered for years as my four-years-younger brother, finds this all too distressing.

I came up to visit for a week to celebrate a couple of birthdays and help my parents and my grandma with some big chores.  Naturally Li’l Brain and I found ourselves sitting together at one point talking books.  (He started it, I swear!  He asked if I had read The Lovely Bones, which of course I had, but considering that he’s 12 I was surprised he had).  I got some paper and started writing a list of a few books I thought he might like – or rather, should read now before he gets too old to enjoy them properly.  My brother, whom I will call Punk, asked what we were doing, and the following conversation ensued.

P:  Actually I’d rather he spent less time reading.

Me:  Why?

P:  Because he’s unaware of his surroundings, like you.

Me:  What are you saying?

P:  He’s not part of the real world.  There are things that he’s just clueless about.

Me:  What does that have to do with me?

P:  Let me give you an example.  (He relates a story in which Li’l Brain says a friend “isn’t Vietnamese, he’s Asian.”  I’m still puzzling out how this is relevant).  I took a pen and wrote “philistine = your dad” on Li’l Brain’s book list, to give him something to look up later in the dictionary.

At this point other family members started weighing in, fortunately changing the subject, and shortly thereafter the Li’l Brain section of the family went home for the night.  Our other brother stayed for a while and we talked a bit.  He reminded me how competitive Punk has always been.  In many ways our childhood is still very much alive.

Aunties regard children in an entirely different way than parents do.  I look at Li’l Brain, who is taller than me now and whose voice is changing, and I see a dear young man who is athletic and popular, funny, focused on his schoolwork, and clearly on the path to college.  When he initiates conversations about books with me, I feel so proud I could burst.  My brother sees an opinionated little rebel who selfishly buries his face in a book and somehow can’t manage to take after his father.  My brother is a construction worker, handy with tools but still recuperating from being crushed by a back hoe a few months ago and breaking his spine in three places.  When I think Li’l Brain probably won’t follow his great-grandfather’s, grandfather’s, father’s and uncle’s footsteps into blue collar work, it comes as a relief.

Every father wants a better life for his children than he had himself.  It’s easy to say that when you’re gazing down at your sweet little baby.  But when the baby grows up into a mouthy teenager, and then chooses a path you find mortifying, it’s hard not to take offense.  When the teenager grows into an adult who lives in a nicer house and brings home a bigger paycheck, it’s hard not to feel maybe a little resentful.  At the same time, it’s hard on a kid to surpass his parents.

Education is a great gift.  It’s hard, though, when you find yourself more interested than your family of origin in cultural pursuits or education for its own sake.  On the one hand, you start to run out of things to talk about with your family and your childhood friends.  You quit having certain things in common.  On the other hand, you most likely don’t fit in with people who grew up in families that were always focused on more intellectual attainments, either.  It’s a lonely path.  At least Li’l Brain and I have each other.

How Not to Teach Kids to Read Aloud

February 7, 2010 at 4:20 pm | Posted in Reading with Kids | 5 Comments

My stepbunny, Sweetie Junior, is in high school now, so I figure we only have a few years left to salvage what we can of her education in a third-rate school district.  Here’s some new motivation that has lit a fire under my chair.

We were talking around the dinner table, and the subject of audio books came up.  SJ mentioned that “we” were listening to an audio book in which the narrator would make a mistake, say, “Oh, wait,” and re-read the mistaken sentence.  There appeared to be no post-production editing whatsoever.  “What book was that?” I wanted to know, “I want to make sure I don’t accidentally listen to it.”  “It was something about, like, Four Aprils,” she replied.  I asked if she meant Across Five Aprils, which I knew she’d read for school.  That was it.

Then a sinking feeling took hold of me.  I had assumed she and her mother were listening to this shoddy audio book, but now I wasn’t so sure.  “Who’s we?  Where were you listening to this book?”  “In school,” she said.

I froze.  “Do you mean to tell me you sit in class and listen to an audio book?”  “Yeah,” she said, “the teacher has, like, stuff to do.”

This explains so much.

I dropped my face into my hand and shook my head.  Then I tried to explain how important it is for kids to get every possible opportunity to practice reading out loud.  My man Rocket Scientist chimed in that it’s really embarrassing to mispronounce something when you’re giving a presentation at work.

The other things I’m wondering are, a) what the Sam Hill is the teacher doing during active class time that he couldn’t do during free periods or in the evening?  and b) where did they dig up this amateur production, that in no way could possibly be an improvement on the kids taking turns to read?

See, you’ll never find out what your kids are really doing in class.  You ask them how their day was and they say Okay.  You ask if they learned anything interesting and they may have something to share.  But no amount of probing is going to uncover fun facts such as, My teachers are incompetent, or They quit caring years ago, or I may not make it through college at this rate.

We’re finishing The Knife of Never Letting Go tonight.  I’m starting to wonder how we can find a way to do two books a week instead of one.  Twelve years of schooling isn’t that much, really, when you come down to it – especially in some places.


January 20, 2010 at 10:18 am | Posted in Book Blather, Reading with Kids | 8 Comments

My five-year-old niece told her mother the other day:

If ever I’m sad or depressed, you can say I’m crestfallen.

Her mom asked, “Hmm, where’d you learn that word?”  My niece said, “From TV.”  Note that she’d been five for approximately two months.

Last night Rocket Scientist and I were talking with Sweetie Junior about the American presidents.  She had asked whether there hadn’t been a president “who wouldn’t eat spinach or something.”  We started going through all the recent presidents who were on record regarding a vegetable preference, and it turned out our little bunny did not know who Ronald Reagan was.  RS slapped his forehead.  She said, “We don’t have history this year!”  I told her if she could name 25 presidents in half an hour I would give her $25, and if she could get them in order I’d double it.  We had a bit of fumbling, and I told her she could use a notebook if she wanted. 

So it turns out we have an “RFK” and a “James Adams” among our nation’s leaders.

I tried to do it myself, and got up to about 33.  I realized later I’d somehow left off Garfield, both Johnsons, and Chester Arthur, but I was able to list about a quarter of the presidents’ wives.  The last time I was called upon to perform this act was 1992.

Anyway, we’ve had a similar problem in the past, with geography.  We told SJ we could go to a movie if she could name all 50 states.  That wasn’t going to happen, so we reduced it to any two of the first 13 colonies.  She gave us New York and “East Virginia.”  “East Virginia?!” said her father.  “No, wait, North Virginia!” she cried.  “What are they teaching you in that school?” I wanted to know.

This time, as a joke, I said, “If you can’t name even 10 presidents I’m pulling you out of that school!”  She could only get to six.  She couldn’t even get the easy ones – she already had one John Adams and one George Bush, but didn’t remember there were two of each.

What this all has to do with reading is that there is a certain context involved.  We often read aloud together, and it’s disheartening to realize how few facts are nestled in that little head.  You’d think a straight-A student, especially one who’s a big reader, would… know more.  When we found out her school had avoided the creation/evolution debate by teaching neither, and that she’d never given a moment’s thought to Where People Came From (she said they were learning Sex Ed next year), I said, “Aren’t you ever curious?”  She said, “…No.”

If ever I’m sad or depressed, you can say I’m crestfallen.

Building Vocabulary for Kids

October 14, 2009 at 2:00 pm | Posted in Reading with Kids | 2 Comments

This year I acquired a stepdaughter, who will be 15 next month.  She and my husband are both super-achievers in the math and science areas, but haven’t put as much focus into the liberal arts.  I thought it might be interesting to share my experiences with other parents (you know, real parents) as I try to remedy the situation.

She’s a reader.  Your kid probably is, too.  These Millennial kids cut their teeth on Harry Potter, and their tendency is to mob together and read the same books.  They don’t want to be left out, so they’ll take on thick books or long series without batting an eyelash.  We have to watch out, though, because the fact that they’re reading and talking about these enormous books does not necessarily mean they’re getting out of it what we think they are.  I found this out with Sweetie Junior, as we took turns reading out loud:  she doesn’t look up definitions for words she doesn’t know, and she’ll skip over anything that looks too hard to pronounce.  She is quite proud of her ability to learn words “from context,” and gave me a whole lesson on how to do it, yet she usually guesses wrong.  She’s bright and she’s an A student, so it would have been easy to assume she was reading at a higher comprehension level than she is.

Since she’s strong in math, I used the analogy that giving a word the wrong meaning is the same as using the wrong digit in a math problem.  For instance, for years I thought ‘approximately’ meant ‘exactly.’  This made sense.  I bought her a set of SAT vocabulary cards, and to my delight she’s been memorizing them assiduously.  The only problem is, they don’t come with a pronunciation guide of any kind!  Now we have to go through the cards with her and make sure she’s saying the words right.  (This probably sounds a little bleak to some of you, but this morning at 6:15 I found she had railroaded her dad into going over a few with her before school.  It’s not even homework).

When I was a kid, the rule was that you had to look up any word you didn’t know and read the definition to everyone.  It was a game.  I probably picked up as much high-flown vocabulary from conversation as I did from reading.  I’d like to assume this was working with my own kid, now that I’ve suddenly got one.  But this doesn’t work either.  SJ won’t speak up if she hears a word she doesn’t understand.  She usually will for a cultural reference; this morning it was ‘cakewalk’ and last night, alas, it was ‘school shooting.’  Your family might have scintillating conversation around the table every night, but it’s still important to stop every now and then when you catch yourself using a Big Word and make sure everyone knows what it means.  This sounds pedantic, but it’s not as bad as the embarrassment your poor kid will feel the first time a group of people calls her out for using a word incorrectly.  Like I felt once when I used ‘quid pro quo’ instead of ‘QED.’

Trends in education change.  Phonics worked for me in 1981, but I don’t think that’s how it was done in northern California 20 years later.  SJ has always been an A student.  She’s brought home papers with incompatible verb tenses, mixed singular and plural, missing words, and grammatical mistakes like “should of went” – and not a one had a red mark or a comment!  Do not depend on the schools to teach your kids rudimentary language skills.  Neither the grades nor the standardized test scores are going to point reliably to where your kid needs extra help.

Do we use the carrot or the stick?  What sort of incentive do we use to get our kids to improve their language skills?  I don’t even really ask those questions.  I’m an explainer.  Kids will do anything if they think it behooves them.  I explained that colleges look at SAT scores more than grades, because not all schools offer the same quality of education.  My husband and I showed her our own SAT scores, and then we all went online and took a vocab quiz and compared scores.  (It was, shall we say, easy to see which one of us took math skills more seriously and which the verbal).  SJ voiced her preference for learning from flash cards, so I bought her a box, and she was off!

If you want your kids to improve their vocabulary, they have to see that it’s worth their while.  Say you were caught in a hurricane, and your house and all your stuff blew away, and you almost drowned, and when you came out of the water you didn’t have any clothes or ID or your phone or anything.  How would people know you were a Good Guy or a Bad Guy?  Answer:  Your manners, your posture, and your mode of speaking.

The only thing left is to worry about what you will do when your children grow up with more refined speaking skills than you have!

Kids Reading!

September 30, 2009 at 8:42 am | Posted in Reading with Kids | 1 Comment

As an update to an earlier post this week, I spoke with my coworker who wanted his third-grader to read more.  I am happy to report that he took his son to the library and got him his first library card!  They spent two hours there, and my friend found that his own library card was so old it wasn’t recognized in the system any more.  He replaced this card, which he had carried in his wallet – unused – for nearly 30 years, and used it to check out a book for the neighbor boy who came on the trip.

Curiosity overwhelmed me; I had to know what a third-grade boy would want to take home on his first trip to the library.  It turns out to have been Star Wars books.  I said, “Great!”  There’s an entire Star Wars franchise, and he could most likely read Star Wars books written for different ages for the rest of his life.

One conversation, two new library cards, three patrons, and three books.  It’s a win!

Reading with Kids

September 25, 2009 at 9:30 am | Posted in Reading with Kids | 5 Comments

This week a coworker asked me for advice on how to get his third grader to read.  We talked about it for a while, and I realized this might be my calling in life.  I’ll share with you what I know.

We have half custody of my step-daughter, and so on alternate weeks we have Family Reading Hour.  This was meant to be a single chapter a night, but that didn’t work, and somehow we’ve crept up to two solid hours.  It would probably be more, but we’re forced to choose books we can finish in 6-7 nights, so we pace ourselves.  I first met our little bunny when she was nearly 11, so I missed the early years, but I feel like I know how to shape a reader.

First, be a reader.  Both my parents and all my grandparents read for pleasure, so I just took it for granted that this was a desirable activity.  We were surrounded by books – Grandma carries them in her purse, which is cavernous – and someone was always saying, “Just a minute, let me get to a good stopping point.”  My coworker admitted that he “tries to do his reading during lunch,” meaning his kid doesn’t see him indulge.

Second, treat it as a privilege.  Nobody ever had to plead with me to get my daily assignment in.  I used to sneak into the bathroom after bedtime with a book hidden under my pajama top so I could turn on a reading light without arousing suspicion.  (That didn’t last long).  My coworker says his son “has to do” 20 minutes a night.  You have to treat it like a reward, not a chore.  Incidentally, this trick also works to get kids to eat new foods – my parents would always say, “It’s for grown-ups; you wouldn’t like it,” and we all favor exotic ethnic foods to this day.

Third, build your schedule around reading time.  Take it from me – if you want to read 500 books in one year like I’m trying to do, it doesn’t happen by accident.  In practice, this means making it awkward or impossible to watch TV or play video games.  We have a TV, but no cable, so as far as I know we don’t even get reception on basic channels.  (Nobody has tried in the five months we’ve been a family).  On occasion someone will watch a DVD, but the single chair in the room with the TV is not very comfortable.  We no longer allow the GameBoy in the house.  If your kid isn’t reading, look around for things with plugs and batteries that are most likely too distracting – and get. Rid. Of. Them.  On the other hand, if your kid is actually outside getting exercise and interacting with other kids, you may just have a natural athlete, so don’t discourage that.

Fourth, let your kid decide what to read.  As I advised my coworker, if the kid wants to read a tractor manual or the phone book, let him!  Manga and other comics are fine, too.  The single important factor for young kids is that they learn to enjoy sitting and focusing on the page.  Boys may find non-fiction more interesting, so I listed off topics I thought an 8-year-old boy might like: pirates, sharks, ninjas, monkeys, space travel, NASCAR, construction equipment, dinosaurs…  Just set the kid loose in the library and see what he brings back.  Here’s the other thing.  It doesn’t necessarily need to be a book.  My friend said he reads the news online in the evenings.  Why not have the kid read that for his 20 minutes?  If he’s browsing for stories about glow-in-the-dark puppies or cybernetic limbs, you’ll probably have trouble getting him to go to bed, much less stop when his 20 minutes are up. 

The dark side of this coin is that sometimes your kid will stumble across something you’d rather he didn’t.  It’s always something.  I discovered Stephen King when I was 8, and there was no turning back – I’m still a horror fan.  My family’s preference seems to be sci-fi, though I’d prefer non-fiction or “improving classics of children’s literature” for our reading time.  There’s some stuff out there that would certainly seem to be inappropriate, and you have to walk a careful line when you decide to censor something.  I’m in favor of it, though, if it’s not draconian, because there’s no spice like the excitement of sneaking off to read a forbidden book.  If that won’t make a reader of your kid, nothing will.

My parents grew a young reader in all the right ways.  My mom would drop everything to read to me whenever my toddler self asked.  She took me to the library until I reached school age, when I could go myself.  Both my parents read as if their lives depended on it.  I had free run of our few bookshelves, and everyone in the family knew to send books for gifts.  Most of all, we always played with language, punning and inventing word games.  If you heard a word you didn’t know, nobody would define it for you – you had to pull out the big dictionary, look it up, and read the definition to everyone.  We spent plenty of time rotting our brains in front of the cable box and the Nintendo, but it was in the context of a vocabulary-rich environment.

When you read aloud with your kid, take turns.  It’s much more natural that way.  You’ll stumble and stutter sometimes, and that helps take the pressure off.  Stop and discuss whenever anyone starts wiggling.  Sweetie Junior will practically hop out of her seat sometimes when the suspense is building.  She has to chime in with her speculations about where the plot is going.  The other reason we stop, though, is for unfamiliar words.  I have to watch her because she won’t say anything when she doesn’t know a word.  Sometimes we only get through ten pages an hour, but hey.  It’s the journey, not the destination, right?

Happy reading!

High School English If I Taught It

August 13, 2009 at 9:19 am | Posted in Book Blather, Reading with Kids | 3 Comments

It’s that time of year again, with the difference being that suddenly I find myself the stepmother of a high school student.  We went shopping for school clothes last weekend.  It got me thinking about those hallowed halls and the halcyon hiatus of hortatory hustle.  I’ve thought of teaching school off and on, though what hampers me is the need to follow a legislated curriculum rather than teaching kids what I wish I’d known at that age.  What follows is my fantasy syllabus of the Most Scandalous Exciting Lit Class Ever.

The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks.

I Love You, Beth Cooper, by Larry Doyle.

Cruddy, by Lynda Barry.

Girlfriend in a Coma, by Douglas Coupland.

The Cheese Monkeys, by Chip Kidd.

The Monkey Wrench Gang, by Edward Abbey.

And, just for fun, a bit of nonfiction: How to Be Idle, by Tom Hodgkinson.

Graphic Novels

November 10, 2008 at 5:55 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Reading with Kids | Leave a comment

On Saturday Rocket Scientist and I went to the bookstore to buy Sweetie Junior a birthday present.  We were looking for the sequel to a graphic novel I got her last year, part of a World of Warcraft series.  We didn’t find it until the next shop, though we did pick out a “how to draw manga” book.  Along the way we had a pretty interesting discussion about comics and graphic novels.

I’ve always been a fan.  I started leafing through my dad’s Heavy Metal magazines when I was four.  I spent all my allowance on Mad magazine for nearly three years.  Eventually I found my dad’s stack of underground comics from the 70’s (he has Zap! comics #0!).  On the more conventional side of things, my uncle sent me and my brothers a set of Classics Illustrated, and I read those too.  I like to think I’m not a snob.

But maybe I am.  I can’t be bothered to read most manga or superhero comics.  I prefer the more artsy graphic novels and the more subversive alternative comics.  I also love some of the old-fashioned strips, like Krazy Kat.  Part of me really wants to push the pedagogy on this poor, defenseless almost-14 year old.  I can’t help but wish she enjoyed the video game spinoff stuff less and the stuff I want her to like moreWorld of Warcraft??  *sigh*

The other problem is that she’s just not quite old enough for a lot of what’s out there, while she’s definitely too old already for a lot of other stuff.  She’s somewhere in between the cartoon animals on the nice end, and the decapitated heads on the other end.  (We found no fewer than three decapitated head drawings in three separate books with only a cursory examination).  The other problem is all those boobs, especially in the how-to-draw books.  So I have to ask myself, where does it come from, this desire to shelter the kid from stuff I enjoyed at the same age or younger?

Rocket Scientist ventured the thought that all schools should offer illustrated versions of the classics.  I tend to agree.  I read a cartoon version of King Lear in high school that was absolutely terrific, and it included every single word of the play.  Whatever it takes to get kids to read, I say.  Some graphic novels take more thought and more sophistication to read than the text alone.  On the other hand, these are the types of books most likely to be stolen from libraries – a sure indicator of their popularity, intrinsic attraction, and expense.

What remains is to develop a graphic literature for teenagers that avoids some of the excesses of the adult-oriented material, while also avoiding the kiddie cartoon stuff at the other extreme.  Where are the illustrated Lord of the Flies and Flowers for Algernon?  Won’t someone take on To Kill a Mockingbird?  If I could draw at all, I’d do it myself.

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