Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Helping Kids Deal With Violence

I am of the original Saturday Night Live Generation and one skit in particular from "Weekend Update" has come to mind these last few weeks.  The character is Emily Litella (played by the incredibly talented Gilda Radner), an editorial responder who is passionate about her opinions which are never quite right.  In this particular skit "Violins on Television"

Saturday Night Live: Weekend Update: Emily Litella on Violins on TV

Emily responds asking what is wrong with violins on television pointing out the benefits of exposing kids to classical music. When she finds out that the station's editorial was about restricting violence on televion and not violins, she pauses, smiles and says, "never mind." Unfortunately, while this is quite funny, violence on television, in books, and in life is not.

This past year my son's best friend's father was one of seven people shot and killed in cold blood at his workplace by a disgruntled employee.  There was brief national coverage and this calamity was forgotten except by those touched by the tragedy.  Earlier this month again, the nation reeled from the violent shooting of Congresswoman Gavrielle Gifford and 18 others, and again, the debate has surfaced on how to control violence (and mental health) in our lives.

Over these past few months I have been wrestling with the question of media control of violence - both as a result of these violent deaths and because I have been recently been researching and advocating for the use of comics and graphic novels (bound comics - not the sexually graphic adult novels) in the classroom which in the 1950's were restricted by a Congressional Panel.

In 1954 psychiatrist Fredric Wertham wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent which claimed that the overt and covert depictions of violence, sex, and drug use in mystery, superhero and horror comic books encouraged similar behavior in children.  This publication led to a U.S. Congressional inquiry into the comic book industry which in turn led to the creation of the Comics Code which banned the use of violent images, certain words (such as "terror" and "zombies") and dictated that criminals must always be punished.  This nearly destroyed the comic book industry.

In researching modern graphic novels for use in classrooms, I have found some outstanding works of literature and art. Because of the prose, relevant topics and the illustrations, these books can and should be used to help visual learners learn to read. They are excellent vehicles for teaching social cognition (as kids can learn to better 'read' facial expressions), and are also excellent vehicles for teaching how to make inferences and abstract concepts. Many, however, contain varying degrees of violence.

As I read some of these gems (I Kill Giants - about a 5th grader's struggle to deal with her mother's cancer; Chinese Born American - about assimilation and Chinese culture; Laika - about the Soviet's sending the first sentient being - a dog into space - to name only a few of my favorites), I keep thinking what a loss it would be not to have these books.  Then I think of books like Lord of the Flies - (which I had to read for school) about kids stranded on a desert island who turn to cannibalism to save themselves or the Harry Potter series all chocked full of violence.  What about the local news broadcasts and nightly television shows or even the road rage we experience while carpooling?  The bottom line is that there violence is all around us. If we were to censor books, we would have to censor news, advertisements - everything.  I just don't see that happening.

The solution is that we have to teach our kids HOW to 'read' the violence on the screen and in print and How to address issues of violence and HOW best to respond.  The solution is not avoidance, it is how best to meet violence head on with alternative solutions.

Here are a few things we as parents and educators should do:
  • Read violent books, view violent cartoons and shows together discussing the pros and cons of violence.  You might even want to discuss why the author chose to depict the scene that way. 
  • Discuss the types of visual icons and images that illustrate violence and violent intent. Help them recognize the pre-violent' signals in facial expressions and posture.
  • Discuss the character's alternatives - what could they have done to limit the violence.  How might they have resolved their conflicts without violence?
  • Discuss alternative ways to respond to violence.
  • Debate the censorship of violence in the media. 
  • Discuss different ways to address rage.
I'd love to hear your response and what you are doing to address violence in your child's life.  How do you help your kids deal with violence in media, in books, and /or violence in their lives? 

    Monday, January 17, 2011

    Great Reads for Avid 4th and 5th Grade Readers

    In my last blog post, I was asked to consolidate my student reading suggestions for her 4th and 5th grade boys - avid readers in search of quality material.  As my previous suggested reading lists are for all ages, I decided to make more specific recommendations for the ages she requested.  Feel free to comment, add, and state your own requests.

    I have tried to suggest less well-known books as avid readers have probably read the typical selections. The books below are all classics, all favorites of mine and well worth the read (and ensuing discussions). This is only the beginning of a list, and these are the ones that stick out for me:

    Sailing Alone Around the RoomPoetry
    • Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" is as he put it, "a very tricky poem."  It is about his walking in the woods, coming to a choice of two paths, and taking (what initially appeared to be) the road less traveled.  It's a beautiful metaphor about life's choices where only later on you learn if the decisions made were the best ones.  
    • Billy Collins.  Sailing Alone Around the Room.  New York.  Random House.  2001  and The Question About Angels. University of Pittsburgh Press.  1991 are two of my favorite books, but just about anything by Billy Collins is wonderfully thoughtful, provocative, and often full of energy.
    • Karen Hesse. Out of the Dust.  Scholastic Press.  1997 is a brilliantly written and orchestrated "verse novel" weaving poetry and story telling about a girl growing up in the Oklahoma dust bowl in the 1930's.  Truly breath-taking!
    Historical Fiction/Non Fiction
      Cover of the 1983 editionCover of the first edition
    • Esther Forbes  Johnny Tremain.  Houghton Mifflin (1943) tells the story of the Boston colonists' struggle towards independence as seen through the eyes of a young silver smith apprentice, Johnny, who meets Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, John Hancock, Doctor Joseph Warren, James Otis, Sr., Governor Thomas Hutchinson, and Thomas Gage - to name a few.  This book has also been referenced in two (at least) episodes of The Simpsons ("Whacking Day" and "Skinner's Sense of Snow") as well as in Family Guy.  
    • Baroness Emmuska Orczy The Scarlet Pimpernel Hutchinson Press (1905) - (originally a play) takes place during the Reign of Terror following the start of the French Revolution. There is intrigue, history and lovely twists of story and fate.  I would read this first and then introduce Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities (which is a bit denser) but obviously a classic as well.
    • Yoko Kawashima Watkins  So Far From the Bamboo Grove Harper Teen (1986) is a semi-autobiographical book that takes place during the last days of World War II and Yoko and her family must flea their home in Nanam, northern Korea and end up, eventually in the United States.  It is about how she must flee with a torn family as father and brother are separated early in the story.  This book skirts some difficult (and often adult) issues, but is well worth the read and ensuing discussion.
    • Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston  Farewell to Manzanar  Houghton Mifflin.  (1973) is a story of a Japanese American family sent to an internment camp near San Pedro California during World War II.  It describes the plight of loyal Japanese Americans who were confined during the war by their fellow citizens.  Riveting and quite thought provoking.
    • Laurence Yep.  Dragonwings HarperCollins (1975)  is about a young immigrant Chinese boy who immigrates to San Francisco in the early 20th century (living through the Great Earthquake).  It is about he juggles the two worlds and cultures, fights discrimination, and how he and his father - inspired by the Wright brothers embark on an airplane project.
    • Gene Luen Yang. American Born Chinese First Second Books (2006) is a brilliantly written and illustrated graphic novel that weaves three apparently unrelated stories together in an action-packed, humorous and poignant modern fable. The first story is about Jin Wang -a 'new kid' in school who finds he's the only Chinese-American student and desperately wants to fit in; the second is about the Monkey King an old Chinese fable; the third is about Chin-Kee, the ultimate negative Chinese stereotype who is ruining his cousin Danny's life.
    • Nick Abadzis. Laika.  First Second Books (2007). is a graphic novel about Laika, an abandoned runt of a puppy who becomes the Earth's first space traveler.  The reader learns about and relates to Laika and her owners/care takers while reading about the space race from the Soviet perspective.  I highly recommend reading this and then reading Homer Hickham's October Sky (the story of the 1950's space race from an American boy's perspective).
    Science Fiction/Fantasy/Fiction
      TheGraveyardBook Hardcover.jpg
    • Orson Scott Card.  Ender's Game Tor Books (1975)   is a series - all worth the effort.  This is a science fiction classic with outstanding character development.
    • Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy Ballantine Books (1995)  This is a three book series.  The first, The Golden Compass was made into a movie.  The book is infinitely better.  It does, however, touch on some mature topics including organized religion and the concept of the 'original sin'.  My son, in 5th grade LOVED these books so much that when he found out they were based on John Milton's Paradise Lost he actually read the seventeenth century poem!
    • Neil Gaimon The Graveyard Book Harper Collins (2008)  is a lovely introduction to Gaimon for the younger reader. While it is about a boy raised by ghosts in a graveyard, it is warm, alive and really entertaining.
    • Cornelia Funke, Inkheart.  Scholastic, (2003) is about a girl whose father can read characters in and out of books.  Despite the fact that this gets them into a lot of trouble, Meggie still wishes she had her father's talents.
    • Joe Kelly I Kill Giants Image Comics (2008) is about a girl who plays dungeons and dragons and kills giants.  It is incredibly moving as the reader must untangle what giants Barbara is actually killing.  This is one of my favorite works - well worth the read for you and your kids.
    These just touch the tip of the iceberg.  Let me know what you like and recommend!

    Happy reading!

      Wednesday, January 5, 2011

      "Gifted" : Enriching Your Child's Education

      In a previous post I discussed navigating IEP's and Karen Scott wrote:
      Question sparked by this blog entry: what about kids at the other end of the "special needs" spectrum? ... Can you discuss the process by which kids are typically identified as gifted and what schools are required to provide for them? (I realize it might depend on what state or other factors, etc.) Thanks!!
      I have been wrestling with this request because as mentioned in the comment, there is no one approved or mandated means of defining, evaluating or servicing "gifted" students.  Furthermore, while states currently determine and set gifted education legislation, it is up to local school boards and schools to define and administer policy.  This, of course makes it much more difficult for parents and students to navigate and can take a good deal of effort searching, advocating, and meeting your child's needs.

      Determining programs and eligibility:
      As there are no national guidelines you are going to have to do a good amount of footwork on your own.  My first suggestion is to begin with an online search:  Google "[your] state guidelines for gifted education" You should find some published guidelines and may find state gifted advocacy groups as well.  These advocacy groups often provide additional (sometimes clearer) guidelines and links with more detailed information. I would start there - read, think and ask a lot of questions.  I also recommend your speaking with public and private school and local government representatives in your area, check online, speak to professionals and friends- canvas your area.  There are good and not as good programs locally as well as nationally.  There are programs in school, after school and over the summer (commuter and residential) - look into all your options. 

      Keep in mind:  All schools have their pros and cons. Sometimes small inclusive, progressive schools can offer more than larger state-run gifted programs.  Look around, visit schools, talk to other parents; evaluate what it is you want in a programs and make your selection accordingly. Know that regardless of where your child goes to school, you will need to advocate for your child and enrich out of school (at some level) what he or she is doing in school.

      First, a note of parental support:  I am the proud parent of three kids who qualified for gifted programs, and my premature gray hairs can tell you that while it is a joy having bright kids, there are real intellectual, social and emotional challenges.  And, unfortunately, these kids are often overlooked and/or misunderstood. My son, for example, was so bored he turned off (my daughters navigated more effectively, but we moved after 5th grade and his middle school experience was an absolute nightmare).  His grades fell and he never really learned study and organization skills because he never needed them.  His saving grace was a handful of teachers who understood him, when he went to Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth (CTY) summer programs (more on this below), and now in college which he finds stimulating and challenging. 

      Providing Support in and out of School:
      • Teachers vary in their receptiveness to parental intervention in the classroom, but you MUST have open channels for discussion with your child's teachers and school administrators.  IF homework is too easy, ask if there is some other more challenging assignment your child can do, or parallel books to read in conjunction with what is being covered in class. 
      • A note on educational challenges:  they're good for your child (as long as they are 'manageable' challenges).  Challenges encourage thinking and problem solving.  They tweak study skills, writing skills, literacy math or science skills.  Don't always shelter your child from challenges.  The earlier your child learns to break down a problem into manageable parts, the more meaningful the solutions and learning will be, and the more willing your child will be to take risks and grow.  Finding intellectual / educational challenges for gifted students is in itself a challenge, but try to work with school personnel to make sure you child is not just 'getting by'.
      • Many teachers and school administrators are aware of after-school and or summer programs.  Look into them.  Get references.  Talk to kids who attended the programs as well as their parents.
      • When speaking to your child's teacher, ask for a copy of the syllabus or a list of topics they will be covering over the next few months. Use this to recommend outside reading, plan weekend 'field' trips, even vacations to support and enrich what is covered in school (see more below).
      Talk with your kids about what they are learning in school and provide additional enrichment:
      • I know that for many of you this is difficult, but having family meals together is really important.  This provides excellent opportunities to talk about your day, brainstorm about ideas, and take what was discussed in class further. 
      • When asking your child what he or she is learning in school, try to relate it to current events, articles you recently read in the newspaper or online.  Make the topic more meaningful and more personal.  
      • Go on 'treasure hunts' at your local library or book store for related books or through newspapers and magazines that take school curriculum further.  (You may want to get a syllabus from the teacher to help you structure and narrow your search and to make sure there are no duplications).
      • Field Trips are GREAT!!!!  No matter where you live, there is history and culture all around you.  Take advantage of this.  Go to museums (science, art, natural history), landmark houses, cemeteries!  Even nature trails during the different seasons can be quite meaningful. 
      • I personally love going to cemeteries - OLD ONES - looking at tombstones and trying to recreate life stories about the person buried in front of us- stories that incorporate where they are buried and the time period they lived.
      • When hiking through the woods or local park, bring poems to read and discuss.  Look for migrating and/or local birds/fowl and other wildlife.  Take photos, keep albums, write your own poetry.
      • If there are old churches, synagogues, monasteries, mosques - go visit them - talk about other cultures, customs and beliefs.
      • Go to fairs - maybe various crafts / science projects /  foods will spark interest and discussions.
      • Read aloud.  I don't care how old your kids are - reading aloud is soothing and enriching.  Try selecting high interest books with somewhat more challenging vocabulary and themes.  Discuss the books / themes/ language use /vocabulary as you read.  Also, read different kinds of books, different formats, different genres.  (Look at some of my earlier blog posts for more ideas.)
      • Find different recipes (in books or online) to reflect the different cultures your child is learning about.   If your child is learning about colonial times, try cooking a meal the way you might have done during that time period.

      The lists go on, but I don't want to inundate you.  Again, we can discuss this in greater detail if you're interested (just let me know).  Also, note that these suggestions really hold for all kids regardless of their strengths, weaknesses and needs - the point is to help your kids take what they are learning further - on whatever level they can.

      Before closing, however,  I want to let you know about one special program that literally saved and shaped my kids educational, intellectual, and social lives:

      One special program- Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth (CTY link is
      I know there are many special  programs available for gifted and talented kids, but there is one that was an absolute god-send for my kids - and as it turns out - for me.  The story of how we found this program and its specifics are interesting may worth hearing.  But as this post is already long enough I will give you the bare basics, please comment if you would like me to write a post about this.

      The bottom line is that CTY summer programs offered my kids not only courses that (10 years later) they STILL talk about, but it offered them an incredible social network.  Each of my kids had friends in school from K-grade 12, but in school, my kids stuck out as the smart kids, the nerds (which is FINE BY ME but they often felt left out and misunderstood).  At CTY, their friends were just like them.  CTY offered them an incredibly warm, cozy place to learn and explore in and out of the classroom. When my son started, he was younger than my daughters and only qualified for commuter sites (there are summer residential sites as well).  As we lived far from the site, I applied for a teaching position (to help pay for our housing).  I loved teaching the summer courses and now teach their online distance education courses.  They are wonderful courses - they make you think and are constantly encouraging students to depart the text and take the readings further.  At the risk of sounding like a solicited (or even unsolicited) advertisement, it would be my pleasure to tell you more.  Just ask!

      In the meantime, let me know what you think about the recommendations above, let me know what you are doing, and let me know if you want to hear more.

      Happy new year to you all and let's make 2011 all we want it to be and more!