Monday, May 28, 2012



There is a good deal of truth to Tevya's line from Fiddler on the Roof that "...because of our traditions, we've kept our balance for many, many years..."
Tradition (noun - whose origin is traced to Middle English 1350-1400) means:
 "the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc., from generation to generation, especially by word of mouth or practice....
Tradition has been shown to provide a comfort and stability to family life and is essential for our kids' development.  Their particular rites create a sense of identity, unity, warmth and security. While we often think of traditions as religious practices and rites of passage, traditions are found in all aspects of our religious and/or secular lives.

Social scientist, Ernest W. Burgess, Professor of Sociology at The University of Chicago has studied family traditions and noted that:
"Whatever its biological inheritance from its parents and other ancestors, the child receives also from the a heritage of attitudes, sentiments, and ideals with what may be termed the family tradition, or family culture."
So let's talk traditions - traditions worth pursuing/continuing, and others worth tweaking:
  • Family Dinners-
    • provide opportunities and vehicles for families to learn to communicate effectively - sharing personal events and issues faced that day, sharing relevant current events, bouncing and brainstorming ideas off of each other;
    • discussing each family member's day together at the table relays your interest in each one's lives - providing kids with healthier self-concepts and opportunities to comfortably share  ideas and opinions, and take risks;
    • provide opportunities to validate, clarify, and explain emotional events and behavior
    • provides opportunities to learn and model manners and practice consideration;
    • research shows that the more often families eat together, the less likely kids are to smoke, drink or do drugs, and the more likely they are to do well in school, delay in having sex, and exhibit healthier eating/food habits;
    • passing down family recipes is a way of passing down identity and heritage.
  • National holiday celebrations -  
    • sharing a Thanksgiving meal with friends and neighbors; or reenacting the Plymouth Rock dinner;
    • Fourth of July picnics - (in our family we also have an annual screening of 1776 where we watch and sing along - corny, I know, but true and loads of fun);
    • watching or participating in holiday parades.
  • Family Holiday and Birthday celebrations
  • Religious celebrations
  • Annual family vacations - and/or family game nights planning, traveling and playing together on an annual or regular basis - not at home teaches and models brainstorming, calculated 'risk' taking, and allows the family to collect very special memories of unity, belonging and just plain fun
  • Religious holidays - aside from unifying the family by attending church or temple and praying together, religious holiday celebration also helps extend your kids' sense of community
  • Rites of passage family rituals -
    • to help wean my kids off bottles and diapers, we had 'bye-bye baby bottle and diaper' parties.  When I felt my kids were ready to wean, we would talk about having a party.  It helped make that transition easier and much less anxiety producing.  We also had a lot of fun planning and brain-storming. And best of all, it became their decision.
    •  First School rituals - making a ritual of visiting the new school, having a party the night before the first day, buying notebooks or pencils and pens and other school supplies;
    • Communion/ Bar and Bat Mitzvas
    • Sweet Fifteens and Sweet Sixteens
    • Weddings
    • Graduations
On the other hand, there are some traditions, that do not and maybe should not necessarily be passed down:

    All jokes aside, each of our family (and cultural) traditions help add a sense of family, community, trust, stability and unity.  What are some of your family/community traditions?  Please share them in your comments.

      Sunday, May 20, 2012

      Saluting Shakespeare: A Study Guide

      Shakespeare is believed to be the most read author in the Western Hemisphere other than the Bible.  Whether this is true or not, his work is integral to our cultural past, present, and future.

      Why is his work so popular and integral to our culture?
      • Shakespeare's work uncannily captures the good and bad in human nature in such a way that even today we can easily relate to the issues and emotions faced by his characters;
      • He took (familiar) older stories/poems/myths and reworked plot and /or language in such a way that audiences easily related and understood the passions, challenges, loves, hates,and motives of all his characters - and yet there is nice depth to them;
      • Shakespeare was the master of the art of language.  He fabricated meaningful and nonsensical words making sure audiences were involved in the performance (and not just those down by the stage), he toyed with puns, curses and saucy slams, and he spoke of the people and to the people with wit, passion, humor, insight and sensitivity.
      And yet, given all this, his work is often hard for younger audiences and today's students to understand. 

      Why Shakespeare may be challenging and helpful hints and tools to tackle his great works:
      •  Inconsistent writing format:  Shakespeare's plays are part verse, part prose. While verse follows a regular, rhythmic pattern (usually iambic pentameter), prose has no rhyme or metric scheme as it is the language of everyday common conversation.  This can often make reading Shakespeare more challenging for beginners. 
        • Helpful hint #1:  In modern published editions of his work, each line in a multi-line verse passage begins with a capital letter; while each line in a multi-line prose passage is in lower-case letters, except for the first line or beginning of that passage. 
        • Helpful hint #2: Shakespeare typically used verse to express deep emotion, share deep insights, inject irony, or simply share a lyrical poem.  He typically used prose to relate commonplace discussions, make quick one-line replies, poke fun at characters who lack wit or to suggest madness (in King Lear,  Lear speaks almost exclusively in verse for the for half of the play but wavers between verse and prose as the story and his madness progress).
      • Artistic liberty: In Shakespeare's time, there were no official English dictionaries. As a result, Shakespeare 'penned' words as he chose to spell and use them, often taking words from Italy, France and other countries.  Furthermore, when words did not exist, or could not fitinto the meter of his works, he would make them up (see the next bullet). These 'creative' spellings and word usages make reading his works fun for some, challenging for others.
      • New words: William Shakespeare used approximately 17,000 words in his plays, and almost 2,000 of those, were words he 'tweaked' or made up. He did this by changing nouns into verbs, verbs into adjectives, adding prefixes and suffixes, and coining a few all on his own. Consider the following list of fifty plus words that, as far as can be told, were first found in Shakespeare's writing:
      accommodation             aerial                   amazement            apostrophe       assassination                 auspicious              baseless               bedroom            bump                             castigate                 clangor                countless           courtship                        critic                     critical                  dexterously             dishearten                     dislocate                dwindle                 eventful       exposure                        fitful                       frugal                   generous                 gloomy                          gnarled                    hurry                  impartial          indistinguishable         invulnerable             lapse                   laughable          lonely                           majestic                 misplaced              monumental          multitudinous               obscene                  pendant                 perusal       premeditated                pious                      radiance                reliance                    road                             sanctimonious         seamy                   sneak                sportive                      submerge                  trippingly              useless

      •  New compound words: Aside from coining or 're-minting' individual words, Shakespeare combined and connected words never before used together, creating new compound words such as:
      barefaced      civil-tongue      cold-comfort      eyesore      fancy-free      foul-play     play-fair      green-eyed      heartsick     high-time      hot-blooded      lackluster      leap-frog      laughing-stock     itching-palm     lie-low     long-haired     love-affair     ministering-angel     sea-change     short-shift     pinch-battle     primrose-path     snow-white     tongue-tied     towering passion 
      • Weird sentence structure: Shakespeare frequently shifted his sentences away from "normal" English arrangements in order to:
        • create the rhythm or rhyme he sought;
        • use a line's poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word; or
        • give a character his or her own speech pattern and /or to identify his or her social status (i.e. in Romeo and Juliet, the servants and nurse have very different speech patterns from Romeo, Juliet, and their social peers).
      How did he do this?
          1. Look for the placement of subject and verb.  Shakespeare often puts the verb BEFORE the subject.  For example, in Act 1, Scene 1 in Romeo and Juliet, line 140, Montague says, "Away from light steals home my heavy son." (Instead of " son steals home.")
          2. Sometimes Shakespeare placed the object or adjective before the subject and verb. For example in Act 1 Scene 2 line 4 of Romeo and Juliet, Paris says "Of honorable reckoning are you both."
      • Imagery and figurative speech. Shakespeare frequently used literary devices such as:
        • Hyperbole (exaggerations);
        • Simile (comparing one thing to another using "like" or "as");
        • Metaphor ( comparing one thing to another without "like" or "as");
        • Oxymorons (combining words opposite in meaning, such as 'freezing fire', usually to startle the audience and make them think);
      • Archaic speech. some words used in Shakespeare's plays have fallen into disuse or their meanings have changed.  Here are a few:
        • anon = straightway
        • buckles = small shields
        • marry  = indeed
        • heavy = sorrowful
        • o'er = over again
        • morrow = morning
      Given all these challenges, reading, studying and acting out Shakespeare's plays is just loads of fun.
      Shakespeare Starter Suggestions:
      • Find and share his insults.  Here is a link to begin: Shakespeare's Saucy Slams
      • Start them with the stories, with the magic in the stories, great characters.  Some of the easier plays are the ones with a lot of dialogue (and not necessarily the famous soliloquies) such as Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night,  and The Tempest.  Macbeth can be fun for the more morbid kids, kids into witches and high drama.
      • Watch classic video clips.  Here are a few of my favorites:
        •  Great slams:  Beatrice and Benedick arguing in "Much Ado About Nothing"
        • The games people play in (and accepting) love: David Tenant and Catherine Tate in Much Ado About Nothing
        • Great motivating speech:  Henry V St. Crispin's Day Speech to the troops from Henry V
        • On bigotry, antisemitism and revenge; Shylock's monologue from The Merchant of Venice
        • On life, living, the seven ages of man, and the 'stage' - from As You Like It

      Some additional Shakespeare resources:
      I hope you find these resources helpful.  Please share some of your favorite teaching/viewing/reading Shakespeare moments of your own in the comics.  Thanks for you visit and have a great week.

        Sunday, May 13, 2012

        Risks: From Wall Street to Our Families and Schools

        Thinking of risk, J.P. Morgan Chase's blunder which surfaced this past week takes center stage. Interestingly, there were two articles in this past Saturday/Sunday Wall Street Journal (May 12-13, 2012) address risk-taking.  My intention is to present excerpts from these articles on risk taking and relate how we as parents and educators can address our kids' school-related risks.

        The Intelligent Investor column by Jason Zweig (Sat/Sun May) "Polishing the Dimon Principle" discusses James Dimon's (J.P. Morgan Chase's chief executive) failed reasoning, comparing it to what he calls "The Feynman Principle." (Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize-winning Physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, quantum physics, discovered the source of the Space Shuttle disaster, and in his spare time was an artist and musician.) According to Zweig:
        The Feynman principle, however, is simple: "You must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool," as the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman put it.
        The article continues:
        The moguls of J.P. Morgan, in letting a complex risk run wild and denying any potential for error until it was too late, are a reminder that one of the biggest dangers in finance is self-deception.
        ...You can also fool yourself by placing too much faith in the findings of supposed experts.  Mr. Feynman recounted the story of an influential formula for measuring the charge of an electron ...devised by...pioneering physicist Robert Millikan. The result was slightly wrong, but it took many researchers years to prove it wrong - since Millikan's successors assumed that he had to be right."
        Alex Nabaum www.
        In section C (page C1) of the WSJ, there is a second article by Dylan Evans, "How to Beat the Odds at Judging Risk:  Fast, clear feedback is crucial to gauging probabilities; for lessons, consult weathermen and gamblers."
        Whether as a trader betting on ... a stock, a lawyer gauging a witness's reliability or a doctor pondering the accuracy of a diagnosis, we spend much of our time—consciously or not—guessing about the future based on incomplete information. Unfortunately, decades of research indicate that humans are not very good at this. Most of us, for example, tend to vastly overestimate our chances of winning the lottery, while similarly underestimating the chances that we will get divorced.
        The article continues noting, however, that
        "...certain groups of people—such as meteorologists and professional gamblers—have managed to overcome these biases and are thus able to estimate probabilities much more accurately than the rest of us.
        The article continues noting that Sarah Lichtenstein, an expert in the field of decision science, points to several characteristics of groups that exhibit high intelligence with respect to risk.
        • They tend to be comfortable assigning numerical probabilities to possible outcomes (in 1965, for instance, U.S. National Weather Service forecasters have been required to predict weather patterns such as chance of snow or rain in percentage terms);
        •  They tend to make predictions on only a narrow range of topics (probability of rain - a narrow prediction vs. the probability of a drug's effectiveness, which involves many more factors and is therefore a much more complicated prediction);
        • They tend to get prompt and well-defined feedback, which increases the chance that they will incorporate new information into their understanding.
        This, in part, may explain Dimon and J.P. Morgan's recent trading failures: placing too much value on possibly faulty 'formulas' set by other 'giants', fooling oneself into believing what we want to believe, and making faulty predictions on a complicated 'bets'.

        Translating Risk Research for Home and School: 

        Risks are important to take.  As parents, we make and take risks all the time - in choosing schools and summer programs, and evaluating and acting upon professionals' recommendations, to name a few. Students must also take risks: in choosing school-project  topics, books to read, deciding what comments to share and how best to share them.  Students take risks when taking tests - knowing what answers to answer and how to select the 'best' response.  Kids take risks in sports, socially, even dressing.  We need to empower our kids to take risks, while teaching them how best to do this. 

        I am not an investor or an economist, but Feynman's Principle and the research by Sarah Lichtenstein and Dylan Evans rings true for me as a parent / educator:

        Avoid fooling yourself: While this is intrinsically difficult to do, here are some things to help you better understand your kids, their teachers, their health, their skills:
        • look at and listen to various sources to better understand our kids' strengths and weaknesses. 
        • look at their actual successes and failures in and out of school - review their homework assignments and tests once graded; meet with teachers;
        • listen and weigh teacher/physician/professional evaluations; while 
        • talking and listening to our kids to get their perspectives as well.  
        This is important to constantly monitor as parents while modeling and teaching these skills to our kids as well.

        Play prediction games with your kids - assigning specific numbers or values to what it is you are predicting.  This will help them understand 'number' concepts, better understand variables effecting the outcomes they are predicting, and better understand their own skills.  Here are some examples of what they might predict:
        1. Have them predict on how well they will do on a test or paper. Make sure they assign themselves a number or letter grade. Then check for immediate (or relatively immediate feedback).  Chart these predictions to see if they improve in accuracy while reviewing and incorporating teachers' comments. 
        2. Predict how long it will take them to complete homework assignments. Here too, chart their predictions and monitor their accuracy.  Not only will this give them a better sense of their skills in that subject, it will help them develop a keener sense of time, all while helping them analyze their skills and (homework) risks. 
        3. Play games of chance and risk.  Discuss options and probabilities.  Assign numbers or 'grades' to your 'chances'.
        These are just a few suggestions.  I'd love to hear your suggestions and reactions. Please share them in the comments.  Thank you for your visit and have a wonderful week.

        Sunday, May 6, 2012

        Quests' Quandries

        Quests typically relate a character's need to undergo some form of travel, trial, and/or tribulation, searching for an endeared object, potion, chalice, answer, loved one, treasure, etc.  It involves peril, persistence, and the overcoming of formidable obstacles. 

        Joesph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces  explains quest in great detail, and may well be worth your look.  According to Campbell, in myth and stories the monomyth or hero's journey follows a basic pattern. Campbell describes 17 stages or steps that can be broken down into three main sections:
        • The "Departure" which deals with the hero's adventure before the quest (and often involves some form of initial denial and the meeting of a mentor or guide); 
        • The "Initiation" dealing with the hero's adventures and journeys while following the quest; and
        • The "Return" where the hero has faced his or her quest and returns with knowledge, wealth, and/or power gained on the journey.
        Star Wars: The Magic of Myth
        In 1997, Muse Magazine (The Smithsonian Institute's young adult magazine) published an article, "Star Wars: It's Just Another Myth" by Mary Henderson (now a book Star Wars: The Magic of Myth).  In the article, Henderson condensed and delineated Campbell's steps while illustrating how Star Wars, the King Arthur story, the story of Perseus, and Tolkien's Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit all follow Campbell's steps.  The article provides a wonderful template for young readers and writers to follow when evaluating and creating their own quests and adventures.

        Here is Henderson's template of heroes' quests as found in the article:
        1. The quest is to...
        2. The hero (discovers) he/she's the son/daughter of...
        3. But he/she was raised by....
        4. The call to adventure comes when...
        5. The wise and helpful guide is...
        6. The magic talisman is...
        7. The hero undergoes ordeals and difficulties when he/she...
        8. The hero performs daring deeds when she/he...
        9. The hero returns home to...
        10. In the end she/he...
        The Power of Quests:
        Aside from being engrossing and fun to read, watch, or play, quests serve very important roles in children's education.
        • Literature - is full of quests. Knowing the templates or 'essentials' of quests make them easier to recognize, understand and follow.  Understanding a quest's basic 'ingredients' also makes it easier for kids to create and write their own.
        • History - leaders and nations must face quests and obstacles in their growth to maturity and power.  Familiarity with quests and heroes makes studying history more familiar and more interesting, which in turn, adds depth and additional memory associations. 
        • Life's Lessons - fortunately or unfortunately kids face numerous obstacles in their daily lives.  They are often "called to action", often seek mentors or guides, and face challenges and daunting tasks (be they intellectual, social, or physical). As they develop and grow from the world of childhood to that of adulthood - the rules often change and are often not what was expected.  Having heroes(and templates) to learn from and about, can only help them find comfort while meeting and mastering their own personal quests.
         Educational applications:
        • Discuss  the obstacles and quandaries heroes must face - be they Moses, Jesus, Luke Skywalker, Perseus, Harry Potter, Matilda, Bilbo Baggins, etc.
        • Create your own myths from this template - write, act, relate stories of heroes.
        • Brainstorm other possible solutions and paths for famous quests. Discuss the 'paths not taken'.
        • Compare the fate and journeys of religious figures to those of modern, historical figures and of literary figures. Evaluate the similarities and differences in their quests.  Discuss the lessons learned and values exhibited.
        Some of my favorite (less well-known) stories of quests:
        Dealing with Dragons (ages 6+) by Patricia Wrede - about Cimorene a princess who is tired of learning etiquette and wants to learn about math and the world.
        Johnny Tremain (ages 9+) by Esther Forbes - a story of Johnny a silversmith apprentice who suffers a terrible injury and must find his true path.  Along the way the finds himself involved with the Sons of Liberty, Paul Revere, the Adams cousins (Sam and John),  John Hancock, and others.
        I Kill Giants (ages 10+) by Joe Kelly - a story about a girl who must kill the giants in her life. The reader, intitially, is unsure whether there are real giants or metaphors.  I won't ruin it for you as this is a MUST READ book for kids grade 5+.
        The Book of Three (ages 8+) by Lloyd Alexander (the first of The Chronicles of Prydain series) about a boy, taran, ward of a prophetic pig who reluctantly must guard the pig and fight the evil following the pig in order to save all he holds dear.
        The Giver (ages 10+) by Lois Lowry - about Jonas who lives in a dystopian society and must (reluctantly) learn to be the next Giver.
        Ender's Game (ages 10+) by Orson Scott Card about eight-year-old gifted Ender who is reluctantly recruited by his government for s special space/defense school.
        A Wrinkle in Time (ages 9+) by Madeleine L'Engle about Meg Murry who (reluctantly) is transported through a tesseract (a fifth dimensional wrinkle in time) with her younger brother Charles Wallace and friend Calvin O'Keefe to rescue her (scientist) father from evil forces holding him captive on another planet.
        Inkheart (ages 8+) by Cornelia Funke - about Meggie and her father who must (reluctantly) read characters out of books
        Pink and Say (ages 5+) by Patricia Polacco about two boys fighting for the Union - one black one white - who must find a way to stay alive and save their families during the Civil War.

        In closing, for those seeking quests for 'older' and more 'mature' audiences, one of my favorite quests was Monty Python's Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Here is a brilliant excerpt I hope you enjoy (the quality of the YouTube clip isn't great, but it is good enough and well worth the view):

        These are just a few suggestions.  Thank you for your time and visit - I hope to see you here next week.  In the meantime... Please leave your own favorite quests in the comments.
        Have a great week.