Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Charlotte's Web

This isn't going to be a great blog post, but I have thoughts that I want to share - with anyone. This will be wandering and cover a couple of my interests. 

I listened to E.B. White read his book Charlotte's Web today - yes, all in one sitting. As I listened, I considered what a different world it is from when this story was written around 1952. 

The children, Fern and Avery had lives of their own. They went to school, did their work then kept themselves busy.  They weren't sheltered from the realities of farm life. Wilbur was going to be killed and 8 year old Fern convinces her father to spare his life. There's no talk of whether she's old enough to have this discussion or keep a pig. Though unspoken, it's a lesson in responsibility and Fern steps up. Fern can do this because she is responsible for her non-school hours. She doesn't go to sports activities, or dance class. She doesn't have play dates. She has time. She is expected to keep herself out of trouble.  Mom and Dad don't keep her in their sights all the time.  Wilbur is sold by Fern to her Uncle Homer Zuckerman for $6.00. Her father doesn't do it for her although he suggests the price.  From then on Fern spends most of her time at her Uncle Homer's farm. She watches the animals, gets to know them, and they become her friends. Her mom worries about this fascination with her animal friends, but after a chat with the doctor, decides it's probably alright and she'll grow out of it. It's a phase.

There is no talk of germs or dangers. Fern bottle feeds Wilbur and sits in the dirty farmyard and barn. She swings from an amazing rope swing, taking turns with her brother.  The children go to the fair and are given money then told to be back in time for lunch. They are given two admonitions. Watch out for pickpockets and hang on when you ride the ferris wheel. The children survive to the end of the book. 

Death is openly discussed. It's a fact of life. Living things die. Wilbur is saved for a time, but the book itself is about saving Wilbur from becoming Christmas dinner. Although Wilbur is saved, his friend Charlotte the spider dies of old age.  We see loss through the eyes of the pig but are reminded that life goes on with the birth of Charlotte's many, many offspring. 

These characters are about as human as an animal can be. We see shortcomings as well as finer qualities.  No character is all good or all bad and I like it that way. 

If there hasn't been a curriculum based on this book, there should be. There are lesson there for the adults of today just as much as there are for the kids.

From a literary standpoint, I think it's a work of art. It grabs your attention and then tells a great story.  If it were published today, It wouldn't be as good. E.B. White did a lot of teaching throughout the book. We learn about the life of a rat through Templeton, How a goose would speak if you could understand him, That although freedom is a wonderful thing, sometimes home is better. 

This is where I wander into my thoughts as an author and lover of words....

The book has a wonderful vocabulary. It isn't adjusted to accommodate the age of the reader but the big words are explained by definition as Charlotte explains things to Wilbur and through context. White isn't afraid to make a statement, then to clarify. I really like that about his work. Vocabulary controlled writing hinders an author's ability to use just the right word. It also doesn't challenge the reader. A story with a controlled vocabulary reduces the breadth of the readership because it is less likely to hold the attention of a more sophisticated reader.

A recent writers conference I attended made it clear the writer should get to the point. Don't restate what has already been said and don't use a big word when a smaller one will do. I'm not entirely sure I agree. Much of what I learned about writing when I was a student has been replaced with what appears to me to be a lack of respect for the reader. That said, at the conference, one of the agents on a panel (as the others nodded their heads) said that thanks to email, the volume of what they have to read has increased exponentially. If the author doesn't get to the point of the story before the end of the first page chances are the agent won't read any further.  I love descriptive, beautiful language, but if I ever submit a novel, I know to save it for later chapters and revisions after my book has been accepted. I'm afraid those tomes of yesteryear wouldn't make it past an agent.  

I read books and listen to audiobooks all the time and I like older books better. I like reading about the depth of a character's feeling. I don't mind looking up a word if context fails me. I like learning new things through fiction. I want to know in detail what a character is wearing. Please, describe to me what the sky looks like and the multicolored hues in the clouds as the sun rises or sets.  Give me action. Tell me how shoes slap against the pavement during a chase - bring on the adjectives and adverbs because they make the story richer and give it shading. Sometimes, I like to fill in the blanks, but often I want to get lost in the lush visions of someone else's world. I want them to leave nothing to my imagination because their imagination has been allowed free reign. 

I don't want Fern's childhood to be one of the past, I want children to have hours to do as they please - to have adventures, do ridiculous things, watch the clouds because it's too hot to do anything else. 

I want everyone to have literature worth reading that's full of adventure and life. I want it to stretch whoever reads it in all sorts of ways. I want it to be worthy of sharing and reading aloud. I want it to be something that is more motivating than anything that can be seen on a screen. Maybe if once again books are written as if reading is the best of pastimes, then it will once again be viewed that way.


Thursday, November 10, 2016

Play nice

Regardless of whether or not the election went your way:

How would you expect your child to behave at the end of a competition - sport, intellectual, or student government?

What is the appropriate protocol for winning?

What is the appropriate protocol for losing?

Do that - the children are watching.

Yes, I know this feels like the end of life as we know it. This makes our responses even more important.

We can agree to disagree.
Shake hands and get on with it. We're going to be spending lots of time together.

If you're on the winning team, don't gloat and rub it in.

If you're on the losing team, be gracious and allow the winners to enjoy their victory.

Now, everyone go to your room and think about your behavior.

Don't come out until you can play nice.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Daily risks as adults and a bit about this book

Adults are funny people. We take our lives into our own hands everyday. When we get in the shower, we could slip and fall. In the kitchen we could get burned or ruin our favorite cooking pots. As we travel, the busier the streets are, the more dangerous it is. The worse the weather – the greater the danger. Yet, these are things that we do everyday without a second thought…until something goes wrong, of course.

There are other things in our lives that are much less risky which we stick to as if our life depends on it! We go to the same restaurants and order the same thing every time. We take the same route to work even though there may be faster ways on any given day. We follow the same routine as we are getting ready for work  -  shower, dress, and breakfast.  We don’t venture from these places and routines because…why? We might not like different foods, we might get lost, or we might forget something.

The experiences of risk-taking in childhood can be important because they prepare the child to take risks as an adult. There are big decisions – buying a house, buying a car, marrying your mate, changing jobs, retiring. These choices are life changers.  Some are bigger and more life changing than others, but there is a sense of bigness about all of them. New homes and new cars are decisions that involve lots of money changing hands. Some of these choices involve major life changes. A new home, marriage, a job change will affect not only you, but someone else, too. Because these choices mostly affect you, they are hard choices to make and sometimes others in your life may not support the changes. If you have been permitted to make your own choices and take risks as a child, these decisions might not seem so big, but if these are the first big risks that you’ve taken, they can seem huge. They should seem huge - because they are. They are even more difficult if there are people begging you not to make these changes - or alternatively - encouraging you to rush into a decision.  It can be absolutely crazy-making! So what do you do about it?

You could:
Find an impartial person with whom to discuss these changes.
Make a chart of pros and cons.
Ponder the decision for ages and finally make a decision.
Just follow your gut feeling, close your eyes and blindly jump. 

A decision one person considers a huge risk; another might not consider a risk at all!

Maybe it depends on whether or not the person has an adventurous spirit, but it may also depend on the amount of decision making experience that has come before. There are things that I would like to do now that I wouldn’t have considered doing five years ago – this book for instance. Although, taking a risk by writing a book has no real physical hazards, emotionally, the risk seems very high. Once the words are on paper and in the hands of another, all I can do is hope that people will be kind.  

The one thing that keeps me brave enough to continue with this project is the thought that there could be a mom out there clinging to her child as if her life depended on it. If my words can get her to release her child just a bit and allow the child the chance to learn about their own strengths and be given the opportunity to take a risk or two – if I’ve improved one life then I think the effort that has gone into this book will have been well worth it!


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Gleaned from Tomorrowland



The story behind the movie Tomorrowland is the reason we need to teach risk taking. Continued hope and optimism rely on those people who care enough to dream - and take chances - in order to fulfill those dreams.

We live in what is often a very negative society and, not surprisingly, it is the people who continue to dream that keep us going.

Some causes are real and others might be imagined, while a few are immediate, and local, and still more are global. The key though isn’t the cause; it’s the people who are willing to fight for whatever that cause might be.

The question posed in the movie is: Can one person’s optimism be enough to change the destiny of the world? I want to believe the answer is yes. Optimism is as contagious as negativism - and yet it seems as though, in this day and age, the negativism is winning.

Causes tend to be pushed by displaying the ugliness of the situation. Compassion is a powerful emotion and certainly heartstrings are pulled by pathetic, brown-eyed starving children, but sending a check, or going online and charging a donation to a credit or debit card, only relieves the guilt that those of us with plenty feel when we see such sadness.

What if what we saw caused people to actively want to be involved? What if, by watching a documentary, the viewer would be left saying “I want to be a part of the vision?” What glorious changes could be made! 

Everyone has gifts. Some people are good with their hands. Some people are good with numbers, others are good with words. Some people are great thinkers and organizers, while others are great encouragers.

What if these gifts were identified and encouraged? I’m not talking about pigeon-holing people based on their abilities, I’m talking about making room for the gifts and talents with which people are born to grow, develop and ultimately flourish.

Life has to take place. We need to do the mundane things like eat, work and sleep, but maybe they wouldn’t feel so mundane if, as we did them, we knew that there was time and space for our dreams too.

 Some of the qualities that can’t be measured are potentially the most powerful.

As we see children taking risks, lending a hand is nice, but maybe words of encouragement and optimism that the child will reach his goals would be more helpful.

The problem with lending a hand is that the message can be perceived as a lack of faith in the capabilities of the child. It can also be perceived that the adult doesn’t think the child is smart enough. Maybe it could be misinterpreted that the activity needs to be hurried along and that it isn’t worth the time it would take if he were to do it on his own.

Getting something right the first time doesn’t hold nearly the value of something that has been fought for. Rarely is an invention right the first time. Trial, error, and frustration make the final victory so much sweeter because the battle that is waged gives the ultimate outcome value that it wouldn’t otherwise have.

If a child asks for help, try asking questions rather than providing answers. Guide the child toward their own hypotheses and conclusions. They may not have success the first, second, or even over many trials but, in the course of the experience, they are learning so much!

If you ask the child the right questions, the child will learn to ask the right questions themselves. By allowing a child to pursue an idea and seek the outcome, the child is learning to persevere. Stick-to-it-iveness seems to be a skill that is growing harder to find.

It is easy to go to the computer and see a problem solved, but it is nothing compared to tossing balls of different sizes out a window all at once to see if they really do land at the same time and doing it again and again just to be sure! 

Building a tree house, learning a skill on the skateboard, learning how to bake biscuits all take persistence and the ability to keep going even when the task seems harder than the child bargained for. Yes, it would be less frustrating for the child and also the adult to take things in hand, but the child will always remember when the project ceased to be their own. As an adult, you will know too, because the child will walk away and possibly never take up the task again.

Today’s hectic lifestyle doesn’t lend itself well to long periods of free time for a child to pursue a task in this manner. Rather than think - yes, but what the child does instead has value, too - I would suggest that the time be closely re-evaluated.

Dance lessons, sports, piano lessons, and any other activity that can be imagined have value, but at what cost?
Does the child have time to just do nothing?
Can the child take the time to dream without other tasks encroaching on that time? Can he just be?
Is there time in the child's day along with practice, to noodle out a melody, play with words, create a dance, or throw the ball with Dad?

It’s impossible to place a value on time to play and explore. I think that’s why the opportunity has grown so scarce.  You can place a value on lessons and sports, because there are tangible results - your wallet gets thinner, you go to a game, or a recital. There is a scheduled beginning and an end.

Open ended play may never look constructive, it might look downright idle, but that doesn’t mean that it lacks value. Occasionally, there will be a tangible result, sometimes there won’t be. Often it is the process that holds value for the child – a puzzle to be solved. Once the solution is obtained the creation is set aside and a new challenge takes its place.

Two things need to happen in order for a child to have the sort of time it takes to experience this sort of play. Both things take tremendous commitment on the part of the adults in the child’s life.

The first is to make the time.

Turn off the TV, the computers, and the game consoles so that you can demonstrate what leisure time looks like – which leads to the second thing:

You have to be the example.

You can’t say “go play” with any conviction, if you aren’t willing to give up the very things that are hindering your child’s chance to play.
 Find a new hobby or rekindle an old one. Open a book and read to the family in order to spark their imaginations! Talk about what you did as a child! Take time to do nothing. Play a board game and when your child says that it’s lame, encourage them to create a way to do it better.

It’s easy in that sort of situation to think in terms of disciplining a bad attitude, but what would happen if, instead you agreed and challenged the child to make it better and then play with the new rules? (Yes, there will have to be a time when the need to follow the rules and the bad attitude is addressed but, the peak of frustration probably isn’t the best time to make the point anyway.)

In short, create opportunities for your child to see that life is full of possibilities!

In the midst of the cruelties of life there will always be optimistic dreamers who, by nature say, “I know things are bad, but what are we going to do about it? I just know there has to be something we can do!”

There are others who need to be taught that there is always hope – a solution is just an idea away – and they will also begin to look for ways to engage and make life better for others.
 
Just as very few things have to be absolutely perfect, very few things are absolutely hopeless.

By encouraging higher level thinking skills and creativity in our children, we may also be encouraging the optimism and hope that will enable them to take the sort of risks that can lead to positive solutions regarding some of the world’s greatest challenges.

Monday, August 24, 2015


My Final Words
(and so it begins)

If I had one last thing that I was allowed to write, this might be the time to do it.  Teaching kids that risk is to be embraced rather than feared it the greatest gift we can give them. In order to take a risk you have to be brave and a little bit foolish. Maybe, a better word is adventuresome. I love children and I want them to be able to approach life without fear. I don't want them taught that the world is a scary place and that terrible things will happen when they take chances. The unknown should be embraced and anticipated with enthusiasm. If we can't teach that to children, then we shouldn't be teaching them at all. As adults, we are required to make so many decisions! From the time we are about sixteen, many of these decisions are life changing.

What do I want to do with my life?
What college will help me attain my goals?
Do I really want or need to go to school or is there a better route for me to take?
Do I want to buy a house?
What car should I buy?
Is this the person I should marry?
Do I want children? 
How many children do I want?

These are no small choices, yet today, aside from what to watch on TV and what to wear (maybe), there aren’t a lot of choices a child can make on their own. I’m exaggerating, but many choices are limited and directed by adults. Kids need the opportunity to make really bad choices. They need to fall off the monkey bars, walk into door frames with paper bags over their heads, and get punched in the nose. They need to be able to fail tests, be told they aren’t working up to expectations, and not given a second chance because they will work harder the first time if they know they can't do it again right the next time.
Children need to know in their hearts the satisfaction of a job well done, that they tried as hard as they could and eventually succeeded without help from anyone. They need to know that it’s time to find the next thing to do without being prompted or patted on the head and told how good they are.
Children can’t be taught self respect through being praised. They need to get dirty and do things on their own. I don't know if some great educational philosophy teaches these things, but I hope they do.
Every time a child takes a risk, whether it’s wise or foolish, they are empowered because they have been educated by themselves. No one has saved them, no one has encouraged them. They have gotten there under their own steam and it is a lesson they won't forget anytime soon. A child doesn't need to hear “I told you so” when they can make their own mistakes.  They don’t need to be warned to stay safe multiple times while having to take it on faith that whatever it is they are driven to do is going to do permanent harm. There are very few things that cause permanent harm or are fatal. Sometimes, it's even more dangerous to prevent curiosity from taking its course because you can't watch a child 24/7.
As parents, teachers, and caregivers, rather than thinking in terms of what will keep a child safe, maybe we need to think in terms of what will enhance a child’s future. They really are not the same thing.