When I first saw it in the Netgalley catalog, I was startled by the title It’s OK Not to Share and Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids by Heather Shumaker (Tarcher, 2012). Not share? Isn’t that the first thing we teach our babies during play dates? I was delighted by some of the concepts in this parenting book, not because I agreed with it all, but because it opened my mind to different ways to approach teaching my children about relationships, compassion, and dealing with the ups and downs of life.
How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough (Houghton Mifflin, 2012) is a volume exploring why certain children succeed, despite the odds. He focuses on the children who are most struggling. Some of them succeed, by going to college and becoming successful, contributing members of society. What in their personality allowed them to overcome their past and succeed?
I really appreciated Tough’s research and the inspiring stories he shared. He argued that while learning letters and numbers and other “kindergarten ready” facts are helpful, what really helps children succeed in their lives is learning to deal with the frustrations of life (which he called developing “grit”), developing determination, and learning to improve and put forth extra effort when you make mistakes. He looked at schools full of well-to-do children from wealthy families, and he found that many did not know how to work. He also looked at students from poor, underprivileged families and found that some of them had developed grit and determination.
Education, he argues, is not just about book learning but about life learning and overcoming. There is a lesson to me in this as I teach my young son at home. I hope that I can exemplify to my kids the grit, determination, and confidence necessary to success in life. Tough’s book was not surprising or groundbreaking to me, but it did inspire me in my home education goals.
I mentioned last year that my son is a very creative child. He is regularly having imaginary adventures with his imaginary friends, and he constantly comes up with stories for me, stories he tells as if he’s surely experienced them. Given his intense interest in creative writing, I was seeking further instruction on how to nurture his creativity in his early years.
No More “I’m Done!” by Jennifer Jacobson (Stenhouse Publishers, 2010) is an inspiring how-to manual for early primary grade teachers. Subtitled “Fostering Independent Writing in the Primary Grades,” Jacobson’s book describes a system of nurturing creative writing that lets children take control of the process. After she describes her system, she provides a year’s worth of mini-lessons for encouraging development of ideas in various segments of writing (including voice, organization, word choice, fluency, details) all using well known and beloved children’s picture books as examples. Although I am not a teacher in a classroom setting, her ideas have given me the confidence to institute some similar casual instruction during our “school time.” It is informative and inspiring, helping one think outside the traditional box of writing prompts.
Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone (Ballantine Books, 2005) has the attractive subtitle of “Parents, Kids, and the Bond of Reading.” Given my love of reading classic and quality literature to my son, this sounded like it would be a perfect fit for me.
Once I began reading, however, I found that the Goldstone’s focus was on discussing children’s literature in a parent-child book group setting. Although I did enjoy reading their thoughts about the deeper meanings behind various classic children’s novels, stories, and poems, I was a bit disappointed in the book overall. I had hoped for something to inspire parents in reading to their children. Deconstructing Penguins did that to some extent. But at the same time it seemed to talk to the most unintelligent of parents. I would hope that most parents reading their children Mr. Popper’s Penguins are wise enough to know that it is more than just a story about penguins! Do parents and children really need a formal reading group to discuss the issues such classic novels address?
Maybe my bias is due to the fact that I did study literature in depth, searching for meanings and themes, as an English major. It seems obvious to me that as I read a classic children’s novel with my children (such as Charlotte’s Web, The Giver, or The Phantom Tollbooth) that I’d open a dialogue with my child about what the book is really about. On the other hand, my son is only four so I don’t yet do this very much: we read for the sake of enjoying a story. I don’t want to kill the love of literature and story.
All that said, discussing books in a group setting is a lot of fun. I am a part a book group and when I walk out of meetings I feel I better understand the books, besides the fact that it’s simply a lot of fun to talk about a book that I like. Deconstructing Penguins is a great book to help parents or teachers get a book group started for second to fifth graders. I loved how they assigned books to these young readers that may be considered by some as “too hard,” such as Animal Farm. The children appreciated the book and understood the deeper meanings. I’m a big believer in not dumbing down literature for kids.
In short, as a manual for leading a book group for upper elementary students, Deconstructing Penguins is an inspiring and helpful volume. For parents hoping to instill a love of learning in their young children, it may not be as helpful.
The Art of Changing the Brain by James E. Zull (2002, Stylus Publishing) is subtitled “Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of the Brain” and I picked it up because of my new role as teacher to my homeschool aged son. As his primary teacher, I want insight and assistance in understanding how to teach. I was intrigued by Zull’s approach to teaching by examining how the brain works. Although The Art of Changing the Brain does get technical in places, in general, it is a fascinating look at how learning is a biological process.
By learning how the brain works, I feel I have a great understanding at why certain teaching methods work and why others may not. The main take-aways I have from Zull’s book at the following. Some of these are rather obvious, but learning about them in the context of our brain was memorable.
- People can only create new learning by building on past learning. Physically, they must build on existing neuronal networks.
- People learn when they are emotionally engaged in the subject. Ideally, they will be so emotionally involved that they will dream about the subject.
- Being physically engaged in a subject engages the emotions. Reading, seeing, and listening are all ways to become physically engaged, so it doesn’t just mean moving.
- Learning is more effective when the learner ponders and makes the connections his- or herself. Listening to a lecture is not as effective as asking the questions and searching for your own answers. Faster is not better!
- Acting on new knowledge, either by writing about it (i.e., this blog post) or discussing it helps to solidify the newly created synapses. The learner will have learned more effectively by acting on it; it’s a way of reflecting.
- When a learner feels he or she owned the learning process, the learning is much more effective. (That is, creating an environment in which the learner can say “I did this myself” is much more effective than being told or helped along the way.)
Professor Zull is a college-level biology teacher. As such, the book is technical in places and it does seem geared toward teachers of older learners. However, as the teacher of an elementary aged child, I still found it helpful and enlightening. In fact, I loved reading it! I hope to be able to internalize the realities he discussed as I seek to help my young son learn.