Category Archives: Children

words worth memorizing

To follow up the last post which spoke of the literary interventions being undertaken in public schools to combat HIB, here’s an interesting, if not controversial challenge and thought.

While I’m not suggesting that we go back to McGuffey readers, there is something to be said about filling students’ heads with memorable, character-building messages to counterbalance the purposefully “dark and edgy” messages being fed to them by some “with-it” recreational children’s litter-ature today.

I can just imagine that pooh-pooh’s that this post will conjure. No matter.

While kids have always been “just kids” and generation gaps written about in Socratic times could have been written about today, if you have taught for a number of decades, I’m confident that you would agree that there is in schools today a growing blatant verbal disrespect for peers, as well as for authority, that exceeds past disrespects.

Although I’m not accusing the “tell-it-like-it-is” trash talk that characters spew forth, even in beginning series books, as being totally responsible, I am suggesting that what students fill their heads with often comes out–not unexpectedly– through their mouths.

Why not fill students’ heads with character-building thoughts?

For example…(although not necessarily in these exact 19C. words):

“Keep a watch on your words, my darling, for words are powerful things. They’re sweet like the bees’ sweet honey; like the bees they have terrible stings.”

When I was nine years old, many decades ago, my fourth grade teacher forced us to hand-copy and memorize those opening lines (as I now recall them), as well as the rest of the lines of a rather lengthy poem,  “Words of Beautiful Truth.”

(Making students memorize poems. Teachers did that then; they don’t now. For lots of educationally sound reasons, totally apart from character education and development, maybe they “should” now and again.)

If you want to read the entire poem, you can find it online (as I was amazed and delighted to do when I searched by its opening lines this week).

It is one of the selections that appears in the 1887 compiled volume of Little Poems for Little Children: Suitable for Memorizing for Recitation at School and at Home

Interestingly, in introducing the collection, the compiler, Valeria J. Campbell, offers persuasive thoughts to teachers about the benefits to their students of having them fill their minds with “choice things,” such as the selections in the compiled volume.

At the time that I was a “little” nine year old child, I had no idea of the lasting impact a “little” poem that I was forced to hand-copy and memorize by my fourth grade teacher would have on my character development.

True, the title I remembered (“Words of Beautiful Truth”) differs from the title of the poem as it appears in the 1887 internet compiled volume (“Keep a Watch on Your Words”).

Yet, as an adult who often hears both sets of those words echo in my mind and heart, I continue to surprise myself, not only that I remember the words–at least the first stanza–pretty much verbatim, but that the entire “gist” of the poem, which I joyfully read and remembered–is something I have “permanently” learned–if not always perfectly practiced.

Want to stop HIB?

Why not make memorable for students the idea that words can hurt and that they should refrain from using them to harass, intimidate, and bully?

Why not provide opportunities for students to memorize anti-HIB poems?

Can’t hurt. Worth it if even just one fewer child or adult is stung by mean words.

What do you think?

fairy tales, repurposed

Not just in the month of October, but especially then, given its designation as “Respect Month,” it was my joy and responsibility to share with students age-appropriate literature about fighting harassment, intimidation, and bullying.

Although the HIB concepts are sophisticated, using familiar fairy tales, like Cinderella, made it possible to engage four and five year olds in conversations about the topic, enabling them to identify HIB character-types such as bullies, targets, bystanders, and upstanders.

Especially gratifying was one kindergartener’s assessment of the HIB Cinderella character-types.

Her conclusion: An upstander (defender) and a target (victim/bullied person; e.g. Cinderella) could be the same. You don’t have to wait for someone else to stand up for you. You can stand up for yourself.

If only life were that simple with no fears, no threats, no constraints. But, why not strive for that reality?

In view of Malala’s recent birthday which (connected with the previous post), and her efforts to end violations and maltreatment (HIB, I would say), having stood up to her would-be assassins and detractors, Malala herself seems to fit–if not the glass slipper–then the victim/upstander bill!

Although fairy tales were not the only literary genre that I explored with students in connection with Respect Month, alluding to fairy tales as part of the discussion presented an opportunity to informally assess students’ prior knowledge of this genre, which provides so many literary allusions.

I, for one, was always grateful to parents and guardians who introduced their children to stories from this amazing genre, as well as to neighboring genres of folk tales and nursery rhymes.

Familiarity with such foundational genres, starting before they even enter school, sets students up for reading success–as well as for learning strategies for real-life anti-HIB success!

Was there a piece of literature that gave you the confidence to stand up for yourself or for someone else? I hope so! …Even (especially, now?), as adults, we need to be assertive in protecting ourselves and those for whom we are responsible and love.

Malala’s life story

One of my favorite genres for students’ book reports is biography, especially when the subject of the biography or autobiography is “someone of enduring significance,” to quote a fourth grade teacher, or “someone whose life is worth reading about/worth imitating” (to quote me).

I’m so pleased that biographies of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai are available for our children.

Malaya is one gutsy young woman advocate for the education of girls and boys around the world.

What an inspiration!

How challenging I have found it to be: trying to convince our students how blessed they are to be able to—no! be required to—go to school. What a protection from the many child abuses, deprivations, and neglects that befall their school-age-mates, especially their female school-age-mates around the world is mandatory education for our children.

Of particular interest to me, as revealed in a news interview that was shared on her website, was Malala’s revelation about the impact that reading a particular biography has made on her life.

In this regard, would it surprise you to learn that one of the fewer-than-a-dozen books Malala counted herself privileged to read before the assassination attempt on her life was Martin Luther King’s biography?

According to her interview, Malala credits Dr. King’s biography with informing her peaceful, yet determined, activism on behalf of childhood education, particularly for girls.

Today, on this July 12th, when Malala celebrates her eighteenth birthday, an age when American girls who have enjoyed freedom to have formal schooling might still be reveling in their recent high school graduation and looking forward to starting college or a job training program, Malala’s life story is reminding the world that girls in other parts of the world have not been as fortunate.

But their misfortune doesn’t have to continue. If you believe in the humanizing power of books and education, you might see what Malala is doing to help them, and how you might help them, too: 

If you feel inspired, you might even support her very worthy literacy advocacy cause, including her challenge to governments to invest in books–not bullets!

Happy Birthday, Malala!

May the next chapters of your life’s story continue to challenge and to edify us all, as you work to bring opportunities for schooling into the daily lives of all the children of the world, especially into the lives of all the girls and young women.

Books and life. Thank you for showing us how they go together, Malala!


Catching a glimpse of a small sign tucked in the corner of a local beauty parlor’s front window advertising its participation in Locks of Love immediately reminded me of another of Pat Brisson’s life-changing books: Melissa Parkington’s Beautiful, Beautiful Hair.

Although Ms. Brisson’s main character, a young school girl, donates her hair to a fictitious hair-to-wig program, the poignant story of the heroine’s sacrifice of her beautiful, beautiful locks has indeed prompted real-life hair donations, as I can attest—starting with the author’s son’s donation.

Seeing before-and-after photos of Ms. Brisson’s young adult son, as well as the young adult son of the book’s illustrator, donning and donating long hair grown and cut in response to the words and art in their mothers’ deeply moving book, was indeed inspirational! …And not only to me!

Following Ms. Brisson’s school visit, one of the teachers donated her hair, ceremoniously cut in the presence of her students by a cancer-survivor hairstylist, grateful to use her talents to support an unknown recipient, who like her, will no doubt appreciate the outreaches of love in practical matters, including the love that rests, like a blessing and wish for healing, securely upon her head!

Beauty parlor. Advertisement in the window. Pat Brisson’s book. Beautiful gifts of self-donation. Life and literature totally connected.


Among a whole cadre of memorable literary dads, one stands out for me this Father’s Day: the father whose story is told through the voice of his daughter, recounting what took place, as she says, The Summer My Father Was Ten.

So impressed was I with the tender reactions of the fifth graders with whom I first shared the book, that I changed my intention to target the book for their grade level only, and began reading the book with fourth and third graders, who reacted with the same sensitivity as did the ten-year olds.

Based on the students’ reactions—to say nothing of my own!—I knew that I must find a way to fund an author visit, and that the author I needed to invite was Pat Brisson, whose fatherhood tale has so deeply moved my mind, heart, and spirit.

And so it came to pass that eighteen months later, during Respect Week in the month of October, that Ms. Brisson was inspiring our children, through a trio of assemblies, to become better writers and readers—truly, more full human beings.

In the interim, I had met Ms. Brisson, read her other books to our students as part of an author study to prepare them for her visit, and come to admire her more and more, so that on the day of her arrival, I felt the same “star-struck” giddiness, of sorts, that I had experienced decades earlier in the presence of a baseball hero.

Surely, I will devote more writings to more fully elucidate the impact of Ms. Brisson’s books on my life and the lives of the students with whom I shared them. For now, on this Father’s Day, I invite you to read or re-read her deeply moving tale and to let her writing catapult you on a personal journey of recalling life-lessons taught by the father figures in your life, by way of their having shared with you poignant remembrances of their own childhoods.

And let the recollections inspire you to repay your gratitude by making a commitment to share your story with the children in your life!

Happy Father’s Day!

Mice tales

Whose Mouse Are You? was a question first asked by Robert Kraus in his picture book mouse tale published “way back” in 1970, when civil rights and women’s rights were raising all kinds of societal, racial, and gender self-image questions.

Posing our adult selves with the same question, albeit 45 years later, it seems to me, remains a healthy self-test–maybe even a necessary reality check–even if (especially if!?!) we think we have ourselves all figured out.  Who—or what– “owns” us? Motivates us? Takes first place in our minds and hearts? Who or what takes precedence in our time, energy, or checkbook? Who or what is our life all about?

Finding adult meaning in stories such as Whose Mouse Are You?: that’s the beauty of reading children’s picture books, with or without the children! …Deceivingly simple plots that children can follow often present philosophically deep journeys into self that adult readers can take!

Whether or not you have a child to whom to read (or re-read) the book, treat yourself to a read of Kraus’s book, and if you are okay with mouse allegories, and you are facing an unintended change in your life, particularly in your work life, you might wish to (or re-read) the grown-up mouse tale question book written for adults—Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson.

Then, just for fun, read both books to a child. There’s no telling what message and meaning a youngster might take from them! The insights of a child can be insightful for adults, indeed!

here’s to familiar refrains…

My daughter recently gifted me with a Melissa Manchester CD, and I was amazed—although I should not have been—how readily I remembered the words to her “old songs.” And as I reveled in singing along, I felt transported back to the time and place that I listened to Ms. Manchester, waiting for my teenage children to return from school. I relived the intensity of the emotion I felt then, especially when singing about the clown who was me. (Maybe I read too many young adult romance novels for my own good…)

It wasn’t only her music that accompanied me through the day; it was Barry Manilow’s and Diana Ross’s voices who did me the honors, too. Quite a threesome they were: Manilow, Manchester, and Ross. I alternated listening to them, not in any particular predetermined order, sometimes enjoying all three voices in one day, and sometimes sticking to one of another of them exclusively for a number of days. Why, I hadn’t really thought about. Nor could I verbalize my motives—even to myself. Not that I ever asked myself…till one day…..

Years after they left the house, my children boasted knowing what kind of mood they would find me in before even opening the front door. Their secret technique? They would listen through the door for the sound of the songs playing in the living room. They didn’t share, and honestly, I didn’t want to ask, which artist they paired with which mood of mine. But they insisted that they used the music as a barometer of how to approach me—or not approach me—with certain information or requests. And to think that I thought I was home alone enjoying music until my children came home, with the music having nothing to do with them… (Neither of them liked any of the three artists at the time, though in recent years, my daughter has been to a few Manilow concerts. I never have.)

So there’s the real life. What does Melissa Manchester’s music have to do with literature? For years, I have encouraged my students to hear the music in poetry and vice versa (okay, I know it can be a challenge to hear the poetry in some of today’s songs). Having taught so much poetry in the intervening decades since I first hummed and sang along to my favorite threesome, this time when I listened to the lyrics of so many of Manchester’s songs, I appreciated all the figures of speech they embraced in ways I never had been attuned to years before. And I find myself repeating some of those lines to myself, just as I did years ago, but with more sensitivity and appreciation for the intricacy and the beauty of the figurative language.

I thought, too, about how lines from works of literature can emblazon themselves on our hearts and minds. “It was the best of times….” …”I think that I shall never see…” “It is a far, far better thing…,” and my personal all-time favorite: “I think I can; I think I can…”

As an adolescent who considered the familiar refrain from Wally Piper’s Little Engine That Could as just so much propaganda from adults trying to dupe their children into believing not to fear or striving to reach new heights—or even to do the mundane, like trying their dreaded spinach, as an adult, I have grown to have deep respect and gratitude for Mr. Piper and his positive message. Now, as a certified psychology teacher, I have read the studies that support the effects of our words—positive or negative—on our self-esteem and achievement.

So now, unashamedly, when I hesitate to do something tough that I know I best do, I say to myself, sometimes even out loud: “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.”

And sometimes, not always, I prove myself right.

p.s. Did I mention that my daughter is taking me to my first Barry Manilow concert soon and very soon?  … I promise to be on my best behavior and not to scream:)  “I think I can. I think I can… I think I can.”

This way or that: word play

Who says today’s youngsters need digital devices to be fully engaged in learning?

Contagious was the joy on the last school day in May when, with the aid of a totally not-smart white board and a plain, boring, old black dry marker, a library class of six year olds, reading frontwards and backwards, deduced what dad, mom, and sis, have in common.

Intensified was their joy when their kindergarten teacher joined them and they were able to repeat, albeit with some scaffolding and prompting, the fancy name entrusted to them for applying to such words (a name their teacher momentarily blanked on): palindromes

Amazement turned to utter shared glee when three of the eighteen students realized that their first or last names were–you guessed it, as they didpalindromes!

In true marriage of the best of old and new technologies, the students implored their teacher to find more Internet examples, while they tried coming up with some of their own–more (“bib”) or less (“Mrs.”) successfully.

Regardless, they were having fun playing with words, stretching their imaginations and their sense of parallelism and spelling and feeling very grown-up playing with palindromes.

What’s your favorite palindrome to share with your children? There are many wonderful sites on the web to inspire you. (Please let me know if I can share links with you.) There are many wonderful, books, too. The one that got me started on loving palindromes was authored by Mark Shulman and is titled Mom and Dad Are Palindromes.

Happy palindroming!…Beware! It definitely can become habit forming.