Saturday, December 21, 2013

Spotlight on... Patricia Polacco

A small fraction of Polacco's books
Patricia Polacco has the greatest range of any picture book author I can think of.  From alphabet books (G is for Goat), to simple stories for toddlers (Oh, Look!, Mommies Say Shhh), to cumulative tales (In Enzo's Splendid Garden), to the very funny and absurd (Ginger and Petunia), to flights of the imagination (Emma Kate), autobiographical stories about family relationships and the importance of family history (the companion books The Keeping Quilt and The Blessing Cup, My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother, Rotten Richie and the Ultimate Dare, among many others), to odes to the importance of teachers in general and thank yous to specific teachers who taught her and helped her overcome learning disabilities and find where her true talents lay (Thank You, Mr. Falker and The Art of Miss Chew), to books about history, particularly the Civil War (Pink and Say, Just in Time, Abraham Lincoln), to books about the true meaning of Christmas (An Orange for Frankie, Gifts of the Heart), cancer (The Lemonade Club) and civil rights, prejudice and discrimination (In Our Mothers' House), she's done it all.  Here are a few of our favorites.

Ginger and Petunia.  Petunia the pig impersonates her owner, the glamorous Ginger, while Ginger is away.  Hysterical, with pitch-perfect illustrations. 

Someone for Mr. Sussman.  The narrator's bubbeh (grandmother) is a matchmaker who is secretly in love with her most difficult client.  She tries to change herself to fit his every whim  (he wants someone who bakes, no, someone who exercises, no, someone who loves blue, no, someone who dances), only to learn in the end, of course, that it is best to be herself.  Yet the book is so funny that the lesson doesn't seem trite.  As Bubbeh herself says, "No pot is so crooked that there isn't a lid to fit it!"

The Keeping Quilt and The Blessing CupThe Keeping Quilt is perhaps Polacco's best-known work and is a modern classic for a reason.  The just-published 25th anniversary edition adds to the history of the quilt.  These books tell the history of a family - and the times it lived through - by tracing the history of an object.  Again, not a new topic, but Polacco treats it like no one else.  With the title object in color and the rest of the illustrations in black-and-white, Polacco shows how these objects have special meaning for her family.

Rotten Richie and the Ultimate Dare.  Patricia and her brother fight over whose avocation is more physically challenging - hockey or ballet.  Their wise mother makes each of them try the other's in order to settle the dispute. As with many of her autobiographical picture books, the endpapers are decorated with real photos of Polacco and her family, which I just love. 

Emma Kate.  This book's surprise ending following a seemingly typical story about an imaginary friend is just delightful. 

What are your favorite Patricia Polacco books?

Can you think of any other picture book author with a range even close to hers?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Dear All Teachers

Thank you for:

  • Teaching reading, writing, and 'rithmetic
  • Drying tears
  • Making school fun
  • Tying shoes
  • Cultivating friendships, not competitive
  • Introducing kids to great books
  • Cultivating a love of art, music, and dance
  • Getting to know our children individually
  • Being our partners in education
  • Fostering curiosity, creativity, and a love of learning
  • Using your creativity
  • Employing your professional judgment and expertise
  • Remembering what is developmentally appropriate
  • And much more!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

An Open Letter Re Education

I sent this today to Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio and a slew of other government and school officials.

Dear Mayor-Elect de Blasio,

I write to you as a parent of two NYC public school children (3rd grade and kindergarten), the daughter of two NYC public school teachers, a proud NYC public school graduate, and a concerned citizen.  My children have had, to date, wonderful teachers.  But the current atmosphere of education “reform” is making it almost impossible for those teachers to do their jobs.  With that in mind, I ask you to take action on the following education issues.

1      There need to be fewer, shorter, better designed tests which count for less in evaluating both our students and our teachers.  Class time devoted to test preparation – for any test – should be reduced and class time devoted to learning, discussion, questioning, and the arts should be restored.

2      The DOE should give schools a set amount of money to purchase any curriculum they choose.  There should not be certain subsidized curricula.  This subsidization results in schools like my daughters’ purchasing substandard curricula such as Pearson’s ReadyGen ELA curriculum.  In addition to being poorly designed, with books that are not age-appropriate, lessons which are too long (90 minutes!) and too boring (how many times can you answer the questions: what did you read, what did you learn, what questions do you have; they read each text three times), as of the middle of this school year, this curriculum is not complete and the schools do not have all their materials in their possession.  It is impossible for teachers to become familiar with the materials, make a considered judgment about them, modify the curriculum as appropriate, and teach without the materials.  But our local school purchased it because it was subsidized and any other choice was too expensive.  This is shameful.

3    Once a school chooses curricula, those curricula should be guides, not scripts and teachers should not suffer negative repercussions if they use their own creativity and expertise to depart from those curricula.  Rather, they should be commended for doing so.  For example, at my daughters’ school, the third grade students are required  to read a book which the third grade teachers think is inappropriate on many levels: reading level, vocabulary, context, content and literary quality.  Who should decide what book my daughter’s class reads?  The answer is obvious: her teacher.  Not Pearson, not the principal, and not me.  The specific book is irrelevant; teachers are being increasingly stripped of their autonomy and flexibility.  No wonder they are demoralized.  They are professionals and we should respect and trust their professional opinion.  Moreover, teachers at my daughters’ school have informed me that they get “in trouble” if they do things like assign homework they created rather than assign the curriculum-created workbook page.  Those modifications should be applauded, not excoriated. 

4      Cancel all contracts with Pearson.  It is hard for me to believe that in light of last spring’s egregious G&T scoring errors (I was one of the parents who brought these to the attention of the DOE.  Any kind of spot-checking by someone able to do 6th grade math should have turned up the errors. Children with 99 on two portions of an exam should not end up with an overall score of 98.) and the recent fine by the State’s Attorney’s Office because its not-for-profit arm participated in the for-profit ventures of its corporate parent (see The New York Times, December 12, 2013,, the DOE does not have legal grounds to cancel Pearson’s contracts.  If it does not, those contracts should not be renewed.  Pearson makes money by selling the poorly designed, developmentally-inappropriate curricula mentioned above, and by selling poorly designed tests.  Pearson earns its position not by competence but via lobbying and campaign contributions (see ).  We should not turn education over to for-profit companies.

5      Reduce class size.  The current cap on class size for grades 1-5 is 32 students.  32!!  My older daughter’s class is approaching that limit, with 30 children.  Any teacher and any parent can tell you that 30 students and 1 teacher is just too many.  Students cannot get individualized attention, and the teacher is overwhelmed with grading tests and homework. 

6      Universal pre-K.  I fully support your proposal to provide truly universal pre-K.

7      Reduce or eliminate charter schools and hold the ones that exist to the same standards as traditional public schools.  Charter schools are destroying neighborhood schools.  The lotteries by which they enlist students are, of course self-selecting, and when students with problems – academic, behavioral, or otherwise – enroll, they are “counseled [that is kicked] out” sending those kids… you guessed it, back to their neighborhood schools.  Charters are “sharing” space with neighborhood schools, kicking those schools out of their own gyms, libraries, and auditoriums.  And yet studies show that charters, on average do no better job of educating our children.  This must stop.  No further charters should be granted and those that exist should not be renewed when they come up for renewal.  Instead, let’s improve all our schools. 

8      Appoint a former NYC public school teacher, and preferably a current or former NYC public school parent, as chancellor. 

9      Change the way teachers are evaluated.  Of course teachers should be evaluated.  But not primarily based on their students’ test scores.  Furthermore, it is ridiculous that principals are made to feel they must find something – anything -- to criticize in a teacher’s lesson, just as teachers feel compelled to give students 3s on their earlier report cards so that when they get 4s at the end of the year they can “show progress.”

1      The cost of hiring substitute teachers should not be borne by individual schools.  The DOE should have a fund to pay for substitute teachers. This should not come out of individual schools’ budgets.  One of the few advantages of having system as large as NYC’s, which otherwise, quite frankly, is unwieldy and whose size is often a disadvantage, is economies of scale: negotiating power for purchases, but also spreading the risk of a school having teachers who are pregnant, who have deaths in the family, and who have appendicitis (all of which happened at our school last year!).  The likelihood is that one school may need more subs one year; fewer the next.  Spread the risk.  Since these burdens currently fall on the school, last year my daughter, then in 2nd grade, ended up spending several days in first grade, with her classmates spread out in other classes throughout the school, some in classes taught in a language they do not speak, because the school ran out of money to pay for subs back in April.

1     There should be a sliding scale of government assistance to schools, not tiers with hard and fast cut-offs.  This is not a “tale of two cities;” it’s a tale of three cities: the poor, the wealthy, and the middle class.  My daughters’ school has a student body which just barely misses the cut-off for Title 1 (i.e., poor) schools and yet does not have a student and parent body that can raise money like truly wealthy schools.  Just as the middle class is being squeezed, so are middle class (or lower middle class) schools – like ours.  I know this is a federal issue, but please, do what you can to create a sliding scale of government assistance, rather than tiers with hard and fast cut-offs.

I am looking forward to a new era in public education under your administration.  Please don’t disappoint me – or my children.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Who Should Decide What Book My Third-Grader's Class Reads?

Right now there is a controversy brewing at my daughter's school over whether this book, Behind Rebel Lines: The Incredible Story of Emma Edmonds, Civil War Spy, which is required reading for all third grade classes pursuant to the Ready-Gen curriculum her school has adopted, is "appropriate."  Many parents are up in arms, feeling that it is not.

Who should decide what book my third-grader's class reads?  
Here's a radical idea: HER TEACHER. 
Not Pearson, the writers of the curriculum, not the other parents, and not me.

A curriculum should guide, not prescribe.  A teacher should have flexibility - within parameters - to choose what books her class reads.  Otherwise, why not just have an untrained adult in front of the classroom?  Better yet, why not just have a robot? 

I should advocate for MY child.  And I do.  But I should not tell the teacher what the entire class should read.  I only know one third-grader.  Her teacher knows 30 - this year - and dozens, perhaps hundreds over the years.  She knows what is appropriate for them in terms of vocabulary, sentence structure, context, content, and literary quality (which should most definitely be a factor).

I'm not telling you my opinion of the "appropriateness" of the book because I feel strongly that it is irrelevant.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The One Topic I Want To Censor (But Don't)

So there's one topic (or a set of related topics) that I don't want my daughters reading about and no, it's not what you think.  Both my girls know about the birds and the bees and have for a while and telling them was surprisingly easy.  But what I don't want them to read about - or know about - is the Holocaust.  And war.   And terrorism.  I find 9/11 particularly hard because it is not so far away - in either time or distance.  And the Holocaust feels close because, after all, we're Jewish.  I remember very clearly having nightmares about Nazis coming to get me as a child - in 1980s America. 

I was working at the school library the other day when my 8-year-old's third grade class came in.  And one of the books she selected was this biography of Anne Frank by Johanna Hurwitz.  I warned her that it might be scary, but she insisted she wanted it and so I checked it out to her.  Until now, the only thing she knew about the Holocaust was that the Nazis had been "mean" to the Jews.  She had read Number the Stars and The Night Crossing, both of which deal with escape from a Nazi-occupied country (kind of like in The Sound of Music), but neither of which address what happened to those people who could not or did not leave.

When is it appropriate to teach children about the Holocaust?  Or 9/11 or Newtown?  (Don't get me started on the terrifying potential of lockdowns - or, in my day, shelter drills.  I was convinced nuclear war with the USSR was imminent.)  Of course, the answer to that is "it depends on the child."  (Well, the real answer is never.  Are we ever ready to understand or confront evil?  I know I'm not.)   What are signs a child is ready?  I assume the fact that my daughter insisted on taking the book about, even after I told her it might be scary and was about a girl hiding from the Nazis, is sign enough.  But I wonder, will I be getting up tonight to comfort her after she has a nightmare?

Do you censor your child's reading in any way?  At what age did your child start reading about the Holocaust?  In school?  On her own?  Which books?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Library Round-up #13

Mini-reviews of our latest finds.

Herman and Rosie by Gus Gordon.  A jazzy paean to New York City, true love, and not forgetting to look at what is right under your nose.  From the cover, which is made to look like a record in its slipcover, to its end-paper maps of NYC, to the faux-postcards and all the other illustrations in between, this book is a not-to-be-missed original.  It is hard to believe that an author who wrote "Herman and Rosie liked living in the city.  There were days when all the buzzing and honking and humming made them feel like anything was possible" doesn't live in New York!

Please Bring Balloons by Lindsay Ward.  When a carousel polar bear carousel leaves a note requesting balloons, a young girl is off on an adventure to the North Pole.  Beautiful illustrations will carry you away (pun intended!).  How will the polar bear get to his next destination?  Take a look and see!

The Red Thread: An Adoption Fairy Tale by Grace Lin.  The story of a king and queen who feel a terrible "pain in their hearts" caused by a red string tugging on it, which they follow, only to find a baby who makes their lives complete.  This story is based on the Chinese belief that all those meant to cross paths in life are linked by an invisible red thread.  A beautiful story about how parents and their babies, however they find each other, are meant to be together.  

Little Owl's Orange Scarf by Tatyana Feeney.  Little Owl hates his orange scarf.  He tries his best to lose it, until he actually does lose it at the zoo.  A return trip to the zoo reveals which animal has found it and made use of it.  Adorable.  My 5-year-old loves this one!

Matilda and Hans by Yokococo.  Matilda is well-behaved.  Hans is not.  Or is there more to Matilda and Hans than really meets the eye?  Is anyone ever purely good or purely bad?  A great book for those who have been pigeonholed as "the good one" or "the mischievous one."

Elephant's Story by Tracey Campbell Pearson.  This tale of an elephant who is taught by a young friend how to make the letters he accidentally jumbled when he inhaled them into words is sweet, but I was hoping for more.

What are you reading right now?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Once a Maid, Always a Maid

Upon reading A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett to my daughter, I noticed something that hadn't occurred to me when I read it as a child: what about Becky?  For those of you who haven't read it (for shame!) or have forgotten the details, here's a quick recap (spoilers included): 

Sara Crewe, the motherless daughter of a wealthy Englishman stationed in India, is sent to boarding school in England.  Although the school's director, Miss Minchin, dislikes her immediately, she is treated like a princess, because of her money.  When word arrives that Sara's father has died and lost his fortune, Sara is banished to the attic, put to work running errands, and treated horribly, fed as little as possible, dressed in old, ill-fitting clothes, and punished frequently.  Sara survives by using her imagination and her inner strength, befriending the scullery maid, Becky (as well as a rat!).  A next-door neighbor takes an interest in Sara and secretly sneaks into her attic room, decorating it, lighting a fire for her, and leaving her delicious food, which she shares with Becky.  Finally, the next-door neighbor discovers that Sara is the little girl he has been looking for for 2 years!  He was friends with Captain Crewe and it was his investment that had failed and cost Crewe his fortune.  But, as in a fairy tale, it turns out that the fortune wasn't lost after all.  Sara goes to live with this man and Becky accompanies her as her personal maid.

As my daughter and I read, we both were a bit taken aback at how Becky shares in Sara's good fortune and kindness and the kindness of others to her, but how no one (except Sara) is kind directly to Becky.  Ultimately, class is still supremely important in Victorian England.  Sara has "pretty manners."  She is refined and her upbringing comes through despite her outward physical appearance.  And her beauty and manners attract the next-door neighbor's attention.  Becky is lucky to live with Sara for without her, Becky would receive nothing at all.  She is supposed to be grateful that she gets to go from being a scullery maid to being Sara's personal maid.  Sara does and will treat her better than Miss Minchin, but a maid's a maid.  Of course, the book is a product of its time and place but Becky's treatment is pretty shocking to 21st century Americans. 

Are there any books you loved as a child in which, upon rereading them as an adult, you discover messages and values you missed the first time?