A humble little blog about books, information, and other things that are good to know.

Posts tagged ‘learning’

Not Intended For Children

Glasses-wearing baby reading very serious novel

Image via the Vicky Mathan Blog.

I’ve been meaning to spend some time on this question for quite a while, ever since my good friend told me all about her daughter’s trip to the public library. It was a great experience: the little one (who I’ve christened with the blog-name Berry) got her very own library card and took home some picture books that she really enjoyed. But Mommy told me a story about how Berry kept trying to look at cookbooks, and that got me thinking: what happens when little readers (or not-yet-reading book lovers like Berry) get their hands on material that’s meant for grown-ups?

I encountered another example this morning while I was getting winter tires put on my car. A mom and her daughter were sitting in the waiting room; the child was maybe about six years old. Mom paged through an issue of People magazine, then set it aside, where her little girl picked it up and started flipping through. That’s when I noticed the cover story: TEEN SUICIDE TRAGEDIES.

Now that’s an even m0re serious example, and it highlighted the idea that, for me, there are two separate issues here:

  1. What happens when little children get into reading material that leaves them confronting ideas parents would rather protect them from encountering?
  2. Are there any reasons to keep children away from grown-up books that don’t contain anything controversial or disturbing, but they just aren’t designed for children?

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Spelling and Learning for the YouTube Generation

I’m back from a relatively long (for me) hiatus, largely the result of entertaining and visiting friends over the weekend. One of these friends, telling me about his five-year-old nephew, made a pretty interesting observation. See, it seems that the little guy has discovered YouTube. And it’s actually educating him. It’s teaching him spelling.

YouTube for children

Image via Spot Cool Stuff.

We’re not talking about educational programming, either. They’re not sitting him down in front of some kind of flashcard video and making him study so he can get into the best kindergartens. Instead, he’s learning naturally how to spell words that matter to him . . . and at the same time, he’s learning why proper spelling is important in the real world.

The miracle tool? Search engines.

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Bad Boys, Bad Boys

 

Boys studying

Image via the National School Foundation Association

 

I’m working right now as a tour guide on a farm that offers apple- and pumpkin-picking tours, among other things, to school groups. Most of the other tour guides have at least some background working with children; a few worked as teachers in another phase of their lives. As we conversed before our tour groups arrived yesterday, the topic came around to educating children . . . and to the problem of educating boys.

“The principal gives you no support,” one lady kvetched. “Getting sent to the principal’s office is a joke, and the kid will come back and tell you that. There’s no discipline; you don’t want to hurt the kid’s self-esteem.” She said it like she wouldn’t mind hurting their self-esteem just a little bit.

Her friend sympathized. “There’s not much you can do, really, when they give you a class with eighteen boys, five girls, and the boys have their little posse going on. Is there sex selection in Canada? Where are all these boys coming from? I would send them out in the hallway so they don’t distract the kids who actually want to learn, but even doing that you get into trouble.”

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Born to Discriminate?

My best friend and his wife had a baby girl last year. She’s a love, and I’m deeply honoured to be considered part of her family circle. Because we live in Canada, we all talk about “where we’re from” in terms of our ancestry; Baby Berryface (as I call her in the web world) is Portuguese on her father’s side and Italian on her mother’s. But her parents are teaching her to call me “Ciocia” – the Polish word for “aunt”. I’m her only ciocia.

Actually this is a baby with a diverse family of people who love her: two Filipino titas, a handful of zios and zias (Italian), a couple of tios and tias (Portuguese) – even a Portuguese padrinho (godfather). She’s also got a few straightforward English aunties and uncles, and a G-Momma who doesn’t think God would like being associated with her if the baby called her Godmother.

All this early-childhood diversity makes sense on a broad level: we are afraid of what’s unfamiliar to us. If you want to raise a kid who’s as unprejudiced as possible, exposing them to plenty of different types of people is a big help. Biologically, we’re wired to accept people who are like us. A recent look at the morality of babies tells us how deeply-rooted our prejudices can be:

There’s plenty of research showing that babies have within-group preferences: 3-month-olds prefer the faces of the race that is most familiar to them to those of other races; 11-month-olds prefer individuals who share their own taste in food and expect these individuals to be nicer than those with different tastes; 12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their own language over someone who speaks a foreign language.

Two babies from different races.

Image via the National Geographic Channel's "Science of Babies" series.

But if you’re about to argue that nature is telling us not to mingle with the Other, forget it: I’m not buying. In the evolutionary past, it made sense to fear people who didn’t look like you, since they were probably your tribe or group’s competition for scarce resources. We’re past that today. And we’re living in a multicultural society, where a person who looks nothing like you is as likely to be your next-door neighbour, your project partner, or your kid’s teacher as your competitor. Put simply, everybody has to be able to get along and see past the surface differences that are no longer a reliable indicator of team-membership.

And we’re also wired to do that, incidentally. From the same article:

Studies with young children have found that once they are segregated into different groups — even under the most arbitrary of schemes, like wearing different colored T-shirts — they eagerly favor their own groups in their attitudes and their actions.

Put a black child and a white child together and place the emphasis on race, and they’ll see each other as . . . well, Other. But put them both in yellow shirts and emphasize shirt colour, and suddenly they become The Same. Race disappears in the face of team membership. Relationship takes priority.

What can we do to encourage more tolerant behaviour, less racialized judgment, and better co-operation between racialized groups? For one thing, quit racializing them. Take a close look at the paragraph above – for race to be what matters, we the adults have to place emphasis on it. Place emphasis on T-shirt colour and that’ll be what matters instead. I’m in favour of teaching children about their ancestral heritage – and at the same time exposing them to other people’s racial heritage too, and making it every bit as interesting as your own. Let kids be aware of the differences we all have, because that builds familiarity and tolerance and comfort. That’s the underpinning of Baby Berryface’s multicultural extended family – everybody around her is different, but they’re not foreign to her because she knows them well.

But don’t make racial and cultural difference your overt agenda: difference isn’t what matters. What matters is how we’re all on the same team, searching for the same things – wearing the same T-shirts, if you will. Who was it who said, “We may have come over on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now”?

Little girl with books.

Image via Rolling Prairie Library System.

Here are some ways you can take advantage of your local library to encourage cross-cultural understanding in your kids at any age – it’s never too early or too late.

  • First, the obvious. Find books about children from various cultures or racial groups. Their race doesn’t have to be the focus of the story; in fact, it’s best if it’s not something the story revolves around, but  just an ancillary fact. But any story about a different culture, race, or religion can build an understanding of different sorts of people.
  • Check yourself. What are your attitudes about different cultures? If you’ve got nasty beliefs about another culture or race, your attitudes are likely to transfer down to your children. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to educate yourself about the virtues of a culture you find unsettlingly unfamiliar.
  • Meet your librarian. Librarians are generally very friendly people. Interact with us. We like it. Most of us are pretty racially open-minded too. (Well, at least my generation – I’m not really experienced enough with the previous generation of librarians to make any sort of pronouncement on their racial tolerance.) If you don’t have any opportunities to introduce your children to real-world people who look different from them, a librarian can be a good (and very understanding) starting place. We can also help you find good books about . . . well, anything, come to think of it.
  • Join in! Libraries have loads of children’s programming, from storytimes to crafting sessions to summer reading clubs. Even if the content has nothing to do with race, religion, or culture, joining in with other children who may not look or live like your own can boost tolerance and make the unfamiliar more familiar.
  • Embrace community. Check out your community events listings at the library. Often libraries will get involved in events that celebrate different cultures. My childhood community center often hosted a pavilion in Carabram to introduce the food, dance, dress, and customs of another culture. Often they’ll also host events to showcase a particular cultural event – say, a Diwali celebration or a Black History Month exhibition or some such. Even if an event is aimed at an adult crowd, if it interests you, take it in. You can always transmit the experience to your child(ren) via dinner table conversation.

Children are generally pretty good at learning whatever their exposure teaches them. If they’re exposed to racist attitudes or they see other groups treated with fear and distrust, they’ll learn to be fearful and distrustful. But given the opportunity to become familiar with different kinds of people, they generally learn to be open-minded and open-hearted.

We might well be born to discriminate. But fortunately, we’re also born to evolve above it.

Science Rules!

Bill Nye the Science Guy

Image via the American Association of Amateur Astronomers.

It’s something we tend to forget over the course of a long educational process, when science becomes serious business. But watching old episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy has reminded me that, as he notes in his opening montage, “Science rules!”

There’s no reason why librarians – or anybody who wants to get kids engaged with learning about the world around them – couldn’t use that to advantage. Why not build a science demo around a cool science video? With Bill Nye, Mythbusters, Monster Quest, Mystery Quest, and hordes of other “this-ain’t-your-parents’-science-class-video” shows available, there’s plenty of choice.

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Back to the Books: How To Nourish Growing Readers

In honour of the end of summer and the return to school for most of the students and teachers I know, I present a topic that’s dear to my heart: how to encourage children and young adults to read.

We know that most parents would like their kids to become avid readers. The benefits are numerous. Kids who like reading do better in school and find it less of a pain than kids who see reading as a chore. They have greater access to information and can solve problems more effectively as they grow. They also usually have greater compassion because of their exposure to different situations through fiction and non-fiction. But if you’ve got little ones to love in your life, how do you help them develop into people who think reading is fun?

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Why TV Doesn’t Teach

They're here! DVDs and television programming for infants.

Image courtesy of Hello Beautiful. (Click the pics throughout this post for more on how TV exposure affects early childhood learning.)

Friends of mine know that DVDs for infants are a real hot-button for me. Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby are the most notable examples, but I’m opposed to any DVD that claims it will aid infant development. That includes Galloping Minds, Baby Bumblebee, Your Baby Can Read, and a host of other DVDs marketed to infants with a claim that a DVD learning program can give your child a developmental edge.

Let me repeat that: the brand of baby DVD makes no difference. All DVDs will harm baby more than help. A DVD cannot give your child an intellectual edge.

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Children’s Reading and Adventures in Compassion

Here’s a big question for you, one I’ve considered often in the past as I prepared for my future career: beyond the individual desire for a parent to have his/her child grow up to be a skilled reader, what is the good of reading with children?

I was reflecting earlier today on a book I read for an assignment in library school. The assignment was to select and present a book to the class as you’d present it to a storytime group of young children, and the book I chose was Gummytoes by Sean Cassidy. It’s the story of a tree frog who wants to be loved and admired by children, until they capture him and put him in a terrarium. There, he lives in fear of loud voices, fingers tapping on the glass, and the messy conditions in the prison that keeps him away from his beloved natural habitat.

Sean Cassidy, author of Gummytoes, showing his illustrations.

Sean Cassidy, author of Gummytoes, showcasing his illustrations at Visual Arts Brampton in December 2004.

I chose that story because it’s full of great lessons about gratitude, and when it’s better to blend in than stand out, and how being resourceful can get you out of a tough scrape. I also chose it because it’s illustrated beautifully and vividly, and because animals seem pretty fascinating to kids. Who doesn’t remember chasing frogs?

But I think the most valuable thing about the story is how easy it is to relate to Gummytoes the frog – to his desires to be noticed, his discomfort once he’s kidnapped, and his relief at returning to the wild. Even though the reader probably isn’t a frog, it isn’t hard to imagine what that would be like . . . and maybe on the next visit to the pet store or the zoo, she’ll think twice before tapping on the aquarium glass.

Imagination is the key to compassion. You can’t feel for someone else’s pain unless you can imagine what it’s like to have that pain yourself. If reading promotes imagination, it necessarily promotes compassion. Imagining yourself in some other situation – whether as an astronaut, a ballerina, a big sister, or a tree frog – leads to considering whether you’d like or dislike what’s happening to you. And that consideration leads to compassion, which at bottom is an understanding that somebody else is in a situation that would make you yourself unhappy.

Do books always need to have a lesson? I think not, and sometimes trying to force a lesson into a story where it doesn’t belong can make it a less attractive piece of literature. It’s a loss that isn’t worth the trouble. Children are always learning; as long as a story isn’t lauding bad values, a little kid doesn’t need to have good ones rammed down his throat. He’ll learn.

But the one value that a story must always have is compassion, because it’s necessary to making a story worth reading. If we don’t have compassion for the characters, if we can’t imagine and feel for their suffering, why should we care about what’s happening to them? The entire experience of reading is based on the idea of taking an interest in others’ circumstances and finding out more about them. Without compassion, the response to any possible piece of reading material is inevitably, “So what?”

The more you read, it seems to me, the more you care about other people’s situations.  For one, you learn more about how other people live their lives, and you’re exposed to situations you might never have considered. But also, you learn to put yourself in another’s shoes and hope for a good outcome, and identify with their pain if they get a bad one instead. That calls for imagination. And in a world where imagination is in short supply, compassion can’t survive. Reading with children is good for the world, society, and the future. And not just because good readers get into good schools and get good jobs.

They also get to be good people.

Image courtesy of Clipart, Etc.

Brainy Beach-Reading

This blog entry is dedicated to the Zigar family, who graciously hosted us and our friends throughout the weekend and generously offered me the use of their refrigerator.

"Beach Blues" by Mimi McCallum

Picture by Mimi McCallum. Click to check out more of McCallum's warm and evocative artwork.

I spent the weekend in cottage country – Ipperwash Beach, to be exact – and, predictably, when I wasn’t floating on Lake Huron or toasting marshmallows and singing “Sweet Caroline”, I was sprawled out on a beach blanket reading. I wasn’t the only one. As many librarians know, the reading public is drawn to the concept of the beach read: the fun, fluffy fiction that melds reading and relaxing when you’re taking your summer vacation. (Check out some fairly typical recommendations here and here, or hit Google with the search term “beach reads”.)

When you think about a beach read, you’re usually not thinking about a particularly heavy story; hot summer days don’t need bulky clothes, big meals, or dragging stories to weigh them down. They’re usually short paperbacks, easy to rest in your lap or hold up as a shield from the sun. (My selection this weekend was an exception: Stephen King’s Under the Dome weighs about as much as my cat, and doctors have recommended that I avoid lifting it. My cottage-country companions nicknamed it “Under the Tome”.) Beach reads aren’t usually the kind of stories you want to overthink – never mind deeper meanings or profound life lessons. Nobody wants to overheat their brain any more than necessary under the hot July sun.

Or do they?

The hot trend at Ipperwash Beach this summer seems to be all about expanding your cranium. When it comes to fiction, the classics are back in fashion. Instead of the latest crime thrillers and bodice-rippers, I caught my companions stretched out in lawn chairs with Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. It’s rare to think of non-fiction as material for beach reads, but even that was drifting around. I caught friends toting paperbacks about Kantian metaphysics (really!) and perusing the latest issue of Scientific American, with stories on brain research and climate change.

I’ve got nothing against fun, fluffy fiction. Snobbery has no place in librarianship, or in life; you could miss out on great life lessons by assuming there’s nothing you can possibly learn from a James Patterson or Nora Roberts . . . or, for that matter, an episode of The Bachelor. Or maybe there is no great life lesson in store, but it’s just fun to read. That’s okay too. As long as it piques your interest, there’s really no such thing as a bad choice when it comes to reading material.

But if libraries stick to promoting the more traditional beach reads, they’re missing an opportunity to capture the imagination. A beach escape can be a great place for escapist fiction, but it can also be the perfect place to dive into thought-provoking, reflective reading. Recalling the fresh breezes, soft sands, and soothing wave-sounds of Ipperwash, I find it hard to imagine a more perfect place to pick up a book that will get your mind going in all kinds of new and intriguing directions. The beach is a great place to get wrapped up in the classic literature you’ve been dying to peruse, or to learn more about some subject that’s piqued your interest, or to search for some conclusion on a controversial topic you’d like to understand. And if, like many of the people I saw this weekend, you like to alternate your reading with cookouts, campfires, boat rides, and water games, it gets even better. The breaks between reading sessions can help your mind digest and reflect on the material you’ve read and possibly make interesting connections that just wouldn’t surface in the fast-paced environment of the workaday world.

If you love your beach reads as they are, more power to you. It’s your vacation, after all: read what you want to.

But if you’re a reader (or a librarian) who feels stuck in a beach-reading rut, maybe it’s time to stop overlooking the more daunting reads that will get your neurons fired up. Don’t be afraid of paragraphs that might take a bit of re-reading or things you’ll want to pause and reflect upon as you read. Where better to reflect than on the water? Or while you’re looking up at a summer-home sky full of stars you’d never see in the big city?

You might find yourself thinking thoughts you honestly never expected, fired up in a whole new way, and more mentally rejuvenated than you thought your summer vacation could ever get you.

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