Friday, October 29, 2010

10 Bits of Magic

Remembering that grace and wonder abound if I’m willing to see it:

1. Seeing practice pay off
2. Fresh apple cider
3. A hayride under a starry sky
4. Seeing your children be spontaneously generous with one another
5. Colors. Everywhere. Completely extravagant.
6. A child’s excitement before a birthday party
7. Witnessing a friend’s miracle
8. Sharing a choice passage from a book with someone else
9. A warm bed on a cold morning
10. Kid logic

What bits of magic have you experienced recently?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Online Resources for Kids

My kids love their computer time. I keep it limited, but their excitement to explore, when matched with a good educational website, provides some valuable opportunities for supplemental learning. Here are three wonderful symphony orchestra websites that have a lot to offer:

The New York Philharmonic Kid Zone
There’s lots of exploring to do here: learn about the instruments, tour the dressing rooms to meet conductors and soloists, get an introduction to different musical eras, make your own instrument, compose your own piece, experiment with orchestration, visit the musician’s lounge, and more.

The San Francisco Symphony Kids’ Site
The Music Lab is especially interesting. Get a rundown on the basics of musical notation, then learn about (and play with) tempo, pitch, rhythm, harmony, dynamics, and instrumentation. The Radio feature provides wonderful musical excerpts with accompanying descriptions. The six different “channels” include things like families of instruments, “Big Moments” in music, and storytelling in music.

Dallas Symphony Orchestra Kids
Read composer bios while listening to excerpts of their works, explore basic concepts in music theory, print out staff paper for writing your own compositions, get practice tips, and play games.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Young Hans Christian Andersen

The Young Hans Christian Andersen
Whoo-hoo!  I made it to my 100th post!  Celebrate with me—ignore your housework for a while, pour yourself another cup of coffee, and find something beautiful to read, listen to, look at, or make today. 

For my part, I think it’s the perfect moment to share this magical little biography:  The Young Hans Christian Andersen, by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Erik Blegvad, Scholastic Press, 2005.  I saw it at our local library during one of my got-here-10-minutes-before-closing book grabs and thought, “Cool—biography of a dreamer.  Nice cover,” and stuffed it in my back-breaking tote bag.  Then I forgot about it for a week.  But oh, it’s such a beautiful book, and I’m so glad I sat down to read it.

For lack of a better word, I would call this a chapter book, but pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations grace every page and the chapters are brief—sometimes only a paragraph long.  The book itself is brief; the afterword and bibliography stretch it to 47 pages. 

Each vignette from Andersen’s life carries the title of one of his fairy tales, and the effect is rich and moving.  In “The Ugly Ducking” the author describes his physical features and his awkwardness, then continues, “He carried his genius like a slender bottle of champagne, its silent fizz stopped up, but determined.  And when he met with kindness, he became beautiful.”  “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” tells about his father’s return from serving in Napoleon’s army.  “The Ice Maiden” captures a young Hans Christian melting the frost on a window with a coin he heated on the stove in order to look past the disturbing image his father saw in the frost.

I recommend this book highly.  Karen Hesse captures so much with so few words—this biography reads almost like a fairy tale itself.  And it made me pull out our copy of Andersen’s complete fairy tales.  They are strange, sorrowful, magical stories, probably more for older children and parents than anybody else, stories that are hard to forget (were you haunted by “The Little Match Girl” or the not-Disney version of “The Little Mermaid” as I was?)  But that’s what can be so wonderful about this kind of literature, both Hesse’s biography and Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales:  there is richness there for adult and child, alike. 

Read-aloud, anyone?
The Complete Illustrated Stories of Hans Christian Anderson

Friday, October 22, 2010

Continuing on my Communication Theme...

Nurtured By Love: the Life and Work of Shinichi Suzuki (VHS Video)I’ve watched the DVD “Nurtured by Love: The Life and Work of Shinichi Suzuki” several times recently, and there’s this fantastic spot where David Cerone talks about music instruction. He begins, “We mustn’t forget one fundamental concept here, and that is: we are in the communication business, first and foremost.” He then goes on to say that the study of music is the study of translation—basically, we must learn how to understand what is written by the composer, take it into ourselves, and then communicate it with others in a way that they understand the same thing. He points out that it’s a sophisticated learning process, and that the “giants” of teaching are able to help students through it at a spiritual level.

I think this is a profound thought. All the mechanics of learning an instrument—all the focus on posture, technique, intonation, articulation, tempo, dynamics, you name it—it all serves a higher purpose. Learning a skill is a fantastic thing. Boosting test scores is nice. Learning how to hear, translate, and communicate in a second language is another thing entirely.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Are You Listening?

On a somewhat-related note to Monday’s post, check out this article that has been haunting me for a few years. It’s not new, but if you didn’t catch it the first time around, it’s well-worth taking the time to read—much food for thought.  (There are three videos with the article.  If you watch only one, watch the last one to get the full weight of the people walking by.)

Monday, October 18, 2010

See, Share, Hear

Please don’t tell me you don’t like poetry. May be there’s some poetry you absolutely hate—that would be a matter of taste. But I know too many people who claim they just don’t “get” it. Period. Or they think it’s a highbrow attempt to say something in a flowery way that could be much better said plainly. But stop for a moment and consider what it’s like sometimes just trying to get through a day. It is so easy to walk around with your head down, not seeing or hearing what’s really going on around you. Poetry is one way of calling people out of that—it is an attempt to see, hear, capture, share. It is word music, and the words to the music.

Over and over I discover that the things I see (or don’t see) reveal a lot about what is swirling around in my head, my heart, and my life. There was one autumn—during my first year of graduate school— that I was shocked to discover I hadn’t noticed the leaves changing color. I had been too self-absorbed to pay attention and had almost missed one of my favorite times of the year. The redbuds blooming in our yard last spring, though—I don’t think I will ever forget those. The world was coming to life all around me while my grandmother was dying. Her quiet joy, her physical deterioration, and her family’s sorrow at saying goodbye against the backdrop of new life all around us seemed fitting and hopeful. I don’t want to ever lose sight of the beauty that shone through in that painful experience.

Some experiences and insights stand up and demand to be shared. So how do you share things like that? When I was in fourth grade, I loved Show-and-Tell. I don’t remember bringing anything to show, but I distinctly remember trying to share things that had happened to me—things that made me laugh or think, tiny glimpses of life with my pet gerbils, my sister, my parents. But I was terrible at sharing. These special flashes of light in my life didn’t translate very well, and I remember looking around at my classmates’ faces expecting them to see what I saw, and discovering that their faces were completely blank. There should have been a lone cricket chirping to augment the silence.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that these special moments and feelings, along with the desire to share them, were the basis for art. Not to say that everything I ever wanted to share would necessarily be uplifting and edifying to my fourth grade class or anybody else, mind you. But that desire to capture a moment, a thought, a flash of light—to hold it in a form that would allow others to see what I saw—that was the same desire that creates poetry, music, works of art. How fitting that the next year, my fifth grade teacher taught us how to write haiku. Suddenly I had a form on which to display the treasures rattling around in my head. Maybe there was a way to solidify those thoughts! I wrote lots of poetry that year—about loneliness, and wild horses, and seeing my reflection in sparkling streams. I copied things I thought poems were supposed to be about, and I was passionate about it, and I’m sure none of it was terribly interesting to anyone else. But I had a new tool for communication, and that was huge.

I’m probably trying to capture too much here. The world is full of voices who have seen something they want to share with others. Have you heard any of them? It’s disturbing to hear people say they don’t understand a particular form of communication—poetry or classical music, for instance—and then use that as a reason for never listening. What if, even if you never understood an ounce of it before today, you caught a flash of light out of the corner of your eye? Would you turn towards it and try listening? The person behind that poem, or sculpture, or piece of music, is trying to tell you something.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Piano, Piano

Piano PianoPiano, Piano by Davide Cali, illustrated by Eric Heliot, Charlesbridge, 2007

My oldest child does not play an instrument. It’s not that I don’t want him to or that his father and I don’t think he has any musical gifts. In fact, this particular child of mine is the most likely of the three to break into song at any given moment. But he has also insisted from a very early age that he doesn’t want to play an instrument. He is very sure about this; he wavered once, for a week, last spring when he had his heart set on playing tuba, but he has otherwise maintained his I-do-not-want-to-take-lessons position for years.

I struggle with this. I feel guilty and unsure, wondering if we should really let him make that decision for himself. I don’t care if any of our kids become professional musicians, but it’s important to me to offer them music lessons as part of their education. I often feel like I have failed my son in this way. I was explaining this to him a few months ago when he very sweetly told me, “But Mom, I have other things.” His sisters’ eyes shine when they play violin—they may not always like the work, but they take joy in being able to play. His eyes shine when he is showing me the pictures he has taken, when he talks about books, when he’s on the computer, or when he is doing Tae-kwondo. He’s right, he does have other things. He steadily loves the things he loves, and he is carefully working out who he was made to be. Trusting that is not easy, but I’m working on it.

All that to say, I thought Piano, Piano was a really neat book. Marcolino hates practicing piano, but he does it for his mother. He dreams of doing other things. His mom wants him to play because she wasn’t able to fulfill her own dreams. When his grandfather figures out what is going on he reveals something neither mother nor son is aware of, and negotiates a solution that makes everybody happy. The personalities and relationships in this story are endearing. The mother isn’t perfect, but she wants what’s best for her son. The son tries hard to please his mother, but he knows who he is. The grandfather has a lot of warmth with his wisdom, and handles the conflict between his daughter and grandson beautifully. And the way the author treats the whole situation shows a lot of understanding for everyone involved. He speaks to the dreams and desires of both mother and son in a way that validates them both without being sappy or sounding like a morality tale—a nice sort of thing to snuggle up with your child and read together.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Are Picture Books Dying Out?

I have another article to share with you.  This New York Times article says that picture books are a dying breed, partly because parents are moving their children to chapter books at an earlier age.  At least one book store manager mentioned the pressure parents feel for their children to succeed, equating letting them read picture books with diminishing their chances of getting into Harvard.  I know those pressures; I want to get it all right, too.  I worry about finding that balance between challenging my kids and not pushing them too hard, preparing them for the future and letting them enjoy their childhood.

Thankfully, the author of this article defends picture books, assuring us that they aren’t just a stepping-stone to more sophisticated material.  And that’s the thing.  There are plenty of dumbed-down picture books out there.  But there are so many others that are genuine literature, filled with wonderful illustrations.  Word count isn’t everything; think poetry with illustrations, illuminated texts, or narrated artwork and you’re closer to what a picture book can be.  The interplay of art and text can be very sophisticated, allowing for growth and enjoyment on a range of cognitive levels.  I think, too, that there’s a lot to be said for economy of words.  With a 28-page limit, the text of a picture book is necessarily pared-down, and when done well can be a wonderful example of clear, elegant writing.

As for my family, all five of us love picture books.  I think they are one of the best teaching tools I have for my four year-old in terms of language and cognitive development, not to mention what she is learning about art, creativity, and life.  My eight year-old devours chapter books, but she still reads every picture book we bring home from the library, too, and I consider that to be enriching to her education and her personality.  My ten year-old has been asserting his independence a lot lately, but he still sits in on family read-alouds, whether they are chapter books or picture books.  And my husband and I, although we both read a variety of material, genuinely enjoy picture books with our kids.  We spend time in the children’s section of bookstores even when our kids aren’t around—a habit that goes back to our first weeks of dating. 

I guess I don’t understand the black-and-white thinking, the idea that picture books are something to “graduate” from.  Why not layer them in?  Our read-alouds consist of picture books and chapter books—sort of a necessity because of the age-range in our family, but it’s such a rich combination!  I’m sure there will be a time when all three children will feel too old for picture books.  I’ll deal with that day when it arrives, and I’ll tell myself that when they mature even more, they’ll appreciate all those books again in new ways.  For now, I see no need to hurry. 

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Just What I Needed to Hear

Are you ever tempted to give up? I don’t know about you, but I’ve been feeling worn-out recently. I try not to whine, because my life is really, really good. I love my husband, my kids, my friends, and how I spend my time and energy. I often feel, however, like I’m going about 95 miles per hour all the time, and a pace like that is hard to keep up. Sometimes I just want to quit. Usually, though, after a good heart-to-heart with my husband, it turns out that what I need is an attitude adjustment. That, and encouragement to stay the course.

Today I got an extra boost by way of this article in the Boston Globe titled “The Truth About Grit”. Life really does take grit, and the Good Things tend to require a lot of it. But if hard work and stick-to-itiveness really do play such an important role in success, I think I just had a new burst of energy. Let’s hear it for hanging in there.