Archive | Literacy RSS for this section

Swirls of Color or Standardized Dots? Keep Arts in Schools

What picture inspires you more.


Or this?

If public school budgets continue to shave and slash away at the arts, the black and white dots of those “No Child Left Behind” standardized tests are all that will be left of our children’s public school education. Teaching to the test leaves no room for imagination, creativity, real thinking or problem solving.  What it has resulted in is burned-out stressed-out teachers and students.

This is according to an independent documentary called “Race To Nowhere” that is sparking a grassroots movement to reshape how we educate our public school students. I look forward to seeing a screening of this independent movie in Rochester, NY, at Nazareth College on April 4.  The movie screening is being sponsored in part by a private Jewish day school, Hillel Community Day School.

The film challenges parents, educators, and policy makers with this question: Are we doing right by our children? Is the pressure to succeed in standardized tests really preparing our children to become capable, inspired and motivated individuals ready to tackle college or the workforce?

When school budgets get tight, the arts are the first to get cut. In fact, schools in the Rochester area are seeking to reduce some of their arts budgets by 50 percent.

Is music, art and sculpture really that expendable?  Is painting, singing, and playing an instrument such a frivolous part of a child’s education that it should be considered a fluffy extra that can be easily eliminated from  his academic career?  

Absolutely not, according to Americans for the Arts.  Young people who consistently participate in comprehensive, sequential, and rigorous arts programs are:

  • 4 times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement
  • 3 times more likely to be elected to class office within their schools
  • 4 times more likely to participate in a math and science fair
  • 3 times more likely to win an award for school attendance
  • 4 times more likely to win an award for writing an essay or poem*

When was the last time your child stood at an easel and held a brush full of paint? Or perhaps, in the spirit of abandoning everything for creativity’s sake, she ditched the brush and instead joyfully found herself up to her elbows in paint, as her hands and fingers glided across the paper.  

Indeed, art is messy. When was the last time you let your kid get messy at home with some paint or clay? Overheard once in  a preschool hallway: “I’m so glad they paint here at school, because at home, we don’t let him do that.”

Might as well draw a dagger through a teacher’s heart.

Video games and television are not messy. But they don’t do much to fire up the brain neurons either.

Art on the other hand unlocks creativity in children that leads to story telling, pattern recognition, and understanding other cultures. It is simply the expression of life that makes life enjoyable.  Art enables quiet kids to tell stories. Art calms and centers otherwise boisterious kids.  It is a positive way for them to control the environment around them.  A blank piece of paper or a lump of play dough can become a whole universe that they can master.

The above picture was created by a very precocious preschooler who patiently sat, cut and created a composition. Imagine what that same child can do when she gets older in an art class?

If a child is not going to be exposed to the earts in their earliest school years, then where will they get the opportunities? If arts are cut in public schools, there are private arts classes that parents can enroll their chilren in most towns and communities. But they cost money. So, cut the arts in public schools, and access to arts will only be possible to the families who can afford them.

And the rest? GThe only drawing less priveleged kids are going to do in school are the dots and circles they create on a standardized test.

Fall Leaves: Rake Many, Turn a Few into a Turkey

By now, in Western New York, the fall foliage has long reached its peak of yellows and reds.


Now, when I look up at the massive sugar maples in my neighborhood (the ones that are covered with snow in my homepage picture),  sadly the branches are mostly bare. The only color they will be covered with over the next four months or so, is white.

Wherever you are living now, I bet you are thinking: how to get rid of all the leaves? Rake them? Mulch them? Sick the leaf blower on them?

But before you rake, blow, or mow every last leaf away and before the snows fall, admire the carpets of red and yellow that lie at your feet.

Then, save a few of nature’s castoffs for craft supplies that can last the whole winter through. Here’s how:

  • First, find a preschooler to help you with this task. They are low to the ground and can teach you how to appreciate the simple, beautiful perfection that is found in one leaf that is the color of fire.
  • Then, show that preschooler a telephone book. Theirs will probably the last generation that will actually come in contact with one of these volumes of bound, thin yellow paper volumes. None of them I bet ever had a parent use them as a makeshift booster seat or a stepstool. Show them that these yellow or white clunky books were once used by people to look up numbers for plumbers or dog groomers but now come in handy for pressing leaves.
  • Next take a few of your leafy treasures and pat them dry with a paper towel, and place them between the pages of the book.
  • While the leaves are drying and pressing, read to them a wonderful book like Leaf Man, by Lois Ehlert to get inspiration as to what to do with all those pressed leaves. 

Our preschool class used leaves to represent the feathers of turkeys in our thanksgiving cards, like this:

Fall leaves are abundant - and free - and make for great crafts like this turkey

Send me your comments and pictures about what you made with your leaves.

Sorry Yemen, your mail bombs didn’t stop the Global Day of Jewish Learning

Chef Tal Renan cooks up vegetarian food - just like he made for Oprah

The foiled Yemen plot to bomb synagogues in Chicago occurred so closely to two occasions on the Jewish  calendar – one historic and one contemporary –  you have to wonder if the timing was planned or if it was an eerie coincidence. Had some terrorist in Yemen checked a calendar to see if something important was coming up on the calendar within the global Jewish community?What if the terrorists from Yemen did intentionally plan the bombing of Jewish institutions one week before the Global Day of Jewish Learning, which was planned in 350 communities around the world? What if it had succeeded, as  terror plots did against Jewish institutions in MumbaiBuenos Aires, and Casablanca?In the spirit of this learning event that celebrated asking Big Questions, I’ll add mine: If the Yemen bombing had succeeded, would Jewish learning and teaching  on November 7th still had happened?Thankfully, this time, we will never know.  This past weekend,  synagogues and Jewish community centers all over the world were brimming with people listening, speaking, dancing, drumming, and of course eating, in a Jewish way. The Global Day of Jewish learning was held in honor of an esteemed Jerusalem Rabbi, who on this day will finish five decades of work interpreting the Talmud, a sacred book of Jewish commentary, making it accessible and more understandable to today’s Jews.  So no, in honor of this milestone that took a half-century to reach, we weren’t staying home on account of a package. We were ready to learn and tackle questions, in my community and others,  like

  • What is Jewish Mysticism?
  • Why do Jewish holidays happen late or early, but never on time?
  • How can God be both loving and mysterious?

And, in my household….

  • When will the newest version of Shalom Sesame Come out?

In my community, we came out to listen to keynote speaker Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, author many books, including I’m God and You’re Not, wich was released this Fall We learned about Jewish vegetarian cooking from Chef Tal Ronen, who has cooked for Oprah Winfrey and the Dali Lama. Our kids learned Krav Maga, the Israeli martial arts, and explored Psalm 150 through drumming with percussionist Mike Mason.A separate track was offered for area Jewish educators, where we learned to fascinate our students with the art of storytelling, how to weave the narrative of Israel into any lesson, and how to excite and engage Jewish kids who, let’s be honest, may not be thrilled about coming to Hebrew School in the first place.The second occurrence on the Jewish calendar so close to these planned bombs from Yemen will be commemorated tomorrow.  On November 9, 1938, the Nazis unfurled Kristalnacht, their own terror campaign, on the Jews of Germany. On the Night of Broken Glass, 1,350 Jewish synagogues were burnt to the ground or destroyed; over 91 Jews were killed; 30,000 Jews were thrown into concentration camps; 7,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed; and thousands of Jewish homes were ransacked.  It was the beginning of the end of European Jewry in the 20th Century.It may seem like a date that is far in the past, but in light of the foiled attacks from Yemen, it brings it all too close to home.One thing that did keep the 600,000 Jews of Los Angeles away from their day of Jewish Learning was poor planning. Unfortunately, the LA Day of Jewish Learning was cancelled because of low enrollment. Why? A long-held community day of good deeds (mitzvot) was planned for the same day and the community just couldn’t compete with itself.Someone  wasn’t checking their calendars.

Traversing The Swiss Family Robinson – and use of the “A” Word – with my six-year-old

Time magazine’s July 22 cover story was “The case Against Summer Vacation,” an article that posed the argument that our romanticized notion of summer vacation can be blamed on Tom Sawyer and is merely the remnant of our vanished agrarian society. Kids had off in the summer hundreds of years ago because Ma and Pa needed them to work the fields. Now, enriched summer vacations are a privilege only bestowed to the middle and upper class, while inner-city kids run the risk of summer learning loss if they spend too much inside with TV and video games.  

I know how lucky we are that we can afford – barely – to send our kids to summer camp. It’s not just kids in lower economic brackets who tend to veg out before the plasma god in the summer. At the beginning of the summer, I feel it is my parental duty to program every art project, play date and forced nature hike. What happens if I take the laissez-faire approach?  Let’s just say I wish I had a quarter for every time I scream “TURN THE TV OFF!”

I know that kids can backslide during months of summer slacking. So I have really tried to get my kids into summer reading. I’ve enlisted them in our local library’s summer reading programs. I don’t know if my kids are reading while away at summer camp, but I know that my 11-year-old son voraciously plowed through four books before he packed up and left for sleep-a-way camp. My teen daughter? She put up a bit of resistance to reading this summer.  I will attempt to get her bit by the literacy bug before the summer is through.  Her school does have required reading book lists, after all, it’s not mom that wants her to read, it’s SCHOOL!

While the big kids are at their heavily-programmed, up-at-dawn sleep-a-way camp, my youngest child gets to be an only child for one solid month.  That means mom and dad are all his. With all this quality one-on-one bed-time reading time on our hands, I figured we would tackle a classic. No Captain Underpants for us! With visions of climbing that immense artificial treehouse at Disney World and bowls made of coconut shells dancing in my head, Toby and I cashed in a 10-month gift card at Barnes & Noble and bought The Swiss Family Robinson.

We get through a chapter each night. The language, let’s just say, was far more complex back then. I checked the year Swiss Family Robinson was written. 1812.

“I believe there was a war that year,” my husband jokingly said.

Yes. This book is almost 200 years old. And some of the sentences were as heavy as the sugar canes that Fritz and Father carried on their shoulders on their Voyage of Discovery in Chapter Three.

I’ll give you examples of how I offer my son modern interpretation as I read along.

“I awoke my wife, and we consulted together as to the occupations we should engage in.”

I woke up my wife, and we talked and made a to-do list of all the jobs we needed to get done for the day.

“When we had gone about two leagues…”

After walking two miles

“we entered a wood situated a little further from the sea…took out some provisions and refreshed ourselves.”

We went into a forest located further from the sea, got out some snacks and refreshments.

At one point, my son asked me to read the book exactly as it was written. Three sentences later, he again asked for my interpretation and complained, “mom, I have no idea what you are talking about!”

But, he urged me to read on. We got to the chapter about rescuing the animals off of the shipwreck, and the challenge faced by the father and the oldest son.

I read,”What a difficulty in making it! and how could we induce”

umm.. make

“a cow”

a cow

“a sow”

a pig

“and an ass”

…….ummm, a donkey

“either to get upon a raft, or when there , to remain motionless and quiet?”

At that point, my young son stopped me.

“Wait, Wait! Moooooom, you changed that word, the word for donkey!! You were going to say one word, but you said “donkey.” Does this book have — the A word — in it??” He had deliciously naughty grin on his face, both dimples showing. Reading a 200-year-old book cannot be all that boring if you might catch your mom saying the “A” word, after all.

Tonight, Chapter Seven: Second Journey of Discovery Performed by the Mother of the Family. I can’t wait.


In pursuit of a fine-free summer of reading

In our debt-inflicted society, there are some who cringe at the thought that their credit card will be denied when it is swiped at the department store, or the supermarket, or the gas station. For me, it is my library card.

I am under the impression that I will personally offend the librarian if an outrageously overdue book shows up on my account, accompanied by a hefty fine.  What book has slipped under a bed or retreated to the deepest recess of my son’s closet? How much do I owe in overdue fines and will I need to take out a second mortgage to pay for it?

In any case, a few dollars in overdue library books are worth it if the book is enjoyed by a child – or adult – through the summer.

There is something magical when a child puts vowels and consonants together and realizes they can read. It just clicks.  Words on street signs and cereal boxes come to life. Best of all, they can pick up a book and read to themselves.  Libraries in Brighton, Pittsford, and Mendon are offering plenty of incentives this summer for children to curl up with a good book, whether it is under a tree or on a beach blanket.

On June 25, the Brighton Memorial Library kicked off its summer “Make a Splash into Reading” program that runs through August 13 and is sponsored by the Friends of the Brighton Memorial Library.  Beach balls hung from the ceiling as youngsters were greeted with leis and ice pops by children’s librarian Tonia Burton. Girls dressed for the occasion in Hawaiian printed dresses. They decorated paper-framed sunglasses and said they couldn’t wait to read titles such as Math Curse by Jon Scieszka and Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon Hale.   

Registered children received game boards with pictures of beaches separated by five blank spaces. For every day they read 20 minutes or more, they move one space on the board.  When they reach a beach, they return to the library to pick a prize out of a beach pail – and borrow more books.  After a child reaches the fourth beach, they receive an invitation to the summer reading party in August.  For every person that finishes the reading game, the Friends of the BML will donate three books to the library.

If you missed the kickoff party at your local library there is no need to worry. It is summer, after all. Register your youngster in person or online at,, or

It is relatively easy to steer eager new readers to books that contain vibrant illustrations and lively prose. But what about those independent-minded tweens and teens?  Deena Lipomi, circulation and young adult services manager at the Brighton Memorial Library said she rarely offers verbal recommendations because “that might seem too pushy.” Instead, she lets the books speak for themselves.

“I look for books with colorful, modern covers and turn them face side out on the shelves.  For teenagers, you can’t strongly suggest a book, or they may not read it, and the book can’t look dated.”  To entice this age group, Lipomi also creates book displays by theme, such as the popular vampire series. But thankfully, the classics still endure. Lipomi said that the multiple copies of Catcher in the Rye and Jane Austen are “(checked) out all the time.” 

The joy of reading can also blossom in adulthood.  Jodi Warner-Farnsworth, a retired French teacher who lives in Canandaigua enjoys the personal impact she makes on the adults she helps to read through Literacy Volunteers of Ontario County.

“The biggest gain I have seen in the people I tutor is the self-confidence that spills over into all aspects of their life. Sometimes, all they needed was just someone to believe in them,” said Jodi.

Jodi started tutoring because she was interested in giving back to the community. She also will be training volunteers this fall. Jodi teaches multi-sensory strategies that help adults with learning disabilities learn to read with visual, auditory, and kinesthetic teaching methods. If you are interested in becoming a literacy volunteer, contact the organization at 585-396-1686 or go to

%d bloggers like this: