Sunday, December 18, 2011

One Hallowed Night

Our tainted nature's solitary boast.
                             William Wordsworth

                                                   One Hallowed Night

                                          The angels flit from star to star
                                                 To turn the night lights on;
                                          While far below they cast their glow
                                                 On love's own Paragon.
                                          The Virgin Mother kneels in prayer
                                                Her God is now her Son,
                                          And as she draws Him to her breast,
                                                Her heaven and earth are One.                        
                                     Merry Christmas, everyone     And for those of you, my friends, who do not share my faith, I hope that your holidays, too, will be filled with Light and Peace. Shalom.


Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Different View of Leadership

            On a ride from the old AT&T headquarters in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, to the Governor Morris Inn, in Morristown about 10 miles away, I sat in the back seat next to Robert Greenleaf, retired Director of Management Research at AT&T.  Bob had retired in 1964, seventeen years before the event that brought us together in Basking Ridge, namely the 25th anniversary of the AT&T Management Progress Study.  Since I had been part of the research team since its inception, I was invited to participate in the anniversary festivities along with 14 others and was especially pleased to learn that Bob Greenleaf was joining us.  

            I remember two things about the short ride that evening:  First, I was wishing I had my copy of Bob's 1977 book, Servant Leadership, with me, so I could have asked him to autograph it. Secondly I recall a brief conversation about his notion of servant leadership as it applied to the university (Out of the group of 15 only two of us were on a university faculty at that time). 

            The best way to explain the concept is to quote from his book, Servant Leadership  (Paulist Press, 1977):

                        "The servant-leader is servant first....  It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.  Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader  first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions....
                        "The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people's highest priority needs are being served.  The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons?  Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?"  (p. 13-14)

            This from an executive at the largest corporation in the world at the time he retired!  How I wish we could continue that conversation today (Bob died in 1990).  I wonder if he would agree with me that we need servant leaders today more than ever.   

            To learn more about servant leadership, visit the website of The Greenleaf Center for Servant  Leadership: 

            Are there servant leaders around today?  I would nominate several of the teachers I have already mentioned in this blog as well as some athletic coaches whose credits, when listed, are primarily the successes of their players.  

            Politics aside, can you think of others who demonstrate servant leadership - in education, business, public affairs, the church, medicine, social services, or any other field, past or present?  Please comment below and also take the survey at the top of the panel at the right.  Thanks for visiting.

                    Management Progress Study 25th Reunion Participants
                                     with Robert Greenleaf (lower left)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Eight Powerful Reasons to be Grateful

My neice, Rosie, asked in a facebook question, "What are the 5 things you are most grateful for in your life?"  That's an impossible question for me to answer.  I thought of my faith and family: Mom and Dad, brothers, Jim and Ed and their families; my wife, Kathy; my children: Peter, Martin, Maureen and Libby and their families; Kathy's parents, brothers and sisters and their families; my high school seminary buddies (we still stay in touch), my teachers, especially English teachers, Sr. Veronica Marie, Father Ermin, Father Leonard, and Psychology teachers and mentors, Professors George Thompson and D.O. Hebb; the Management Progress Study group at AT&T, my colleagues and students at Smith College, Michigan State, Universiteit te Utrecht, Cambridge University, University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point, University of Wyoming: Kerrie and Pat and my other friends at the Northern Colorado Writers and more recently, my facebook and twitter friends, some of whom I haven't met...etc. etc.
Do you see what I mean?  It's impossible and I'm only scratching the surface - What about Art, Herb, Roel and Yolande, Rabbi Frankel, Nancy and Steve, etc. etc. ?
Five, Rosie?  It's impossible.  I did notice that all these reasons for gratitude so far are people, except for my faith, but that's a relationship, too. 
If I have to narrow this down, I'll give you eight - eight people, all young - for whom I am eternally grateful on Thanksgiving and every day of every year.  Here they are, in no particular order, my grandchildren:








Monday, November 14, 2011

Accentuating the Positive

            The lyrics of an upbeat Johnny Mercer tune from the 1940s advised us to "Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and don't mess with Mr. In-between."  Those lyrics came to mind last week when I asked a sixth grade friend of mine how school was going.  "Great," he bubbled, "I didn't pull one ticket last week."  That was good news, since, at his school, tickets are given for misbehavior and three tickets buy you a detention.

            An hour later I was talking with my daughter. 

            "How are the kids doing in school?'

            "Well, Noah got a 'tiger ticket'."

            "Oh, no.  What did he do?"  (Noah is in kindergarten.)

            "No, Dad.  Tiger tickets are a reward for good behavior.  There are three copies: one for the pupil, one for the teacher, and one goes to the principal.  As they mount up, they give the student more chances to win prizes later in the year."  Noah had solved a conflict with a classmate in a constructive way.

            The juxtaposition of these two episodes on the same day from two different schools reminded me of my days teaching Psychology 101.  There's solid research to support the idea that positive reinforcement in most instances works better than negative.

            Last week was not a good week in this country for children.   It seemed that every day brought another piece of national news that was devastating for a child or a group of children.  It was easy to get angry and lash out and I started to do that.  Then I remembered Libby's comment, "Noah got a 'tiger ticket'," and I decided then and there that I was going to do what Mercer had crooned about:  Accentuate the positive.  It doesn't have to mean sappy indifference to the disgraceful, sometimes felonious, attacks on children, but it does mean that I'm not going to forget that in the midst of this carnage, there are dedicated teachers giving tiger tickets for good behavior.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Great Teachers Come in All Sizes

            If you were to ask Noah today how old he is, he would answer you with convincing precision: "Six and a half."  Ages ago, when he had just turned six, he did something that surprised even his mother, Libby, who happens to be my daughter. 

            One evening as he jumped onto his bed with a book in hand and his older sister, Madeleine, next to him, Libby sat down beside the two for their regular evening story.  But this was to be no regular evening.  Noah took the book back from his mother, proclaiming, "I'll read to you tonight."  Libby humored him, remembering that he did recognize a few words, his own name among them, and that he could sound out a few others.  Hardly enough to read the book in question.  As Noah opened the book and began to read, first haltingly and then with more conviction, Libby sat stunned.  Where had this come from?  The answer came when Madeleine broke into a smile and finally began giggling.

            Libby remembered that throughout the summer on the days when she was busy with laundry or house cleaning, the two siblings would entertain themselves, often playing school downstairs.   But what she hadn't realized was that this was not merely play; this was serious stuff.   Madeleine, two years older than her brother, had made herself the teacher with Noah her only and willing pupil.

             Today, six months later, Noah is an avid reader, tackling beginning chapter books.  For example, he enjoys reading, "Our Haunted House," the chapter book that I posted on this blog several weeks ago, admittedly with some help from his favorite teacher.  

              Do you know some young teachers, either at home or in the classroom?  I'm wondering what makes that teaching take so well.

P.S. Here's a note I got recently from Noah that apparently went out to a number of people via the internet:

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Hobo on Halloween

          "Trick or Treat."  Tonight on Halloween, the Eve of All Saints, children will dress up, not to look like saints, but to look like witches, goblins, fairies, and devils.  Here in our neighborhood I'm looking forward to a goodly complement of Super Marios, Bart Simpsons, Pokemons, Darth Vaders, Barbies, princesses, soldiers, Tim Tebows, Obamas, and because we're in Laramie, Wyoming, surely a cowboy/cowgirl or two.

            When I was their age (I know, I know.  "You were never my age.") I always wanted to be a hobo.  Why?  Well, first of all, it was easy.  It was during The War and like most of our neighbors, we didn't have much.  Being a hobo was easy.  I would just go down to the basement and grab a hunk of coal out of the coal bin.  After blackening my face I'd get an old pair of overalls or dungarees - torn was best - and have Mother give me a swatch or two of cloth from the rag bag.  I'd pin one on my knee and another on my seat and I was ready to go - almost.  I had to get a stick from the woods behind the house and tie my red bandana to it, stuffed with old newspaper.  One of Dad's old hats - crushed - would complete my authentic costume.

            The other reason I liked being a hobo was the romance of it all.  I could imagine hopping a boxcar and going wherever the train took homework, no worries, no chores...just the fun of meeting other hobos along the way.  Come to think of it, I still like that idea.  Maybe tonight...

            What did you like to be for Halloween?  And why?  Please comment below.


Monday, October 24, 2011

On Closing the Cottage

Fall's a fickle time of year
Not like summer, bold and clear,
Who keeps his promises as told
Not sometimes hot, then quickly cold.

And winter, too, will let you know,
"Get out your coat; it's going to snow
I won't warm up for quite a while
So dress to fight the frost in style."

With summer and winter, and even with spring
Your love affair is an honest thing,
But autumn's the time when you have to beware
Of a whore that can make your heart despair.

So Sonder's fort sits on the hill;
The fortress built with childhood skill,
Where he and Odin fought brave wars
With pines cone shells and aspen swords.

Abandoned ammo in a pile,
With swords they'll leave for a little while.
One autumn soon - ah, time will tell -
They'll leave their childhoods there as well.

And Larson's chin may still be wet
Where once s'mores were lapped by tongue
Between the laughs and giggles best
Appreciated by the young.

The fishing rods are in their rack.
"Don't worry, trout; I'm coming back;
I'll see you in the spring and then
We'll wage our contest once again."

The bags are packed, I've closed the pipes;
I've checked upon the space below
And boarded up the vents against
The winter winds and blowing snow.

I see her staring from the door
To where her humming birds would feed
And to the trees where jays would soar
For whom she'd kindly leave some seed.

Summer doesn't last, I know.
I sigh, "Sweetheart, it's time to go."

Saturday, October 15, 2011

What's a "tween?"

Writing for tweens?  What's a "tween?"  Wikipedia calls it "the stage between middle childhood and adolescence...."   Don't you sometimes wonder whether developmental psychologists are just inventing these categories?  Prenatal, perinatal, infancy, toddlerhood, childhood, (early, middle and late) pre-puberty, post-puberty, pre-adolescence, adolescence, youth, young adulthood, emerging adulthood.  Are they making this stuff up?   I don't think so, at least not in the case of the tween.   Just ask a parent of a ten or eleven year old.  Or a fifth grade teacher.  These "tweens", they'll say, are a different species.  Advertising and marketing firms know them as a special target group.  Defined as a stage between two other stages?  Hmm.  (A student once defined adolescence as the stage between childhood and adultery☺) 
I think the best definition of a tween, though, can be found in a poem by A.A. Milne.  Given the illustration, he probably didn't intend for the poem to refer to this age group, but somehow it seems to fit.  What do you think?   Here's the second verse: 
Halfway Up the Stairs

Halfway up the stairs
Isn't up
And it isn't down.
It isn't in the nursery,
It isn't in town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts
Run round my head.
It isn't really
It's somewhere else

 By A.A. Milne

Friday, October 7, 2011

Writing and Psychotherapy: Is there a connection?

Yesterday I read a fascinating blog by Cricket McRae who suggested that a novelist should dig deep into their own experience in order to understand and present their protagonist accurately and convincingly.  As I said, I was fascinated.  Perhaps it was because I had just the night before finished my first book of McRae's, Lye in Wait.  The thing I liked most about that cozy mystery was her delineation of the characters, especially the protagonist and her house-mate.  I felt I knew them, knew how they would react in situations the author did not pose, knew how I would interact with them were we to meet, etc. 

Reading her blog about creating characters, I wondered how much of her own projections went into her protagonist.  Similar occupations, similar interests, etc., but what about at a deeper level.   

Years ago while on a post-doc at McGill University and working at Montreal Children's Hospital as a psychologist,  I asked a supervisor, Sam Rabinovitch, about the treatment of depression in a parent.  Our conversation went like this: 

Sam: "Have you even been depressed?"

Me: "No, I don't think so, not what you would call clinical depression."

Sam: "Have you ever mourned, grieved, been sad?"

Me: "Yes, of course."

Sam: "Then use that experience.  You can magnify those feelings and capitalize on them.  You now know your client better and have a better idea of how she feels.  Only in that way are you going to be able to help her." 

He never once used the terms "countertransference," or "empathy," but simply asked if I could bring my own experience to the task of understanding my client. 

Years later I was invited to watch rehearsals of a local theater group in Lansing, Michigan.  I sat with the director and was intrigued by the same phenomenon.  I thought his relation to the actors was similar to that of a psychotherapist with his client, helping them to go deep into their own experience to portray the person they wanted to be, in this case the characters within the play. 

George Kelly, at Ohio State, had taught us about the use of role playing in psychotherapy, namely, getting the client to be conscious about playing the role of the person that they wanted to be but felt they never could.  "Come on," he would say to the client with social anxiety, "you like to act.  This won't be you, of course, but just pretend for a week to be a social butterfly.  How would you do that?"  Once he had them articulating the behaviors that would characterize a social butterfly - behaviors that would not at all be in their normal repertoire, they would give it a try, but only after they had Kelly's reassurance that he understood that this was not who they really were.  It was just an act.  The results were often dramatic.  The client with social anxiety would find there were parts of the "social butterfly" that she felt very comfortable with, and would end up incorporating into her own identity. The self-doubting, autocratic boss would discover the ease of being a nurturer.  And so on. 

Now, after reading Cricket McRae's blog, I realize that the novelist must be doing the same thing, namely reaching within to give voice to their characters, but I wonder if there is ever a concern that the story might become too autobiographical, or the author might reveal more about him or herself than intended.  In psychotherapy, self-disclosure of the therapist is a tricky business.  Too little and the client might just as well be working with a tape recorder.  Too much and the therapeutic relationship morphs into a friendly social engagement.   

My question is this:  What is the best balance in the triangle where author, protagonist, and reader are the three vertices?

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Two-way Street

Big Brothers Big Sisters are in the business of providing older mentors for children who may benefit from that sort of contact.  I always thought the arrangement was primarily for the benefit of the "little."  But I've learned it's a two-way street. 

On Saturday we had my "little brother" and his parents over for dinner.  It was a great time as I knew it would be, since I've known my little for about 6 months.  Actually our formal Big Brother relationship ended with the end of the school year, since it was a site based match, but we decided that since we had become friends we wanted to keep it going on our own. 

I was reminded of my first contact with BB/BS.  They needed older adult mentors.  I found all sorts of excuses:
            Would I have the time?
            Answer:  I'm retired and it would take 1 hour per week. 

            How far would I have to travel?
            Answer: To a school less than a mile from our home. 

            What if I wasn't feeling well, or had another appointment?
            Answer:  In that unlikely event, simply call the school to let him know. 
With no defenses left I signed up, albeit with some trepidation. 

On my first visit the lady from BB/BS joined me at the school to meet my little brother and his teacher.  From that week to our final meeting in June I looked forward every Thursday to our having lunch together.  I learned what this bright fifth grader was reading in school - The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass - and got a copy for my Kindle so I could discuss it with him.  (I hadn't read it before, and found that his synopsis was spot on.)  We played games, visited the library, met his favorite teachers, and took photos around the building. (I found out that he has an incredible eye for composition).  He taught me a few Spanish words.  We did a lot of laughing and also a lot of serious talking.  He learned about my life and I learned about his.  My little brother had quickly become a good friend. 

Saturday I learned that his parents are as much fun as my little brother.  I also learned that once again, as happens often with me, I got more back than I gave. 

This was not meant to be an ad for Big Brothers Big Sisters but you might want to try out this sort of mentoring if you have the opportunity.  As you can see, it's a rewarding two way street.


Monday, June 27, 2011

Love in the Classroom

A few weeks ago I posted a blog about a local third grade teacher (I'll call her Ms. Jones) who was beloved by her students.  I mentioned the blog to Ms. Jones and several days later received the following e-mail:

"I am speechless as to how I have affected those students you spoke with.
I am thankful I have made them feel loved.  It is true that I do make an effort to like the students, and especially
to let them know that I do.  Students learn better when they know they are liked/loved!  I didn't realize the impact I had on them
even after 3rd grade!  Thank you for sharing that with me, and writing about it.  I will return and read it often, especially on difficult days."

About a week later at a party I met a parent who was home schooling her children, except for her third grader who had asked to be able to go with his friends to the public school this year, because he wanted to have a particular teacher.  The mother hadn't told me which school.

"Was it a Ms. Jones?" I asked.
"How did you know?"
"Just a lucky guess, I suppose."
"Do you know - he would do anything for that teacher."  Her exact words.

I was reminded of something a friend of mine wrote years ago in a journal article about different forms of psychotherapy.  After discussing the benefits and limitations of each, he concluded: "It's primarily the relationship that cures."  I believe it's the same with education: It's primarily the relationship that teaches.

But the other thing that comes to mind is a question.  Why are teachers so often unaware of the positive impact they have on their students, even at times to the point of doubting their own ability?  Any thoughts?  Comment below, please.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Grammatical Pet Peeves

In a recent tweet Kerrie Flanagan said, "Thumbs down to @Target 's new in-store marketing campaign. 'Make this summer more funner.' Funner? Really??"  Right on, Kerrie.  Also, write on.

            "Funner" is a grammatical mistake because "fun" is a noun, not an adjective.  Were it an adjective, "funner" would be the comparative.  I know, I know.  Some modern dictionaries call "fun" both a noun and an adjective.  But that's a recent and I believe flawed modernism.  Those editors are simply allowing common use or, in this case, misuse, to dictate grammatical correctness.  Expressions like, "We had a fun time," or "She's a fun person," have contributed to the error.
            This made me think of other pet peeves, like grammatical slime seeping into the mainstream.

            The most egregious is probably, "Just between you and I...."

            Or how about, "That shirt looks well on you."
            Running a close third would be, "He graduated Michigan State in 2003."
"To graduate" can only be a transitive verb when the subject is the graduating agency, as in "Colorado State University graduated 300 medical students," but is an intransitive verb when the subject is the person doing the graduating, as in, "He graduated from CSU twenty years ago."  It cannot be a transitive verb when the subject is the graduating individual.  Anyone who said, "I graduated CSU in 2004" should not have graduated, at least not from the English department.

            Now a question or two.  Are these justifiable gripes or just pedantic silliness on my part?  Please vote in the survey to the right of this post.  I'm curious about what others think regarding the preservation of our beautiful language.

             Also I wonder when it is justifiable to make changes in the language since it is, after all, a living language.  I would guess that you have to know the rules before you can break them intentionally.  What do you think?  I'm especially curious about grammatical errors in books for children and young adults.

            Finally I wonder who is to be the final judge on these points.  Can the grammar police make us so concerned about correctness that we lose all creativity and end up with dull, bland, writing?

            Thanks for reading my blog, and don't forget to vote and/or comment below.  If you have some of your own grammatical pet peeves, please mention them in the comment section.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011


(In a recent blog,, Dean Miller asks his readers to "comment ... on one thing you've done that you are truly proud of completing."  Thanks, Dean.  Here's my answer.)
            My brother and his wife celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in Stillwater, Minnesota last week-end.  They have lived in the same house for almost their entire married life, a house they have made into a comfortable and welcoming home, with gardens that would be the envy of city planners or the designers of botanical gardens, have raised a wonderful family there, worked at and retired from demanding jobs, volunteered at the homeless shelter, sung in the choir, been politically active, lost dear friends, consoled the grieving families left behind, have become grandparents (doting, I might add), sailed on the river and in the great lakes, even in the moonlight, biked several times across the state in a fund-raising tour for multiple sclerosis, and have found time to sit at the bedside of loved ones who have recovered from serious illness and surgery.
            I wanted to give them something different, personal, special, but couldn't think of the right gift until I remembered that a former student of mine in a psychology course at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point is a talented harpist and just happens to live in Stillwater, Minnesota.  Voila.  After one telephone call I had my surprise present all wrapped up.  Or so I thought, until my own harp teacher, Connie Wallace, a University of Wyoming faculty member, suggested I, too, should play a few pieces either alone or in a duet with the  musician from Stillwater. 

            "Find out," she said, "what your brother and his wife like."  Connie and her husband, Jack, an accomplished violinist and award winning fiddler, rearranged "Annie's Song," a John Denver classic, so that even I could attempt it.  I sent the original version to my former student, whom I had contacted to play at the banquet.  She agreed to let me play the John Denver song with her, as well as a few other songs, first solo and then duet.

            It worked.  Well, she played beautifully; I did ok.  The day before the event the young harpist and I met for a practice session, and again the next day, when we both arrived early for another rehearsal.  My former student (psychology) had become my teacher (music).  And at 76, having studied the instrument for a little over four years, I became a harpist, willing to play for others, admittedly family and friends.  I had great fun doing it.  I hope it was an example of what T.A. Northburg ( calls "Otterocity!"

             In the same way that Dean Miller suggests that "the majority of us struggle to even call ourselves writers," I have been struggling to call myself a harpist.  I asked my once student - now teacher, "When do you think I'll be able to play in public?"  Her answer "When you feel confident."

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Desire, Drive, Motives, Goals, and Learning

I wrote the following in my journal about 9 years ago.  As I think about the elements of classroom learning, i.e., desire, drive, motivation and goals, it seems appropriate to add this to my blog.  JPM

            A few days ago I called a former student, who must have been in my class as a senior about 20 years ago.  We had gotten to be friends over the years and at least once a year I still call or she calls me just to stay in touch.  She was a special education teacher. In her case, I don’t know whether “special” should modify the word “education” or "teacher."  She was an unusually gifted and mature student. 

            I asked, as I always do, about Steve, her husband, and the children.  Rebecca is 6 and in the first grade; Madeleine is four and finishing her last year of preschool before entering kindergarten, a major step as Madeleine sees it.  But the really interesting part to me was Nancy’s recounting an incident that took place at Hebrew school a few weeks ago.  Rebecca goes to the Hebrew Day School and attends Hebrew classes, taught by an Israeli woman, twice a week.  One afternoon was set aside as a free period when younger siblings were invited to see the classroom and to play some games.  Madeleine enjoyed running around with the other younger children, but her older sister, Rebecca, felt out of place and complained about the “kid stuff,” saying she was too old for this.  Her mother suggested, “Why don’t you just come and sit here with me and we can talk.” Rebecca sat next to her mother and said (I believe I have this word for word), “Mother, I only want to study the Torah, so that when I’m older I can become a rabbi, and then I can teach people how to pray, so they will know that there is only One God.”

            What grace.  Here was a six year old with all the desire “to study the Torah,” and the drive to make it her “only” wish without distraction, and the motivation to learn so that she could “teach other people” with the final goal of having them understand a truth that was already very dear to her, “to know there is only One God.”

            One might worry that a child like Rebecca, especially in our world where most children are allowed, thankfully, to remain children as long as they like, might be too serious and miss out on the fun of being six.  Not at all.  When she is with children her own age, she loves to play, to make up games, even to play with words, both in English and Hebrew, and to tease about her sure Israeli accent. Other children like her.  Who wouldn’t like a bright friend who loves to play and whose motivation for learning is basically within and who can make up games?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

My favorite teacher(s)

            Last Thursday I had lunch with three fifth graders at a nearby elementary school.  One of the boys is my "little brother," and we have lunch together every Thursday but this week we decided to join two of his friends in the lunch room.  The conversation included reasons why the boys sat at one table, girls at another, the unlikely dream of an all boys' class, end of the year grade expectations, the afternoon's music rehearsal, and the subsequent concert that evening. 

            But the conversation that really sparked my interest involved "favorite teachers."  All three boys agreed that a particular third grade teacher was the best in the school.  "Anyone who goes through this school will end up saying she was their best teacher.  And it's always going to be that way," proclaimed one of the three.

            I asked why she was their favorite teacher. 
            "Because she's nice."
            "She makes it fun, so you want to learn."
            "She's not mean.  She never yells."
            "She likes us."

            One of the boys interrupted to say, "See, there she is over there (The favored teacher was lunchroom monitor that day).  See that kid hugging her?  That's the way we all feel.  We like her."

            It made me think of my own favorite teachers growing up (Mrs. Butler, Sr. Veronica Marie, Father Leonard, who all taught English) and my teachers today (Connie Wallace and Joni Martin, both professional musicians) and what they have in common.  I guess for me the important ingredients are skill, patience, an encouraging style, laughter, a love for what they do, and a willingness to share it with others.

            Who were, or are, your favorite teachers and why?  If you are now a teacher, do you find yourself emulating those qualities?  If you'll comment below, I'll summarize the comments and use them to create a survey that we can submit later to a larger audience.  Thanks and have a great week.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Reading For Fun

             Recently I read of a contest for elementary school students that involved the number of books they could read within a limited time period. I wonder if those contests are always a good idea.       

            The article reminded me of a visit I made to the day school at Smith College years ago. It was toward the end of the academic year and I was visiting the first grade. The children were all busy at their tables reading. One little fellow was tearing through a chapter book as fast as he could go.

            "What're you reading?" I asked. I can't remember his answer, but I do recall his next comment:

"I'm getting started on the contest to see who can read the most books this summer. The person who can read the most books gets a prize." He turned back to his book, abruptly ending our conversation. I'm not sure he was interested in the story he was reading but he was keenly interested in the fact that shortly he would have read one more book.

            Across the room at another table another boy was grinning at a picture in his book. He called me over, "Look at this," he laughed and then he began to tell me about the story he was reading and how the picture depicted an event that he thought was hilarious.

            I left the classroom that day thinking there is a real difference between reading as a means to an end, and reading for the fun of it, and wishing that, as important as the first type is, it would be nice if it could be done in such a way that children could also keep forever the joy of the second type of reading.

  "To read without reflecting is like eating without digesting."
                                                                            E. Burke

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Appreciating Teachers

“Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.”
Jacques Barzun

            Last week was teachers' appreciation week.  Candy, flowers, potted plants, and home-made cards were no doubt the order of the day.  There's even a good web site,, devoted to teacher appreciation.  But, once again, it deals for the most part with things we can buy or make for teachers.  I wonder if there are other ways we can show our appreciation. 

            During the past week I visited two first grade classrooms: Miss Lazzarini's class at Tavelli Elementary in Fort Collins, CO, and Ms. Herrera's class at Slade Elementary in Laramie, WY.  The week before I had visited Ms. Gimlett's class at Dunn Elementary in Fort Collins.  I read from story books that I hope to publish and found three groups of attentive, bright, inquisitive and frankly, endearing children.  Their rapt attention and then their spontaneous questions, enthusiastic applause, and also their critical judgment were a surprise to me.  They were excited to share with me the stories of their own lives, and those other stories they had read, and to talk about authors we both knew.  One class was working on poetry for mother's day and another was studying authors of fiction. They told me they were now reading chapter books, although they still liked story books as well. Bottom line, I had a blast. 

            I'm used to dealing with the other end of the academic pipeline, college and graduate students, so I wasn't sure what to expect.  Then I realized that this is where it all starts.  The teachers I met, and their assistants, were there not only to teach the content of the first grade curriculum but, more importantly, to excite a group of children (from 17 to 26 in number) about the world around them and about the various ways, including books, to explore that wondrous world.  

            So, thank you, Miss Lazzarini, Ms. Herrera, Ms. Gimlett, and all you other teachers of our children and grandchildren.  I hope we don't wait until next year at this time to express our gratitude again.  Every day should be teachers' appreciation day.  As important as the candy, flowers, cards (and, in my day, fancy handkerchiefs) are, I only wish I knew of other ways to express that gratitude.  Any ideas?   If so, please hit the word "comments" below and let me know.  Thank you.

“One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.”
Carl Jung

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Believing the Children ...sometimes

            Editors and agents often warn us children's writers not to put faith in the praise that our own children, grandchildren, and friends heap on our cherished writing efforts.  The argument runs that they will love whatever we write.  It's a good point and something we need to keep in mind.  Although I understand the importance of these precautions, and would never mention the kids in a query letter or a pitch session, I wonder if there are also times when we would be wise to listen to the children.

            The children I know best all have their own distinct preferences regarding reading material, as with everything else.  As evidence of this discrimination, I have heard the following comments:  "This one's not so good, Pe'pe'," or "It's ok, I guess," or, more happily, "Now that, Pe'pe', is a cool story."  Sometimes these preferences are dictated by what they perceive to be cool among their peers, but just as often their choices are based on their own tastes and inclinations.

            If one is writing for children it seems that some of the most important feedback will come from the kids, themselves.  James Barrie was encouraged to write Peter Pan by the children of his dear friends, the Davies.  Some of Francis Thompson's best poetry was inspired by the children of his close friends and patrons, the Meynells.  A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh was named after a teddy bear belonging to his son Christopher Robin Milne, whose name and personality, as we know, was adopted by the other main character in those great stories.  Lewis Carroll (George Dodgson) was reputedly begged by Alice Liddell, the daughter of close friends, to write down for her the story he had made up of Alice in Wonderland.  Having written it down for her, he was later encouraged by the enthusiasm of the children of another friend, George MacDonald, to have the book published.

            While these childhood preferences may, in some instances be idiosyncratic, there are also common themes.  Luckily for us, these commonalities have been recognized by the best agents and editors, and have even been catalogued for us.  See, for example, the blog by Laura Backes,

            If there is any truth in the maxim that our loved ones will love what we write, it may be because what we write for them is our best work.  And, in the case of children, when it doesn't come up to our highest standards - or theirs - I have found that they are unflinching in their willingness to say so.

            How about the children in your life?  Do they tell you what they like? 

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Gifts Given and Gifts Received

A wonderful thing about gifts is that they're free. They come without strings attached. There is no need to respond other than to say "Thank you." Some gift receivers show their gratitude by using the gift at the earliest possible opportunity, often in the presence of the giver. Some show their gratitude by sharing their gift with others.

This blog is new, but it concerns gifts that are very old and gifts that I want to share. I believe that writing is a gift that we have all been given. One of the people who gave me this gift of writing was my sixth grade English teacher, Sister Veronica Marie. Besides teaching us the elements of grammar, syntax, punctuation, and spelling, she also instilled in us a love for whatever had been well written and a strong desire to be part of that world of writing.

She also gave me another, related gift. At the end of each school year we all turned our books back, since they had been loaned to us and would be used the following year by the next class. As I walked up to Sister's desk to turn in my English grammar book, she handed it back to me, saying, "John Paul, you'll be needing this. I want you to keep it and use it. You like to write, so just keep doing it." I keep that Plain English Handbook, by Walsh and Walsh, here on my desk. It was a new edition that year, 1946, but has served me well ever since.

Perhaps this blog can be a place for me to give a few gifts to my readers. If I tell you a little about myself, you can let me know what sort of gifts you would like to see in future blogs. For forty plus years I was a faculty member, teaching psychology at McGill University, Smith College, and finally Michigan State University, where I taught in the psychology department and also the medical school (pediatrics). I taught courses in developmental psychology and as a clinician treated mostly children and adolescents. The books and articles I have written before this were either textbooks or journal articles based on the research I was doing with my graduate students. That research focused primarily on adolescent and young adult values, family issues, and the classroom as a community. But now I want to write books for children and young adults.

Finally, on the right side of this page you can see the blogs I follow. These are gifts I have already been given from other writers. I hope I receive some from you, a comment or even a blog of your own. We enrich one another's lives with the gifts we exchange. I hope that I have at least a few readers for this blog, and that among them is Sister Veronica Marie, who though she died years ago, is still with me in many ways. On this Easter, a day celebrating the Gift of Gifts for Christians, I hope she might look on this blog and say, "Just keep doing it."