Author Archive


A Sea Change

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There’s been a sea change in my life since I last wrote here.

About seven years ago I started working on family literacy and parenting education projects. As a former high school English teacher in a large urban area, I came (somewhat belatedly) to the conclusion that we could make a significant improvement in American education if we could help many more parents learn to do the things with their young kids that set the kids up for greater success in school. The solution to our biggest education problems (like 25% – 30% of our kids not being able to read well and the 40% – 50% school drop-out rate in many cities) is in the family, I believed then (and now).

Back then I thought, How hard can it be to reach out to young parents? And I had an idea for a book/ product/ system that elementary schools could use to encourage and teach parents.

I had no clue of how to create and publish a book or set up a company and get investment money or work with graphic artists or market materials. I just had an idea and I started to create it.

And oh, boy, has this seven-year journey been an education.

My first product was the Way to Go! Family Learning Journal. It’s a gorgeous, smart product. Almost everyone who sees it says so. And it is supported by free materials on the website, including 24 free monthly activities for families that help young children gain the foundational skills related to school success. The activities were even translated into Spanish by a generous friend. I felt pleased with the book/system.

But, I discovered, the biggest challenge was not in developing great materials. It was in the marketing. Duh! People get college degrees in marketing. Corporations spend huge budgets on marketing. Sales people often spend their whole lifetime learning skills that enable them to make the sale.

I was naive, but I tried to play catch up. I prepared marketing materials. I paid lots of money for training programs, branding programs, inner circles, coaching, websites, data bases, and so forth. I thought BIG. I did pilot programs. I tried selling at conferences and trade shows. But there was never sufficient revenue to hire someone else to help, so it was a one-person show.

Along the way, I created a second book, one that could be sold very inexpensively. Perhaps the Way to Go! Family Learning Journal was overpriced, I thought. The second book was Plus It! How to Easily Turn Everyday Activities into Learning Adventures for Kids. It’s gotten good reviews, but not enough sales to pay for itself yet.

So now I feel it’s time to let go of the JantzenBooks, Inc. corporation, which is not financially viable. I’m slowly handling the legal stuff and moving on. Some days I find myself grieving, actually, because this business and these projects had been the big focus of my life for a long time. I’m not sure what’s next.

But the books will continue to be available for sale until they are out of stock. Or until some company or entrepreneur picks them up and reprints them. Or until some Department of Education or large school district realizes how well these materials would supplement their programs. Or…

It makes me happy to think of the endless possibilities for these books. And as I say goodbye to this phase of my life, I gladly hang on to an idea I truly believe: “Nothing done for children is ever wasted.”

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A Stocking Stuffer with Parenting Tips

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“A great stocking stuffer for parents, teachers, grandparents, babysitters and other childcare providers”—that’s what Maya Creedman, mother of two, said about Plus It! today in San Francisco’s She’s an educational consultant, a teacher, and a writer on parenting and education—so she should know!

Then she says, it’s a “pocket-sized book perfect for a purse or glove compartment…” Yes!

Creedman knows that “parents have an incredible opportunity to further their child’s development and education in day-to-day activities and routines,” and that Plus It! is about exactly that opportunity.

I’m thrilled with this online review. Read the whole review here.

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Create a Literacy Rich Home-6: “Books-I-Read”

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Here’s an idea to add to your literacy activities for kids: Have you ever wanted to know how many books you or your kids have read in a month or a year? Did you ever get stuck trying to think of the exact title of a book, or the author?

Since nowadays the titles and author names of books you check out of the library are printed on the return slip (at least in the public libraries around me), just keep that slip!

My memory is fallible, so for a few years now, I’ve kept a “Books I Read” list in the “My Treasures” section of my Way to Go! Family Learning Journal three-ring-binder. I never put much energy or time into this; I record date, author, and title.

Sometime I put a note if there were something significant I wanted to remember (like a quote from the book); sometimes I put a 1—10 rating on how good I thought the book was.

And believe it or not, I’ve referred to this list, especially when I wanted to recommend a book and couldn’t remember the author. I wish I had three kinds of lists from the days when I raised my daughter—books we read together, books I read on my own, and books she read.

She’s a mom now and we talk about these things occasionally—“Do you remember if we read The Celestine Prophecy aloud as we drove across country when you were in high school—I think we didn’t love it, right?” and “Did we ever finish Tess of the D’Urbervilles? Or did we both cry so hard we decided to complete it separately?”

Thanks to computers, now there’s a simple way to create such lists: just hang on to the library checkout tape. The trick is to put this slip where you and your kids can find it again (like in a binder). Keep adding to it over the months and years. (Of course, you may still also want to keep a written list of books purchased, or borrowed, since you don’t have a library receipt for them. Also, if you have comic book and magazine readers in your family, why not add those titles on the lists, too.)

Another idea is to have your kids paste or tape the computerized lists on three-hole-punched paper so there’s room for comments. It’s easy to add a 1-10 rating right on library printout: Try using a scale that’s 10 for All-Time-Favorites-to-Read-and-Reread and 1 for Couldn’t-Get-into-It, and the range in-between.

It’s a challenging, thoughtful exercise to rate a book; a child who does that frequently over time can develop a sophisticated awareness of his or her own interests, values, tastes, and growth. And it’s certainly a way to Plus It with an individual or shared reading experience.

Like watching the growing balance in a savings account that gets regular deposits, it’s satisfying to see a “Books I Read” list get longer and longer. And I’d say its value far exceeds anything in a bank, for it represents lasting, often thrilling, deposits to the mind and imagination.

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Parenting Tips from an Expert on Family Wellness

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An excellent resource for parenting tips, especially for parents of tweens and teens, is the email newsletter and blog of Dr. Peter Montminy. He’s a father of four children—and a consulting child psychologist, passionate about emotional well-being of kids and families. He’s got soul, he’s got heart, he’s got experience, he’s got training, he’s got joy.

He’s done extensive work with adolescents and their parents and teachers, and has developed teleclasses, a coaching program, free information, an email newsletter, and more.

I like his tagline, “Guiding school-age kids to life-time success,” and his description of himself as a family wellness coach. I like that he lives with his wife and family in the woods of Pennsylvania (what a great place to raise children). Check out his website and sign up for his weekly tips:

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Using New Words: Fun Family Literacy Activities

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If you want a quick reminder about down-time activities for kids that can pick up the energy and create good feeling, check out the suggestions on Andrea Patten’s “What Kids Need to Succeed” blog.

It’s an activity I created for the Way to Go! Family Learning Journal series—something simple and definitely not new, but something you might have forgotten about.

Basically, it’s a vocabulary enrichment, search-your-brain, activity: think of synonyms for common words and use them with your kids, encouraging them to do the same.

Simple. Easy. Undemanding. Straightforward. Trouble-free. Effortless. Uncomplicated. (I had help: I used my Word thesaurus to come up with those synonyms as I wrote this. But aren’t they enriching words!)

Try it. Have fun!

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Parent Education: Improve School Success for Kids

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Parenting education and family literacy got attention in the Los Angeles Times Online this week when they published an article I wrote. I’m pleased they accepted my submission!

This article came about when I read an op-ed piece in the Monday (10/12/09) newspaper by former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan. He made six suggestions for how to improve education in Los Angeles. But he didn’t address real parenting education or family literacy, which I believe are key avenues to improving reading comprehension and creating school success.

So I wrote an open letter to him and sent it to the op-ed section of the paper. An editor contacted me and asked to use it in their online Blowback section. Of course I said yes. In a few days, it was online and getting comments.

Click here to read my article supporting  parenting education as part of school reform.

But you know, I forgot to identify myself in the attribution line as the author of Plus It! How to Easily Turn Everyday Activities into Learning Adventures for Kids. And this book definitely promotes parenting education and family literacy. Now that’s a missed opportunity for marketing if I ever saw one. Live and learn!

But the most important issue—parenting education—got publicity, so I feel it was “mission accomplished” for that article.

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Family Literacy Day Is Nov. 1: Four Fun Activities for Kids

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November 1 is Family Literacy Day. Cheers! What fun family activities for kids are you planning for that day?

It’s the Sunday after Halloween. Hmm… Are there ways to combine family literacy with Halloween?

Remember: Literacy is about more than simply decoding words, although decoding is the basic skill. Literacy is about understanding. Family literacy is all the activities in the home that provide kids with the foundational experiences upon which comprehending the written word is based.

So to my way of thinking, anything you do with kids that expands their understanding and knowledge of the world and how it works and of human experience, is a family literacy activity. Of course, reading is a rich avenue for expanding understanding, but it’s not the only one.

Here are four ideas for celebrating Family Literacy Day (and Halloween):

1) Have a Post-Halloween read-aloud picnic or party: Invite friends of all ages to pack favorite kid foods (and a LITTLE Trick-or-Treat candy) and bring a favorite short book, poem, or personal writing. Then everyone gets to stand up and read their choice, while others are munching.

2) Put a gently-used children’s book in someone’s Trick or Treat bag: Go through your bookshelves and see if there are any you want to give away. When you see the right-age child at your door, slip the book into his or her bag along with a treat.

3) On Nov 1, take a trip to a museum, historical spot, or place of interest—perhaps one that you’ve been putting off. Notice any Halloween decorations they may have put up. Expand your children’s background of knowledge about that place and what it represents. Read aloud together any brochures you find about that place or exhibit.

4) Do a neighborhood or town Halloween Decorations tour, either walking or driving: Talk about why ghosts and goblins are associated with Oct. 31? Why spiders? Are there old medieval stories to discover? Why are pumpkins such a big deal? Do a little research on the internet or in books—that’s certainly a family literacy activity.

Perhaps you have other suggestions for Family Literacy Day? Feel free to add them in the comments section here.

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Family Activities: Family Reunions

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Are family reunions good activities for kids? Based on my experience, I say, Yes! Go for it!

Last weekend I took two children, ages 5 and 7, to a large family reunion. By myself. Meaning their parents weren’t along because of a schedule conflict. It was just grandma—me—in charge.

Why did I take them? Because I think there are subtle, powerful benefits when kids know about their roots, their heritage. They learn that they are part of a long, unique, amazing story. They experience the host of people to whom they have birthright connections. They get family information that becomes part of their conscious identity, their personal narrative. They have a history-platform to stand on in the world.

So, the weekend event was a reunion of descendants of their great-great-great-grandparents, six generations ago. Wow! (That would be my great-grandparents.)

About 80 cousins—first, second, third, and fourth—and aunts and uncles and spouses were there, only a fraction of the number of possible relatives on that side of the family, according to a book that lists them all. The oldest attendee was 91: beautiful, blond great-great Aunt Anne.

We traveled to this family reunion via a five-hour car ride to beautiful Paso Robles, CA. I’d checked out 20+ children’s books from the library and stocked up on drawing paper and markers. (No digital games for this trip: we were going back to the past.) The kids rode in car seats in the back; Cousin Yvonne was driver; I supervised from the passenger side.

Trip highlights began early, when we exited Los Angeles over the famous I-5 Grapevine pass into the San Joaquin valley. There’s lots of history just in that section of the drive. Cousin Yvonne talked about wagon trains going over the pass, and the zigzag of the old routes, long before modern highways.

Then we sped past miles and miles of flat agricultural land on a road lined with huge electrical pylons.

Finally we made the Paso Robles hotel: Rose and Calvin loved our room. For just a bit I allowed jumping on the fluffy queen-sized hotel bed—not long enough to damage the mattress, but enough to satisfy the need of a 5-year-old boy to expend a little energy and feel ‘whee!’

Then over the next two days, there were family presentations in a large conference room. I was blown away/ delighted/ relieved/ and grateful by how cooperative the kids were. For hours, Calvin quietly drew pictures and drove his miniature big-wheel along the carpet.

A five-year-old's entertainment during a long meeting

A five-year-old's entertainment during a long meeting

Rose, already a voracious reader, tuned out the presenters’ voices and read Junie B. Jones books. The promise of time in the hotel pool made the meetings bearable.

Then there was the adventure of driving into the country to see the house and farm their great-great grandfather built. It’s now transformed into an expensive B & B, surrounded by vineyards. But it’s where a devout Mennonite family with ten children lived and worked through about six decades of the 20th century.

The house great-great grandfather built

The house great-great grandfather built

And there was a stop at the tiny graveyard where ancestors are buried and engravings are in German. What caught Rose and Calvin’s attention most was a tiny grave with a stone that indicated the baby buried there had lived only one day. “Oh, that’s so sad,” they said repeatedly to one another and to me.

Next was a drive on a dirt road, deep into the ravines of the county, past bone-dry hillocks and dense oak groves, to an old ranch house still occupied by Cousin Gene. The kids were amazed at the deer skulls on the fence, and the mounted heads of a cougar, a big-horned sheet, a coyote—wild native animals shot long ago.


Finally, they had the very best part of the whole trip: about an hour on a round tire-swing on a swivel joint in the park where we had a barbeque. Rose and Calvin laughed wildly and sweated profusely as they spun each other around. “I want a swing like that for my birthday,” Rose declared.


The memories these kids will talk about most, I expect, are the hotel bed and pool, the tire-swing in the park, the tiny baby’s grave, and the mounted animal heads.

But somewhere deep in their memories will also be the knowledge that they had a great-great-great-grandpa and grandma, and that they know where to find them.

That’s what I really was after for them.

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OMG, I Just Met Jeannette Walls!

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Oh my gosh, I just met Jeannette Walls! She’s the author of the hugely best-selling (two-million sold already!) memoir of growing up in a wildly dysfunctional family, The Glass Castle. She’s as mesmeric, compassionate, and provocative in person and as a speaker, as she is as a writer.

And I just realized that Jeannette Walls’ father—her alcoholic, crazy-brilliant father—was a MASTER of Plusing-It! He (and her mother) took both the mundane and the extraordinary events of their lives and made them into stimulating, expansive activities for kids. Maybe that’s why his daughter became such captivating writer. Maybe that’s why The Glass Castle is one of my favorite contemporary books.

For ironically, The Glass Castle truly is full of parenting tips, of examples of how to cultivate the imagination of children, while concurrently telling a story of parental neglect and irresponsibility.

Listen to this: From the stage this morning, Jeannette told the story of how, at Christmas-time when she was little and the family lived in destitution in the desert, her dad took each child out under the night sky and told them they could pick out a star as their gift. She selected the brightest, Venus—and he told her it wasn’t a star, it was a planet. But what the heck, if she wanted a planet, she could have one. Jeannette says it remains her “most treasured gift ever.”

If that isn’t a way to PLUS IT! on a Christmas day when one’s in dire straits, I don’t know what is.

Writer Jeannette Walls signing books at Children's Network 2009 Conference in Ontario, CA

Writer Jeannette Walls signing books at Children's Network 2009 Conference in Ontario, CA

Now, I said I met Jeannette Walls: here’s how that occurred. A new friend of mine, Charlene, who is a board member of the Children’s Fund couldn’t make it to the Children’s Network Conference keynote speaker breakfast event. She invited me to go in her stead. What a gift!

Sitting at the large round table, drinking coffee, I met several committed, compassionate social workers who work with teen mothers and preschool parents.

Then Jeannette came on. She wore an understated simple black dress and pearls. But she led off with the true story of being stalled in a taxi in New York City and looking out the window, only to see her mother picking through a dumpster, looking for food. She ducked down, she confesses, and driver went on. (If that gets you, run out and buy the book.)

She continued, talking about the power of storytelling—to help one face one’s demons, to convert shame to strength, to release regret and permit one’s experiences work for one. She talked about the gifts we get from learning to navigate obstacles—a gift, she says, the rich sometimes pay real money to experience, in the form of challenge programs like Outward Bound.

The crucial things that her father gave her, she said, were self-esteem, an eternal sense of hope, and a belief that one day things would be okay. The truly lucky are those who can get back up, she said, and those who can help others.

“Don’t ever apologize for your scars,” her second husband told her on an early date, when she shyly revealed that she had burns on her body from an accident when she was three. “Scars are a sign of your strength. Smooth [skin] is boring. You’ve got texture.”

When Q & A time came, one person asked a question. Then, “Any more questions?” No one raised a hand.

So I did, and in that moment I felt I met her personally. I thanked her for what she’s already given to the world, for promoting the power of story, and I wondered if story-telling can be taught.

Jeannette Walls said the secret to good storytelling is telling the truth. It’s “complicated and squishy” and it’s different from telling the facts. But it’s so important.

And yes, she said, storytelling is highly teachable AND highly therapeutic.

I stood at the end of a long, long line to buy her book, although I’d already read a borrowed copy once. I had a copy of my small book, Plus It! with me, and I decided to give it to her.

I was shaking as I reached where she sat signing. I don’t know why—probably because I feel she’s a great writer whose lifework is an enormous influence for good for families and children. (BTW, her editor is the person who also edited Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes.)

Do you know what she said when I asked, “May I give you a copy of my little book?”

She said, “Only if you’ll sign it for me.” Now is that a class act, or what?

And thank you, Charlene.

Categories : Thoughts and Ideas
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A Dazzling Review of Our Family Activities for Kids!

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I’m cheering wildly! The family fun and educational activities for kids in Plus It! have received a big boost. How?

Last week, an enthusiastic review of Plus It! and its parenting tips showed up on a website I enjoy, admire, and respect, one that covers “what really matters” (isn’t that a grand tagline): Here’s the link to that dazzlingly clear summary of the value of Plus It!

It’s free to subscribe to the vickyandjen blog that provides parent support for raising children. And they have a strong podcast series on getting organized, on things kids can ask-a-chef, and on how to effectively relate to your pediatrician. They’re promoters of cooking with children and provide wondrous recipes, and they offer a huge list of things to do with kids.

Thanks, Vicky and Jen!

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Create a Literacy Rich Home-5: Kids’ Imaginative Play, Based on Books

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Gosh, Rose, age seven, loves to read! And best of all, she’s into imaginative play based on stories and books, and I know that develops reading comprehension.

Yesterday I spent part of the day with her and Calvin, who’s almost five. Rose led me into her room to show me something she’d set up in a corner.

There she pointed to a large colorful pillow wedged between the dresser and the wall. Two dolls were propped up on it, and in front of them was the footstool from the bathroom, serving as a table. On the table were cups and saucers, a teapot, a few plastic vegetables.

A doll's tea party, based on "A Little Princess"

“You know why I’m doing this, Grandma?”

“Tell me.”

Rose rushed to get a book. “Grandma, did you read this book to Mommy when she was little? I think it was hers.”

She held ancient, browned, mildewed hardcover copy of A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I honestly didn’t remember whether I’d read it to her mother or not. I told her I wasn’t sure.

“Well, in this book, the girl thinks that dolls come alive when people aren’t looking, but when people see them, they freeze. So I’m trying to find out,” she said. She clearly was skeptical that her dolls were alive, but at the same time, she wanted it to be true.

“When I look at them, they just sit there,” Calvin interjects. He’s shares the room with Rose, so he has lots of opportunities to test the dolls-are-alive theory. He’s quite sure they’re not.

“Well, I think it’s something worth checking out,” I say, noncommittally. We three glance at each other…we each know dolls aren’t alive, but it’s sure fun to play.

Don’t you love seeing kids involved in imaginative play based on a book? It’s one of the reading strategies that actually develops background knowledge, and that’s crucial to reading comprehension.

After I left the room, I thought of questions I could have asked that might have “PLUSed” or enhanced the experience for her: “I bet you’d like to play with Sara (the Little Princess) for a couple days. What do you think you’d do together?” or “It would be fun to live back then. But I think I’d missing having a car to drive. Is there anything you think you’d miss?”

Next time I see that kind of play, I’ll try to seize the moment more effectively. But still I know it was a rich, inspiring experience for her to create that tea table and scene.

The truth is that in order to play that way, a child has to read a book, or listen to it, paying close attention to the details and description. Then the child has to be resourceful to figure out how to replicate an experience from the story. For instance, Rose had to figure out what she could use from her room and toy box to create a doll’s tea party.

Then think of all the historical detail and context that a child has to take in and process in order to do play like she or he is in another period or country.

And in many ways, when children are playing out a story they are re-writing it; they are getting experience with creating character and even story structure. That sort of play develops empathy and understanding. And it’s certainly theater.

Unfortunately, I know there are children who don’t know how to engage in imaginative play based on books (or movies/TV). It’s tragic that they miss out of some of the sweetest experiences of childhood.

So let’s thank our lucky stars when we see kids really playing imaginatively. Let’s grant them time and space and encourage them in any way we can. For such activity develops brains and hearts, and it contributes hugely to school and life success.

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Create a Literacy Rich Home–4: Writing–Show Kids How to Make a List

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Even before kids start learning to read or write, one of the useful literacy activities you can do is to let them see you making lists: to do lists, appointment/schedule lists, grocery lists, names of people to invite lists…all kinds of lists.

Then it’s especially fun to see what kind of lists they make once they learn to write and read on their own!

Rose is excited about her upcoming November birthday, even though it’s only September. She is seven still, just beginning second grade, and she LOVES reading and writing.

Yesterday she handed me her wish list for her birthday. She wasn’t pushy or demanding or coy in doing this; she just wanted me to know what she was thinking she’d like to have and do. I like that kind of straightforward communication.

Here’s a picture of her list:

A seven-year-old's birthday wish list

A seven-year-old's birthday wish list

In case the writing in the photo is too small for you to see, I’ve typed out what it says, keeping her spelling and capitalization. I didn’t say anything about her errors when she presented it to me because “inventive” spelling at this age is normal and fine, the experts say. She’ll learn conventional spelling at school over the next few grades (and beyond!). Here’s her list:

trafic jam game
littleest petshop clubhouse house
Pogo stick
doll house
Amarican girl eneything
Books/boxcar children seris
Juni B. Jones seris

So why is making lists a great thing to do for literacy and to develop writing skills?

There are many reasons: It shows kids how useful writing things down is (it helps you remember). It teaches organization and thinking skills like categorizing or grouping. It teaches kids a way to get things out of their heads so they can use their brain space for other things. It’s a way to communicate easily with others (“Babysitter, my list of important telephone numbers of posted on the refrigerator.” It’s a way to have an idea now and then go back to it later.

In Plus It! How to Easily Turn Everyday Activities into Learning Adventures for Kids there’s a suggestion (p. 68) making a list of household tasks or chores with your kids as a strategy that helps turn housework drudgery into something resembling fun.

And there are lots of other reasons to make lists, too. Please feel free to comment below about your personal experience with lists or with helping kids make them.

I think it’s one of those family activities that definitely contributes to both family fun and family literacy. And it’s so simple to do.

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Traveling with Kids in Your Home Town

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Yep, most kids can have the experience of “traveling” to far away places right in their hometowns.

Here’s how I discovered that, serendipitously, this week:

Rose, 7, and Calvin, 4, are spending an overnight with me. After breakfast, they wonder aloud what we are going to do for the day, and I do, too.

“Well, we can certainly go to the park,” I say. That pleases them. We clean up the dishes, read a few books aloud, Rose works on creating a collage—our pace is leisurely for the day is already hot. Then we climb into the car for the park several miles away.

But lo and behold, at the park entrance, bright plastic orange cones bar the driveway…apparently it is closed to visitors today.

Hmm. Now what? We head back home.

We turn on Phillips Street and see an unusual house—a large bungalow that has been turned into a Buddhist temple of sorts. And there’s a parking space in the shade right in front of it. Perfect for a brief stop that’ll kill some time, I think.

The kids stand on the ledge to look over the fence. I become teacherly: “That’s a Buddha statue right there in front, and notice the two kneeling female statues beside it. They are probably his disciples…”

Unexpectedly, the front door behind the Buddha opens. Oh.

A radiant young nun, head shaven, dressed in a gray cotton tunic and pants, walks toward us, holding aloft a small bowl with three golden Asian pears in it. She comes to the fence and offers them to us. Her smile is broad, her teeth perfect; her English, limited but understandable.

Rose and Calvin, mouths open in surprise, each take a piece of fruit and say thank you; I indicate I’ll share theirs. The nun burbles about Buddha; we ask her name and she simply says, Nun.

Then she invites us inside the compound. I snatch my camera from the car and we go down the driveway to the left of the house. It opens into a huge back yard, ringed with fruit and shade trees and several building. There is a stage with elaborate fabric backdrop, a covered eating area with tables, and scattered about, many more statues of Buddha and his disciples. Though the day is almost unbearably hot, here it is cool and serene. Our nun disappears for an instant, and returns with a small conical hat on her head.

We ask for permission to take photos, and as we walk around from one cluster of statues to another, we pose and she eagerly participates in picture-taking. Repeatedly she tells us that there are services on Sunday morning at 10:00, and that children come.

Our Buddhist nun and kids on the temple grounds in Southern California

Our Buddhist nun and kids on the temple grounds in Southern California

Then she guides us to the best display on the far side of the building: a huge artificial molded mountain with cracks and crevices and waterfalls. She flips a switch and water flows down the mountain and into the streams. You must look closely here, for on the tiny ledges and ridges, there are ceramic, wood, and plastic knick-knacks—a tiger, a farmer with hat, a bridge with someone about to cross it, small intricate pagodas, birds, a water buffalo, small cross-legged buddhas—the longer you look, the more you see.

In the moat at the foot of the mountain, koi, goldfish, and transparent minnows swim lazily. The nun finds the fish food container and hands each child a capfull to toss into the pond.

Rose and Calvin are charmed; I am, too. What fun someone had making this!

Finally our nun friend guides us into the carpeted meditation room or sanctuary. We take off our shoes before we enter. In the front of the room are three large gold Buddhas. The nun explains they are from Thailand, Vietnam, and Myanmar. On the left wall, there are several hundred small, framed portrait photos. Those are pictures of community members who have died, she explains.

Then she turns. A short middle-aged man dressed in a saffron robe steps into the sanctuary. There’s something about him that conveys he isn’t pleased to see us, though his words are welcoming. “This is my master,” says our nun, arm extended to greet him. And in a second, she disappears through a door that I had not noticed.

That was the last we saw of our nun. The gentleman spoke with is briefly. He gave Calvin a plastic bottle of water, with a curt “Say, Thank you” before Calvin even had a chance to come up with that on his own. We exited the room, put on our shoes, took a last look at the mountain and fish moat, and then left the premises.

On the way out, passing a window that I thought might lead to the room where the nun might have been, I called out, Thank you! Who knows whether she heard me. But I wanted her to know what a lovely contribution she’d made to our day and to our knowledge of other religions and cultures.

Doesn’t just about every town in America these days have some immigrant or refugee community, for example, from Asia—Vietnam, China, India, Cambodia, Pakistan; or from Central and South America—Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Columbia; or from Africa—Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia? And don’t those immigrant communities often have small shops that sell goods from far away places, and small centers of worship.

What great opportunities these immigrant communities provide us as parents and grandparents to PLUS IT! with our kids, to use ordinary summer days to extend their knowledge (and our knowledge) of other cultures. Such an easy way to experience adventure and travel.

Do let me know if you’ve made such an excursion with kids.

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Create a Literacy Rich Home–3: Think Aloud When Reading Aloud

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Reading aloud to children is one of the very best things a parent or care-giver can do to prepare them for success in school. Sometimes people read aloud in a mechanical just-keep-turning-the-pages way. But you can also really PLUS a reading experience by using a technique called Think Aloud. I’ll bet both you and the children will have more fun when you use it.

What Think Aloud means is that you just stop briefly while you’re reading to tell your thoughts and feelings about what you read, or to ask about the child’s reactions. It might be as simple as saying, “Wow, I didn’t know that!” or “Eek, I wonder what they’ll use to put out the fire. What do you think…” before you turn the storybook page.

I was reading a classic book, Firemouse (written and magnificently illustrated by Nina Barbaresi) to my four-year-old grandson yesterday. We were into our third reading, at least, when I stopped and made a few “think aloud” comments. He joined right in, pointing out details I’d missed, because I was paying attention to the words and he was eating up the illustrations. What bonding that creates with a kid. And we laughed out loud at Suspender’s comment, “Little fur-wads!” even the third time through.

Please read more about how to Think Aloud when you’re reading aloud at this link.

The website What Kids Need to Succeed is going to regularly carry brief articles about how you can help children become better readers and learners. They’re all great, easy-to-do activities. (I know that because I wrote them and have given permission to What Kids Need to Succeed to use them.)

Good teachers use the Think Aloud technique often. So you can help prepare your children for school success by getting them comfortable with talking and thinking about stories and books.

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“It Is Wonderful. . .”

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A lovely woman, a former kindergarten teacher, I met this week writes:

“I had some inspirations about potential marketing for Plus-It. First of all, it is wonderful, and I would like to order some as gifts. The book will make wonderful Xmas gifts to our neighbors with young children, to family members, to new grandparents, and (here is my marketing idea-)-at children’s stores and for baby showers and as gifts to new grandparents!

“Put me down for ten copies…”

Now if that doesn’t cheer my little writer’s heart! Thank you, Charlene!

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