Archive for Thoughts and Ideas


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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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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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–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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Idea: A Toy Library

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I just learned of a new-to-me idea. It’s especially great for people living in small spaces, people on a budget, people who like variety, and people who have kids that grow up fast: it’s a toy library!

An Austin, TX mother writes about it in her first blog entry. Check out for details. (This blogger-mother is the daughter of an old friend whom I haven’t seen in about 38 years! We just reconnected via Facebook.)

For a Toy Library to work, there need to be a central location—perhaps a food coop or community center or day care facility or church would be appropriate. In the Austin case, according to austinfrugalmom, it’s called “Family Place Library.” For a small annual donation, parents/members check out toys for two weeks at a time. I’ll bet there’s even provision for longer-term renewals, if some child becomes especially attached to a particular plaything. And I’ll bet people are expected to return the toys clean and refreshed/repaired if necessary.

It seems to me one of the best things about this is that when kids tire of toys, one simply returns them for someone else to enjoy, which leaves space for new things to come in.

Brilliant. Practical. Green. Fun. Certainly worth a try in other communities.

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Create a Literacy Rich Home–2: Imagination

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Wow. I’m reading a book about dreams and imagination and loving what I’m learning*.

There are spectacular opportunities for parents to support the intellectual and emotional growth of kids when they encourage expressions of imagination!

Why haven’t I read or studied about this in depth before? It feels like I’ve missed a whole world of possibilities, or I’m a Jill-come-lately.

Why is imagination important? Because it (and the unconscious) is a never-ceasing fountain of creativity, solutions, information, and much, much more.

It’s where great ideas, inventions, and actions start. Certainly it can help children learn to read and comprehend better when someone at home is interested in and talks about the imagination.

Here are ideas of ways parents can give kids an advantage in feeling comfortable using the imagination. There are many more, of course. And every one of these activities can be expanded in myriad ways, if we use our imaginations(!).

1) Talk about dreams that show up during night sleep. You can simply ask children, “Do you remember any dreams you had last night?” Then allow them to tell what they remember, if anything.

When you ask this fairly often, you may start getting interesting replies. There’s no need to do anything with the dreams; just listening may be enough to communicate that dreams can have value and information.

2) Explain about visual symbols—how a picture has a message—from the most basic, like a red hand in pedestrian signal box at a traffic light means don’t walk, to the circle with a line through over a picture of a dog which means dogs not allowed here, to more subtle symbols.

You can ask, “What do you think that picture on that box or ad is saying?” A child’s answer might be very different from yours; let that be okay; you can both share ideas.

3) Comment on things in your child’s artwork. “The boy in the picture you drew looks like he’s jumping up high. I wonder what he’s feeling.” Or, “That butterfly has so many colors, I expect it is happy.” Children may tell you something entirely different from what you thought.

4) Talk about what nursery rhymes or poems or stories might mean. Is “Humpty Dumpty” about things that happen that can’t be changed, so we just feel sad and then accept them? Is “Cinderella” about how things can feel unfair, but then in time they can change? What about fairy tales? Harry Potter stories? What do they show us?

Do you have other suggestions for parents of ways to encourage imagination? Please put them in the comments section, so we can get a

*The book I’m reading is Robert A. Johnson’s, Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth, Harper & Row, 1986.

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The Value of Godparents

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Do you have a godparent? Are you a godparent? What does the term mean to you?

Godparenting is something I associate with the Catholic Church, and because I grew up as a Protestant, I didn’t know anything about the role.

But Robert A. Johnson, a famous Jungian analyst whose memoir, Balancing Heaven and Earth, I am reading, just awakened me to what godparenting can be. And it’s quite wonderful!

He calls godparenting a profound art. “A godparent is designated as the teacher of the inner world for a young person while his or her natural parents are the caretakers of the physical and practical aspects of life.”

A godparent is a mentor and guide for a child, one who appreciates the child’s inner worlds, emotional and spiritual. Johnson said he had three godparents in his youth, and they virtually saved his life, as his childhood was very difficult.

So what might be characteristics of sensitive godparents? Surely they would be patient, very patient, and kind to a child. They would listen deeply, encouraging the child to reveal thoughts, explorations, ideas, and feelings. Godparents would hear longings, and find ways to address them, if only by naming and acknowledging them. Godparents might teach skills or the appreciation of music, the arts, history, and more. Godparents would notice the natural abilities and interests of a child and encourage them. Godparents might teach children how to untangle fear and anger, and use those emotional experiences as information and stepping-stones to freedom and acceptance.

I imagine good godparents might store up stories about a child, noticing growth and changes, and reflect these to the child occasionally. A good godparent might provide a place of refuge in the storms of adolescence. And a good godparent might follow a child well into adult life, always providing the sense: You are special to me. You are on-course, you are learning what you need to learn, you are safe.

Gee, I’d like a godparent even now!

Yes, this is a role our culture could well revive. Contemporary children and families would be greatly supported by having true godparents around. I wonder whether there are godparenting classes available anywhere. Hmm.

Categories : Thoughts and Ideas
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