Archive for August, 2006

Sometimes I Don’t Know Where to Post Things

August 31, 2006 @ 9:04 am | Filed under:

I do most of my posting about Wonderboy over at The Lilting House these days, since special-needs kids are one of my topics there. But this post* is a follow-up to the Quiet Joy piece I wrote here a while back, so I thought I’d link to it for those of you who may not make it over to the ClubMom site as often.

*Broken link fixed—thanks, Karen.

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Now I Really Have Seen the Sweetest Thing Ever

August 31, 2006 @ 8:57 am | Filed under: , ,

A while back, when I was pregnant with Rilla, I wrote about lying next to Wonderboy at naptime and watching him chatter in sign language before he drifted off to sleep. "I don’t think I’ve ever in my life seen anything sweeter," I wrote, "than a toddler signing ‘love.’ "

Well, I was wrong. Because what that boy is doing now is even sweeter still. He is teaching his baby sister to sign. He’ll touch her forehead with his thumb, fingers pointing up: Daddy. Same sign on her chin: Mommy. He strokes her cheek in our special name-sign for Rose, then takes her through the rest of the family. Jane, Beanie, baby.

He forgets to name himself. He’s too busy taking her chubby hands in his and trying to get her to cross her arms over her chest. She belly-laughs, beaming at him. She may not be able to sign it, but she knows he is teaching her love.

Old Story, New Storyteller

August 31, 2006 @ 6:07 am | Filed under:

I am midway through Susan Fletcher’s Shadow Spinner, a retelling of the Scheherazade story that provides the framework for the Arabian Nights tales. Thus far: thoroughly enjoyable, a suspenseful and nuanced look at desperation behind the scenes.  Sharahzad, as she is  called in the novel, has been spinning stories to postpone her own execution for over nine hundred nights, and she is running out of tales to tell. If she falters for a night, her husband the Sultan will have her killed the next morning—and her sister is next, most likely. They enlist the help of a crippled girl with a habit of collecting stories, and it is this girl, Marjan, who is spinning the story of her own life for us. I’m completely hooked.

Reading this book has reminded me how much I enjoy fresh renderings of old stories. Ella Enchanted, for example, and Gail Carson Levine’s other fairy-tales-turned-novel. I always think of the phrase coined by Gail Godwin in Father Melancholy’s Daughter: "respectful imagination." In that novel a professor applies the words to the main character’s knack of looking at a historical figure from that person’s point of view, putting herself in his shoes, envisioning the complex and subtle range of circumstances that push and pull on him. In Shadow Spinner, Susan Fletcher is applying that same respectful imagination to Sheherezade and the people around her. I’m dying to know what happens next.

With so many great lists floating around the kidlitosphere lately—Jen Robinson’s Cool Boys and Cool Girls of Children’s Literature lists and A Year of Reading’s list of Cool Teachers, to name a few—I thought the time was a ripe to start a list of good contemporary retellings of old tales. What are your favorites?

Just the Essentials

August 29, 2006 @ 7:25 pm | Filed under:

(Crossposted at

Tonight I had to run out after dinner to pick up milk for tomorrow’s breakfast. So there I am at the grocery store at 8 p.m. with my five kids, putting the necessities of life on the conveyor belt:

Ice Cream

(Scott had already restocked my supply of the Most Important Pantry Item of All, you remember.)

On the way home we passed a big old turtle on the side of the road. Whooooaaaa, the girls all exclaimed, and they chattered about it all the rest of the evening.

We are easily excited. Me, I didn’t even need the turtle. The ice cream was excitement enough.

From Charlie Brown to Easy Reader

August 29, 2006 @ 6:32 pm | Filed under: , , ,

When I posted not long ago about our passion for the Snoopy CD, a couple of commenters recommended a Peanuts DVD set I had never heard of.

"Have you heard about the recently released DVD This Is America, Charlie Brown; It is eight American History episodes done Peanuts
style and it’s only $15.00 on Amazon. My daughter LOVES it."

So naturally when I had an Amazon coupon burning a hole on my desk (a searing black hole; really I had to do SOMETHING about it, didn’t I?), I  doused that fire with good old Charlie Brown. And wow, wow, wow. We love it. Very good stuff. There are episodes on the Mayflower, the writing of the Constitution, and the history of NASA. Among others.

One thing I’ve been impressed by is how NOT dumbed-down these shows are. The Constitution one has you listening in on the Founders’ debates, and it’s complicated, fascinating stuff. Should lawmakers be elected by the people? The Peanuts gang is riveted by the debate, and so are we. Mighty refreshing to see makers of kids’ shows assuming the kids actually have functioning brains.

The other DVD set we’ve been enjoying lately is something I ordered from Netflix. I’ve been waiting thirty years for this. OK, maybe not exactly thirty, but pretty much since I was old enough to notice that it had disappeared from my PBS line-up. Oh yes, that’s right. The Electric Company. They turned it on, and they gave me the power.

Unlike, say, Captain Crunch, The Electric Company is every bit as magnificent as I remembered from childhood. This is where I met Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman, and Rita Moreno. Also that nice guy with the glasses, and the funny girl with the long dark hair. And Letterman! And commas! And the plumber who has come to fix the sink!

My kids think it’s a riot the way I keep hollering HEY! I REMEMBER THAT!!!!!! from the next room. But more than the groovy (oh so very groovy, with those clothes, those hideous orange and brown sets) cruise down memory lane, these DVDs score points with me for their really classy way of approaching reading instruction. It’s fun, funny, smart, and simple. Good reinforcement for spelling and punctuation ("Punct-punct-punct- PUNCT-uation! They are the little marks that use their influence to make a sentence make more sense!"), too.

I’ve been letting the girls watch one episode a day. Beanie has just recently progressed from hesitant sounding-out of Bob Books to honest-to-goodness reading with Henry & Mudge. The Electric Company came along at just the right time to help her make the leap. For example, in episode one, two of the characters have an argument (mediated by Bill Cosby) over whether the letter G says guh or juh. They take turns presenting examples for their respective sides. I’ll hear Beanie muttering under her breath, repeating the words the characters say. "Game. Gym. Gum. Large."

Meanwhile, Rose is picking up some quite useful spelling and grammar reinforcement. A sentence appears on the screen (in adorably archaic graphics): "The boy who is sitting is sleepy." A comma drops down from above. (It only wobbles a little.) It plops behind the word boy, and then another comma follows suit, landing next to sitting. Simple and effective, and since this occurs in the middle of an engaging song, the lesson isn’t boring.

And that’s the first episode, which is clumsier than subsequent ones. The graphics get (a little) better; the commas get less wobbly; the skits get funnier; the improv gets more polished. And the clothes? Even groovier.

Access, Time, and Road Maps

August 28, 2006 @ 8:25 am | Filed under:

"What children need is not new and better curricula but access to more
and more of the real world; plenty of time and space to think over their
experiences, and to use fantasy and play to make meaning out of them; and
advice, road maps, guidebooks, to make it easier for them to get where
they want to go (not where we think they ought to go), and to find out
what they want to find out."

—John Holt, Teach Your Own

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Discipline and the Special-Needs Toddler

August 28, 2006 @ 6:53 am | Filed under: ,

I’m going to throw this topic open for discussion, because I am certainly no expert here. I am learning as I go. (Which is pretty much the definition of parenting.) I know from talking to other mothers of kids with special needs or medical issues that it can be really challenging (understatement) to figure out what behaviors are caused by the child’s issues, and what has more to with age or temperament. Of course these things are never black and white; there is usually a variety of reasons for why a child is doing something you’d rather he didn’t do. Deciding how to address the problem is the big challenge.

I remember an incident from when Jane was two, during one of her prolonged hospital stays for chemo. Most of the time she was astonishingly cooperative during treatment, but on this day she was emphatically not happy. "Not happy" as in shrieking her lungs out in the middle of the hall. In a flash we were surrounded by about seventeen medical personnel wearing expressions of worry and alarm. Was she seizing? Had she pulled out her line? I remember kneeling beside Jane, looking up at the army of doctors and nurses, explaining to them that no, it’s just that she’s two.

What had happened was that I (gasp) said no to her. No, you can’t sprint down the hall when you’re attached to an i.v. pole. She was two years old and in the mood to sprint, and her tantrum had nothing to do with her illness at all. It could just as well have happened in a grocery store or at church. She just happened to be spending her toddlerhood in a hospital, and when toddler ‘tude kicked in, it happened in a place where the staff was trained to assume screaming and flailing of limbs indicated a medical emergency.

I can see how they made that mistake. These things are not always clear cut. My Wonderboy is a sweet, sweet child. But he’s also, shall we say, a bit rigid. And determined. That determination serves him well; after all, it’s what got him off the floor and onto the furniture. But he is two and a half, and his goals are not always quite as satisfactory, from my point of view, as, say, walking and climbing. And often I find myself navigating difficult and uncharted waters. If he’s doing something inappropriate, how much has to do with his issues (I sort of hate that word) and how much with his age, or his mood, or circumstance? That’s a rhetorical question, you understand. No one can answer it for me. The answer changes every day, with every situation.

But the challenge is consistent, and I think it’s a challenge faced by a lot of parents. Wonderboy grows daily more fluent in two languages: English and ASL. But there are many times when he refuses to use either one. He’ll sit in his chair and reach toward the fridge making totally obnoxious fussing sounds. This is not OK, I tell him. Use your words. Do you want some yogurt? I have my strategies for retraining this inappropriate behavior: I sign his choices (he can’t hear me when he’s fussing); I refuse to give him anything if he fusses for it. ("Inappropriate behavior gets you the opposite of what you want" is one of my basic principles of child-rearing.) Fussing that escalates to a tantrum gets him plopped in the playpen penalty box. (At least, it did until I packed the playpen away for house-showing. Now I use his bed.)

But during such lovely little episodes, of course I’m wondering how much of his behavior is bad habit in need of retraining, and how much is the big old frustrating communication gap that goes along with hearing loss, which will be less of a hurdle as he gets older.

I’m just using that scenario as an example of the kind of thing I mean. Before he was able to stand up, he’d sit and cry or shriek for someone to get him. Of course I felt sorry for him, stuck there, dependent on someone else for mobility; I couldn’t leave him crying on the floor. But neither could I allow him to think the way you get what you want is to scream for it. I had fears of raising an imperious, obnoxious little tyrant who thought his physical limitations gave him carte blanche to order people around, like Colin in The Secret Garden.

So day after day—hour after hour, it sometimes seemed—I worked with him, insisting that he sign "help" before I’d get him up. Sometimes I felt so mean. Sometimes it went on too long. Sometimes we had to BE somewhere, or one of his sisters needed me, and I had to just grab him and go—which, of course, is just the kind of inconsistency that delays the formation of the good habit. But little by little, we got there. He learned to ask for help. Nicely.

And I know he’ll learn to ask for yogurt, nicely. It just takes so much diligence on my part, and that can be exhausting—the need to always be focused, to be thinking about how I react rather than simply reacting on autopilot.

As I said, I know I’m far from the only mom in this boat. So I figured I’d open the topic to you all and see if it’s a subject you’re interested in pursuing. I’m not all homeschooling and fun learning stuff here; I’m special-needs kids too. (And also: large families. And: big scary cross-country moves. But I digress.) I would love to hear your stories and insights about raising kids who pose behavioral challenges on top of the regular challenge of being, you know, two years old. (Or three, or four, or five…)