Monday, July 16, 2018

The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups

Author: Erika Christakis

Pages: 299

Rating: G

To a four-year-old watching bulldozers at a construction site or chasing butterflies in flight, the world is awash with promise. Little children come into the world hardwired to learn in virtually any setting and about any matter. Yet in today’s preschool and kindergarten classrooms, learning has been reduced to scripted lessons and suspect metrics that too often undervalue a child’s intelligence while overtaxing the child’s growing brain. These mismatched expectations wreak havoc on the family: parents fear that if they choose the “wrong” program, their child won’t get into the “right” college. But Yale early childhood expert Erika Christakis says our fears are wildly misplaced. Our anxiety about preparing and safeguarding our children’s future seems to have reached a fever pitch at a time when, ironically, science gives us more certainty than ever before that young children are exceptionally strong thinkers.
            In her pathbreaking book, Christakis explains what it’s like to be a young child in America today, in a world designed by and for adults, where we have confused schooling with learning. She offers real-life solutions to real-life issues, with nuance and direction that takes us far beyond the usual prescriptions for fewer tests, more play. She looks at children’s use of language, their artistic expressions, the way their imaginations grow, and how they build deep emotional bonds to stretch the boundaries of their small worlds. Rather than clutter their worlds with more and more stuff, sometimes the wisest course for us is to learn how to get out of their way.
            Christakis’s message is energizing and reassuring: young children are inherently powerful, and they (and their parents) will flourish when we learn new ways of restoring the vital early learning environment to one that is best suited to the littlest learners. This bold and pragmatic challenge to the conventional wisdom peels back the mystery of childhood, revealing a place that’s rich with possibility.

My Thoughts: I found this book to be completely fascinating. The summary above gives a really good description of what you can find in this book, although I did feel at the end that the author spent much more time discussing what NOT to do than she did giving solutions of what we SHOULD do. Partly because what we SHOULD be doing is so difficult to quantify, evaluate, and standardize.

I did appreciate that she brings up the idea that just because children are small does not mean that they don't deserve a quality preschool program, and that's even harder to find than a high quality public school, given that preschool teachers are even more poorly compensated than their K-12 counterparts. Then there's the ever present question of when does "preschool" become just "daycare"?

 I bookmarked a million pages in this book, because there was a lot I wanted to remember. For example, this quote "a teacher's educational level and licensure, preschool class size, and teacher to student ratio have only a limited and indirect effect on preschool quality, whereas a warm, responsive teaching style and knowledge of child development...have a direct positive impact on learning." (pg 20)

Another interesting point was the importance of just watching and observing our children. "It's essential to put the gadgets away, dispense with the educational work sheets and the beginner readers...and simply get down on the floor to watch quietly." (pg 56) It's important to interact with children on their terms, to let them tell us about their world, and without foisting our own expectations on them or their experiences. This part made me think of Mr. Rogers, who was somewhat of an expert at this."Loving, unjudgmental observation can help us guide children into the optimal learning zone, where we can see their vitality and power."

There's so much more that I gleaned from this book, and I think it was really useful as a parent and as a former (and possibly future) educator. I highly recommend this, if only to get your wheels turning a little bit about what you teach and WHY. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

I Thought it Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame

Author: Brene Brown

Pages: 285

Rating: PG-13 - There is a bit of language on occasion.

Summary: We live in a culture that tells us we must reject our bodies, reject our authentic stories, and ultimately reject our true selves in order to fit in and be accepted. After talking to hundreds of women and therapists, Dr. Brown illuminates the myriad shaming influences that dominate our culture, and explains why we are all vulnerable to shame.

Outlining an empowering new approach that dispels judgment and awakens us to the genuine acceptance of ourselves and others, I Thought It Was Just Me begins a crucial new dialogue of hope. Through potent personal narratives and examples from real women, Brown identifies and explains four key elements that allow women to transform their shame into courage, compassion, and connection. Shame is a dark and sad place in which to live a life, keeping us from connecting fully to our loved ones and being the women we were menat to be. But learning how to understand shame's influence and move through it toward full acceptance of ourselves and others takes away much of shame's power to harm.

It's not just you, you're not alone, and if you fight the daily battle of feeling like you are -- somehow -- just not "enough," you owe it to yourself to read this book and discover your infinite possibilities as a human being.

My Thoughts: I really loved this book. As a person who has always struggled with connecting well with others, this book gave me some of the reasons why that might be, and some ideas on how to connect even when I don't feel like I know how. It also really opened my eyes to some of the things from my past and my childhood that I may be harboring shame about, which can negatively effect the way I interact with people now. I took screenshot after screenshot of pages of this book so I can review much of it. SO good. Want to know how to respond with empathy when you haven't had the same experience as someone else? Read this book. Want to know how to deal with it when you have a shame experience? Read this book. Want to know how to get better at dealing with shame? Read this book. Want to learn the difference between guilt and shame? You got it, read this book.

Many of us probably think that shame is a good thing, especially when it comes to teaching and parenting. Don't we want our kids to feel shame when they do something wrong? The answer is actually no. We want them to feel GUILT, not SHAME. Guilt is "I did something bad" and shame is "I am a bad person." We don't want to make anyone feel like there is something inherently wrong with them.

This book explores 12 categories where women typically experience shame: appearance and body image, motherhood, family, parenting, money and work, mental and physical health, sex, aging, religion, being stereotyped and labeled, speaking out and surviving trauma. Then Dr. Brown gives you some tools and ideas of what to do when you are experiencing shame in any one of these areas. There are also sections discussing addiction and shame, religion and shame (and how being a spiritual person, connected with God, helps with shame, regardless of whether or not you are a member of an organized religion).

There was also a brief section towards the end that explored how men experience shame about different things and how that works for them. I searched but didn't find that she has written a separate book about men quite yet, but I hope that is eventually coming! I found this book enlightening, empowering, and so helpful in my quest to love and accept others and myself more freely.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way

Author: Amanda Ripley

Pages: 232

Rating: G

How do other countries create “smarter” kids? What is it like to be a child in the world’s new education superpowers? The Smartest Kids in the World “gets well beneath the glossy surfaces of these foreign cultures and manages to make our own culture look newly strange....The question is whether the startling perspective provided by this masterly book can also generate the will to make changes” (The New York Times Book Review).

In a handful of nations, virtually all children are learning to make complex arguments and solve problems they’ve never seen before. They are learning to think, in other words, and to thrive in the modern economy. Inspired to find answers for our own children, author and Time magazine journalist Amanda Ripley follows three Americans embed­ded in these countries for one year. Kim, fifteen, raises $10,000 so she can move from Oklahoma to Finland; Eric, eighteen, trades his high-achieving Minnesota suburb for a booming city in South Korea; and Tom, seventeen, leaves a historic Pennsylvania village for Poland.

Through these young informants, Ripley meets battle-scarred reformers, sleep-deprived zombie students, and a teacher who earns $4 million a year. Their stories, along with groundbreaking research into learning in other cultures, reveal a pattern of startling transformation: none of these countries had many “smart” kids a few decades ago. Things had changed. Teaching had become more rigorous; parents had focused on things that mattered; and children had bought into the promise of education.

My Thoughts: This book was incredible. I can hold my own in a heated conversation about what is wrong with the education system in our country. I have a lot of opinions and thoughts on the subject, so this book was right up my alley. Interestingly enough, this book didn't affirm all the opinions I already have. In fact, it challenged some of my ideas, and maybe even changed some of them!

For example, academic achievement actually has LESS to do with socioeconomic status and parent involvement than we may have thought. Yes, those things matter, but the author found that children living in poverty in Poland are still performing better than children in the US who live in similar conditions. A teacher in Finland says he tries as much as possible to ignore the various challenges of each student, because he finds when he treats them all the same, they tend to perform much better.

Other questions this book brought to light - In America, are we actually spending TOO MUCH on technology and other classroom toys that don't seem to actually make any kind of difference? Do we allow our schools to spend too much money and time on sports, instead of academics? Do we churn out too many teachers who aren't really all that qualified? What would happen if we truly had a common standard across the US of what kids should know in each grade? What would happen if instead of dumbing everything down, we instead increased rigor and expected MORE of our students?

One quote I loved towards the end "High school in Finland, Korea, and Poland had a purpose, just like high school football practice in America. There was a big, important contest at the end, and the score counted."

A fascinating aspect of a Finnish education was that almost half of kids there have received special education services by the time they turn 17. Children in special ed are seen as having temporary problems, not permanent setbacks, and all kids can improve. This actually reminded me of the attitude we had at the school I worked at for years. I worked helping kids who didn't qualify for special ed, but still needed help. Our goal was to get them out of our program as soon as possible. And not in like a hooray we got rid of that kid type of way, no. We saw it as they graduated and no longer needed our help and that was always a huge victory.

Lest you think this is just a book to make you feel worse about our education system, there's a handy appendix in the back listing things to look for in a good school. I found that really helpful and interesting, as actually most of the ideas are ones that I would not have considered.

I feel like this book should be required of every teacher, parent, administrator, and lawmaker! You won't regret reading this one, and it's not full of technical scientific jargon. I found it easy to read and keep reading. I was finished with it in 2 days.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Winter Garden

Author: Kristin Hannah

Pages: 391

Rating: PG-13 (There is some language, some sex is discussed as well. Mostly, it's just a very mature subject matter, I would rate it high school and above.)

Meredith and Nina Whitson are as different as sisters can be. One stayed at home to raise her children and manage the family business; the other followed a dream and traveled the world to become a famous photojournalist. But when their beloved father falls ill, these two estranged sisters will find themselves together again, standing alongside their disapproving mother, Anya, who even now offers no comfort to her daughters. On his deathbed, their father extracts a promise: Anya will tell her daughters a story; it is one she began years ago and never finished. This time she will tell it all the way to the end. The tale their mother tells them is unlike anything they’ve heard before—a captivating, mysterious love story that spans more than sixty years and moves from frozen, war-torn Leningrad to modern-day Alaska. Nina’s obsession to uncover the truth will send them all on an unexpected journey into their mother’s past, where they will discover a secret so shocking, it shakes the foundation of their family and changes who they believe they are.

My Thoughts: A good historical fiction novel always leads me to do my own research on the time period to learn more than I could from the book. This novel was no exception. I found myself on Google many times during and after my reading, looking up pictures, stories, facts, etc. This book is about Stalin - controlled Russia going into World War II, specifically the siege of Leningrad. I knew next to nothing about this subject before I started reading. Now, my curiosity has been awakened and I want to learn more!  I knew Stalin was bad, but I never really knew HOW bad. I had never read any accounts of what happened. Although this book is a work of fiction, it is historically accurate as far as the author could make it, and many (if not almost all) of Anya's experiences are things that happened to real people.

This book was truly moving, inspiring, all the other really good words you can use to describe a book. It was thought-provoking and it caused me to ponder and reflect on my life experiences and how they related to the lives of the characters. I almost always put this book down with a profound feeling of gratitude for the freedoms and luxuries I enjoy just because I live in the United States in the 21st Century.

This book is also about forgiveness, understanding, and being unafraid to love. It was just so so good. Highly recommend it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

Author: Brene Brown

Pages: 126

Rating: G

Summary: In this groundbreaking New York Times best seller, Dr. Brene Brown, a research professor and thought leader on vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame, shares ten guideposts on the power of Wholehearted living - a way of engaging with the world from a  place of worthiness.

My Thoughts: Ok, I could NOT find a decent summary of this book. BUT, it was so good. This is the first Brene Brown book I've read and I LOVED it. I wish I had more time to look through it and highlight and specifically put things into action, but it has to go back to the library! HOWEVER, I love that at the end of each chapter, she lists 3 things to do to get going in making a change in your life. I love it! For reference sake, I will list the chapter titles so you can see how awesome this book is.

1. Courage, Compassion, and Connection: The Gifts of Imperfection
2. Exploring the Power of Love, Belonging, and Being Enough
3. The Things that Get in the Way
4. Cultivating Authenticity: Letting Go of What People Think
5. Cultivating Self-Compassion: Letting Go of Perfectionism
6. Cultivating a Resilient Spirit: Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness
7. Cultivating Gratitude and Joy: Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark
8. Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith: Letting Go of the Need for Certainty
9. Cultivating Creativity: Letting Go of Comparison
             A favorite quote from this chapter was "There's no such thing as creative people and non-creative people. There are only people who use their creativity and people who don't. Unused creativity doesn't just disappear. It lives within us until it's expressed, neglected to death, or suffocated by resentment and fear."
10. Cultivating Play and Rest: Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-Worth
11. Cultivating Calm and Stillness: Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle
12. Cultivating Meaningful Work: Letting Go of Self-Doubt and "Supposed to"
13. Cultivating Laughter, Song, and Dance: Letting Go of Being Cool and "Always in Control"

I really thought this book was excellent, and like I said, I wish I had more time with it to study it more in depth! Highly recommend.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Everything Everything

Author: Nicola Yoon

Pages: 306

Rating: PG-13 (There is no language, but there is a 2 page sex scene. Not overly graphic, but still somewhat descriptive)

Summary: Risk everything . . . for love.
What if you couldn’t touch anything in the outside world? Never breathe in the fresh air, feel the sun warm your face . . . or kiss the boy next door? In Everything, Everything, Maddy is a girl who’s literally allergic to the outside world, and Olly is the boy who moves in next door . . . and becomes the greatest risk she’s ever taken. 

My disease is as rare as it is famous. Basically, I’m allergic to the world. I don’t leave my house, have not left my house in seventeen years. The only people I ever see are my mom and my nurse, Carla.

But then one day, a moving truck arrives next door. I look out my window, and I see him. He's tall, lean and wearing all black—black T-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and a black knit cap that covers his hair completely. He catches me looking and stares at me. I stare right back. His name is Olly.

Maybe we can’t predict the future, but we can predict some things. For example, I am certainly going to fall in love with Olly. It’s almost certainly going to be a disaster.

My Thoughts:
I really enjoyed this book. It was a quick read (I read it in less than 2 days). It definitely moved quickly, was exciting, and fun! Although, it was one of those books that I wish could have been told from several different perspectives. I wanted Olly's thoughts, the mom's thoughts, etc. It was really good though. I wasn't super satisfied with the ending. I had questions that weren't answered. I wished there was an epilogue. I have not seen the movie. I may have to reserve it. I did like the book though.  

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Dear Reader

Author: Mary O'Connell

Pages:  293

Rating: PG-13 (There is almost no language EXCEPT for one page in which there is a letter that one of the main characters wrote in which the F-word is used profusely. But the rest of the book is clean. There are mentions of teenage sex but no graphic descriptions).

For seventeen-year-old Flannery Fields, the only respite from the plaid-skirted mean girls at Sacred Heart High School is her beloved teacher Miss Sweeney’s AP English class. But when Miss Sweeney doesn't show up to teach Flannery's favorite book, Wuthering Heights, leaving behind her purse, Flannery knows something is wrong.
The police are called, and Flannery gives them everything―except Miss Sweeney's copy of Wuthering Heights. This she holds onto. And good thing she does, because when she opens it, it has somehow transformed into Miss Sweeney's real-time diary. It seems Miss Sweeney is in New York City―and she's in trouble.
So Flannery does something very unFlannery-like: she skips school and sets out for Manhattan, with the book as her guide. But as soon as she arrives, she meets a boy named Heath. Heath is British, on a gap year, incredibly smart―yet he's never heard of Albert Einstein or Anne Frank. In fact, Flannery can't help thinking that he seems to have stepped from the pages of Brontë's novel. Could it be that Flannery is spending this topsy-turvy day with her ultimate fictional romantic hero, Heathcliff, reborn in the twenty-first century?

My Thoughts: I still can't 100% decide how I feel about this book. Was it fun? Yes. Was it addicting and difficult to put down? Also, yes. But, after it was finally over I kind of felt let down. Like...I just didn't get the resolution I was expecting. And it's not that it was just a different kind of ending, but still good, it was that I felt like it all wrapped up so quickly and nothing was really resolved. Maybe I just didn't get it. I don't know. I've never read Wuthering Heights, so maybe that made the difference. If you love that book, you'll probably like this one. I also thought it was a little bit melodramatic. The reviews on GoodReads are mixed. Some love it, some hate it, as is the case with any book. And although I definitely didn't hate it, I didn't love it either. Enjoyable, fun, but not life-changing. And I'm not running out to recommend it to the nearest stranger either.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Catch Me if You Can: The True Story of a Real Fake

Author: Frank W. Abagnale with Stan Redding

Pages: 293

Rating: PG - I was pleasantly surprised at how clean this book is. I had been worried that it might go into detail about some of his sexual encounters, but it never ever did. The most detailed it gets was once he says "We stopped at a cabin for the night and in the morning she was no longer a virgin." That's it. Also there is almost no language that I can remember.

Frank W. Abagnale, alias Frank Williams, Robert Conrad, Frank Adams, and Robert Monjo, was one of the most daring con men, forgers, imposters, and escape artists in history. In his brief but notorious criminal career, Abagnale donned a pilot's uniform and copiloted a Pan Am jet, masqueraded as the supervising resident of a hospital, practiced law without a license, passed himself off as a college sociology professor, and cashed over $2.5 million in forged checks, all before he was twenty-one.

Known by the police of twenty-six foreign countries and all fifty states as "The Skywayman," Abagnale lived a sumptuous life on the lam--until the law caught up with him. Now recognized as the nation's leading authority on financial foul play, Abagnale is a charming rogue whose hilarious, stranger-than-fiction international escapades, and ingenious escapes-including one from an airplane-make Catch Me If You Can an irresistible tale of deceit.

My Thoughts:  I devoured this book in just a couple of days! I have seen the movie several times and even still, the book was fascinating and held some surprises. Obviously, the movie embellished and changed a few things. A lot of it is very true to the actual story but some of it is different and there is also a lot MORE in the book. You can't cover everything in a 2 hour movie.

As I said above, I was pleasantly surprised by how clean this book is. There are no graphic sexual descriptions, and I don't remember encountering any language other than the occasional "damn".  This made the book incredibly addicting to read because I never got uncomfortable. There is also a neat little interview in the back where you learn even more inside information.

Not only was Abagnale smart, he was also incredibly lucky. He escaped more times than he should have done, flew under the radar for years, and just managed to always be in the right place at the right time. He even pulled off a bank robbery, completely alone, without guns or weapons of any kind, and without anyone even noticing until he was long gone.

Honestly I want to just start back at page one and read it again! Highly recommend this one.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

And There Was Light

Author: Jaques Lusseyran

Pages: 282

Rating: PG (there is no language and he doesn't even ever get super descriptive about violence either. However, this is definitely an adult book because the writing is too...dense? for a younger audience. It's very deep and intense)

When Jacques Lusseyran was an eight-year-old Parisian schoolboy, he was blinded in an accident. He finished his schooling determined to participate in the world around him. In 1941, when he was seventeen, that world was Nazi-occupied France. Lusseyran formed a resistance group with fifty-two boys and used his heightened senses to recruit the best. Eventually, Lusseyran was arrested and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp in a transport of two thousand resistance fighters. He was one of only thirty from the transport to survive. His gripping story is one of the most powerful and insightful descriptions of living and thriving with blindness, or indeed any challenge, ever published.

My Thoughts: I found this book...a little tough to get through. There is very little dialogue, and some of the philosophical ideas the author expounds upon went a bit over my head. The story was very interesting, that's for sure, but I felt like he spent way too much time on his childhood and very few pages on his work with the Resistance and subsequent imprisonment. I did enjoy the many reflections on how although he could not see with his eyes, he could still see in many other ways, and most of the time he did not consider himself handicapped at all. I think his general attitude about life is incredibly admirable and worth emulating. He also was one who survived the concentration camps by focusing on helping others instead of on his own difficulties. He fully believed in God the entire time, and realized the importance of just letting each moment of life be what it is and just accepting it.

I think in order to get the full effect of this book you have to pause a lot to reflect on what has just been said. It's not a book you can just read through quickly (like I did). It was definitely a different perspective than I have read before though and was very good!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Bookshop on the Corner

Author: Jenny Colgan

Pages: 332

Rating: PG-13 (there is sex at the end but it is not graphically described. I think 3 instances of the F-word, and one or two other swear words, but they are rare.)

Nina is a literary matchmaker. Pairing a reader with that perfect book is her passion… and also her job. Or at least it was. Until yesterday, she was a librarian in the hectic city. But now the job she loved is no more.

Determined to make a new life for herself, Nina moves to a sleepy village many miles away. There she buys a van and transforms it into a bookmobile — a mobile bookshop that she drives from neighborhood to neighborhood, changing one life after another with the power of storytelling. 
From helping her grumpy landlord deliver a lamb, to sharing picnics with a charming train conductor who serenades her with poetry, Nina discovers there’s plenty of adventure, magic, and soul in a place that’s beginning to feel like home… a place where she just might be able to write her own happy ending.

My Thoughts: I highly enjoyed this book! Nina is a girl after my own soul. She loves to read, and basically has lived her life buried in books, until the library she works at closes, and she no longer has a job. So she follows what some feel is a ridiculous dream, and she moves up to Scotland with a big van full of books to sell. (She lived in England before). I have always wanted to visit Scotland, and the descriptions of the landscape, the people, and the view made me want it even more! There is quite a commentary going on about how living in a city we get too caught up in our own lives, in the screens in front of our faces, and fitting in. Out in the country, things are different. It makes one long for a visit!

At the bottom of it all, this book is really a romance, because as Nina learns more about herself and comes out of her shell, she does find love, but I won't give anything else away.

The one thing I don't like much about this book is the title. "The Bookshop on the Corner" makes me think of a little shop tucked away on a quiet corner of a busy street. But really she has a van and she calls it "The Little Shop of Happy Ever After" so...I'm not sure why that isn't the title of the book.

Also, so many other books are referenced in this one that it made me want to look all of them up! Although I did look up the most frequently referenced book, "Up on the Rooftops" and I don't think that's actually a real book. I think it was fabricated for the purpose of the story.

Anyway, it was a good read. Not too deep, but not boring, and how can you go wrong with a book about someone who loves books?