The Children's Hour column
[Back]

Marina Times, San Francisco

THE CHILDREN'S HOUR

a column by Max Millard

[Top]

September 2004

WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A TEACHER

It was the book that started an industry. In 1989, Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen published Chicken Soup for the Soul, a collection of straight-to-the-gut stories about the irrepressible spirit of the human heart. Today, almost every medium-size bookstore has a whole shelf of "Chicken Soup" books with dozens of titles. Not many people remember that the very first story in the first book was about a teacher who changed the lives of hundreds of boys in a Baltimore ghetto, helping them become model citizens while their peers fell into lives of despair. When a researcher asked her secret, she answered simply: "I loved those boys."

If you love children, you cannot fail in teaching. The other details will eventually fall into place. Some teachers tell me that preparation is everything, and I believe it. If you plan a new activity and have all your materials ready, you are in a win-win situation. If the activity is a hit, you add it to your bag of tricks, knowing that it will be much easier the next time. If it's a dud, it's still a win for you, because you have learned something about the kids' interests and intellectual process that you didn't know before. Teachers who want to keep improving must analyze their own performance each day, like a comedian testing new material.

Being a successful teacher requires two areas of strength a good educational program and good classroom management. Many teachers have one but not both. Someone might have all the knowledge needed to teach a subject and a clear way of explaining things, but be ineffective if he can't control the classroom. Other teachers have a talent for managing the classroom but don't have anything to teach! The two skills are equally important, and teachers must develop both of them at the same time.

To manage a classroom successfully, a teacher must be consistent, and there must be consequences for breaking the rules. In the wise words of TV shrink Dr. Phil McGraw: "Children have to be able to predict the consequences of their actions with 100 percent accuracy."

Tribes Agreement

The elementary school where I work as an after-school teacher follows the Tribes agreement, which is used by many schools. These four rules are posted in every classroom:

1. Mutual respect
2. No put-downs
3. Attentive listening
4. Right to pass

As simple as the rules are, they cover most potential problems. Mutual respect means that everyone in the school should have equal rights. No put-downs includes insults, foul language, cliquish snobbery and intimidation. Attentive listening the teacher's favorite rule is a constant reminder to be quiet or to stop doing other things during a lesson. The final rule, right to pass, is the students' favorite, because it lets them be excused from activities that make them uncomfortable. If they are asked to write a bio of themselves and their families, or to stand in front of the class and tell a story, they can decline gracefully.

Unwritten Rules

Each classroom also has its own unwritten rules, which may vary according to the teacher. But they need to be established as regular habits to make the day run smoothly. They cover such as things as:

Seating Procedures for beginning and ending the period
Storage of backpacks
Use of classroom materials
Putting away work and cleaning up
Activities for those who finish early
Emergency procedures for fire or earthquake
Signals to get the students' attention

Sometimes a classroom starts to get out of control. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because it might mean that the children are so involved in an activity that they forget themselves. But whatever the reason, there are times when the teacher needs to make everyone snap to attention.

Of course, the easiest way to make everyone quiet down is to shout. But this should be the last resort. It's not effective when overused. It increases the noise level in the room and encourages the children to talk over the teacher. Even the most experienced teachers do shout sometimes, but those who shout excessively will lose the affection and respect of their class. The most common criticism I hear from children about other teachers is that they yell too much.

Instead, choose a signal that signifies it's time to be quiet. Here are some techniques that may work:

"Give me five!" Hold your hand up in the air and wave your fingers.
"One two three, eyes on me!"
Clap five times, have the class clap twice in response, like in the old cartoon bit: "Shave and a haircut, two bits."

Good Behavior

Again quoting Dr. Phil: "It's easier to get a child to do what you want by rewarding good behavior than by punishing bad behavior." Think positive! The better you are at encouraging good behavior, the less time and energy you will spend correcting misbehavior. Throughout life, people are more likely to be criticized for bad behavior than praised for good behavior, but it should be the other way around.

Some children feel such a strong need for any attention at all that they misbehave just to avoid being ignored. If you give them credit for behaving well, you might find they would rather be "good" than "bad" in order to get attention. Try to catch them being good!


[Top]

October 2004

STORYTELLING: THE OLDEST ENTERTAINMENT

Once upon a time ...

Who can resist a good story? Almost everyone, regardless of age, has a "story life" -- the amount of time he spends being entertained, whether by the idiot box, the Broadway stage or the DVD player.

The natural appetite for entertainment can be channeled into a powerful teaching tool. When I began teaching children, my most important equipment was a collection of children's books that I had read to my son from the time he could first comprehend words. A mainstay of my first teaching job was to bring some of these books to school each day and read them dramatically while holding them open to show the pictures.

Later, I learned that it was far more effective to learn the stories by heart and to retell them in my own words. I started by gathering the children on the rug to avoid distractions, then stood up, paced about, maintained eye contact with them, and used hand gestures as dramatic elements. The art of storytelling is probably the world's oldest form of entertainment, and I believe it is still the best way to communicate directly from one mind to another.

Eventually I established the habit of telling one story a week. The class looked forward to the stories and had high expectations of them, just as grownups eagerly anticipate a favorite TV show. Although I liked being able to hold the children's attention so well, the weekly storytime brought several new challenges: (1) Where would I get my stories? (2) How could I learn the stories well enough to tell them? (3) How could I use the stories to teach practical information?

I first turned to the classics. Probably the greatest authors of children's stories in Western literature are Jacob and Wilhelm, who collected and adapted stories they heard from German peasants during the early 1800s, and Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75), the Danish writer who wrote original stories in the tradition of Aesop. The Grimm brothers' stories include Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin and Snow White; among Andersen's are The Ugly Duckling, The Emperor's New Clothes, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and The Little Mermaid.

While many kids today have seen the bloodless, Disneyfied versions of these stories on film, the originals tend to pack a bigger punch and to convey a more lasting moral. Andersen's Little Mermaid dies in the end, and the tin soldier is thrown into the fire along with the paper ballerina. Through their literary genius and psychological insight, the great children's writers instinctively knew that their stories were not mere entertainment, but valuable life lessons. Children who hear these stories are left with something to ponder -- right and wrong, good and evil, duty and honor -- unlike TV cartoons that seem designed only to keep them from switching channels.

Aesop's 2500-year-old fables are timeless, and the Tales from the Arabian Nights retain their magic after nearly 1000 years. Another favorite collection is Just So Stories, mythical animal stories written by Nobel Prize-winning author Rudyard Kipling in 1902, who spent his formative years in India. And for older kids, the works of Edgar Allan Poe are unmatched. Many of these stories contain archaic language, so they benefit from retelling in everyday speech.

Because most of the children in my classes are nonwhite, I seek out stories from non-Western sources. The public library has many audiotapes of children's stories available. One of the best I've found is a series by Pleasant DeSpain titled Multicultural Tales to Tell. DeSpain is a master storyteller who collects stories from around the world and records them with appropriate sound effects.

Like most teachers, I always have a Niagara of paperwork flowing across my desk, so I prefer to make my storytelling a fun project by learning all the stories orally. I collect recordings of favorite stories, then plan in advance which one I want to learn for the following week. I copy the individual story onto a cassette tape, then play it at home repeatedly, until I've learned it well enough to tell it my own words. It comes out naturally, allowing me to give my undivided attention to the children. This is a great advantage over reading a book aloud, when you must keep returning your gaze to the page.

I like to start each storytelling session by telling the class where each story came from, then asking for a volunteer to point to that country on a map and to name the continent. After the story, I ask the children to try to tell me the lessons it teaches.

Although many children don't seem to "get" the exercise and simply repeat back what they have heard, others surprise me by giving interpretations that I hadn't thought of myself. Some of the lessons are a little depressing -- life isn't fair, bad people sometimes win, appreciate what you've got because you might lose it -- but I believe it's useful to learn the realities behind the fantasy.

One of my best-received stories last year was David and Goliath. I told the unvarnished biblical version, in which Goliath declares that he will cut David to pieces and give his flesh to the fowls of the air and the beasts of the field. And when David strikes the giant in the forehead with a stone, he grabs Goliath's sword and cuts his head off. Those are pretty graphic images for young children, but I put my faith in the writers of old, who chose their words carefully and knew how to leave a lasting impression.

Probably the greatest lesson to be learned from storytelling is the sheer power of the plain, unadorned word. When children can appreciate good stories, it might lead them to do more reading, writing, or even public speaking. Once they realize that they can be entertained with words alone, literature becomes more than just another school subject.


[Top]

November 2004

COOKING WITH KIDS

Long before he became our nation's 34th president, Dwight D. Eisenhower was famous for his vegetable soup, steaks and cornmeal pancakes. He said that if he hadn't become a general, he would have liked to have a career as a chef, because then he could finish everything he started. He was right: cooking is a demanding and satisfying activity with a happy ending. Food is a subject that appeals to almost everyone, and cooking is perhaps the world's number one hobby.

When I think of how to simplify cooking to make it accessible to children, I remember the instructions about how to boil water from the first page of the classic 1950s best-seller, The James Beard Cookbook: "Fill a saucepan with cold water and put it on the stove. Adjust the burner to high. Let the water heat until it bubbles and surges -- and that is boiling water." Beard added that anyone who could follow those directions could learn to cook.

Almost all children have a natural desire to prepare food and eat their own creations. The only difference between making mud pies and the edible kind is the ingredients. If you break down cooking to its most basic steps, you'll find that any 5-year-old can do most of the steps with a little supervision. Don't wait for your children to get hooked on Gameboy and lose interest in everything else. See how many parents send their kids to school with that chemical-laden abomination of food processing called Lunchables -- or as my son calls it, Junkables. Infuse your teaching with indoctrination about fresh ingredients, natural foods and nutrition, and at the very least, you'll instill a healthy dose of guilt in your children when they overindulge in soft drinks and potato chips.

The one essential ingredient for preparing any dish with children is patience. Don't hurry. Remember that the purpose of your session is not to be efficient, follow instructions precisely or create a culinary masterwork: it's for the children to enjoy the activity enough so that they'll want to do it again. If they learn just a little, they might not have to suffer through years of scrambled eggs, canned soup and TV dinners when they first leave home.

Whether you're cooking with one child or 20, I recommend that you use a modified recipe that lists not only the ingredients, but all the cooking tools needed. Gather everything in one place. Then make sure everyone who's participating washes their hands carefully. That way they can immediately plunge their hands into everything.

Make cooking fun! Don't worry about messes or dirty dishes. Wear your oldest clothes. If you need to break an egg, put a small glass bowl inside a large basin and let the child crack the egg on the side of the bowl and drop the contents inside. If the child misses, the egg will fall in the basin and not on the table. Eggbeaters are toys: let the child use one even if a whisk will do as well.

When a step is too hard for small hands to do alone, you can "help" by pouring sugar into a measuring cup that the child is holding, turning the can opener while the child grips the can, or "finishing" the peeling of a carrot after a child has hacked away at it ineffectively. Children will still feel that they did most of the work, which is the point.

Safety first! The kitchen is a one giant obstacle course of cuts, burns, stains, spills and broken dishes. Always have aprons, oven mitts, sponges, paper towels and a broom on hand. Keep electrical devices unplugged when you're not using them, keep salt shakers sealed unless you're shaking them, have firm lids for everything on the stove, and never leave a child alone in the kitchen.

And finally, prepare things that children like to eat, even if your initial recipes involve excessive chocolate or sugar. The love of cooking may last a lifetime. I have a neighbor in her mid-80s who still fondly remembers the crackling in the pan when she made peanut brittle at school more than 75 years ago. And by the way, she became a sterling cook.


[Top]

December 2004

SINGING WITH CHILDREN

"The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is mov'd with concord of sweet sounds ...
The motions of his spirit are dull as night ... "

- Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

At a time when public schools are trimming their music programs from lack of funds, we should recognize that music has deep and lasting value. Some of the sharpest memories children carry into their adult lives are songs. Whether they learned them at school or summer camp, from TV or CDs, children play back favorite songs back in their minds over and over again until they become permanently fixed in the brain. In severe cases of dementia, people who have lost all other means of communication still respond to the songs they learned in their youth.

The most obvious benefit of music is that it's fun: it lifts the spirits, injects a shot of energy into any situation, provides a break from stress and creates a sense of camaraderie when people sing together. It is also a valuable learning tool for vocabulary, poetry, melody, rhythm, drama, and even foreign languages and history. It can be light and humorous, or it can cut straight to the heart, creating an emotional impact from the combined power of the words and music. The best songs are the ones we remember without trying because they resonate with our inner beings.

When you're singing with children, encourage them to respond physically. Choose a spacious place where they can have a choice of standing, jumping, dancing or sitting, and where they can clap their hands, stamp their feet, and sing without constraint. Give them simple percussion instruments that require no instruction, such as rattles and tambourines. If you keep telling them to settle down, you'll strip them of most of the pleasure. And there's usually no good reason to hold them back: teenagers at rock concerts don't have to sit down and shut up. Why should children?

If you're going to play an instrument while singing, a guitar is probably better than a piano because you can face the children and teach the song more easily. If possible, memorize the lyrics and the chords in advance so that you can devote all your attention to the children -- smiling, maintaining eye contact, and carefully enunciating the lyrics.

"Progressive" songs start off simply, then gradually add a new line with each verse. One example is "The 12 Days of Christmas," which begins with a partridge and ends with 12 drummers drumming.

Other types of children's songs are:

- Clapping songs (B-I-N-G-O) - Nursery rhyme songs (Twinkle Twinkle Little Star) - Songs with fingerplay (Itsy Bitsy Spider) - Songs from children's movies (Over the Rainbow) - Songs that let children choose their own verses (Old McDonald) - Songs that teach the alphabet, months of the year, days of the week, colors (Alphabet Song) - Animal songs (Baby Beluga) - Humorous songs (Down by the Bay) - Songs about children's real-life problems (Don't Laugh at Me) - Songs with sound effects (Comin' Round the Mountain) - Dancing songs (Hokey Pokey) - Echo songs (The Bear) - Foreign language songs (Alouette) - Songs that include the children's own names (The Name Game)

Some perennial favorites have multiple elements, such as Old McDonald, which combines animals, sound effects and progressive repetition, and lets children shout out the next animal.

Children as young as 5 are capable of "playing" a guitar. You only need to seat the child in front of you, put the guitar on his lap, and show him how to hold a guitar pick and strum downward. Help the child establish a rhythm. Then you can finger the chords for a song that matches the child's rhythm, and start singing. The more fun you make it, and the more the child feels in control of the music, the greater will be the attraction.

Search out the best children's recordings and play them around the house. There are many outstanding children's musicians today who manage to blend a catchy tune with a positive message and an entertaining approach. Raffi is probably the best of them, but there are some dating back to the 1940s who left behind classic albums, such as Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives and Pete Seeger. Unlike Raffi, they sang for adults also, but their children's recordings were especially poignant.

Don't let your child be deprived of music. As the late violin virtuoso Isaac Stern said: "Music is not an acquired social habit to be taken once or twice a week. It is a way of life that is basic to any civilized society."


[Top]

January 2005

THE HOMEWORK DILEMMA

When I was attending elementary school in New England in the 1950s and early '60s, homework was something for "big kids." I don't think I ever got any homework until fifth grade. Then it became a minor inconvenience -- to be avoided until the last minute, but always to be done, and without help. My siblings and I sat at the kitchen table after supper and did it by ourselves. It was the same with everyone else we knew. I can recall only one time when either of my parents helped me.

Fast forward to 2000, when my son entered kindergarten in the San Francisco public schools. Two weeks after school began, he received homework almost every day. For summer vacation he was given a large pile of homework to complete by September. Today, as a fourth grader, he often brings home two or three hours of homework. Like many kids, he's not highly self-motivated. So my wife and I take turns sitting with him to nudge him along, answer his questions, explain the more cryptic directions and snap him back to attention. This often goes on until 9:30 or 10 p.m., although my wife must get up at 4:30 to 5 a.m. for her job as a nurse. Even bedtime stories become a luxury. Homework is a major stressor in our lives, robbing us all of needed sleep and leaving my son discouraged and depressed.

My sister, who has a son in kindergarten in Maine, reported that her Christmas vacation was dampened by an assignment in which her son had to copy a recipe for cookies, then follow it and make the cookies himself. What it meant was that he pestered her every day until she made the cookies for him.

When is it advisable for a parent to do homework for a child? Try this: my son's school has a policy that anyone who fails to complete all his homework must sit in the hallway and do it the next day, while the class hears the next lesson. But anyone who misses a lesson falls farther behind and has even more trouble with the next assignment. So the lesser of evils, my wife reasons, is to get up extra early and finish his homework for him.

One solution to the dilemma, a well-meaning simpleton might suggest, would be for children to start their homework by themselves in the afternoon, finish everything that they can, and save the more difficult parts for parental help. In reality, this is not viable because most children learn quickly to hate homework, and lack the self-discipline to rise above their distaste. And I must admit, after being exposed to today's homework as both a parent and a teacher, that much of it is dull, vague and impractical.

A teacher of mine in junior high, who might have been frustrated with his career, used to say: "Life is not doing what you like, but liking what you have to do." I've never bought that brand of small-town cynicism, but for those stuck in the world of childhood, it might have some truth. The great question becomes: how do you get children to make peace with their homework, rather than fighting it?

After-school programs are one answer. Students generally concentrate on their homework for about an hour, and are rewarded by fun activities. The pressures on after-school teachers can be intense, because one teacher may have up to 25 students with several different assignments. Such teachers are sometimes scolded by parents when their child comes home with the homework undone, or not even started. But after-school programs at least provide an environment in which the children have just one of two choices: do your homework, or do nothing at all. Seeing other kids working creates a positive peer pressure.

When my son starts his spring semester on January 3, I will attack the homework problem on two fronts: (1) I've signed him up for an after-school program at another school, because his school has none. (2) I have pledged to unplug the TV for at least three months, for everyone in the family.

These are drastic solutions, but I'm determined to break the cycle of stress that makes our home life revolve around one child's homework. As I often remind my wife, the real purpose of homework should not be to complete it or to get it all right, but to go through the process of doing it.


[Top]

February 2005

UNPLUGGING THE TV

Just after midnight on New Year's Day I unplugged the TV and smothered the end of its cord in a wad of masking tape. I disconnected the VCR, wrapped it in plastic and stuffed the package far back under the bed. Then I stuck a photo to the TV screen and announced that it was the only picture my family would be watching for the next three months.

It wasn't a totally new experience: at least twice in the past decade we had honored Turn Off Your TV Week. But that was before the Homework Blues struck our household like a virus, staggering us with its symptoms of chronic stress, frustration and depression. The disease is familiar to most parents whose children enter the fourth grade -- a pivotal year when teachers often give two-plus hours of homework involving several different assignments, with serious consequences for dereliction.

Along with the increased workload comes a new responsibility for administrating all this monkey business -- copying assignments off the blackboard into a special notebook, keeping track of deadlines, organizing piles of paperwork, and remembering which books to bring back and forth each day. In January I staged a weigh-in as my son and I set off on the long walk to school. Score: boy 80 pounds, backpack 17 pounds.

Like many families, we have a child who won't actually do the homework unless someone is sitting beside him, nudging him along. In the fall semester, after returning home with his grandmother each afternoon, he settled into a pattern of watching TV until dinnertime, which led to a frantic evening of catch-up.

No more. That escape route is now cut off. As I write this, we have been television-free for almost four weeks. The cravings have subsided. His homework habits have not improved noticeably, but he has not developed any new vices to replace TV, and he is less resistant to the "reading club" I started over Christmas vacation. The club meetings, held each non-school day, consist of him, myself, and any of his friends who are visiting to sit at the kitchen table for 60 minutes, and to read any printed material at hand. A favorite choice is my comic book collection from the late 1950s and early 1960s -- mainly Uncle Scrooge, Little Lulu and Superman, which I still rank as classics that have never been excelled.

I learned to read from these comics. When my sister and I were children, our favorite ritual each weekend was to go to a country store and spend our allowance on comics we both liked. We dove into them immediately upon returning home, and didn't come up until we'd finished the last page. Our collection was the envy of my sister's best friend, a girl from a highly educated family whose parents didn't allow comics in their house. Wrong move. I've always believed that anything that can get a child interested in reading is beneficial, as long as it's age-appropriate.

Back to TV. I first recognized the insidious power of TV over children when my son was 2 or 3 years old, and was still a very casual watcher. His favorite toy, which he took everywhere, was an armadillo Beanie Baby that he'd owned since before he could talk. Except for the thick tail, it looked just like a mouse, so my wife, who is Filipino, named the toy "Daga," which is "mouse" in Tagalog. For more than a year, my son called the toy "Daga." But when he and I watched Nature together, he saw a live armadillo and observed that it was closer in resemblance to his toy. From that moment onward, he insisted on calling the toy "Dillo," instinctively sensing that anything he heard on TV must be true, despite what his parents might say.

From the beginning, I forbade him from watching commercial TV at home, limiting his viewing to public TV and prerecorded videos -- mostly to shield him from the negative influence of advertising. But I didn't try to control his outside viewing. This explains his list of top TV choices, in case I should relent: Smackdown and Raw (two wrestling shows), Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon, Digimon, The Simpsons, Maya & Miguel, and the Nickelodeon network.

After the unplugging, I asked a $110-an-hour marriage and family therapist -- who was visiting my family socially -- whether it was cruel to turn off the TV. She told my son directly: "It's not cruel. Your parents are doing it because they love you." I asked my son's school counselor the same question privately. She said it was a wise decision, and confessed, "I wish I could do it in my home."

Although I miss my TV too, I've filled the gap with good music and books on tape. My life is definitely richer without it. Even when programs are carefully chosen, TV provides scientific proof of Sturgeon's Law -- that 90 percent of everything is crud.


[Top]

March 2005

A FOREIGN EXPERIENCE

Four years ago, my wife and I had a vacant bedroom in our apartment that we used for storage until we heard that some language schools in The City were in need of house parents. After checking the Yellow Pages and making a few phone calls, I got a list of schools that specialize in teaching English to foreigners and have "home stay" programs. We filled out a few forms, underwent a home inspection, and soon got our first student -- a 20-year-old from Japan. Since then we have hosted about 20 students from five countries, ranging from their teens to their late 30s.

The advantage of hosting foreign students goes both ways. The students get to experience American culture at an intimate level, practice conversational English in a natural setting, become acquainted with American home cooking, and have the comfort and security of being a temporary member of a family. The hosts earn $600 to $800 a month (depending on the school), learn about foreign cultures, have a live-in companion for their own children, and might even pick up a few words of a new language.

I could fill a whole column with tales of our disasters -- the 16-year-old German girl who wouldn't join us for dinner, but always stayed in her room eating junk food; the Japanese girl who sometimes didn't come home until the next day, and occasionally snuck her boyfriend into her room overnight; the Korean girl who was so depressed that some weekends she stayed in bed all day. But these were the exceptions that made it all the more pleasurable when we got the normal, curious, ambitious, helpful and appreciative students -- the ones who praised our food, modeled impeccable table manners, admired our pets and stayed after dinner to help wash the dishes.

When a young adult or teenager with limited English ability suddenly shares a household with a much younger American child, it creates a combustible learning environment that can be easily exploited. When my son was in first and second grade, he was on the same reading level as most of our students. In the evening, I refereed competitions between them, holding a picture book in my lap while they sat on either side of me, each reading the page on their side. I kept a running score of the pronunciation errors. The Japanese students -- the large majority of our house guests -- were most likely to slip up on anything with the letter R or L, or the TH sound, which they tend to pronounce as an S.

I wrote down each word they got wrong so that they could study the list later. My son was motivated by his desire to show off his superiority with the language. A few students were so humiliated by his shameless crowing that they declined further invitations to "improve their English."

One equalizer is the alphabet game, a simplified version of Scrabble that requires a set of plastic alphabet letters (available from any 99-cent store) and a written sheet of letter values (A = 1, Z = 26, etc.). The vowels can be used over and over, the consonants only once. The players take turns making English words and trying to get the most points, until all the consonants are gone or both players are stumped. The foreign students have an advantage here because of their memorization of complex words that they might be unable to pronounce. But by about fourth grade, most American kids have pulled even.

Card games that involve counting, such as blackjack or cribbage, provide a friendlier type of competition because everyone knows they depend mostly on luck. But they still provide good learning opportunities -- the students for the pronunciation practice and the jargon that accompanies the game, and the children for the math. Whenever my son has friends over for dinner, I coerce them into joining also. Usually the foreign students are quite eager to play, but the children sometimes need to be bribed with the promise of a prize. Still, when I consider that my son's tutoring center costs $20 an hour, it's a smart investment to have a box of 25-cent prizes available.

As a disciple of language guru Barry Farber, I believe there are just two things you need in order to learn a language -- some good study materials and an "informer" -- not necessarily a teacher, but someone who knows the language and is willing to answer your questions. With this in mind, I've tapped the brains of many of my students to try to learn Japanese, and previously German. As Farber preaches, a foreign language is probably the one field of learning that has the greatest difference between knowing nothing at all and knowing a little. If you know 10 words or phrases of a language, it can open doors that you didn't know existed before. Based on my experience, here's my top 10 list that is guaranteed to make you friends in any culture:

hello
thank you
I'm glad to meet you
good morning
goodnight
see you later
I'm sorry
excuse me
please
yes and no


[Top]

April 2005

HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN'S 200TH BIRTHDAY

If a worldwide poll were conducted to find out the greatest children's writer of all time, the winner would almost certainly be Hans Christian Andersen. During his lifetime (1805-75) he published 156 children's fairy tales, including The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid, The Emperor's New Clothes, Thumbelina, The Nightingale, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and The Little Match Girl. His stories have been translated into more than 100 languages -- a record beaten only by the Bible.

Born in a one-room house in the fishing village of Odense, Denmark, he moved to Copenhagen alone at the age of 14, suffered much hardship, and eventually became the city's most famous and beloved private citizen. Last month the Danish government issued four postage stamps in his honor. On April 2, the 200th anniversary of his birth, his adopted city will honor his memory with "the biggest TV show in Danish history," a live, star-filled extravaganza titled Once Upon a Time involving hundreds of performers. It will kick off eight months of international festivities including concerts, plays, films, dances, exhibitions and literary events about Andersen and his work.

While many children have seen the bloodless, Disneyfied versions of Andersen's stories on the screen, the originals pack a bigger punch and convey a more lasting moral lesson. The real little mermaid dies in the end, the tin soldier is thrown in the fire and the little match girl freezes to death. Andersen instinctively put multiple layers of meaning in his stories so that they would appeal as much to adults as children. His stories are not mere entertainment, but valuable life lessons. Even today, children who hear them are left with something to ponder -- right and wrong, good and evil, duty and honor -- unlike TV cartoons that seem designed only to keep them from switching channels.

No one has written quite like Andersen, before or since. He understood the ugly duckling because he was one himself -- tall and ungainly, with an oversized nose and small eyes. Besides writing for children, he was a popular novelist, travel writer, autobiographer and artist, who never went anywhere without his scissors. He delighted in creating elaborate paper cuttings while he told stories, opening the paper at the end to reveal intricate symmetric designs of animals, flowers and fairy tale characters. Hundreds of his paper cuttings have been collected and displayed in museums.

For my classes with kindergartners through third graders, I devoted the month of March to Andersen by telling his stories, discussing their meaning, talking about his life, and teaching some songs from the fine 1952 film Hans Christian Andersen starring Danny Kaye. Here are 10 facts I taught the children about Hans Christian Andersen:

1. He came from a poor family.
2. He was an only child.
3. His father died when he was 11.
4. His mother could not read or write.
5. He didn't have enough money to go to school.
6. He wrote in the same way that you tell a story to children.
7. He loved to travel.
8. He never owned a house.
9. He loved children but never had any of his own.
10. He never married.


[Top]

May 2005

A SLEEPOVER IN SAN JOSE

If your family has already sampled all the major children's attractions in San Francisco, here's my advice for a mini-vacation: catch the Caltrain (part of the fun) to downtown San Jose, check into a hotel, and spend a day or three exploring The City's G-rated highlights.

My wife, 9-year-old son and I made the trip during spring break, and I expect it to be just the first of a series of overnights to our southern neighbor. On our hit list were the Children's Discovery Museum, the Tech Museum of Innovation, the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum & Planetarium, and San Jose's greatest tourist draw, the Winchester Mystery House.

Except for the free downtown minibus, the DASH, San Jose's bus service is deplorably infrequent, and even taxis are rarely spotted. So if you are carless, allow for lots of extra time to get around and bring a good book. Also, don't schedule your days too tightly because you might come across something totally unexpected, such as a wonderful Vietnamese restaurant or supermarket, a hookah-filled cafe, a child-friendly pool hall or a comic store, that are worth dropping your plans for.

For these reasons, we made it to only two of our destinations in two days -- the Tech Museum (a weak competitor to SF's own Exploratorium), and the Winchester Mystery House, which made a powerful and lasting impression, but left me wanting more. The company that owns the house does a masterful job of maintaining the property and attracting visitors, but is deficient in educating or even entertaining the public. I would rate the house a 10 and my tour guide a 3.

For those with an interest in history, architecture, antique furniture, psychology and the occult, the house is better than Disneyland because it's the real thing. A rambling, crazily designed structure of 160 rooms, it was built between 1884 and 1922 by Sarah Winchester, heiress to the profits of the Winchester rifle, "the gun that won the West." The famous repeating rifle could fire 16 times without reloading and kill at 1000 yards -- which it did to countless thousands of American Indians and Civil War soldiers.

Sarah became chronically depressed after the premature deaths of her husband and her only child, and for unknown reasons she moved from New England to Northern California, purchased a small country farmhouse outside San Jose, and started adding rooms. The work went on 24 hours a day until she died. Designing it without architectural training, she created a genuine Neverland, set in 161 acres of rich farmland that was a self-sustaining town in itself for her small army of carpenters, servants, gardeners and farm workers.

A superstitious recluse who held nightly seances, Sarah's personality is reflected everywhere -- spider web patterns, the repeating number 13, doors that open to walls and stairs that lead nowhere. The house is cold, spooky, and remarkably well preserved. The parts that were unfinished at her death remain that way, which adds to the ghostly atmosphere.

Unfortunately, our guide for the 65-minute walking tour delivered a parrotlike, trivia-loaded performance. (Example: "Watch your step" contains 13 letters.) A tour should tell much more about the historical period, the daily life, the development of San Jose, a description of the seances, and other details that would be truly enlightening -- or at least entertaining. There needs to be a soundtrack to match the visuals. Otherwise, it's like watching a great silent film with someone yakking behind you. But apparently business is good enough so that the company can settle for mediocrity.

That being said, the Mystery House is still worth a whole day's outing. I'd recommend arriving in the morning, taking the free tour of the four-acre gardens and Winchester museums, going out for lunch at Santana Row, the nearby restaurant mecca, and returning for one of the paid mansion tours. But be careful! As the tour guide said (her one good line): "Keep up with the group because you can get lost and never be found."

For more information, go to www.winchestermysteryhouse.com or call (408) 247-2000.


[Top]