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Posts from May 2017

Prudence the Part-Time Cow: Jody Jensen Shaffer and Stephanie Laberis

Book: Prudence the Part-Time Cow
Author: Jody Jensen Shaffer
Illustrator: Stephanie Laberis
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4-8 

PrudenceCowPrudence the Part-Time Cow by Jody Jensen Shaffer and Stephanie Laberis is a celebration of science, invention, individuality and belonging. Prudence is only a part-time cow because she spends a significant portion of her time being a scientist, architect, and engineer. The other cows find Prudence's odd behavior off-putting. When they criticize her, she tries to be more like the other cows. But she simply can't help herself. She wants to read and learn and understand and try things out.

When the other cows let her know, again, that she'll never truly be one of them, Prudence sets her considerable mind to figuring out a way that she can be herself and still belong. She ends up making a series of inventions tailored to the needs of those around her. The ending, in which the other cows happily accept the results of her efforts, struck me as an adult reader as a little bit too easy. But I think that kids will like it. Certainly my seven-year-old inventor, ninja, engineer, architect, pirate daughter had no complaints, and pronounced the book a success. 

Shaffer's text uses strong vocabulary words and lots of quotations. I think this is more suited as a book to read to children then from them to read on their own. Here's a snippet:

"When it was pond-standing time, Prudence stood with the herd.
She was doing great ... but then she calculated
the water temperature and wind speed.

"Sixty-eight degrees and four miles per hour."

The herd was not impressed. "Cows don't calculate,"
said Bessie, counting the salves as she hustled
them from the pond."

I like "pond-standing time" and the use of "hustled." I also got a little smile from the fact that the cow busily counting the calves claimed that cows don't calculate. For what is counting but calculating? I chose not to point this out to my daughter, though. Let her pick it up on her own when she's ready, I say. 

Laberis' illustrations add humor and detail. Prudence is shown with a shock of curly pink hair. The other cows are frequently shown with grumpy expressions, while the calves tend to look more open and questioning. Prudence sometimes stands on two legs, to the other cows' four, a subtle visual representation of her more evolved state. She looks like someone's quirky aunt, a bit embarrassing in public, but lovable. 

You have to appreciate any book that has a female character who loves science and math so much that she simply can't help calculating and inventing. The fact that she's a cow, not a person, makes her community's lack of acceptance of her true nature understandable. Her attempts to balance staying true to herself with fitting in reflect tensions that most science-loving girls will experience one day. This theme, along with the book's vocabulary and visual detail, makes Prudence the Part-Time Cow a better fit for first to third graders than for preschoolers, I think. It would make a very nice classroom read-aloud for, say, second graders. Libraries looking for pro-STEM books, especially pro-STEM books with female characters, will definitely want to give Prudence the Part-Time Cow a look. Recommended!

Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (@MacKidsBooks) 
Publication Date: June 13, 2017
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the author

© 2017 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

Thirteen Reasons Why: Jay Asher: A Review Reissue

Book: Thirteen Reasons Why
Author: Jay Asher
Pages: 256
Age Range: 13 and up


Nearly 10 years ago I wrote a review from an advance copy of Jay Asher's book, Thirteen Reasons Why. Since then I've followed Jay's journey with the book through his blog and Facebook. [He toured the 50 states to discuss the book with students, for example.] Recently I've heard a fair bit from other parents (who have older children than I do) about the Netflix series based on the book. I thought it might be useful for me to re-post my original review of the book. I have not watched the TV series, though if my daughter was a teenager, I am pretty sure that I would watch it with her.  I have not updated or edited this review, though if I was writing it today as a parent, I would probably have responded a little differently. Anyway, without further ado, here are my 10-year-old thoughts on Thirteen Reasons Why:

Thirteen Reasons Why is an unusual and fascinating book. Author Jay Asher starts with an intriguing premise, then tells his story via a complex dual narrative structure. He juggles a large cast of characters, and maintains near-constant suspense. Although the book isn't due out until mid-October, I've already seen considerable buzz about it. Having read the book, I can understand why. It's one of those rare books that I finish, and then immediately want to turn back to the beginning to read again, to double-check how all of the puzzle pieces fit together.

Thirteen Reasons Why is narrated by Clay Jensen, high school junior. One day Clay receives in the mail a box containing seven audio cassettes (13 sides) narrated by Hannah Baker. Hannah is a girl from Clay's class who he was interested in. She recently committed suicide, and left a significant "what if" in Clay's heart. The remainder of the book follows Clay's progress in listening to the tapes as he walks around town through one very long night.

Hannah's voice is interspersed with Clay's, as he listens and reacts. Hannah's text is in italics. I did occasionally get confused between whether Hannah or Clay was speaking, but as I was reviewing from the ARC, I would imagine that this is easier to distinguish in the final printed text.

Hannah dedicates one side of each cassette tape to a person, and a reason that put her on the path to suicide. Clay knows (because he has received the tapes) that one of the installments will be about him. A large part of the suspense of the book centers on Clay's fears about what he could have done to contribute to Hannah's despair.

Clay's reactions to Hannah's revelations, of cruelties and misunderstandings and missed opportunities, intensify the emotional impact of her words. We feel for Hannah as Clay feels for Hannah, and we feel for Clay having to make his way through the tapes. There's a constant "if only" refrain to the whole thing, too. If only Justin hasn't started everything off on the wrong foot. If only the teacher hadn't let down his student. If only ...

In addition to being a suspenseful and intriguing novel, Thirteen Reasons Why is a laser-focused magnifying glass, through which we examine the microcosm of high school. More specifically, through which we examine the way that kids treat one another, often carelessly, and the sometimes overwhelmingly high emotional cost. This isn't a "message book". The fully drawn characters and their experiences come first. But underpinning their story is a series of warnings about how not to treat people. I think that Thirteen Reasons Why would make an excellent discussion book for high school students. I think that parents should consider reading it alongside their kids.

But the discussion potential is not the reason to read this book. Instead, read it because the characters are so strong that they positively breathe from the page. Read it because by the time you finish, you'll care about Hannah and Clay as though they were your friends. Read it because the narrative structure is utterly engaging (as well as technically impressive). I also confidently predict that once you start this book, you'll read it because you can't not read it. Highly recommended for ages 13 and up. The alternating male/female narration makes this book particularly accessible to both female and male readers.

Publisher: Razorbill
Publication Date: October 18, 2007
Source of Book: ARC from Razorbill and the author
Other Blog Reviews: youngadultARCS, The Loud Librarian, Through the Studio Door, Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Chatboard
Author Interviews: Bildungsroman, Tales from the Rushmore Kid

© 2017 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

The Girl with the Ghost Machine: Lauren DeStefano

Book: The Girl with the Ghost Machine
Author: Lauren DeStefano
Pages: 224
Age Range: 8-12

GhostMachineI enjoyed Lauren DeStefano's two previous middle grade ghost stories, The Curious Tale of the In-Between and The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart), so I was happy to receive an early copy of her upcoming The Girl with the Ghost Machine. The girl of the title is 12-year-old Emmaline Beaumont, whose beloved mother died two years earlier. Emmaline more or less lost her father, Julien, at the same time, as Julien developed an obsession around building a machine to bring back her mother's ghost. When the machine demonstrates a degree of success, though at a painful cost, Emmaline's life becomes particularly challenging. 

I found The Girl with the Ghost Machine, like DeStefano's other books, to be a book that was difficult to put down. This was due to a combination of intriguing plot (Would the ghost machine work? Would Emmaline's father put aside his quest in favor of his living daughter?), ghostly tone, powerful musings, and strong relationships between the characters. Like this:

"Emmaline understood immediately what she had done. What she had cost her father. Without his ghost machine to give him hope, he would have to understand that Margeaux Beaumont in all her forms was gone.

The light began to face, until Emmaline was left standing in blackness. Not even the moonlight could enter through the soot on the tiny basement window. 

Her heart was pounding. But she wasn't sorry. She did what needed to be done." (Page 24, ARC)

I especially enjoyed Emmaline's friendship with twins Oliver and Gully, identical in appearance but quite different in personality. 

"Here is the way it had always been: Gully was born first, by three minutes and fifteen seconds. As they got older, Gully remained a heartbeat ahead of his brother, holding out his hand to pull him up onto steep embankments when they went hiking, forging ahead into dark rooms at night to be sure it was safe, standing on chairs to reach the top shelf so his brother wouldn't have to." (Page 70, ARC)


""We'll walk you," Oliver said, rooting his finger around the bottom of the mug to scoop up the last of the cocoa. Emmaline couldn't help smiling at him. There was always something in the world to be happy about, and Oliver found these little things with ease." (Page 75)

Wouldn't YOU want to be friends with them? 

The apparently small-town French setting adds to the other-worldly feel of the book, without including any details that will puzzle young readers. There's a timeless feel to the story, too, with no cell phones or electronic devices, and the simple pleasures of going to a cafe or skating on a pond. 

A word of warning for gatekeepers. In addition to the loss of Emmaline's mother, another sad incident takes place later in the book. I saw the incident coming and saw it as necessary to the plot, and so was not personally bothered, but children who dislike sad books may want to hold off on reading The Girl with the Ghost Machine. The ending of the book is satisfying and hopeful, but there are tears along the way. The old-fashioned melodramatic feel of the book should help to insulate modern-day children from this sadness in any event.

The bottom line for me is that, at a time when I normally struggle to stay awake to read in the evenings, The Girl with the Ghost Machine grabbed my attention and held on, keeping me turning the pages. I liked Emmaline and cared what happened to her, and was also curious about the mechanics and implications of the ghost machine. And I liked Gully and Oliver very much, too. The Girl with the Ghost Machine is a book that will stay with me, and that I recommend to ghost story fans of all ages (eight and up). 

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@BloomsburyKids)
Publication Date: June 6, 2017
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2017 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

Literacy Milestone: Staying Up Too Late Reading

LiteracyMilestoneAWe've all been there (those reading this blog anyway), groggy in the morning because we stayed up too late reading the night before. My daughter experienced this last week for the first time. It was my fault, really. When I read about Real Friends, by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham, I KNEW she would like it, and pre-ordered her a copy.

RealFriendsWhen it came, I left it on her bed. Because it was a busy day, she didn't see it until bedtime. She flipped through, immediately captivated by the full color graphic novel format. "Is this by the author of Lunch Lady?" she asked. I said: "No, but it's a graphic novel like Lunch Lady. It's by the author and illustrator of the Princess in Black books. Only for slightly older kids, kids maybe a little older than you. That's why I thought you would like it."

Her eyes grew very wide. Then she leapt up and flung her arms around me, saying "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" She hopped immediately into bed and started reading. The next morning I learned that she had read until 10:15 (I was already asleep, and I guess my husband decided to just go with it), and had read more than half of the book. Getting her out of bed was a bit challenging (but worth it, I think). 

It was clear for the rest of the morning that Real Friends had its hooks into her. We were already running late for school when I sent her upstairs to get dressed. I went up a few minutes later to find her half dressed, with her bookmark further along in the book. She had a visibly difficult time leaving the book behind when she went to school.

Oh, kiddo, welcome to book addiction. And to Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham, all I can say is, please keep your books coming!

© 2017 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

Links I Shared on Twitter this Week: May 5: High School #ReadAlouds and #BookLists for #SummerReading

TwitterLinksHere are highlights from the links that I shared on Twitter this week @JensBookPage. There are tons of book lists this week, including various recommended summer reading lists. Other topics include #48HBC, #DiverseBooks, #LittleFreeLibrary, #ReadAloud, #STEM, audiobooks, high school, journaling, parenting, play, raising readers, reading choice, screen free week, The Brown Bookshelf, and writing.

Book Lists + Summer Reading

GoodnightGorillaWordless , old and new: A from

for : Research + Recommendations, a webinar by

Books to Welcome a New Baby from Sweet to Hilarious - new from

Celebrating Small Publishers: An Array of Remarkable 2017 Titles From the Smallest Houses —

LolaPlantsGrowing little gardeners: to encourage young children in the garden from

recommendations for Kindergarten + First Grade from | many from series  

for kids in 2nd + 3rd grades from

A 7th Grade from


What’s New with | 

Events + Programs

ScreenFreeWeek2017May 1-7 is + Children's Book Week | Good time to put away devices + READ w/ kids 

Growing Bookworms

Learning to Share: How I Created a Culture of w/ Second Semester Seniors by

LordOfTheFliesSome of My Fondest Memories of High School were ReadAlouds – 's teacher renewed his joy in 

A Lesson for mom on the joy of sharing books from a daughter's by

How do we encourage young readers? By giving them choice + helping them find books they enjoy

Questions to Ask Your Kids about Books (w/ Cheat Sheet!) from +


48hbc_newIt's time for the 48 Hour Book Challenge, hosted June 2-4 by (orig. )  

Parenting + Play

Why 30 Million Words Are Critical to Your Child’s Future Success |

Journaling with your Child, Teenager, or Student - ideas from Bethany Todd -  

12 Powerful Phrases that Make Talking to Kids Easier (Even When the Situation isn't Easy…)

Fun play-based experiment: Open-Ended Baking: A Sweet and Savory Tale of Child-led


Fun stuff! Exploring Her World: 25 Toys and Kits for Outdoor Discovery /  

© 2017 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

The Possible: Tara Altebrando

Book: The Possible
Author: Tara Altebrando
Pages: 304
Age Range: 12 and up

ThePossibleAs was the case with Tara Altebrando's The Leaving, I picked up The Possible to check it out and then just wanted to keep reading. I read it in one sitting on a sunny Sunday afternoon (when my daughter was, luckily for me, engaged elsewhere). The voice of 17-year-old Kaylee hooked me initially, and then the book's puzzles kept my attention. Kaylee, though being raised by loving adoptive parents, lived with her birth mother, Crystal, until she was four years old. That's when Crystal went to jail for the murder of Kaylee's younger brother, Jack. Crystal has also been infamous as a teenager, when she was the center of a series of odd incidents. When a podcast producer named Liana Fatone decides to do a true crime series about Crystal, Kaylee finds herself swamped by questions. Not least of these is, if Crystal in fact had the psychic power of telekinesis, does Kaylee? 

Kaylee's quest to understand, and possibly visit, Crystal is blended with more typical teen issues, such as a crush on a boy she barely knows, and a possibly shifting relationship with a long-time male close friend. The junior prom looms, as do regional softball championships (Kaylee is a pitcher). The possibility of telekinesis interferes, one way or another, with all of these things. Did Kaylee guide the last pitch of a perfect game with her mind? Could she, just by wishing it, make her rival fall down? Tara Altebrando walks a fine line with this book, keeping such things possible, but unclear.

Here are a couple of early snippets to give you a feel for Kaylee's voice:

"Aiden's smile was crooked, but the rest of him was all right angles. It was seriously like he'd been built with flesh on LEGOs and not bones." (Page 4, ARC)

"Ordinary was driving around, newly licensed, with Aiden and Chiara in a town like Rockland County, New York, where the men had long commutes to the city that they complained about and the women mostly stayed home to raise the kids even after the kids were already raised.

Ordinary was softball and homework and test prep and violin lessons and yearbook committee and college visits and GPA freak-outs and everything-you-do-from-now-on-affects-where-you'll-go-to-college and daydreaming about Bennett Laurie and waiting for life to become something real and not something that parents and teachers and admissions boards and coaches were in charge of." (Page 7, ARC)

Kaylee is definitely not perfect, particularly in how she stereotypes other students, and unabashedly goes after a guy who is dating someone else. But she is three-dimensional and sympathetic. Her unusual situation is intriguing. Readers will keep turning pages both to understand what's going on and to  make sure that things work out ok for Kaylee. The Possible is, in short, a perfect blend of realistic and suspenseful YA, suitable for both reluctant and more avid readers.High school librarians will definitely want to give this one a look. Recommended, and one that I really enjoyed!

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@BloomsburyKids)
Publication Date: June 6, 2017
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2017 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

Growing Bookworms Newsletter: May 3: #PictureBooks, #EarlyReaders, and a Child Reading in the Car

JRBPlogo-smallToday, I will be sending out a new issue of the Growing Bookworms email newsletter. (If you would like to subscribe, you can find a sign-up form here.) The Growing Bookworms newsletter contains content from my blog focused on growing joyful learners, mainly bookworms, but also mathematicians and learners of all types. The newsletter is sent out every two to three weeks.

Newsletter Update:  In this issue I have five book reviews (picture book and early reader) and one post with my daughter's latest literacy milestone (screening books for my blog). I also have two posts with links that I shared recently on Twitter, and one more detailed post with quotes and responses from recent #JoyOfLearning articles

Reading Update: In the last three weeks I finished three middle grade novels and two adult novels. I read/listened to: 

  • Elizabeth Eulberg: The Great Shelby Holmes: Girl Detective. Bloomsbury USA Children's Books. Middle Grade Fiction. Completed April 16,2017. This was a very fun mystery featuring a young white girl as Holmes and a slightly older black boy as Watson, set in modern-day Harlem. I look forward to the next book, after which I expect to write about the series in more detail. 
  • AgentsOfTheGlassMichael D. Beil: Agents of the Glass: A New Recruit. Knopf Books for Young Readers. Middle Grade Fantasy. Completed April 21, 2017. This is the first of a new fantasy series involving a secret organization that fights evil, and seemingly ordinary boy who is recruited to help. 
  • J. K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Scholastic. Middle Grade Fantasy. Completed April 26, 2017. Read aloud to my daughter.
  • Brett Battles: Survivor (Rewinder, Volume 3). CreateSpace. Adult Science Fiction. Completed April 22, 2017. 
  • William Kent Krueger: Iron Lake (Cork O'Connor, No. 1). Atria Books. Adult Mystery. Completed April 25, 2017, on MP3.

UncommonersI'm currently listening to Boundary Waters by William Kent Krueger (second book in the Cork O'Connor series) and reading The Uncommoners #1: The Crooked Sixpence by Jennifer Bell on my Kindle. Reading the third Harry Potter book aloud to my daughter was a fabulous experience - I think she grew a lot as a reader from listening to and discussing the book. It's hard to wrap one's head around time-travel even as an adult - quite challenging for a seven-year-old. But we made it through. We are now reading a lot of picture books while considering what novel to read next together. It won't be the next Harry Potter - we are ready for a break, and the next one is pretty dark. I was hoping for Charlotte's Web, but she rejected that one because she saw the movie at after-school care. Sigh. 

RealFriendsMy daughter is spending a fair bit of time reading chapter books on her own. She tends to dip in and out of books and doesn't finish all that many, but she's definitely forming a habit. We had a recent family vacation to Massachusetts that involved various drives to New Hampshire and Rhode Island and such. We ended up having to borrow and buy extra books, because she finished the three that I had brought. Lesson learned there! I'm just so happy she can (and does) read in the car. You can find her 2017 reading list here. She especially enjoys the A to Z Mysteries these days. I also just ordered her Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham - I think she's going to like that one. Other recommendations welcome!

Thanks for reading, and for growing bookworms. 

© 2017 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

Barkus: Patricia MacLachlan and Marc Boutavant

Book: Barkus
Author: Patricia MacLachlan
Illustrator: Marc Boutavant
Pages: 56
Age Range: 6-8

BarkusBarkus is the first book in a new early chapter book series by Patricia MacLachlan and Marc Boutavant. Red-headed Nicky, apparently a first grader, is thrilled when her favorite uncle unexpectedly gives her a large, grown dog named Barkus. Nicky's parents are a bit more apprehensive, but they all come around, and Barkus becomes part of the family. In subsequent brief chapters, young readers follow Barkus as he sneaks in to Nicky's school, has a noisy birthday party, adopts a kitten, and participates in a backyard campout.

Barkus is not especially realistic (e.g. a scene in which a couple of unknown dogs are let into the house to celebrate Barkus' birthday with a crazy dance party, and the fact that Nicky's teacher just accepts Barkus and makes him the class dog), but it is a lot of fun. It's perfect first-grade wish fulfillment (including a snow day). 

Each page has a moderate amount of text, but also a large font, short paragraphs, and color illustrations, making Barkus suitable for relatively new readers. There's enough complexity to the story to keep slightly more experienced readers entertained, too. Here's a sample page, the beginning of Chapter 2, Barkus Sneaks, to give you a feel for the reading level:

"It was Monday morning.

I put on my sweater and coat and boots.

Barkus watched me.

I put on my gloves

Barkus watched me.

"Goodbye, Barkus. I'll see you after school."

I patted him on the head.

I went out the door.

When I looked back Barkus was watching through the window."

See? Not overly challenging, but the astute reader will know that Barkus has something up his sleeve (or would, if had sleeves). 

[As a tiny side note, I appreciated the fact that the teacher, Mrs. Gregolian, has an Armenian last name, as do my husband and daughter.]

Boutavant's illustrations give Nicky and Barkus both bright-eyed, mildly cartoonish looks. While the illustrations are relatively spare, with plenty of white space (or simple, primary-colored backgrounds), there are occasional details to reward closer inspection. For instance, in the Barkus Sneaks chapter, careful observers will notice a brown tail sticking out from behind a tree, as Nicky hears a suspicious noise on her way to school. The noisy birthday party scene will make any reader smile. 

Barkus is a lively addition to the ranks of early chapter book series, with a pair of easy-going protagonists (well, a trio, once the kitten comes along). As a well-made, nearly square hardcover, it stands out relative to the swarms of slim early chapter book paperbacks. While my first grader, near the end of the school year, is already a bit further along than this in reading level, I still she'll still enjoy meeting Barkus. Libraries will want to give this one a look, especially once there are a couple of other books in the series (as is planned). Recommended for readers who are just ready for the satisfaction of a book with chapters, and who still seek dynamic and colorful illustrations. 

Publisher: Chronicle Books (@ChronicleKids
Publication Date: June 6, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2017 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

#JoyOfLearning Articles from @NYTimes, @RaisedGood, @GCouros, @NoguchiOnK12, @TimDWalk, @Salon

JoyOFLearningLogoThis week I have a plethora of quote-worthy articles related to play, homework, and the joy of learning. First up is a piece about how parents come down on both sides of the debate about homework levels. Next is a piece about how simplifying childhood, by reducing activities and distractions, would helpful for kids' mental health and development. In the third, George Couros responds to a letter published by students at a high school asking for more flexibility in the expectations of the adults around them. Next, from my local paper, a survey by Project Cornerstone (a YMCA group) finds an alarming drop in engagement among high school students. Finally, I have two articles about the need for young children to have time in school for play and recharging. Special thanks to Sandhya Nankani, who was my source for multiple articles. Happy reading!

HomeworkMythThis is a balanced piece (inc. socioeconomic side) regarding the debate + how it divides parents

Kyle Spencer: "The focus for many anti-homework parents is what they see as the quality of work assigned. They object to worksheets, but embrace projects that they believe encourage higher-level thinking. At P.S. 11 in Manhattan, even parents who support the no-homework policy said they often used online resources like Khan Academy, a nonprofit organization that provides free educational videos. The school’s website also includes handwriting exercises, scientific articles, and math and reading lessons. Sophie Mintz, whose son is in second grade at the school, said that the no-homework policy had afforded him more time to build elaborate Lego structures.

But parents with fewer means say the new policies don’t take into account their needs and time constraints, and leave them on their own when it comes to building the skills their children need to prepare for the annual state tests.

Me: This article linked to and discussed various situations that I was already aware of. But it also covered an aspect of the homework wars (some parents want it and some parents don't) that I hadn't much thought of. Spencer quotes from lower income and/or working parents who complain that while more affluent parents can provide enrichment (tutoring, etc.) for their kids, less well off families rely on the school to provide homework that they see as needed for their kids' development. I've been more familiar with the flip side of the argument, which is that more affluent families are more likely to have a parent available in the afternoons to help kids with their homework, such that homework can increase learning gaps. 

Now, what I really think is that rote worksheets are probably not doing much for anyone's development in the early grades. But I do think that the question of whether and how much homework to require does require input from families of various circumstances.  And for that, this article is a good addition to the discussion. 

PowerOfPlaySimplifying Childhood (more free , less stuff, fewer activities) may be good for Kids Mental Health

Tracy Gillett: "When children are overwhelmed they lose the precious down time they need to explore, play and release tension. Too many choices erodes happiness, robbing kids of the gift of boredom which encourages creativity and self-directed learning. And most importantly “too much” steals precious time...

Developmental Psychologist David Elkind reports kids have lost more than 12 hours of free time per week in the last two decades meaning the opportunity for free play is scarce. Even preschools and kindergartens have become more intellectually-oriented. And many schools have eliminated recess so children have more time to learn.

The time children spend playing in organized sports has been shown to significantly lower creativity as young adults, whereas time spent playing informal sports was significantly related to more creativity. It’s not the organized sports themselves that destroy creativity but the lack of down time. Even two hours per week of unstructured play boosted children’s creativity to above-average levels.

Me: Parts of this article did hit home for me, especially when Gillett is urging parents to free their children from excessive activities (and stuff) to give them more mental space to grow and develop. This is something that I really struggle with as a parent. My daughter wants to do each thing that comes up (the school play, swim team, softball, karate, playdates, birthday parties). But she gets burned out, too. I certainly listen when she pushes back. However, it may be that I need to push back more directly, too. Food for thought, for sure... 

InnovatorsMindsetThere is Not Only One Road to Success | responds to a HS student petition seeking alternate life paths 

George Couros: "Katie Martin shared this article on Facebook, with the title, “Student petition says too much pressure to succeed at Naperville North“...

kudos to the students for sharing their voices.  This is not about being soft on the students; personally, I expect anyone who is working toward success to put in the time and effort. I love the Simon Sinek quote,  “Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress: Working hard for something1 we love is called passion.” This is not about having low expectations; it is ensuring that the students have a voice in those expectations in the first place...

Success means different things to different people, but take note of this statement made by the student petition; “Start defining success as any path that leads to a happy and healthy life1. Start teaching us to make our own paths, and start guiding us along the way.”  Yup.  I don’t know what else to say. It is just perfect, and even more perfect that it comes from the voice of students."

Me: Like Couros, I liked what these students had to say about defining success as paths that lead to a healthy and happy life, instead of defining success as one particular path (e.g. the path to an Ivy League college). I also thought that the Sinek quote was spot on. People don't mind working hard for things that they care about - they mind working hard for things that they don't care about. I am already thinking about how I'm going to protect my daughter from the academic rat race when she is in high school. Articles like this do give me some hope. 

ProjectCornerstoneSilicon Valley teens report big drop in engagement | reports survey

Sharon Noguchi: "Fewer high school students are drinking, having sex, doing drugs and resorting to violence, a large-scale survey of Santa Clara County public school students shows. At the same time, engagement in school has plunged, as has students’ optimism about their future.

This mixed picture of youth well-being emerges in Project Cornerstone’s Silicon Valley youth survey — the first in six years —  of 43,000 youths at more than 180 elementary, middle and high schools in Santa Clara County. The survey was administered last fall, and the results were released this spring...

Among high school students, the drop in school engagement was striking. It fell to 38 percent — compared with 66 percent in 2010, the last time Project Cornerstone conducted its survey."

Me: The student engagement piece was only a small part of this survey, but it was the one that struck me. In seven years, the percentage of students engaged in what they are learning at school fell almost in half. This is consistent with other studies I've seen (see this article for more on the subject of declining student engagement). It's all just so demoralizing for those of us who want to see kids finding joy in learning. As I said above, do already worry about the high school rat race.

TeachLikeFinlandHow Kids Learn Better By Taking Frequent Breaks Throughout The Day via

Timothy D. Walker (in an excerpt from his new book shared at Mind/Shift KQED, in which he describes what he learned teaching in Finland, after having taught in the US): "Once I incorporated these short recesses into our timetable, I no longer saw feet-dragging, zombie-like kids in my classroom. Throughout the school year, my Finnish students would, without fail, enter the classroom with a bounce in their steps after a fifteen-minute break. And most important, they were more focused during lessons.

At first I was convinced that I had made a groundbreaking discovery: frequent breaks kept students fresh throughout the day. But then I remembered that Finns have known this for years—they’ve been providing breaks to their students since the 1960s...

Initially, I thought that the true value of Finnish-style breaks is related to free play, but I no longer hold this view. I’ve concluded that the primary benefit of Finnish breaks is in the way it keeps kids focused by refreshing their brains. Daniel Levitin, professor of psychology, behavioral neuroscience, and music at McGill University, believes that giving the brain time to rest, through regular breaks, leads to greater productivity and creativity."

Me: I am happy to report that my daughter does have three recesses per day (except for the short day of the week). It's not quite breaks every hour like they do in Finland, but it's not too far off. If I ever hear the school talking about reducing recess (which I have not), I will have my ammunition ready... 

Kindergartners get little time to . Why does it matter? Christopher Brown via

Christopher Brown: "As a former kindergarten teacher, a father of three girls who’ve recently gone through kindergarten, and as researcher and teacher-educator in early childhood education, I have had kindergarten as a part of my adult life for almost 20 years.

As a parent, I have seen how student-led projects, sensory tables (that include sand or water) and dramatic play areas have been replaced with teacher-led instructional time, writing centers and sight words lists that children need to memorize. And as a researcher, I found, along with my colleague Yi Chin Lan, that early childhood teachers expect children to have academic knowledge, social skills and the ability to control themselves when they enter kindergarten...

Research has consistently shown classrooms that offer children the opportunities to engage in play-based and child-centered learning activities help children grow academically, socially and emotionally. Furthermore, recess in particular helps children restore their attention for learning in the classroom.

Focus on rules can diminish children’s willingness to take academic risks and curiosity as well as impede their self-confidence and motivation as learners — all of which can negatively impact their performance in school and in later life."

Me: Brown's views in this piece on changes to Kindergarten are consistent with other things I've read (Rae Pica's book, for example). But this is certainly a nice summary to share with parents newer to the discussion, with tons of links for further reading. It always made me sad, when my daughter was in Kindergarten, to see the unused play kitchen and toys, which sat in the back of the classroom... 

© 2017 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This post may contain affiliate links.