Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Tuxedos, Gold, and Words

Recently my grandson asked me why tuxedos were supposed to be so important. He thought they looked peculiar but men wear them for fancy events. I responded that they're considered impressive simply because people in our culture agree that they are. If someone wearing a tux were to time-travel to the Roman Empire people would probably laugh at his clothing.
In other conversations my grandson and I shared the idea that many things have value simply because people agree that they do.
For example, why is gold considered so valuable? Yes it's shiny, pretty, and can be made into objects but so can plastic. Gold is rare, but so are many other elements. Gold is valuable simply because people agree that it is, but someone stranded in the wilderness and struggling to survive would find food, water, and shelter much more valuable.
The same thing applies to language. Words only have meanings because people who need to communicate with each other agree on them. Sometimes one word my be considered offensive while a literal synonym is perfectly acceptable and, again, that's only because people in the culture agree about that.
Humans have many differences, but at least there are a few things we do agree about.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


For several days last week I had no telephone or internet connection. That was frustrating and I felt extremely relieved when both were finally fixed. That experience made me appreciate our modern communication systems and think of what life must have been like for our ancestors.
Generations ago if someone travelled from Europe or Asia to America or across the continent if their families ever heard from them at all it would have taken months for handwritten letters to arrive and more months for the replies to be returned.
Since many people couldn't read and write they would have had to get someone else to do that for them and might have had to pay for the service. The postage alone would have cost a lot if available, and often the letters would have been carried by someone who happened to be traveling in the right direction and might not ever arrive.
Pony Express and the transcontinental railroad made contact much easier, but it was still often a matter of weeks or months. The telegraph was fast, but only went from station to station and was also expensive.
Even in the 1940s it normally took two weeks for letters to be carried across the United Stated, though a stamp only cost three cents. Air mail was faster, but cost twice as much. Telephones had been invented, but not everyone had them and long distance rates were expensive.
Although computer and internet problems can drive us crazy, we're lucky to be able to communicate quickly with people in most parts of the world and I'm thankful my internet service is working again.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


It's great to be a mother, but maybe even better to be a grandmother. Unless your grandkids live with you the responsibility part isn't 24/7 but you still get the fun part. At least you do if you get to see your grandkids frequently.
I feel sorry for the people who live so far away they seldom or never get to see their grandkids or can't see them because of health or family problems.
Too bad I can't see mine more often, but we are close enough to see each other fairly often and that's when the fun happens. I'll be seeing mine again soon and I can hardly wait.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

What Is That Thing?

Kevin McNamee sent me a PDF of his new picture book, What Is That Thing, for review. The book is about a girl named Jenna who has a big imagination. Since I was (and still am on the inside) a kid like that I can certainly identify with her as she goes from outer space, through a fairy tale castle, and into a jungle while her mother expects her to help out.
But Jenna must face reality. That strange thing in her house is a new baby sister and the baby is real. Kids in similar situations will probably enjoy this book a lot. My one complaint about is that brand-new babies don't smile, but otherwise McNamee has done a great job of capturing what the experience of having a new sibling can be like.
Illustrator K.C. Snider provided colorful pictures that show both Jenna's imaginary adventures and the real world in a cute way.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Pretzels are a good snack, and healthier than most because they don't contain fats or sugars. They're also easy to take along to eat away from home.
According to legend, pretzels were invented hundreds of years ago as a treat for choir boys during Lent. I guess treats were normally given as a sort of Behavior Modification technique to keep the boys' behavior under control, but during the season before Easter all Christians fasted and sweets were not allowed.
In one monastery someone had the idea of creating a sort of bread that resembled arms crossed over the breast, the usual position for praying in those days. The crisp and salty breads were tasty enough so the choir boys would consider them a reward worth behaving for, but still had the spiritual aspect of reminding them to pray.
The pretzels were so good they were soon made by Christians everywhere as a lenten food.
I don't know if the story of their origin is true or not, but in some churches and families pretzels are still given to children today as a reminder to pray during the 40 days preceding Easter.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Marta's Gargantuan Wings

While most kids won't know that Gargantua was a gigantic monster, that won't keep them from enjoying Marta's Gargantuan Wings. A PDF of that picture book was recently sent to me by my friend, author Jessica Kennedy.
The story is about Marta, a winged horse who is teased by a bird because her wings are huge and seem awkward. But, with encouragement from friends, she uses her wings to rescue other creatures. How does the bird react to that? Read the book to find out.
Since most kids get teased at times,Marta's Gargantuan Wings should appeal to lots of kids. And when those kids get older and encounter ancient stories, Pegasus and Gargantua will already be familiar to them.
The colorful illustrations by artist Eugene Ruble (I've mentioned him before) capture the feeling of the story.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Bones Book

After several posts about teaching it seems appropriate to mention a book that will be helpful to teachers and students. The book is called The Sum of Our Parts; No Bones About It and explains the human skeletal system in ways kids of many ages and grade levels will enjoy. I think I may have mentioned it before, but want to be sure everyone hears about it.
Preschoolers probably won't understand all the scientific terms, but they'll enjoy having someone read the amusing rhyming description of skeleton parts to them. Besides the rhymes, each page has both funny and scientifically accurate illustrations and sidebars called factoids that will be of interest to older kids. That information will be helpful in science classes and I even learned some things I didn't know myself. And any kid who breaks a bone would certainly find the book interesting
To be honest I must admit that I know the author, Bill Kirk, and the illustrator also did one of my books, but I wouldn't be mentioning this book if I didn't honestly think it would be a great educational resource and an enjoyable read for kids.
I haven't seen the other books in the Sum of Our Parts series, but if they're as good as this one they must be great.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Another Substitute Teaching Adventure

When I was a sub I never took jobs teaching Physical Education because I have no interest in sports and had been restricted from PE because of my severe asthma as a kid. And Middle Schoolers were my least favorite age group to work with.
But one morning the person who called from the sub office (that was before the automated systems) begged and pleaded with me me to accept a Middle School PE job because nobody else was available and they were desperate. She even promised me first choice of Kindergarten jobs the next day. With great misgivings I agreed.
To make things even worse, the kids were doing soccer. When I was a kid soccer was something we read about in Social Studies because nobody in America played it so I didn't even know the basic rules. What could have been worse?
Every period I told the kids I knew nothing about sports, but the purpose of PE was to help them stay physically fit, so as long as they kept moving I'd be happy. I had them run around the track, as they always did, then brought out bags of basketballs and had them shoot baskets. I managed to get through the day without any serious problems, but still felt like a failure when I signed out.
A week or so later a friend of my daughter who had been in one of those PE teachers was at our house.
"Mrs. Collins," she told me, "You were the best substitute teacher we ever had in PE."
"That's impossible!" I replied. "I told you all I didn't have the faintest idea what I was doing.'
"That's why you were so good," she answered. "All the other subs tried to pretend they knew all about sports when they really didn't. You were the only one who was ever honest with us."
That was a compliment I'll never forget.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Substitute Teacher Adventures

When I began substitute teaching I felt guilty about turning down Middle School jobs, but I didn't feel comfortable teaching that age group even when my daughter was in Middle School. But later I learned many other subs hated Kindergarten and Special Ed assignments and those were my favorites.
One year I was assigned to a sixth grade Special Ed class that really gave me a rough time. The teacher was to be out all week, but if it hadn't been the last week of the school year when no other substitute jobs were likely I wouldn't have returned. But I did go back, and the second day the kids were even more difficult. However on the third day and for the rest of the week they were absolutely angelic. They had been testing me the first two days and I hadn't rejected them. How sad that they needed to do that.
One Middle School Special Ed class was extremely difficult. The kids were all severely emotionally disturbed and had actually driven one classroom aide to a nervous breakdown. Most subs would never return to that class after one day, but I taught them many times. Although it wasn't easy, the kids behaved better for me than for the other subs, so they usually requested me when the regular teacher was out. I didn't tell anyone the secret of my success at the time, but the reason the kids didn't give me a bad time was because my daughter was one of the popular kids in the school and they didn't want to make her mad at them.