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Education | Mary Biever | One Writing Mother
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The Real Racism Question of the Day

The current question of racism is a red herring. It’s easier to focus on a single word uttered by a single celebrity than it is to address the real issue and tragedy of racism.

The “N” word is an abomination to me. Thirty-eight years ago, I lived briefly as a Yankee in the heart of Louisiana in a city ruled by a code of Separate, Unequal and Proud Of It. It was ten years after the world described in the movie The Help, where that “N” word flowed as freely as Coca-Cola does in Atlanta.

During my 5th grade year in the Deep South, I went to a public school where whites were in the minority but were given privilege at every opportunity. We had separate doors, and the playground was divided by race. We got the side with the swingset and monkey bars.

Another Yankee girl dared to play on the wrong side of the playground – the side with the grass – and she was beaten up by my white classmates who told her never to make that mistake again. Buses followed the letter of integration laws by having separate bus routes at different times, using the same bus, but divided by race.  It was the world before fair housing, so the city was divided as well as swimming pools, churches, restaurants, and more.

We lived in an American version of Apartheid in 1975.

As a girl from a small town in southern Illinois who wasn’t raised in a racist home but had never dealt with any racial issues, I was in absolute culture shock. I hated that world.

What I hated most was the failure to educate that I saw in my classroom every single day. We read aloud daily in class. Some kids on the other side of the classroom (we were assigned seats closest to the furnace and air conditioner vents) were completely illiterate. The teacher simply read their sentences aloud, and those students repeated them. No effort was ever made to teach them to read. It was simply accepted that they couldn’t and never would read.

Both my brother and I had minority teachers who weren’t allowed to discipline their white students. That role was reserved for the school’s white principal. My teacher was better than my brother’s; his teacher chose a minority student to beat each afternoon in the cloak room. One day, she beat a girl so badly she beat all the buttons off the back of her dress.

Flash to the present day. Where would those students in my class, who were passed on and passed up, without ever learning to read, be? Without the ability to read, it’s harder to develop better language skills. That in turn limits the opportunity not only for career mobility but also complex thought. Where would the students in my brother’s class be – in the same sunken boat filled with a lifetime pool of anger?

My position on racial issues is impacted by my religious faith and an acknowledgement of the innate human dignity we all possess.

While we all ponder a single word uttered by a white celebrity cook, we miss the tragic testimony of the star witness in another racially-infused trial of national attention. The witness could not read cursive writing. She was as unable to comprehend and communicate what the prosecutor asked of her as those attending were unable to comprehend her.

What would happen if we acknowledged the “N” word is an abomination, simply resolve not to use it and spend our time in a more constructive manner – of trying to figure out how we can reach kids of all races who lose their chance at a better life before they are ten years old because they aren’t given the opportunity of a good education?

Why aren’t we instead concentrating on how we can better communicate with others of different cultures in this great American melting pot?

The answer, I’m afraid, is it’s easier to think about an “N” word than it is to think of the “R” word of Reading – which opens more doors than racism will ever close.

We can’t unring a bell. If we focus too much on words of the past, we miss the opportunity to build a better future for all of us – regardless of race, color, or creed.

A Strong Education Includes Real Literature

When I first saw that Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird were being replaced in core curriculum with dry product guides, I thought it was a spoof story on The Onion. Then, I realized it was real. Whoever made that decision never read Charles Dickens’ classic novel, Bleak House.

Reading great literature has been one of the cornerstones of my children’s education. Real literature. With great stories, complex characters – books that both taught and delighted us. Reading great literature is one of the best methods I know to help kids grow into strong, creative writers.

If this becomes a trend, then it will be up to parents and family members to continue to introduce children to good literature. Here are ways we did this in our home:

  • Summer library programs – your librarian should be your friend. Make the most of their collection.
  • Read alouds can become part of family nights. In Around the Year with the Von Trapp Family by Maria von Trapp (a la Sound of Music), she described her family’s reading great literature aloud together at night.  Until last year, we incorporated family read alouds of books for my children’s entire lives. As a family, we’ve twice ventured through the Little House series and also through the chronicles of Narnia. We didn’t begin with those books – we started with Thomas the Train, Peter Rabbit, and Grimm’s fairy tales when our kids were young. (Walt Disney attributed much of his inspiration to his mother reading fairy tales to him when he was a child.) Another favorite of mine was a fully illustrated children’s book telling the story of the Odyssey.
  • Bible stories are vital. We are now on our tenth round as a family reading aloud a children’s Bible; we start in August and will probably finish in May, reading a story a day. During my daughter’s high school years, we bumped this up a notch, reading aloud the complete Bible. With family schedules, this took us four years to finish but was worth it.
  • Go for the classics. It’s ok to read abridged versions of books. But make time to read the real ones too – until we read aloud as a family, I didn’t know how ornery Tinkerbell really was in Peter Pan. And I wouldn’t have cried during Heidi when the grandmother described how she liked to pray on the mountain.
  • Don’t just read American authors. Add a good sampling of British authors because often, the sentence structure is more complex, as are their characters. This will help develop your kids’ minds.
  • Find older books. For several years at homeschool conventions, we sold Bethlehem Books, which specialized in reprinting old books of historical fiction. I loved their characters, and their stories are among the finest we ever enjoyed as a family. A good way to introduce historic fiction to kids is to correspond the historic era being studied with books studied so students can better draw parallels and see the big picture.
  • This can continue in high school. With my kids, they studied world history and world literature the same year. Then, the next year, they studied American history and American literature.  As a literature fanatic, I wrote my own curriculum for my kids to use – a blend of traditional anthology combined with reading several novels and plays.
  • Shakespeare can be good even at an early age. There are great Shakespeare picture books with his greatest moments from his plays in them. I used those. Several times in English or communications classes, I’ve adapted sections from his plays into oral reading exercises for classes to enjoy. After my kids study a Shakespearean play, we make sure we see it on DVD so because Shakespeare was meant to be seen, not just read.
  • We used to call them books on tape – but they are wonderful. We love Jim Weiss and his countless stories.

Thomas Gradgrind, the utilitarian schoolmaster in Bleak House, begins the story demanding his students only learn “facts.” By the novel’s conclusion, he grows to appreciate poetry and literature.

The images we carry in our souls from the stories we read help carry us through life’s future tragedies. When we lost our first baby, I remember thinking that for the first time I understood the Biblical phrase of the daughters of Rachel weeping for their children. Do we really think a future generation of kids is going to draw their inspiration from an insulation EPA product manual?

I would hate to see a generation of children lose their imaginations because Gradgrind’s mistake is repeated. A child’s imagination is a wonderful thing to treasure and a terrible thing to waste.

My Box Lunch Balancing Challenge

Can food providers provide healthier food options that are affordable and that people will eat?

Vanderburgh 4-H Leaders addressed that challenge this weekend as we provided box lunches for Startup Evansville, a weekend activities to encourage business startups. We needed to provide easy to eat box lunches for participants.

In our county, to help cover the cost of project manuals for 700 4-H members, leaders volunteer to cater fundraisers.

As 4-H Leaders, we are fully committed to teaching youth to make healthful choices.  With this box lunch gig, the question presented itself: will we practice what we teach? If so, how? What will people eat?

The USDA may technically identify a pickle spear as a vegetable (no wonder those school burgers included pickles), but they are a nutrient detriment that adds salt to the diet. So we shopped and bargain hunted, still including some traditional options. Our final decisions?

Day 1 lunch:

  • Hoagie turkey, ham and cheese sandwiches
  • Potato chips
  • Chocolate chip cookies
  • Organic spring mix lettuces
  • Veggie packs with broccoli, grape tomatoes, celery, and organic carrots.
  • Apples or bananas

Day 2 lunch:

  • Turkey and ham wraps with cheese and organic baby spinach on artisan whole wheat tortillas
  • Potato chips
  • Chocolate chip cookies
  • Veggie packs with broccoli, grape tomatoes, celery, and organic carrots
  • Apples or bananas
We also included additional trays with extra tomato slices, cucumbers, and green peppers in case anyone wanted to add them to their sandwiches.

After delivering the second day, I stayed to observe participants eating. What foods would they eat? Which would they skip?

They ate the vegetables. (and the chips, cookies, and wraps) Not everyone ate everything, but most of the participants did eat vegetables when offered them as an alternative. Several also chose the fruit.

My challenge to you: if you organize a meal or event, add at least 1 additional fruit or vegetable into the menu.  And add 1 more vegetable a day to your own plate, at each meal.

Comment below to share how you meet the balanced box lunch challenge.

The USDA has ideas on how to incorporate more vegetables into your diet if you need it.

Bottom line: we can balance the traditional box lunch without breaking the bank.


Amahl’s Only Gift

Amahl’s mother was not having the best of all possible winters.  She lived outside of Bethlehem, near the shepherds.  Her husband was dead.  Her only son could barely walk with the help of a crutch.  She struggled, but finally, they had nothing left.  One dark evening, she prepared their final fire.  The food was gone.  She had no money.  She braced herself to either beg with her son or starve to death.

But her son, the lonely boy with a home-made crutch noticed a star in the sky.  Visitors came to their home that evening – three wise men from a faraway land.

Thus begins the story of Amahl, a children’s opera written fifty years ago.  It’s the story of the first Christmas, told from the perspective of poor shepherds, a desperate widow, and a lame boy.  We see the wise men seeking a new king.

At the end of the story, we see great gifts of tribute offered to the new king – gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

But Amahl offers a greater gift to the king.  He offers his crutch.  It’s the only thing he has. Wonderful things happen because Amahl gives his only possession to the Christ Child.

Amahl’s gift to the Christ Child can be a lesson and comfort for us all.  In the years when the Christmas table is covered with a feast and the stockings are stuffed to breaking, say thanks to God.  Treasure those years.

There may be other years when the feast is simple, the stockings are nearly empty,  and life is a struggle.

Our greatest gifts to God may come in the barren years.  We give what we have – whatever we have.  When we do so, God blesses us beyond measure, in ways we could never anticipate.

They may be material blessings but are likely to be blessings of the heart.  A single smile can ease the burden of a sorrow-laden holiday season.

The real table of plenty is the one God serves to our hearts and souls.  We may discover it when we give what we have – whatever it is – to honor the newborn king.

If this Christmas stocking has more poignant sorrow than happiness this season, take heart.  You are not alone, and the Christ Child is still there for you.  He already gave you the most precious gift He had – Himself.

Want to add Amahl to your music and DVD collection? Visit my Amazon affiliate store!

(More information on Amahl and the Night Visitors:

Amahl and the Night Visitors was written by Gian Carlo Menotti.  It’s the first children’s opera written for television; the one act production first aired on NBC in 1951.  It’s been performed around the world at Christmas.

Recordings and children’s books can introduce the story to your family.   Check your local library.  Whittlesey House published a nice children’s early reader version of Amahl in 1952.  Morrow publishers printed a beautiful picture book in 1986.

If you’re a trivia buff, the special effects from this television production were later used in the opening sequence of the Dr. Who series, which aired on BBC 1963-1966.)


Why Semesters Abroad Are Worth It

Image courtesy of Lusi at http://www.sxc.hu/.

Yesterday, Jeremy Morrill wrote in USA Today that it wasn’t worth it to spend a semester in college abroad. Today, I’ll discuss why he’s wrong.

He writes as a college junior. I write as a mother and business owner who spent a semester in England 24 years ago and address each point he made.


My academics were different from stateside. I studied at Harlaxton College, the British campus of the University of Evansville. Faculty was a mix of British professors and visiting American ones. Studying Shakespeare with tours of Stratford and performances of the plays was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So was studying art history and touring museums. My other courses were biology, philosophy, and sociology. I carried a 4.0/4.0, had work study in the admissions office, and still travelled.


Probably the best time academically to go on a semester abroad is your sophomore year for general ed electives. Freshman year, you’re adjusting to college life.  Several schools have plans to help you make a semester abroad work with your major.


When I studied abroad, our college had 1 computer. We communicated by mail and telephone. Two hundred students had access to two pay phones.  I have 0 sympathy for complaints that Skype is inadequate.

I travelled in a safer time, when I could venture alone and immerse myself. I had to talk to locals to survive.


In my sociology class, Americans were the minority; most were international. I learned our culture impacts our perception.

My adopt a family helped me live real British family life. Touring a country is different from living there.

Advantages not addressed:

Resourcefulness – I survived my travel from hell story – every student has one. Mine was a 25 hour adventure getting from Donegal, Ireland to Harlaxton, England by hitching, bus, ferry, train, and taxi. My room-mate spent a night in a snowstorm in a German phone booth. Two girls slept in a pay toilet. When you survive an adventure on the other side of the planet by luck, wits, and the grace of God, you gain confidence.

Two decades later, I don’t remember much of what I studied in classes. I have new family and friends. My experiences studying abroad are among those I will always treasure.

Local is the new global and global is the new local. The more international experience you have, the better you will be able to thrive.

I pray my own children will have the opportunities to see more of the world than I have.

Research Papers and Tools to Help

Term papers today are easier than when I was in high school.  That was back in the days of electric typewriters.

The following are the new essential skills and tools for term papers.

  1. Search Engines. Besides googling, you need to know how to evaluate what’s accurate, current, and verified. Wikepedia is a good to skim but is not a good research reference. Can you research on social media too?
  2. Library Websites. The Evansville Public Library website (my local library) is a treasure trove with good web sources and databases as well as books. You should be able to dance the jitterbug around your library’s website and know how to request an inter-library loan.
  3. NoodleTools. This is the best research tool I have found for students.  It costs $8 per year for an individual account, and I require it of every student I teach to write term papers.  Students take virtual notecards with NoodleTools, and it generates bibliographies. Noodletools teaches students to self-evaluate their research and intuitively know when and where to dig deeper.
  4. Evernote or OneNote. These are programs to take notes. Evernote has a free version. OneNote is part of Office. Both have mobile apps. These help you take notes on the go.
  5. Word processors.  Word is the gold standard. There is a student license for Office. If you are on a budget, you could use Google Docs or Open Office. I recommend Google Docs because it’s easier to share your work and have access to your documents wherever you are. If you need bells & whistles, go Office. The same recommendations hold if your research requires statistical analysis.
  6. Presentation software. Your choices here include PowerPoint, Google Docs, or Prezi. Some prefer Prezi because the results can be flashier. There is a free version if you share your work and a paid if you want it private. If you create a presentation, make sure you know how to use the program well. Further, know how to effectively use the presentation as a tool and not a crutch. Can you give your presentation without the slideshow?
  7. Go 2.0.  The paper and the presentation should not just be a static assignment – that’s 1.0 20th century work. Welcome to the new world. Share your work on Slideshare plus written and video blogs.

I used to worry about typing my term paper. The 2.0 research model offers opportunities to develop critical thinking – and critical sharing skills – instead.

Learn While You Can

“I’ve lived over 60 years without a computer and won’t start now,” a friend’s mother told him.

“Mom, you have to start now. It will be easier now than when you’re 70,” her son told her.

Then he continued with the jaw dropping clincher, “You had better learn to use a computer now, while you can, before you get old and using a computer is the only thing you have left that you CAN do.”

I would never have had the guts to say that. But he’s right. It’s easier to learn now than it is to learn later.

Computer technology and social media offer outlets never before available to those who face physical challenges. They have an opportunity to connect with the outside world, whether it’s beautiful outside or there’s an ice storm.  New tech changes will make it that much easier for older people to stay independent and involved.

Skype is a growing trend among seniors who want to stay connected with family members in other areas. Some families have dinner together via Skype.

How do you help an older family member or friend be more independent on the computer? When I’ve worked with senior citizens, the following helped.

  1. Go slow. Repeat often. Write down steps and have them follow the steps with you.
  2. Have them click the mouse. If you take over the mouse, they will never learn to click.
  3. Begin with solitaire. This teaches them to drag and drop, click, and double-click. Explain what click, double click, and right click are used for.
  4. If double-clicking is a challenge with a traditional mouse and they want to use a mouse, teach them to hold the mouse still and think “tap tap” instead of “double click.” The words “double click” have fricative sounds, and people jiggle their hands more with those sounds than when they think “tap tap.”
  5. Spend time teaching them to minimize, maximize, and close windows.
  6. Make sure they understand how to cut, copy, and paste.
  7. Help them save photos to a place where they can find them later.
  8. Be sure their system is backed up.
  9. Repeat the same topic several times if needed.
  10. Make sure they have shortcuts to get to the programs they use most often – most likely email and maybe social media.

If you’re a senior, what poses the biggest computer challenge to you? If you’ve helped senior family members, what tips can you share to help others?

9 Venues for Affordable Music for Kids

ParentSquare should have a MusicParent badge for parents who pay for and get kids to music lessons and make sure they practice. 

Over 13 years, my kids have had varied music experiences – Suzuki violin, piano, Kindermusik, choirs, percussion, handbells, traditional violin, and guitar. Some music experiences cost more than others.  We paid for most, with some scholarships or help from family. My daughter paid her own tuition for a children’s choir for two years.

How can you expose kids to music on a budget?

  1. Library programs: my kids went through a brief Kindermusik intro once. One local library offers low-cost recorder lessons.
  2. Church programs: look at after school programs and camps. My kids did vocal and sign language choirs plus group percussion and piano classes in them.
  3. Free concerts: Colleges, churches, and libraries may host free concerts. For younger kids, look for outdoor concerts where you can sit near the back. Every 3 years, one local church does an Amahl and the Night Visitors performance. I included it in a music unit to introduce my kids to opera.
  4. Library music collections: Don’t limit yourself to Mozart. Do a Peter and the Wolf adventure. Get some scarfs or streamers and encourage them to “dance” to the music.
  5. Sing: Kids love to hear their parents sing. Encourage them to sing with you.
  6. Share the music you love: My taste runs to Vivaldi, while my husband’s veers to Stevie Ray Vaughn. Let them see what music moves your soul. 
  7. Get the rhythm: Suzuki begins with rhythm awareness. Listen for rhythm patterns and help your young kids learn to repeat them. My son blew taca taca stop stop bubble rhythms in his chocolate milk before he was 2 – listening to his older sister’s music lessons.
  8. Perform with other kids: music is not a solo act. It’s meant to be shared. When your kids perform music with other kids, they learn lessons: following direction from a leader, listening to others around them, maintaining poise when circumstances change, and also developing skill in phrasing, dynamics, and expression. Those skills apply to public speaking, interpersonal communication, and life in general.
  9. Lessons. If you can afford it, private lessons are great. Get the best teacher you can afford – if not professional, what about a high school student?

You can find ways to help your kids discover their own music passions, regardless of your budget.

Telling Great Christmas Stories

History can be as boring as dirt if we leave the back stories out of the timelines.

If you like the back stories of our Christmas traditions, find a copy of the late Webb Garrison’s book, A Treasury of Christmas Stories.

Garrison’s stories are often short enough to read aloud at a single sitting with family and share the kinds of details that make history memorable and fun.

  • what George Washington purchased his stepchildren the first Christmas he was married;
  • in 1214, English barons refused to visit King John in England over Christmas, resulting in the writing and signing of the Magna Carta;
  • Joel Poinsett (for whom the poinsettia is named), the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, met a mob of anti-American demonstrators in front of the U.S. embassy, with an American flag on a pole as his only protection – they disbanded;
  • Union soldiers gave Savannah, Georgia, a free Christmas dinner in the middle of the Civil War;
  • The first Christmas tree in the White House was a present for the wife of President Franklin Pierce, helped pull her out of a devastating depression following the accidental death of their last surviving son.

Garrison, former assistant dean of Emory University and president of McKendree College, died a few years ago. 

In the conclusion of his book, he urges families to read these stories aloud and share them together because storytelling combines art with instruction and entertainment. 

“Tell your stories” is the advice of many working in social media today.  Reading and sharing great stories is a great step towards being able to share your own stories.

I highly recommend Garrison’s books to anyone who enjoys a great story, who wants to gain greater insights into our history and traditions.

Snow Day Express

We didn’t have a snow day in southern Illinois in January, 1978, when I was in the 7th grade; we had a snow month. After a 16 inch storm one week and a blizzard the next – leaving 8 foot snow drifts – the town’s lone radio station announced, “All schools in the area are canceled until further notice.”

How times of snow day notices have changed. Now we have multiple channel alerts:

  • TV and radio stations on air and web
  • Websites
  • Oncall systems to telephone and/or text families
  • Facebook
  • Twitter

When schools debate the To Close or Not to Close question, families, teachers, school corp employees, and students all discuss it online, before the world. Smart schools provide an official voice to the social media conversation. They develop social media policies that encourage conversation in a constructive manner.

Slipping into Old Geezer mode to compare the present to the Blizzard of ’78.

I was a pedestrian newspaper carrier during that winter. I walked to the newspaper office downtown and then delivered papers to every store and home on either side of Main Street. Every Monday through Saturday of that winter, I delivered the paper, even the day the wind chill hit 10 below.

Snow drifts 2-3 foot high divided the middle of Main Street. As I went from customer to customer delivering papers, I warmed up in 1 store to then venture to the next.

That newspaper, with the radio station, were our town’s lifeline. Weather radios did not exist for consumers. Our pre-cable TV news was from Evansville, Indiana.

Now, when the threat of severe weather hits, we watch the forecasts on the news and listen to them on the radio. We rely more on news online than in print. Facebook lets me see how the storm impacts my friends. Twitter gives me a view of the storm’s impact on our area and what will happen next.

If or when a comparable blizzard hits, technology will make it easier to survive.  Smart schools will leverage tech to communicate better.

Maybe, if or when a future blizzard happens, my grandchildren won’t miss a month of school and trudge a paper route. Schools will keep classes going online, sharing information instantly with students in ways not yet invented.

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