For The Someday Book

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The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared by Alice Ozma, Grand Central Publishing, 2011, 288  pp.

Reading PromiseI heard about this book after an interview with the author on NPR. I am parent and a certified book nerd (c’mon, not only do I read like crazy, collect books like personal friends, but I blog about what I read here), so I found it impossible to resist a book about sharing a love of books across generations.

Alice Ozma and her father began what became known as “The Streak” when she was in the fourth grade. They made a commitment to read together every night for 100 consecutive nights. To true readers, 100 nights is far too short–as it was for Alice and her father. The Streak continued for the next eight years, until Ozma left for college. The Reading Promise is not just the story of the books they read, but of their relationship over those years. Alice’s father was a single parent and eccentric elementary school librarian. He and Alice had a particular and sometimes peculiar life together, full of imagination and affection, but not without hardship. It is a touching memoir, full of humorous and touching stories of Alice and her father over the years of The Streak, including the sometimes extraordinary measures they would take to continue it.

I had expected the book to be like an extended book report, a catalog of how art imitates and informs life. I had hoped for advice about how to inculcate a love of reading in my child. I coveted a list of all the books they read, and how they managed to sustain a practice of reading aloud for so long. Those things were there, but they were implicit rather than explicit. She didn’t write about how the books impacted her life, but about how the books became the foundation of her relationship with her father, even through the difficult years of adolescence. And yes, there was also a list of all the books they could remember reading together–which was my favorite part of the book.

I recommend The Reading Promise to anyone wondering why and how reading with your child makes a difference, or looking for inspiration for the work of reading together every night for a sustained time. Alice Ozma is only in her early 20’s, which is young to have produced a memoir. I wonder if there will be more forthcoming books from her.

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Parenting Gifted Kids: Tips for Raising Happy and Successful Children by James R. Delisle, Prufrock Press, Waco, Texas, 2006, 213 pp.

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We received this book in the mail, a gift from our school system’s “Advanced Program,” shortly after B completed extensive testing that qualified him for enrichment and advanced curriculum for his grade level. It followed a lengthy conversation with the program director about the opportunities available for him, the potential challenges of his curriculum, and the pros and cons of grade-skipping.

This book was given as an introduction to the meaning of the gifted label, both at home and at school. I have not done extensive reading on this topic, but this book seemed unique in that it approached the meaning of the term “gifted” as a way of seeing and experiencing the world, not only as an intellectual acuity. The first chapter cuts right to one of the most challenging issues: the perception that the gifted label implies “better than,” not simply “better at.” Gifted children and adults are better at learning new facts and concepts, perceiving connections and/or art, music or something else. They are not better than anyone else. Just like some people are better at sports or dance or art, some people are better at problem-solving , thinking and learning. It is a mistake to confuse “better at” with “better than,” both for gifted kids, gifted adults, parents, teachers, those who look at them with envy and those that look at them with disdain.

The book goes on to encourage parents of gifted children to be bold at embracing and encouraging the full pursuit of “better at,” and dispelling any notions of “better than.” Delisle talks through the common challenges of the educational system, the emotional issues of gifted children, the problem of expectations. In every chapter, he also includes the voices of gifted children and teens themselves, speaking directly to the issues he raises.

One of the most interesting things I learned from the book was in the second chapter, which talked about the intensities that come with a gifted IQ. Not only do I often describe B as “intense,” but many of the scenarios Delisle described also reflected my own childhood. He introduced the concept of “overexcitabilities,” (OEs), originally developed by Polish psychologist Michael Piechowski. These are ways in which those with higher IQ’s can experience the world “in ways that are more intense or vivid than most.” (34) They include psychomotor, sensual, intellectual, imaginational and emotional. The one that rung true for both me and for B (and I could see in my spouse too) was the intellectual overexcitability, described as a person who is “a minefield of exploding thoughts. It is someone who is curious, mentally alert even when relaxing, driven to absorb and understand any new idea, and someone who likes any type of intellectual challenge.” (38-39) Our family life is full of time spent challenging one another with some sort of “intellectual challenge,” sorting through a problem or pouring over new information in some way. We love that about each other, and recognize it is a bit unusual and often somewhat obsessive. In other words, over-excitable. What a gift to have language to describe that experience, and know we are not alone.

While I did not agree with everything Delisle said in his forthright and headstrong opinion, the book was a valuable tool to understand not only my son, but myself as well. It introduced the language the educational system will use, pointed to potential challenges and pitfalls, and offered reassurance. Most importantly, Delisle recognizes that each child, with or without a gifted label, will present his or her own challenges, and the best any parent can do is try to negotiate, support and love accordingly.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough, Hougton-Mifflin, 2012, 231 pp.

How-Children-Succeed-by-Paul-ToughI’ll admit it: I was drawn to this book as an anxious parent eager to do everything possible to equip my child for success. I read one of the preliminary excerpts in The New York Times, and I was fascinated. To continue the confessional spirit: I am someone who is highly risk-averse, and fears failure. I would like to teach my child how to take risks and fail boldly, then get up and try again. So far, his natural tendencies match the caution of both his parents. Instruction will be required, and I’m not sure I know how to give it.

Tough’s title might sell a lot of books to people like me (although I borrowed it from the library), but he is writing about children like mine, from relatively stable homes with educated, financially privileged parents. He takes an honest, close look at what we can do as a nation to change the lives of children from low income backgrounds and give them not only the opportunity, but the support they need to succeed. What he discovers is that intellect is not nearly as important as core character traits like grit, self-control, conscientiousness, and curiosity. If you have intellect but not those character strengths, and you come from a disadvantaged starting place, you will not likely overcome those disadvantages. If you do have those strengths, and some critical support along the way, you can overcome all kinds of poor schooling and stressful home situations, even improving intelligence scores, academic success and life opportunities.

Tough researches a wide array of programs aimed at overcoming the disadvantages of poverty, uncertain home life and poor schooling. He looks at research from neuroscientists, educators, educational reform experts, social scientists, and doctors. He diagnoses success and failure in programs to help children and adolescents, and concludes that we have failed as a nation to adequately address these problems. The challenges of poverty, the legacy of racism, poor schools, unstable family life and inadequate support combine to leave millions of young people further and further behind. We must improve all of these things, but if we could start with the most effective, it would be certain strengths of character that would help overcome the rest.

I found the list that Tough uses, drawn from researchers and employed by schools in the successful KIPP charter school program, to be particularly interesting and helpful. The character strengths deemed most important to success are: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity (76). Notice that kindness, compassion, respect, honesty, helpfulness and other moral traits are not included. While those are important, they are not the things that lead to success in life. Most schools emphasize those character traits, and do not talk at all about the others. When you are trying to save children from a broken system, those are the strengths that make a difference–and the best news of all is that they can be taught.

Last week, Jan Edmiston, over on her wonderful blog A Church for Starving Artists, wrote about the challenge of low attendance at worship and other church events. She discussed adult Christian education as one of the chief places where church’s struggle with low attendance, and speculates about why.  I have been thinking a lot about this issue myself, and appreciate her post prompting me to think some more. I have a lot to say, so I’m going to divide it into a few shorter posts.

Part I: Is Adult Christian Education a Cultural Thing?

I struggle mightily with what to do about adult Christian education in my current setting. In my last church, as an associate pastor I taught a Sunday morning Bible study that grew from 10-15 participants to 25-30 participants every week. I started a reading group that tackled Borg, Bonhoeffer, Brueggemann, Pagels and more, and attracted 10-20 people every week. I created short-term workshops and evening programs that were popular and well attended. There was a culture of Christian education there, and people craved opportunities to read, study, reflect and discuss. The church worshiped with an average of 300 people every Sunday.

When I arrived in my current position, I tried similar strategies. The church itself is smaller, worshiping with only 80 on Sundays, but our general level of participation in activities is high. Sunday morning classes started out with 5-6 people, and dwindled to 2-3 within a month. Evening programs, workshops and short-term studies suffered the same fate. Those who attended gave high praise for the class, but other interests always pulled them away. I decided that it was not a good use of my time to prepare and teach for less than 5 people week in and week out, especially after those who were attending felt disappointed that our numbers were so small. It was often just me and one other couple.

Having spent a lot of time considering why it worked so well in growing one church and not in another, I believe it is as simple as a cultural difference. My first church was downtown in a large, northeastern city where education was everything. The members of the church placed a high value on education as an intrinsic good. They were avid readers and took classes in all sorts of topics, including faith. My current church is in a small town on the line between the south and the midwest. The members of the church are hard-working doers. While they value education, they see it as a means for future advancement, rather than a good in itself. While people read the newspaper or an occasional novel,  they prefer to spend their free time with family rather than taking classes in something.

I think this dichotomy is not unique to me and my particular churches. I know many churches that have grown by offering in-depth Christian education programming for adults, and many other churches that are quite vital and thriving, but cannot get adult Bible study programs off the ground. I suspect that these wider cultural influences may be a factor. These cultural differences do not necessarily reflect people’s educational background, wealth, class or race. Rural congregations with few college educated members often have thriving Sunday school programs, and suburban churches full of professionals may have none.

It’s about the cultural and community support for education. If the people in our communities are not invested in learning for the sake of learning, it is a special challenge to engage them in learning for the sake of faith. In people’s busy lives, our Christian education programs are competing with many other interests. If the environment does not encourage time spent in study at all, how much more challenging is it to value and prioritize Christian study?

What are your thoughts?

Next up:

Part II: Other Reasons for Struggling Christian Education, and Why All These Reasons Demand a Cultural Change in Christian Education

Part III: Moving toward Wholistic Faith Formation, and New Delivery Methods for Bible Teaching


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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