Friday, April 30, 2010

Bidding National Poetry Month adieu

Today is the last day of National Poetry Month, and I can't bid it adieu without some actual poetry. Here is a reprise from a few weeks ago (which I never actually linked to the Poetry Friday roundup that week).
I Want to Run Away

My children test my patience almost every single day.
Some days it gets so bad, they make me want to run away.
Run off to join the circus, where I'll train the dancing bear.
Or maybe to the city, to sell fancy underwear.
No, retail's not for me, instead I'll travel 'round the world.
Outracing storms and tidal waves with massive sails unfurled.
I'll go on a safari and I'll sleep up in a tree.
I'll fend off greedy pirates, search for treasure in the sea.
I'll climb upon the pyramids, go see the Taj Mahal,
commune with some orangutans and walk on China's wall.
I'll ride a Russian rocket, yes, I'll take it straight to Mars,
then further out to space to see Orion's eighty stars.
I'll travel 'round the universe, but come home when I'm tired
from all of the adventures that my children have inspired.
Copyright © 2010 Alison Pearce Stevens

Today's Poetry Friday roundup is hosted by Mary Ann Scheuer at  Great Kid Books.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Listening, really listening

I often get the sense that the world is full of people shouting to have their voices and opinions heard, yet no one seems to stop to listen to what others say. We all want someone to listen to us, but how often do we stop to listen to others, to consider their side of an issue? This is particularly true in politics, as people become more and more divided, more extreme in their positions, and less likely to pay attention to what the other side has to say. But does it have to be this way?

I recently read Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, and the information he wrote about 70 years ago is as relevant today as ever. I would even venture to say that we need it more now than ever. He spends several chapters on the importance of listening. If we try to convince someone of our ideas by talking, by telling them how wrong they are, all we do is help them dig in their heels. But when we take time to listen, to let others feel that they have been heard and that their opinions are valued, we can find common ground and solve problems.

Last week, I wrote about Adele Diamond and what she calls tools of the mind. My focus was on the educational benefits of free play and creativity, but just as important are the social benefits. Dr. Diamond advocates a set of educational techniques that foster listening and collaboration.

Starting with the preschool level, children can be taught to start listening to each other. Some schools do this with a paired activity, in which two children are given a picture book, and one child gets to tell the story to the other. Naturally, both children want to tell the story (ever tried to get a 4-year-old to sit and listen?). To help foster listening skills, one child is given a card with a picture of an ear on it, and the other a card with a mouth. The one with a mouth gets to tell the story, because mouths can talk. But the child with the ear must listen. The cards play an important role in fostering attentive behavior, because children know ears cannot talk, they only listen.

In many traditional cultures, a talking stick was used in the same way. The person with the stick can talk, and they can talk until they feel they have been understood by the others. As Dr. Diamond points out, the purpose of the talking stick is not to foster talking, but rather to foster attentiveness and listening in members of the audience.

Improvisational storytelling is a great activity to foster collaboration and attentiveness among older children (and adults). One individual begins the story, and the next must continue it. Only by listening to what others have said can the story be continued. These activities are also particularly fun, since they take frequent unexpected twists and turns. What better way to learn to listen and collaborate?

Listening. Being attentive. Trying to collaborate. Those are the first steps toward understanding others. We may not agree on everything (what a boring world we would live in if we did), but we can strive to understand each other better. And we may  just find that we agree on more than we realized.
I have found it of enormous value when I can permit myself to understand the other person. The way in which I have worded this statement may seem strange to you. Is it necessary to permit oneself to understand another? I think it is. Our first reaction to most of the statements (which we hear from other people) is an evaluation or judgment, rather than an understanding of it. When someone expresses some feeling, attitude or belief, our tendency is almost immediately to feel "that's right," or "that's stupid," "that's abnormal," "that's unreasonable," "that's incorrect," "that's not nice." Very rarely do we permit ourselves to understand precisely what the meaning of the statement is to the other person.
Carl. R. Rogers, On Becoming a Person (Houghton Mifflin, 1961), from Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People (revised edition, Pocket Books, 1981).

Understanding others is one of the fundamental components of compassion. Put yourself in someone else's shoes for a bit. Think about what they want, and take some time to listen. Does it change the way you interact with others?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Creativity and Compassion

This is one of those weeks... I have multiple deadlines, sick children to tend to, and absolutely no time for creative pursuits (I don't even have time for my morning pages—ack!). So I'm not writing much today, other than to link to a few other, thoughtful sites.
  • See Soul Shelter for some thoughts on creating a cultural bill of rights
  • The Compassionate Action Network will be hosting a festival of compassion tomorrow to honor Seattle as the first city to adopt the Charter for Compassion. (Have you affirmed the charter, yet?)
  • And Sunday is World Malaria Day. Those of us fortunate enough to live in areas unaffected by malaria don't often consider its impact, but please consider helping the fight against this disease, to break the cycle of illness and poverty affecting people in many developing nations.
Do something compassionate this weekend. Then come back here and tell us what it was, how it felt, who benefited from your actions.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tools of the mind

"The more of you that gets involved — the body, the emotions, everything — the more you get out of it in many ways because it changes the brain. Nurtures the brain. The social nurtures the brain. The joy nurtures the brain. The physical activity nurtures the brain. And it also nurtures your physical health. You're going to be more physically healthy if you're socially connected, if you're physically fit, if you're using your mind actively." 
The above quote is by Adele Diamond, a researcher studying developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. A friend of mine sent me a Speaking of Faith transcript of an interview with Prof. Diamond titled Learning, Doing, Being: a new science of education. Diamond offered fascinating insight into the methods we use to educate our children and how those methods affect their performance on tests, their development of a life-long love of learning, and their ability to be creative and solve problems.

Prof. Diamond argues that we need to reevaluate the way we teach our children. That education should emphasize activities that help foster a love of learning and promote problem-solving skills. In particular, she argues that we need to increase the exposure of children to activities such as music, dance, storytelling, sports, and play (all of which have been on the decline in public schools), and reduce our emphasis on memorizing "content." Details are forgotten, but knowing how to find the information you need and apply it in a novel situation is a skill that serves us every day of our lives.
"[T]he schools are tending to think, 'Oh, my god. We don't have time for play. And we don't have time for the arts…. And we have to focus on the academic content, because you're going to get tested at the end of the year and we have to make sure they do well on these tests.' But our research and others' is showing that if the children have more time to play, they do better on these academic outcome measures than if they spend more time in direct academic instruction.

[T]hings like the arts or sports or any of these other things, they develop your cognitive skills dependent on prefrontal cortex. Like sustaining attention, like being able to hold information in mind. They speak to your social aspect because you're part of a group.... Which is terribly important to doing well. They also use your body and we know that if you're physically healthy, your prefrontal cortex and brain work better, specifically your prefrontal cortex. And leading a sedentary life is terrible for your brain health or your cognitive health."
Here we have a researcher arguing that we are taking our educational methods in the wrong direction. That we need to bring back physical education, music and art classes, and give children time to play. Depriving them of these activities in favor of academic instruction actually hurts their ability to perform well on standardized tests. Not to mention their ability to deal with problems they encounter later in life. Sure, pursuit of a career in the arts may seem superfluous to most people, but every single one of us needs to be able to interact with others and handle difficult problems when they arise.

Interviewer Krista Tippett explains that Diamond's research focuses on executive function, "... the brain's capacity to coordinate the many kinds of mental activity that are involved in any human experience and certainly in learning, from how we focus to how we feel. Executive function enables us to take charge of our responses and actions."

Executive function involves three fundamental aspects:
  • inhibitory control "You need inhibitory control to stay on task when you're bored or when you meet initial failure. You need inhibitory control to focus in on something in the environment so that you're not overwhelmed by all the other things around."
  • working memory  "It's holding information in mind and playing with it, and you need working memory for anything that unfolds over time. You also need working memory for creativity because the essence of creativity is holding things in mind and disassembling them and putting them together in new ways"
  • cognitive flexibility "It's being able to switch your perspective or switching the way you're thinking about things, being able to think outside the box. And of course, that's also an aspect of creativity." 
 Taken together, these three aspects allow us to be more creative people, better planners, and better problem solvers.

 I have written before about the effect of exercise on mental function and creative problem solving skills, and on the importance of giving children (and ourselves) time for free play. The information here may seem paradoxical, in that free play is often lost in pursuit of extracurricular activities, such as sports, music, art, or dance lessons. I think the solution, however, is to return those activities (or at least a good subset of them) to schools. They needn't take up all of our children's after-school and weekend time. As Diamond argues, they should be integrated into the learning process. Everyone will benefit.

How do you think education should be structured to best serve children (and future adults)?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Springtime delights

I love springtime in Germany. The corner fruit and vegetable stands are up and many are already open. On Friday, the doorbell rang. It was a farmer, who was going house to house, selling his day's crop: spring potatoes, asparagus (the mysterious white kind that Germans prefer to green), and strawberries. What could be better than farm-fresh, locally grown produce delivered to the door?

Flowers are blooming everywhere, and the sweet scent of flowers perfumes the air (except when the wind blows, and then we smell manure from the farms outside the city). At the moment, the air is still and the smell is delightful. 

Soon pollen will coat every surface of the house, since we love having the windows open. Germans are oddly opposed to this: they have a fear of the "draft" and are quite convinced that a draft of air brings illness. They keep doors closed to reduce movement of air within the home. We, on the other hand, are quite convinced that improved air circulation has the opposite effect. Windows are wide open, doors propped, so they can't slam shut in a gust of wind. The downside is that we must deal with a perpetual coating of yellow on everything for about six weeks each spring (it doesn't matter how often I dust, the pollen is always there).

This year, the pollen will be mixed with ash from the volcanic eruption in Iceland. I found the first evidence of it this morning. The skies are oddly quiet without the sound of airplanes overhead. It is very peaceful. An unexpected side effect of earth's dynamic existence.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Poetry Friday: fighting affluenza with a lullaby

My students just finished an enlightening discussion about Affluenza. Not sure what that is? Here's the video I ask my students to watch: The Story of Stuff. (You'll need about 20 minutes to see the whole thing.)

Done? Did you watch it all? Pretty incredible isn't it? It may well be a bit over the top, but I think it carries an important message. If nothing else, it makes us look at what we do in a different light. Stop to ask yourself: if even half of what Annie Leonard says is true, what does that mean for us? For our way of life? Our future? Our children?

Consider how easy it is to teach the values of consumerism to our children from day one. Take, for example, the popular lullaby, Hush Little Baby. It has a lovely melody, but my  husband and I didn't care for the values instilled by the original version... hush, now, and we'll buy you this... if it breaks, we'll buy you that... we'll just keep buying you things until you're calm and quiet. Hmm. Aside from the issues noted in the video, it sounds like a recipe for tantrums down the road.

When our oldest child was a baby, I happened across Sylvia Long's (now out-of-print) version of the lullaby. Long's Hush Little Baby instills in children (and their parents) wonder and appreciation for the world around them. It reminds us to take comfort in family and the little things we so often take for granted: the setting sun, crickets chirping, a warm blanket on a cold night, the moon as it traverses the sky, a few moments to sit and read a book or sing a lullaby.

Sylvia Long is an artist, and her illustrations for her version of Hush Little Baby bring to life each of the small joys she describes with her lyrics. Long used pen and ink with watercolor to create a young rabbit and its mother, and we watch them enjoy the world's forgotten treasures throughout the book. How can you not enjoy the evening sky, a shooting star, a lightning bug, time together? This book reminds us all to slow down and appreciate what we already have. One of the keys to happiness.

What is your favorite activity to do with your children, nieces, nephews, or grandchildren? What makes it special?

Today's Poetry Friday Roundup is hosted by Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Spiral Out

If you have spent any time reading this blog, you have discovered my fascination with creative inspiration. So when my husband and I stumbled across this video the other day, I knew I had to include it here. Be sure you have a good 10 minutes before starting it, it's well worth watching to the end.

Now, how often do you think mathematical principles inform music? Sure, we hear about studies that report that music classes help students perform better in math, but how many musicians actually take time to create a song about—and using—unusual mathematical sequences? Not many, is my guess.

I think we can learn from this song. They lyrics tell us to live life like a Fibonacci spiral, and I think anyone pursuing a creative venture strives to do exactly this. They do so by constantly pursuing the new, the different, the innovative merging of previously disparate ideas. "And following our will and wind, we may just go where no one's been." What better definition of creativity could you want? Isn't that what we are striving to do with our creative pursuits?

I also find this song inspirational on those days when I question what I am doing. "Spiral out. Keep going."
What keeps you going?

Monday, April 12, 2010

In search of happiness

What is Happiness?
The recent economic woes have had an unexpected benefit for many people: working fewer hours meant more time with family, more time to spend with friends, and greater satisfaction in people's lives. What, exactly contributes to happiness? People work to make money to buy things that they feel will make them happy. But do they?

Research into these questions indicates that money and objects do not, in fact, make people happy. Having enough to live comfortably is important and does contribute to happiness, but do you really need to drive this year's model, or have the latest-and-greatest [insert product here]? Probably not. And if you buy the newest item, it will only serve to bring greater and greater dissatisfaction over time, as you realize that something even newer, even better is available. That leads to new purchases, the need to work more to pay for them, less time with family and friends.

Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert has spent years studying what makes us happy. In a New York Times interview, he said,
We know that the best predictor of human happiness is human relationships and the amount of time that people spend with family and friends.

We know that it’s significantly more important than money and somewhat more important than health. That’s what the data shows. The interesting thing is that people will sacrifice social relationships to get other things that won’t make them as happy — money. That’s what I mean when I say people should do “wise shopping” for happiness.

Another thing we know from studies is that people tend to take more pleasure in experiences than in things. So if you have “x” amount of dollars to spend on a vacation or a good meal or movies, it will get you more happiness than a durable good or an object. One reason for this is that experiences tend to be shared with other people and objects usually aren’t.

See The Smiling Professor by Claudia Dreifus for the complete interview.
Many people live and work under the belief that they must make money, and what they do to earn that money is irrelevant. People distinguish between work and play for a reason. Very few people make money from their play, do what they truly enjoy to make a living. But does it need to be that way?  Several people argue that it does not.

The Art of Non-Conformity
At The Art of Non-Conformity, Chris Guillebeau has put together a terrific web site dedicated to teaching others to do what he has done: to make a career doing what he loves to do (for him, it's writing and travel--no wonder I love AONC!). Chris does not argue that people need to do what he does, rather he provides readers with the tools they need to break free from the daily grind and venture into a new world where their work is their play, and the act of playing provides the income they need to live that comfortable life.

Much of the information Chris provides is free, but not all. After all, he is using his AONC platform to achieve success and happiness in his life. He is very good at what he does, he offers terrific advice, and he is honest with his readers about the work it requires and the dedication they need to be successful. But that is exactly what is so refreshing about Chris' work. He is honest. He doesn't try to sell people on the quick-fix.

Soul Shelter
Tim Clark and Mark Cunningham at Soul Shelter provide another example of a web site dedicated to finding happiness through pursuit of what you love. They write about the process of balancing meaning and money. Does making money have to be a soulless activity? Does living a meaningful life require that people remain poor? Tim and Mark argue that these are merely two extremes (aren't humans good at setting up dichotomies?), but the reality can be somewhere in between.

See what Daniel, Chris, Tim, and Mark have to say. How can you lead a happier, more meaningful, life?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Poetry Friday: I want to run away

I hope everyone enjoyed the recent holiday weekend. Easter is an extended holiday in Germany, so we had lots of good family time together. Family time is generally a good thing; even when it gets to be challenging, it has its benefits. Exhibit A: inspiration for this poem.
I Want to Run Away

My children test my patience almost every single day.
Some days it gets so bad, they make me want to run away.
Run off to join the circus, where I'll train the dancing bear.
Or maybe to the city, to sell fancy underwear.
No, retail's not for me, instead I'll travel 'round the world.
Outracing storms and tidal waves with massive sails unfurled.
I'll go on a safari and I'll sleep up in a tree.
I'll fend off greedy pirates, search for treasure in the sea.
I'll climb upon the pyramids, go see the Taj Mahal,
commune with some orangutans and walk on China's wall.
I'll ride a Russian rocket, yes, I'll take it straight to Mars,
then further out to space to see Orion's eighty stars.
I'll travel 'round the universe, but come home when I'm tired
from all of the adventures that my children have inspired.
Copyright © 2010 Alison Pearce Stevens
The myriad sources of inspiration never cease to amaze me. Certainly, I would not have started writing poetry without inspiration from my children, and their reaction to things like night lights, the stories they tell on the way home from kindergarten, and their infectious joie de vivre. The travel part of this poem was inspired by a conversation with a friend who lived in Europe before having children; she and her husband had more opportunities to travel than we have had with two little ones in tow.

Think about the sources of new ideas in your life. What inspires you?

Poetry Friday Roundup is at Paper Tigers today.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Author inspiration: Meg Rosoff

Last week, I recommended books by the fabulous Meg Rosoff, and I mentioned that I had sent her a message asking about the inspiration behind Just In Case. The lovely woman replied and allowed me to post it here.

Hi Alison

I'm really pleased that you like my books, or at least my 'voice'!

Just In Case is kind of a long story -- my youngest sister got breast cancer, then it came back, then my middle sister got it as well, and I noticed that my previously atheist academic family had all started to become very superstitious -- picking up pennies on the street for luck, finding significant numbers in things.....and I started to think about the link between superstition and depression.  Just IN Case is kind of about depression - - what happens when you take an interesting philosophical idea (fate) and can't make limits for it -- until it begins to take on a life of its own.

Anyway, that's roughly the source of the idea.  Years ago I had a friend who said that being depressed makes you see the world as it really is, but that vision of life is intolerable -- that's how I see Justin -- beleaguered and hounded by all the terrible things that might happen to him, and desperate to control his life by thwarting fate.
I could go on....

Thanks again for writing.

Thank you, Meg, for taking a moment to tell us about the source of your inspiration. And yes, I do love your books, not just your voice (but the voice brings the books to life).

As I mentioned in my previous post, I highly recommend Meg's books. And she has inspired me to start interviewing a variety of people (authors and others who rely on creativity for their work) to learn what inspires them, and more about the creative process and how it works for them.

Monday, April 5, 2010


Well, I did it. I joined Twitter. And I have absolutely NO idea what I am doing. I have the rather disorienting feeling that I am standing in the middle of a rushing river, with snippets of conversation rushing past me. Conversations that I cannot follow, since I only see a small piece of them. Anything I tweet is carried away by the flow of words. Nothing comes back to me.

Fortunately, Justine Musk at Tribal Writer has a terrific "writer's starter guide to twitter" that has been a terrific help. I've followed her advice on the initial set-up, and now I'm at the looking-around-and-getting-to-know-the-culture stage. And trying to build up my tweetstream, which is hard to do, when I have the feeling that no one is listening.

So I am left with questions: Do I just jump in and start tweeting questions to people? If a conversation catches my eye, how, exactly, can I follow what it is about (and join in), since I tend to see only one side of it? Is it considered rude to interject my 140-characters' worth into an existing conversation? How do I go about finding the people I want to follow? Yes, I am slowly wading in, not quite ready to confront the full current of tweets, but thanks to Justine's terrific post, I am getting there.

And that brings me to another question. I have a Facebook fan page (for those wonderful people who like my stories—there's another poem on the way soon, this one for the parents out there), and I have my personal FB page, but I don't really want to share pictures of/information about my children with people who are not close friends or family. So should I set up a professional FB profile? One that's not a fan page, but rather one for professional connections, with other authors, agents, editors? How do people typically manage this? Can anyone in the writing community give me some advice?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Poetry Friday: Darren Sardelli

As Stacy Nockowitz at Some Novel Ideas pointed out last week, children's poetry tends to be a lot of fun. Good meter, good rhymes, and quite often great humor. So I thought I'd highlight some terrific funny poems by Darren Sardelli today. Here's the beginning of one of my favorites.
Little Boy Blue
by Darren Sardelli
Little Boy Blue,
please cover your nose.
You sneezed on Miss Muffet
and ruined her clothes.
You can find the rest at Laugh A Lot Poetry, since I don't want to violate any copyright restrictions and wind up in poetry jail. 

Today's Poetry Friday Roundup is at Book Aunt.