Family Storytelling at Thanksgiving

After the pumpkin pie is put away, take your phone and sit with a loved one in a corner.  Ask some thoughtful questions.  Listen and record (video or audio) their responses.

Why?  You’re participating in StoryCorps’ Great Thanksgiving Listen, by asking meaningful questions of someone close to you. Storytelling is an art form that links us humans through time.  Oftentimes, some of our most personal and meaningful stories come from loved ones, like grandparents, and we should preserve them whenever we can.

Here’s how to do it.

You’ll always be glad you did.  There is no greater act of love than listening, really listening, to another human being.


Listen and Learn with Spooky Stories

When you teach children to listen and learn with spooky stories, consider using my favorite, a performance by the Colonial Radio Theatre on the Air. Listen to a sample here.

Image from
The tale’s terrifying chase. Image from

You remember the tale about a schoolmaster with a strange name…a ghostly night…and a frightening, headless horseman. Accompanied by evocative music, it’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving.

We know that learning to listen is a life skill, but it takes loads of patience to teach. However, when you start with a topic of high interest to children—like spooky stories—it becomes easier. And radio theater is an art form that includes dramatic readings, sound effects, and music to engage the imagination.

1974 U.S. postage stamp. Image from
1974 U.S. postage stamp. Image from

I’ve taught children to listen toThe Legend of Sleppy Hollow many times.  I wrote key phrases on the board for children to think about and to listen for in context. Some children liked to draw during a learning to listen lesson–and you wouldn’t believe the terrific results!  Reenactments of favorite scenes followed the story. A good extension activity students explored was about creating sound effects.

When we work at teaching children to listen and learn, it doesn’t have to be drudgery.  Engage children through their interests and you are halfway there!

Cool Science: Why Are Trees So Pushy?

  • Enjoy this updated post from October, 2012.

Elementary science projects are not just for kids. Good ones  have something for everyone aged infant to one hundred! In autumn, your nearest deciduous tree has a lot to teach.

A Milford, NH, tree in all its glory.
A Milford, NH, tree in all its glory.

Make that tree into a cool science project. In fall, it’s experiencing the “Get-Off-Me Season.”

That’s what botanist Peter Raven calls it.  In this 2009 NPR story, he explains how trees push off their leaves when no longer needed.

To learn this science in nature, try the following:

  1. Listen to the 4-minute NPR story (transcript and pictures are below it).
  2. Take children outside for a walk. Observe trees in different stages of “pushing.”  Talk during the walk.
  3. Collect and display fallen leaves.  Include a branch with some leaves still attached.
  4. Ask children to write a story using what they learned about science in nature.
Ready, set, push! All that action at the end of a leaf stem–in a tree near you.

Science ideas like this one show how science in nature is available for all, both at home and in school.  This topic teaches listening,

The Best Way to Teach Your Child to Read

Let’s imagine that you studied the clarinet as a child. You attended a weekly lesson, thirty minutes long. In between lessons, you practiced at home to make progress before the next lesson. Your amount of home practice determined what kind of progress you made after each clarinet lesson.

The Reading Lesson, by Emile Munier (19th c.)
The Reading Lesson, by Emile Munier (19th c.)

This is the best way to teach a child to read, too. Home practice makes all the difference. I know that some teachers ask children to read twenty minutes a night, but many fluent readers easily read for an hour or more. If your child is a struggling reader, several short sessions may be better. Think of twenty minutes as a minimum amount, rather than a maximum.

Also, there’s no magic script to use to help your child become a good reader. It’s more important that you spend time with your child and talk about the book before, during, and after reading. Try reading aloud to him, and then listen to him read aloud to you. Listen to audio books together and let your mind illustrate them.

Part of teaching a child to read is to create an environment loaded with print. That’s what teachers do, and in your child’s classroom you see words, poems, songs, and stories on the walls, on shelves, even hanging from the ceiling. It’s not about decoration as much as it is the best way to teach reading.

Still Life with French Novels and a Rose, Vincent Van Gogh (1887)
Still Life with French Novels and a Rose, Vincent Van Gogh (1887)

Likewise, think about where you keep print in your home. Are books, magazines, newspapers, and library books readily available? Using a Kindle or Nook is great, but children need to touch, feel, manipulate, and enjoy all the sensory pleasures of reading a physical book.

As for learning the clarinet, remember the old joke:

Q.  “What’s the best way to get to Carnegie Hall?”

A.  “Practice, practice, practice!”


Military Family Stories

Veterans of World War II rarely speak of their service.  In the case of my father, humility is part of the reason.

SSgt Morgan P. Molloy, Sr., age 91. Tail gunner who flew on B25 "Rhode Island Red."
SSgt Morgan P. Molloy, Sr., age 91. Tail gunner on B25 “Rhode Island Red.”

 “Everybody did it,” he shrugged, referring to his peers in the 1940s.

He is one of a handful of remaining WWII veterans in his town. Read his story, published this week in the Metrowest Daily News.

 If you are a veteran, or have a family member or friend who served in the military, record the story.  Videotape it or take notes as you talk.  Ask to see what pictures or memorabilia they have from that time–that helps to prompt remembrances.

Get your children involved–sometimes they come up with the best questions–because this is how they learn about family history, world history, democracy, and making peace.

Summer Night Sounds

Right now, I’m sitting near an open window and listening to a nighttime chorus of katydids and crickets in huge numbers. Want to listen, too?

How many night insect sounds can you identify? Besides being relaxing music from nature, children find it incredibly interesting to learn about insects and how they create their songs.

Make learning about summer night sounds a memorable experience in your family.  Click here for plenty of insect identification info on a great site.

Wandering Adventure in a Bookstore

Wandering around a local bookstore is a travel adventure to me. Naturally, that was part of my plan when my daughters and I visited a friend in Provincetown.

Talk about the illustrations as you read aloud.
Talk about the illustrations as you read aloud. This is “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Illustrations by Graham Rust.

My 7-year old went one way. My 4-year old whined in agony.

“Mom, I’m not like everybody else in the family.” She threw herself on the floor. “I hate bookstores!”

News to me. We went to bookstores as often as the playground. Snuggling at night with a read-aloud, talking about the story as we read, and keeping piles of library books around the house was part of family life.

Listen to audio books read aloud by the author.
Listen to audio books read aloud by the author.

I led her to the children’s section and encouraged her to pick out a book. A few feet away, I sank into the nonfiction.

Soon, a little voice began. It was my 4-year-old, reading a book aloud. By herself. I held my breath. When had she begun reading? I asked her nonchalantly.

“Just now,” she said.

Look through travel books together.
Look through travel books together.

It’s one thing to be a teacher and witness the light bulb moment when children learn to read. When it’s your child, it’s a thrill. But it is not magic.

These are two simple ways to help your child be a good reader:

  1. Keep all kinds of books, magazines, newspapers, catalogs, and e-readers around the house. Kids need to be immersed in print to become good readers.

    Kids love to read other kids' books.
    Kids love to read other kids’ books.
  2. Kids need to see their family members reading. Read aloud to kids and read alone. (Even if reading isn’t your favorite activity.)

When you help a reader grow, you’re helping to build a better world.










Family, TV and Ice Pops

If you have children of any age, you know what fussy time is. It’s that difficult time between school or daycare and home, right before supper. Everyone’s on edge, exhausted, hungry, irritable, and whiny.img-ice pop

Sound familiar? Not to mention that you’ve had a long and stressful day at work, after which you tore around town, carting kids from daycare or school to lessons, sports and activities.

Meanwhile, no one notices that you’d like a fussy time, too.

What worked for our family? TV and ice pops. Not every day, but often. After dashing home I never could get carrot sticks together, but ½ an ice pop along with the Disney movie du jour helped a lot. Thank goodness my daughters preferred chicken, peas, and couscous. We limited our menus to ten minutes of preparation.

After some protein, the evening improved. Supper, conversation, homework, baths, reading, and bed.

I’ve always felt that it’s okay to let a few things slide to achieve a peaceful-ish dinner and evening. Why this topic in a blog on education? Because classrooms today put tremendous pressure on children to learn every minute. Recess is disappearing. Standardized testing begins in March in some schools , so test prep and instruction intensifies. All of these are extremely stressful for students.  These pressures travel home with them and affect their family members.

Even though it’s hard, we parents are the best ones to help with that.  Nothing is more important than helping your child decompress and never before has family time mattered so much.  Only you can spend the time that matters with your child to help balance their lives. Cuddle on the sofa. Read in the same room. Watch a little quiet TV together. Go outside and play after supper.

And remember that for one family, ice pops helped make this possible.

Dear Valentine,

Here comes Valentine’s Day—don’t we need those happy reds, pinks, hugs and kisses more than ever?1 Finding time to help our children organize their school valentine cards is hard enough. Now, what about your spouse or partner?

Years back, my husband and I stopped giving each other valentine cards. The prices were insane. The choices were either cartoonish or drippingly icky. Plus, it got too hot in the card aisle crowded next to other hot, desperate, last minute people straining to reach for a card, any card.

We decided to write each other love notes instead.

rose 1My husband and I have a history of this. In college,
he discovered that I adored getting his love notes delivered on Saturday mornings. After that, he made sure his notes arrived every Saturday on the dot. I cherished his letters but his thoughtfulness was equally important to me.

This Valentine’s Day, why not write a personal note to your loved one? Only you can choose the words that connect you both. If writing a note creates panic for you, then focus on smaller things that you appreciate.

I love it when you hold my hand… I love your green eyes…I love it when you empty the dishwasher.

Handwritten notes are winners. Mix it up with Valentine’s Day and you’ll be a winner, too.









Family Storytellers and StoryCorps

Who’s the storyteller in your family?  I’ll bet your children know who it is. Here’s a chance to prompt them with questions and listen while recording them for posterity.StoryCorps

This Friday, November, 21, 2014, is the National Day of Listening sponsored by StoryCorps and is a perfect time to start. Continue it on Thanksgiving and you’ll gather an even bigger trove of treasure.

My grandmother’s stories were like a song catalogue.  And she took requests. Someone would ask, “Grammy, tell the one about…” She’d glance around, and smack her lips into a wide O-shaped smile.

Grammy used a firm “Well” in place of Once upon a time. Soon we’d hear the one about crawling on her hands and knees up the long hill to get home (at age seventy-five) after a hair appointment.  Grammy’s inimitable style was part of the storytelling and included succinct descriptions with perfect timing.

The only time anyone recorded her was the day she lay down on the floor at a big family party, a tour de force for someone in their eighties.  The word passed like wildfire: Clare’s on the floor! Guests produced video cameras to record the event. While it was hilarious to see, it was her voice and style that gave it unforgettable flavor.

StoryCorps reminds us that all families have storytellers like Grammy. You can choose your questions to suit your storyteller or the conversation.  It’s vital to record their stories—using audio or video–because nothing speaks across generations than hearing the stories we love told again and again.