A New Venture


It’s official: I’ve got a new job, editor of Saint Louis Park Magazine. I’ve enjoyed writing for this (October’s Senator Franken article is mine) and several other community lifestyle magazines for the last few years, but when the possibility of being editor of Saint Louis Park Magazine came up, I went for it. I am very grateful for the opportunity to work with amazing and talented women and young writers. I love how much visual art is involved in the production of these magazines, and I’m so excited about having one to call my own.

I’m not sure what article-writing I’ll be doing in the future, although I can’t imagine NOT snatching up a few particularly attractive assignments for myself. For the most part, though, I’d like to try to be an editor: an idea-generator, a listener, a teacher. It’s possible I’ll have more time and energy for my first love, fiction-writing. It’s possible I won’t. I’m not afraid to be a beginner again. In fact, I kind of love it.

The election of Donald Trump has been a wake-up call for me, as it has been for many of us. Unfortunately, the burden of this name-thing of mine is not, it seems, going away any time soon. So the “believe-it-or-not-that’s-really-my-name” introductions are over. Nothing about this is a joke any more. That much is certain.

I think I’m going to take a blogging break for a while, at least until the new year. My President Obama and my candidate Hillary Clinton were gracious in defeat; if they are, it’s the least I can do. I know some people object to “legitimizing” President-elect Trump, but that’s where I’m going, until I can’t. I’ll know soon enough; we all will.

So: read my magazine. It’s online, and delivered to many homes in Saint Louis Park. Let me know what you think. Give me ideas for stories if you call Saint Louis Park home.

Be patient, if at all possible, with the odd ways of the world. And ready, if patience fails.


Vote Yes for Minneapolis Children


There are two ways to vote for Minneapolis kids tomorrow, and I’m asking you to consider both. One choice for kids is to vote “Yes” to renewing the expiring referendum that funds our public schools. The second has to do with making a choice that allows all of our children to be…well, children. Happy. Free of fear. Welcome.

The Star Tribune ran an editorial a few weeks back in which the writer argued that since the Minneapolis public schools haven’t met all their goals, voters should give them a “wake-up call” by rejecting the proposed tax levy. There have been many rebuttals, of course, and the Star Tribune itself endorses a Yes vote. I would just like to add that, from my perspective as a school volunteer, you could hardly do something worse for kids than vote against this referendum.

Sure, we’re all disappointed–ashamed, really–that the achievement gap remains, that too many kids aren’t demonstrating grade-level competency in reading and math. Yes and yes, a hundred times over. What I don’t understand is how pulling the rug out from under five-year-olds by drastically chopping school funds is supposed to help. I volunteer in a classroom of maybe 15-20 kindergarteners, and the teacher has no aide. She says volunteers assist in her classroom every day. This is what I do: zip coats; clean off water-painted tables; take a kid to the nurse’s office; help another child write numbers. I certainly don’t think it’s a bad thing to have community members help in these ways. But if the number of kids in that classroom were increased by as few as two or three, it would make a big difference to the quality of what their very, very excellent teacher could provide to everyone, particularly on a day a volunteer were sick, for example, or away dealing with their own family. You might think small classrooms aren’t essential. I respectfully–and with present-day experience–disagree.

The second way I’d ask you to consider voting for kids calls for a longer story. Today, at the table where I sat to help several rotations of children master a game in which they counted and identified shapes, a little boy asked me if it was true that “Trump was going to bomb the world.” I don’t know where he heard this, but he must have asked me five times in our 10-minute session together, and came back to it again and again over the course of my two-plus hours at school. Before he asked the question (I don’t know what made it come into his head; we weren’t talking about the election or anyone in it) he was his typically happy-go-lucky self. But once this question settled into his brain, his whole affect changed: his body slumped, his face became clouded. He just looked afraid, like if Mr. Trump were elected, the first thing that would happen is that the world would blow up.

Is it important to mention the boy is a child of color? Possibly from a new-American family? You know what? It sure is. And I know I didn’t mention that when this boy complained of a stomach-ache, and I asked his teacher if I should bring him to the nurse’s office, she said he’s been plagued with aches and pains for the last several weeks. So no, I shouldn’t take him away from the classroom where he is safe and could learn what he needs to learn, if only he weren’t so full of fear.

When things people say scare children, we need to pay attention.

When you vote on Tuesday, do what you can to lift the burden of fear from this child’s shoulders. If you saw it today like I did, I can’t imagine you wouldn’t think twice about voting for anyone who could engender it.

Teaching Kindergarteners to Read

Photo by Renee Jones-Schneider, Star Tribune
Photo by Renee Jones-Schneider, Star Tribune

There was an article in yesterday’s Star Tribune about how kindergarten is becoming the new first grade. It’s an informative article, corroborating my experience as a volunteer in a Minneapolis public school kindergarten. Today, in the letters page, there are the perhaps inevitable opinions about how it’s too bad kindergarten children are being made to, well, learn to read, and another by a woman who clearly knows how to do it all better.

My goodness, as if Minneapolis public school teachers didn’t have enough criticism to contend with.

Experience tells me there is some apparently built-in reading readiness that varies from child to child. Anyone who has spent any time in the company of children knows this. I, too, read the article with some apprehension until I got to this line:

Minnesota’s climb to a more rigorous kindergarten can be traced partly to statewide goals urging that all third-graders should read at grade level.  

So that’s the goal, which in fact was the same goal, based on the same developmental assumptions, floating around 25 years ago when my kids were in grade school. Not all children will be reading by the end of kindergarten. It’s possible that not all children COULD read by the end of kindergarten.That’s not the goal. The goal is grade-level reading by third grade. How could anyone object to this?

What is it that people imagine? Five-year-old little Jenny being shunned by the teacher because she can’t recognize a word? Good Lord, when was the last time you were in a kindergarten classroom? I’ll tell you what, I was in one just yesterday and yes, the children were engaged in an activity in which they were learning words “to recognize by sight,” is what their amazing, experienced, unflappable teacher told them. Every child sat down with his or her oversized pencil (easier to grip) and, in a brand new notebook dedicated to the exciting prospect of learning to read, wrote the words the teacher wrote on the board. The words were “I,” “see,” and “a.”

I helped one child by writing the words first in a yellow highlighter (teacher’s fantastic idea) over which he drew the letters with his pencil. The little girl across from us managed on her own, as did most of the other children. Because the teacher in this classroom is excellent, everyone had the opportunity to shine. If you had trouble with the letters, you got a chance to draw a picture of a dog (which is the word the teacher chose to end the sentence). The little girl across from me drew a really spectacular dog.

Here’s how my kids learned to read, in a household full of books and people who love books: slowly. Gradually. In their own time. They were not subject to ridicule for differences in the way they learned to read. They were not rewarded or punished for a skill that takes a long time to master.

Why is it the automatic assumption that it would happen any other way in a kindergarten classroom?

Listen, teachers have a big job. If you doubt that, I suggest you get yourself into a public school to volunteer. Then you’ll see, as I have, that a goal of reading by third grade MUST be addressed in kindergarten, especially for children in what is called “low print” households. And please: Trust that the amazing teachers we have in our schools want only to bring the pleasure and magic of reading to every single child in their care.


If You Write Fiction, Read This: Ben Percy’s THRILL ME


Congratulations to my friend Ben Percy and today’s release of THRILL ME!

I thought about my childhood reading often when reading Ben Percy’s first non-fiction book, THRILL ME: ESSAYS ON FICTION. Ben establishes the premise of the book early on: Don’t forget the most basic reason we read: to discover what happens next. Just like kids, most adults don’t set out to read something for its excellent character development, nor for its lovely “rhyming action” (described originally by Charles Baxter in Burning Down the House and referenced by Percy in THRILL ME), and certainly not for the “feckless pondering” Percy (pretty comically, especially for those of us who have been known to indulge) eschews. What readers want–kids and adults–is a good story.

Clearly, what they’ll enjoy more is a story that is made better by the many topics Percy covers in this fast-paced book of fiction-writing craft, including how to create urgency and suspense, how to “make the ordinary extraordinary” and how to “activate setting.” You’ll read about his “suspense-o-meter,” his use of screenplay pacing, his general distaste for backstory. There are no writing exercises, but there are scores of references to good books, compelling stories, can’t-look-away movies. If all you did was collect Percy’s literary/film references and set out to read/view each, you’d be a better writer for having read Thrill Me.

As a fiction writer myself I also love and desperately want to use a suggestion he makes regarding “the balance between whimsy and logic.” “Try changing one thing,” he writes, if that’s where you want to go. “Just one. This is our world except for______.” How exciting is that? Just one thing–what will it be? A person with some kind of ESP? A ghost? A piece of music that bubbles up randomly–or not? And then there’s all the rest of my favorite Percy-isms: I’ve always loved (and since first hearing it, have consistently employed–so to speak) his advice in the “Get a Job” chapter, which is to have characters do meaningful work. I love to have characters make decisions after which there is truly no going back. I’m counting on my main character being able to say, “And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.” And I’m serious about trying to “reverse engineer” the next story I write. Percy suggests a writer know the ending and work back from there–heady, useful stuff in these days of meandering plot lines.

Percy’s essay on “Revision as Renovation” makes the traditional advice about revision–“Kill your darlings”–seem like sweetness and light. Fiction writers note: Let Ben “tell you something: if you’ve got the angel in one ear, whispering kind things, and the devil in the other, hissing about how badly you stink, listen to the devil. The devil drives revision.”

Listen to the devil. Go buy your copy of Ben Percy’s Thrill Me today.



Kindergarten Room Talk


There’s been a lot of buzz in the news lately about locker room talk–what it is, what it isn’t, who engages in it–and while I’ve loved reading professional athletes’ indignant responses, denying that Trump’s vulgar and rape-culture remarks are common in their locker rooms, I think it’s naive to assume they don’t happen somewhere. They do. And it’s a problem so overwhelmingly (and maybe you think this is the wrong word, but I’ll use it) sad, I chose not to watch the debate Sunday night, in the hope of preserving my hopeful self. My dignified self. The self that resists craning my neck as I drive by a horrible car accident. The self I want to present when I volunteer in a neighborhood kindergarten classroom each week.

I missed the month of September but I was welcomed yesterday with (quite literally) open arms to a kindergarten classroom of my neighborhood Minneapolis elementary school. There is a new class of children vs last year, of course, and woe to me for not recognizing the family resemblance between one child in the class this year and his brother (who I now recall from last year). “How could you not remember [my brother]?’ was the evenly tempered question. No indignation, no name-calling, no foul language.

I should have remembered this boy’s brother. I apologized. What’s more, I’ll try to be more attentive to things like this–important relationships, respecting and appreciating a child’s claim to and pride in family. It’s one of many things to learn from kindergarten room talk.

Here’s some more kindergarten room talk worth noting: Question from a student:
“[Teacher], can we have a snack?” Answer from the teacher: “Of course you can have a snack.” It was a kindergarten room snack worth noting: fresh, whole pears. Messy, sticky, whole fruit. Devoured with relish by the children, or in some cases, half-eaten. No problem. These are five- and six-year-olds, after all. They get hungry. They need real food, in small amounts, often. I can’t remember the last time I was so happy to see half-eaten pears, or hear the talk of children eating good, real food. “This is really good.” “Where’s my pear?” “[Name of child], don’t forget to finish your pear!” Lovely kindergarten room talk.

There was discussion, understandably, around activities in which several children wished to participate, but had to wait their turn. “That group is filled for now,” explained the teacher, with the patience of Job, “but we’ll switch in 10 minutes.” Deferred gratification–what a concept. Or how about permission? This one is particularly tough for small children, but examples of asking and receiving permission abounded in the classroom yesterday. Teacher: You need to ask if you can borrow…x. You need to ask if [another child] would like to sit with you. And there were constant reminders about personal space:  Keep your hands to yourself. No pushing.

It feels entirely possible that this kind of thinking will permeate a child’s young brain and be available for use when, for example, as an adolescent who wants to kiss someone, he or she sees it is more prudent to wait. And then to ask. Fine kindergarten room talk, for the ages.

One child in the class, J, uses a wheelchair for mobility at least part of the day. Some of the talk at a table around which a few children gathered (including J) was about the future. “Next year, my brother will be in grade two, and I’ll be in grade one, and you, too, J. Only you’ll still be in a wheelchair.”  J appeared to have no problem with this. I did, a little: Did J feel like he was being singled out, in a negative way? I said, Sure, and he’ll be stronger and bigger just like you. Was it a kindness, or an unnecessary over-compensation?

Not all kindergarten room talk is easy. A person might even think about it, long after they leave the room.

Before lining up for lunch, the children were asked to say one thing they liked about the morning’s activities. Children who had already spoken occasionally strayed into their own conversations, or let their attention fall away from the group. The teacher said, “Children, we need to be kind and listen when our classmates speak.”

Fine, fine kindergarten room talk.

Maybe we all need to listen particularly well this week. And maybe we can all–try, anyway–to think before we speak this week. To put what we say (and do?) to the kindergarten room talk test.