From My Neighborhood Map

Sketching your neighborhood map and labeling or placing speech bubbles in certain places can help a writer find many topics to explore. Neighborhood maps can  include maps of your backyard, the school playground,  your grandma’s kitchen, or a favorite vacation spot like the beach. Here is a story from my childhood neighborhood in Philadelphia.

I spent most Tuesdays and Thursdays attending Hebrew School at the Jewish Community Center across from my elementary school.  On Fridays, I attended evening services. Most of the time, my father picked me up during the winter months when it grew dark and cold quite early.

One December evening, I stood and waited for a small eternity. These were the days before cell phones, so I couldn’t even call my mom to let her know that Dad had not appeared. I trotted to Thouron Avenue to peer down the main street in both directions. Nothing. Then I trotted back again to the side entrance of the synagogue. I grew cold and frightened as I realized Dad was not coming. He had forgotten me.

I took off down Gilbert Street, shivering at the strange shadows and the sounds of barking dogs. The side street was dark and unfriendly. Mt. Airy was a Jewish neighborhood, so the houses did not shine with the twinkling lights of the Christmas holiday that was fast approaching. I was panting loudly as I continued to jog across Durham Street without stopping to look for cars. I sprinted down my street, up the steps, and onto the stoop of our house. When Mom opened the door, I rushed into her arms, sniffling and sobbing. I could hardly speak, but I was safe at home.

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The P in the Kindergarten Alphabet is for Play

By Lynne Dorfman

Are the differences between kindergarten and first grade becoming barely noticeable? What is the point of the standardized tests in literacy and math for these five-year olds?  When we walk into kindergarten classes today, we notice they have become very academic in focus – periods for reading instruction (sometimes including a phonics program like Fundations and guided reading), a math program (part of a scripted program purchased to spiral K-5), science, and social studies – often, at the expense of time for play.

            Here is a snapshot from the late 1950s:

Miss Clark gathers the students on the rug for storytime. She has read The Little House and A Fly Went By.  A chorus of hands wave in the air to request yet another favorite, The Cat in the Hat. Miss Clark laughs. “We’ll save that for the end of the morning.”  Then students get to choose. There’s a kitchen for pretend cooking with a table for pretend eating that includes a tea set. So many kids scramble for the blocks. They are the builders and designers, often working together to create tall towers. Some kids “pretend” read to each other in the book corner. I have memorized many of the stories because my mom and I read together every night, so I pass the book corner and move to the far left corner of the room. There is a table with play dough and another table with puppets and stuffed animals. Oh, there are plenty of dolls, too (not my favorite unless she’s a Raggedy Ann). My friends like to put on a show. Now I am in my element. I am an artist, so my favorite area (they were not called “stations” in those days) is to grab a spot by one of the eight easels and paint a beautiful picture. I can’t always get to one in time, so I sometimes have to choose something else. Miss Clark says we have to take turns. When I play with the kids who are building blocks, they let me place some blocks on their skyscraper. Of course, we have a short nap time after milk and cookies. Miss Clark tells us a wonderful story as we lie, quiet and still, on our roll-out mats. We giggle when she changes her voice to sound like the big, bad wolf or one of the three little pigs. The time goes quickly each morning.  Then we have time to recite nursery rhymes and delight in their rhymes. We sing songs or have “Show and Tell.” Sometimes, we have time for one more read aloud. We only have half-day kindergarten, so Mom is there at noon to pick me up.  Every day is a good day.

Teacher-driven instruction in kindergarten is on the rise with a substantial increase in the time spent on assessment. The time for artwork, music, dance, and child-centered activities (stations) has declined sharply – and with it,  the time for creative play.  How important is play?  Is there any research that shows a significant difference between those students who are taught to read in kindergarten and those students who learn to read in first grade?  What are the long-term effects?  Do any exist?  

Perhaps, we should ask a different question. What are our kindergarten students missing that they may not receive in later grades?  With our heightened focus on literacy, it is important to make sure there is still time for play. With play, our students develop their social skills, their language skills, and their emotional stability.  Child-directed play gives students opportunities to problem solve and learn new things from their peers.

So, perhaps we should look to our Finnish friends who let their students focus on play in nursery school and kindergarten and yet go on to excel in reading anyway.  Perhaps American schools can provide the just-right balance so that our students can still learn with joy.  Many of our students are ready to read and write stories during their kindergarten year. Do we have to have a publishers’ program and script to accomplish this end, or can we allow all the rich learning experiences kindergarten teachers provide  for their students to get the job done effectively and joyfully?  If we want this balance of play and literacy learning, we could make sure we place opportunities to socialize and play within every hour in our full-day kindergarten programs.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do believe there is magic in the kindergarten year. Kindergarten does not have to look like first grade. It has to look like kindergarten!  

 

 

 

 

First Year Teacher: The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

It was my first year at Woodlawn Elementary and I had a perfectly perfect fourth grade class. I loved my classroom, too, with its long row of big windows, its blackboard, and huge bulletin board areas. It was a great year, overall. But one day in January, everything went wrong!

I was dressed in a luxurious cashmere sweater – white as the first snowfall – and a tailored black skirt. Of course, I wore stockings and heels – yes, heels! I wore a lot of black and white combinations (still do), and I thought I looked very professional, even classy! And then it happened. I had slid onto one of the student wooden chairs to confer with Laura, and when I stood up, my nylon caught in a sliver of wood. Not only did I have a run, I had a large hole!

To my dismay, the day’s events continued to spiral to a low level. At lunch break, I carried some sheets back from the work area that had the mimeograph machine for dittos. When I placed the pile of dittos and copies on my desk, I realized I had a purple ditto streak across my beautiful white sweater! 

Could things get any worse?  I proceeded to stand on a chair to hang student samples on the bulletin board, and when I stepped down, one seam of my fitted back skirt opened. Now I had I hole on the side of my skirt, too.

Oh, but to finish the day, the kids had hooked up their stream tables kits to the faucet in the sink at the back of the room. The elaborate system of tubes ran water of various colored dyes – fascinating – until the tubes started to come apart once again (this was the third time the kids had tried such a system), and water was – once again – all over the tiled floors.

My principal asked to speak to me for a minute at the end of the day. He asked me not to get so much water on the floor – the custodial staff complained that the tiles were staring to loosen.  Then he looked at me and with a little smile he asked, “Lynne, do you know you are only wearing one earring?”  I reached up to check, and sure enough, my gold hoop was missing from my right ear. I think I blushed scarlet and mumbled a “Thank you, I didn’t know.” 

So that was my terrible, horrible day.  I just thanked my lucky stars that I made it home in one piece!

 

 

The Hornblower: It Was Worth the Drive to the Airport

On July 14th my husband and I departed for the airport to fly to Buffalo. From there, we were going to rent a car and head to Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. My husband did not comment when I arrived 15 minutes late from a PAReads meeting in West Chester. He had already packed the car with our suitcases, so we headed to Norristown to pick up my sister and brother-in-law. Of course, there was bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway and the Blue Route. My husband drove, gripping the steering wheel until white-knuckled while muttering, “We are never going to make it.”  My husband – the eternal pessimist (although he says he is only being a realist).

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I tried to tell him that we would make our plane, that F Terminal is not that busy, that we were all TSA precheck, that we were not checking any bags, that the plane could be delayed, that all that mattered was that we were there before 6:30 to board.  Then I shut up. No response from Ralph as the minutes seemed to tick by in a deafening tone. And then, we were moving. We found a spot at the parking lot, hopped the shuttle, and made it to Terminal F. Yes!  It was not crowded. The plane arrived, and we made it to Buffalo. After a short flight, we arrived and piled into our car rental. About an hour later, we were crossing the border.

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We woke up early the next day, ready for fun and adventure. After walking the beautiful path from the Welcome Center to the ticket line for the Hornblower (the Canadian version of Maid of the Mist), we were pretty hot (and I would learn later, that I was getting a good sunburn!). Even though it was about 75 degrees at 9:30 a.m., the sun reflected off the sparkling water.We had stood to take photos of the Horseshoe Falls and the Bridal Falls. Now we were walking down a long ramp with many turns and out onto the dock to board the boat. We all donned out melon-red ponchos. Ralph and my brother-in-law Willie were not sure if they would use their phones or cameras to take pictures. It was obvious we were going to get wet. The air was filled with chatter in many languages – French, German, Spanish, Japanese, and English. Then  the Hornblower arrived and after it emptied, we piled on.

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Our plan was to head to the upper level, starboard side and as close to the front of the boat as we could get. We succeeded!  As we approached Horseshoe Falls, the air became filled with mist and the sound of the water conveyed its incredible force. I was in awe!  We had such a good view, but occasionally, I found myself closing my eyes due to the driving waves of water. It was an incredible experience. The beauty of the falls and all its splendor is something to add to your bucket list if you’ve never been – and I would suggest a stay on the Canadian side.

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We returned and did all the other attractions – The Cave of the Wind, the whitewater walk, the aerocable car across the Niagara River. Eventually, we made our way to Niagara on the Lake, a charming town where we will stay next summer. We hope to rent for at least a week and enjoy the vineyards, ice wine slushies, fresh fruit from the farm stands, Lake Ontario, and a possible return to Niagara Falls where we will ride the zipline(?????????)!

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Goat Island: There are good people in the world!

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On Saturday, my sister, brother-in-law, husband, and I crossed from the Canadian side of Niagara Falls back to the U.S. to visit Goat Island.  It was difficult getting to the park because of traffic and one-way streets. We breathed a sigh of relief when we finally found a parking spot and walked to the Horseshoe Falls on the American side.

It was breath-taking! We were right at the point where the river spilled over the cliff. The air was filled with mist on this bright, sunny day. It was wonderful to enjoy temperatures in the low eighties instead of the heat we left behind us in Dresher, Pennsylvania. My husband Ralph took many pictures as well as my brother-in-law. They are both crazy about taking photos. Willie has even won photography contests, especially for his black and white photos of citiscapes and everyday objects.

Willie and Ralph walked over to the ticket area as we planned to visit the Hurricane Deck below the American falls. To everyone’s dismay, it was a very long line, so Willie gave his camera to my sister and left us with his prized possession. “We’ll put it here between us so it will be safe,” my sister said as she sat the camera with its neck strap on the flat rock where we were sitting and enjoying the view. We started to grow impatient, even with the falls thundering and splashing glorious sprays into the air.

After what seemed like  a very long while, Diane got up and motioned for me to follow her to a shady spot much closer to where our husbands still stood in line.  I was already lobster red and without any sunblock lotion. We were lucky to find seats on large rocks beneath a tall shade tree. Finally, with tickets in hand, Willie and Ralph started to walk over to us.

As we stood up, Willie asked from across the roadway, “And where is the camera?”  We both froze. My sister’s mouth opened, but no words came out. We both turned without a word and ran back to the rocks near the Welcome Center where we had been seated. On the way Diane asked, “Didn’t Willie take his camera?”  I shook my head. We were in big trouble, but I remained hopeful that we’d find it. I was wrong.  No camera.

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Almost in tears, my sister said, “That’s it. I’m finished. We are going back to the hotel.” But I urged her to think positively – that someone probably found it and returned it to the Welcome Center.  My brother-in-law and husband had had the same idea. They emerged from the  building, and Willie was smiling from ear to ear, holding his prized possession.

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Diane then lost her ticket to the Hurricane Deck as we hurried to the line. We had to go back and search for it. “We’re jinxed!” she exclaimed.”We should just go back before something really awful happens!” But Willie spied the pass in the grass, and we proceeded to the Hurricane Deck to feel the fury of the falls and get soaked in the process. “When Ralph gives me his camera to hold, he always places the strap around my neck first,” I said. Willie replied, “And after today, he will never hand you the camera without putting the strap around your neck – in fact, he may reconsider ever giving you his camera to hold. You and your sister are peas in a pod!”

I may be exaggerating, but I think I saw my husband grasp his camera a little tighter.  Thank goodness we made it through our trip and back home again without losing anything else!  It was good to know that there still are honest, good people in the world. Although we will never know who did this good deed, we all whispered a prayer of thanks and gratitude into the winds of Niagara Falls.

Choosing a Laptop

Once again I found myself in a precarious position. My laptop, three years old, has decided it does not want to write this fifth book with me. Finding ways to frustrate me each day, it has now decided to render the touchpad inoperable; thus, I am forced to return to a mouse to make anything happen.

Today it was burning hot, the processor running at 25% – way too much, according to my techy husband. I left it behind this morning, and armed with a flash drive, I delivered a presentation at the Summer Writing Institute…except that my embedded video clips (tested at home) would not run either (You’ve got to be kidding, Computer!).

This afternoon a mad dash to Best Buy with Consumer Report stats in hand. In the end, we bought a model not reviewed. My husband claims I need a lot of hard drive memory – one terabyte (What exactly is that?????). I think I better start using the Cloud! After we chose an HP model with 1T of memory, the gentleman helping us informed me that he did not have one in stock. So after a long weekend vacation in Niagra Falls, I will pick it up Monday and have to learn the ins and outs of Windows10. Oh boy, more fun…..

 

A Boston-Philadelphia Friendship

Slice of Life2When I became a Stenhouse author, I was thrilled to meet the Stenhouse family. My editor, Bill Varner, has become a valued friend as much as he has become a valued editor. It is always wonderful to be able to spend some time chatting in person. Usually, Bill is wearing many hats at a conference –  checking in with all the authors, attending many sessions of Stenhouse authors, attending sessions of potential authors. It’s a busy time. Chandra Lowe is a joy to behold! Her smiling face and laughter, quick wit, and generous spirit will put the grouchiest soul in a good mood!  Dan, Chuck, Nate, Lise, Maureen, Tobi (She was dearly missed on Saturday!)  – spending time at the Stenhouse booth in the exhibit hall is comforting – the display makes you feel you are in a beautiful library!  It was at one of these gatherings that I first met Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan.

Friday night was a special treat for my husband and me. We took a Uber to the North End with Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan. I was particularly looking forward to this part of the Conference trip. Clare and Tammy are special people, and I feel so fortunate to have forged a friendship with them. They make me laugh, get me to try new things, and make me feel that I can just be me, and that’s enough.  I love them dearly!

When we arrived in Boston’s North End, Chris and George joined us. I quickly discovered that their husbands were equally fun and easy-going. Ralph and I learned how to play bocce. The object of the game is to roll your bocce ball closer to the jack ball than the opposing team. Each team has four balls, and after observing Chris and George, I realized you can do more than roll the ball. Bouncing, throwing, and banking your ball are all allowed!  Although Ralph and I were new to the game, we vowed to find a bocce court in Philadelphia so we could continue to practice and improve our game!

We walked to Hanover Street and dined at Lucia Ristorante with appetizers of fried mozzarella bread and calamari. We exchanged stories, ate, drank, and laughed. But no time for dessert here. Instead,we made our way to Mike’s Pastry – unbelievable. The crowd on the sidewalk eventually made its way into the pastry shop. “Think about what you want to order now,” Clare advised.  This Italian bake shop has ever cannoli you can imagine – straawberry, caramel pecan, chocolate-covered chocolate chip, limoncello,  pistachio, and even expresso – as well as biscotti, cookies, cakes, gelati, marzipan, and tiramisu. Of course, we chose cannoli! The pastry was thin and crisp and the ricotta was creamy and delicious!

We’ve made plans to set a date in spring to return for a ballgame at Fenway, another Boston excursion, and of course – a bocce rematch!  It is funny how you meet people who stay in your life, regardless of distance and circumstance, who you carry in your head and heart wherever you go.  I am so very  lucky to have Clare and Tammy as friends who are always with me, even though we live three hundred miles apart. I admire their friendship, the work they do as educators, and their generosity of spirit – particularly the way they welcome everyone to their “party” – the more the merrier.  I think that’s probably how they work their magic with the students and the teachers they plan with and coach – that sense of belonging,  of thinking and laughing and working together. Clare and Tammy create a family, in some respect, everywhere they go. And that is something to celebrate!