Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Passport to Paris

Today features guest blogger Joanna Marple.
I know it is clichéd, but I do love Paris! This city of romance is truly seductive!
As you trip down cobbled streets in the different quartiers, you began to sense the centuries of history, from the Sun King’s lavish building projects in an effort to make Paris the ‘new Rome,’ to the gory beheading of Marie Antoinette, the conquest and opulence of Napoleon’s era and the ambiguity of the Vichy Régime.
Amble along the rive gauche of the River Seine and rummage through the piles of old books for sale as so typically portrayed in the movie, Midnight in Paris. Weave past the gifted street artists in Montmartre as you climb up to the Sacré Coeur Basilica, erect and majestic at the top of the many steps - it's highest point higher than the top of the Eiffel tower with unsurpassed views across Paris. Here even the least religious will embrace a sense of light and spirit.
Enjoy the pace of life, though still more hectic than where I live, in Nice, compared to many other Western capitals, no one rushes yet everything gets done efficiently. Waiters never write down an order but remember everything and food is served at a pace in complete harmony with the community – where there is time to digest and discourse, which Parisians love with a passion. This is a city where academia and philosophy are not disdained (forget not that the official world language of Diplomacy is still French!) Traffic is scary fast (though not quite as dangerous as Italians in Nice) and there is an element of courtesy in the honking and breakneck maneuvers!  Scooters zip around everything and everyone, with rider chatting on cell phone squeezed between ear and helmet, possibly carrying a dog in a basket between his legs!
Paris needs to be experienced on foot and with minimal agenda and an openness to be enticed into an antique shop, or a Jewish bakery or spend two hours over an espresso at a table on a busy sidewalk or tranquil square. For any Americans, please don’t miss an even larger Statue of Liberty than yours - approximately 35 feet in height. She stands upon a tiny island called Swan Ally, [Allée des Cygnes] in the Seine near the Grenelle Bridge – a gift to the French in 1889, by the American residents of Paris as a remembrance to commemorate the Centennial of the French Revolution.
I could rave for pages of this city that has been home to so many great artists and writers, instead I want to leave you with some book and app recommendations pertaining to Paris should this city be part of your summer vacation plans.

Paris Tours App:Beware Mme La Guillotine, A Revolutionary tour of Paris. This is a historical story app that the whole family will enjoy taking you on a tour of Paris at the time of the
French Revolution.

Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans (ages 4-8) - I think this classic, award winning 1940’s rhyming story about an orphan girl is still one of the best picture books on Paris for younger kids. The illustrations of this Parisian era are sublime.

Secret Letters from 0-10 by Suzie Morgenstern (ages 7-11) Ernest has lived a regimented life with his elderly grandmother and equally aged housekeeper for 10 years. All changes when Victoria and her 13 brothers come into his life. His dull routine is blown apart. He has NEVER even been to a grocery store until he helps Victoria, but on this fateful day, he discovers a book in the paperback rack that may have the answer to his life-long question; where is his father, and why did he leave him?

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins (YA) - A somewhat predictable ending, but a cute and very funny teen love story set in Paris.

Author Bio: Joanna Marple is the author of Snow Games. She grew up surrounded by the architecture of the city of Cambridge, UK, and immersed in the books and landscapes of the Brontes, Tolkein and Beatrix Potter. Her tall tales were not always appreciated as a young child, but her passion for storytelling remained unfettered and was fuelled by the marvelous people and animals she encountered during her humanitarian work across the continents. More recently, her years as school librarian in Southern France relit her passion for children’s books. Her stories focus on her love of the natural world and the richness of the cultures she has encountered in her travels. She lives presently in Nice with two quirky cats and a stream of visitors from all over the globe.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Blog Hiatus

I'm going "off the grid" (no blogging, Twitter, or Facebook) until 17 July 2012. I'll check email sporadically, at best.

I'll be traveling, writing, reading, and spending time with family at home. Wordless Wednesday posts have been formatted and scheduled in advance along with one Guest Blog post from Joanna Marple for 26 June.

I'll be back with new content on 17 July 2012.

If you'd like to be a guest blogger when I return, please read my Guest Blogging tab for more information. I'll respond to email inquiries when I get back on-line. (michelle at michellecusolito dot com)

Friday, June 15, 2012

Teachers Write!

Attention teachers, librarians, homeschoolers, and unschoolers:

Do want to improve your writing instruction? We all know the more you practice something the better you get. This goes for writing as much as for any other endeavor.

Have you heard about the amazing free online virtual summer writing camp dreamed up by KidLit author extraordinaire, Kate Messner? No? Please hop over there and check it out.

Teachers Write! runs from June 4th to August 10th. It's completely flexible. You participate as much or a little as you want. Yes, it already started, but you really can dip in at any time. Most schools in my neck of the woods are just getting out this week or next, so many of you weren't ready to start anything yet, anyway. I've barely had time to check in at Teachers Write! with all of the end of the year goings on around here. Kate is a former teacher so she understands the lives of teachers. I'm sure that's why she made it so flexible.

I hope you'll check it out and participate as little or as much as you can. I'll be contributing a writing prompt for a "Tuesday Quick Write" later this summer. I'll be sure to let you know when it's posted.

I hope any of you who sign up will let us know in the comments. If you have time, drop back later to let us know how it's going.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Travel Tuesdays: Choosing Books to Bring

I'm back with a Travel Tuesdays post today. More guest bloggers will be appearing on future Tuesdays.

In the weeks leading up to a trip, one of my favorite rituals is the selection of books to bring. I know many of you are thinking I wouldn't need to choose books if I just used an e-reader. True enough. I could bring a boatload of books and even download more if I wanted. That's certainly convenient. It also makes selection much less important. But it takes away the intention that normally goes into my book selection. If I know I'll be away for several weeks and can only realistically fit 3 books in my bags, I think carefully about what books to bring.

And so, I start mulling over my choices roughly 1 1/2 to 2 weeks before I plan to leave. I love this phase. It forces me to consider my goals for the trip. Do I want to do informational reading? Read a book about the area I'll be in? Dig into a longer work I've been meaning to read? Read something less heavy? Perhaps I should bring a book I don't think I'll want to keep when I finish so I can leave it for another traveler to enjoy?

Sometimes I already know the answers to these questions as I begin scanning. Other times, I realize how I feel as I read a book jacket.  I start by scanning my bookshelves for titles I've been meaning to read. Any title that jumps out at me goes in a pile. Then I sit down and review the titles I selected. Maybe I'll read the back, look at the blurbs, or read the first few pages. That usually leaves me with a stack of 6 - 9 titles.

Which brings me to the titles currently in my stack:
A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman
Icy Sparks by Gwyn Hyman Rubio
Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey by Robert V. Camuto

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
A Woman's Path: Women's Best Spiritual Travel Writing Ed by Lucy McCauley, Amy G. Carlson, and Jenifer Leo 

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards

Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I need to narrow this down to maybe three titles. I'm already feeling like Natural History of the Senses (How have I not read this book, yet?) has to be one of my choices but I don't know what else I'll choose. 

What do you think? Have you read any of these books? Do you have suggestions?

Would you like to be a guest blogger? Read my Guest Blogging page for more information.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Sun Safety Redux

NOTE: This post originally appeared on July 19, 2011. As we enter the summer season, I think it's important to share it again. I've made minor changes to reflect the date.

I am not a medical person. Please consult your doctor for specific advice. My knowledge comes from my experiences and research, plus conversations with my child's pediatrician.

Experts recommend a good sunscreen when out in the sun. The problem is, not all sunscreens (also called sunblock) are the same. Some don't offer the protection their labels say they do while others are actually unsafe. To learn more, listen to last year's podcast "Sunscreen Takes Some Heat" from On Point with Tom Ashbrook. (It's about 45 minutes long, so you may want to download the podcast and listen in your car). Among other things, it describes the changes in sunscreen labeling scheduled to occur this summer (2012).

I also recommend using the Environmental Working Group (EWG) "Skin Deep Cosmetics Database" to learn more about what goes into our cosmetics and which health and beauty items are safe. Just because a product says "All Natural" or "Organic" doesn't mean it's good. Sometimes one particular product in an entire line is recommended by EWG while other products by the same company are listed as not safe or ineffective. And fancy name brands don't guarantee safety or effectiveness, either.  One of last year's top sunscreen picks was a Walgreens' brand sunblock.

 A warning: You can drive yourself crazy checking all of the products you currently use and get overwhelmed by information.

Here's my advice: Start by searching the list of recommended sunscreens. Your skin is your largest organ and you cover it with sunscreen all summer long. Choose a sunscreen that is safe and effective for you and your children. Then, at some future point, maybe you'll research safer shampoo or facial cleanser or eyeshadow. Choose one new item at a time. That's what I did.

When I first visited the Skin Deep website about 5 years ago, I was overwhelmed. I thought I needed to change all of my products right away. I was practically paralyzed by the information until I just started with one item- sunscreen. I figured it was the product we used in volume so I might was well start there. Maybe six months later, I chose a safer shampoo for myself, then a while later a new product for my kids, and so on. Gradually, I replaced any unsafe products as I learned more. I'm still learning.

In fact, listening to the On Point podcast alerted me to another sunscreen database at Good Guide. I took a quick look at it but had to stop because I was feeling overwhelmed. So, for now, I'm sticking with the sunscreens I chose based on Skin Deep. When I have time, I'll take a closer look at the Good Guide.  (One interesting point- the Good Guide rates products three ways- for health, environment, and society).

ADDED 6/8/12: Good Guide is clear and easy to use. I'd suggest you take a quick peak at both resources and choose the one that addresses your biggest concerns or is the the most user friendly to you.

So take baby steps. Learn what you have time to learn and make more informed decisions about the products you use. Even one change, like sunscreen, can make a big difference.

Two final points:
  1. It's better NOT to choose a sunscreen/insect repellent combination. Why? because you generally do not reapply insect repellent whereas you need to reapply sunscreen every 2 hours, regardless of sweating or swimming.
  2. To properly cover an adult body (in a bathing suit) with sunscreen, you need to use one ounce of sunscreen. That's about the size of a golf ball or shot glass.  Experts say most people don't use enough.

Have you used the EWG database? Good Guide? Which do you prefer? Do you know of other resources that might be useful to Polliwog readers?

Related posts:
Mystery Rash (Poison Ivy)
Insect Safety
Dear Sixteen Year Old Me- excellent (5 minute) PSA about sun safety

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Child of the World

Chris Eboch in Mexico

Today features guest blogger Chris Eboch.

My first clear childhood memories are from Saudi Arabia. We moved there just before my fifth birthday and lived in an American camp for six years while my father worked for the oil company. My classmates were mostly American, but I had friends from Britain, India, and Pakistan. My family camped in the desert and shopped in the nearby Arab town. Santa visited on a camel.

People sometimes tell me I should write about that time, as it must have been fascinating. But to me, it was daily life. It was normal. I remember the laughter when visiting relatives in America and asking where the “sweet” water faucet was – in Saudi Arabia, we only got completely desalinated water through one kitchen faucet; everything else was salty. I didn’t know that was unusual.

Despite taking daily life for granted, I learned early that the whole world was not like my neighborhood. We skied in Austria, went on safari in Africa, slept on a houseboat in Kashmir.

My memories are blurred, fragmented. Gold Buddhas and maimed children in Thailand. Bugs dropping from the ceiling of the outdoor restaurant in Tanzania, and Mom examining one on the end of her spoon. My sole memory from Afghanistan is of bargaining for an embroidered leather purse, which I still have.

I have no memories at all of visiting Greece at age 6, but apparently I hung on every word of our elderly British tour guide. I’ve been fascinated by foreign cultures and ancient history ever since.

We moved back to the United States before I started sixth grade, in large part because my mother wanted my brother and me to grow up American. But in some ways, it was too late. I was solidly a child of the world.

I traveled again in my 20s. After college, my best friend and I spent two months in Mexico and Central America, traveling by bus and train. Though Nicole didn’t have my overseas background, she too was fascinated by both the local culture and the ancient Maya. We visited every archaeological site and museum we could find.

That experience eventually inspired me to write my first novel for young people, The Well of Sacrifice, an adventure set in ninth-century Mayan Guatemala. The book is used in some schools in the fourth or fifth grade, when they teach the Maya, and teachers have come up with wonderful projects to help kids understand and appreciate that culture.

I traveled a lot in my 20s, especially once my parents moved back to Saudi Arabia, and our family met in a different foreign country every year over the holidays. Every place was special, but one of my favorites was Egypt, which had fascinated me since learning about King Tut in grade school. That led to extensive research and, eventually, my middle grade mystery, The Eyes of Pharaoh
Making friends at a local outdoor museum in Egypt

Books are a wonderful way to bridge the gap between here and there, now and then, and I’m proud I’ve been able to share my love of other cultures with kids. We're not all so lucky as to travel the world as children, or as adults. But we can open our minds and hearts to other cultures through literature. We can learn that the world is a wide and wonderful place, and that all the differences between people don’t have separate us.

Do you have favorite books that have transported you to another place? Have they changed your view of the world?

Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; and The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure. Download lesson plans for each at http://www.chriseboch.com/events.htm. Her book Advanced Plotting helps writers fine-tune their plots. Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

Chris also writes for adults under the name Kris Bock. Read excerpts at www.krisbock.com.

Interested in guest blogging? Please read the "Guest Blogging" page (click the tab above) to learn more.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Cultural Enrichment Programs in Schools

Does your school have a cultural enrichment program? I have the good fortune of being the Chairperson of the PTO Cultural Enrichment Committee at my kids' school. This means I am given a fixed budget and charged with bringing meaningful enrichment events to our school.

'Teacher me' loves this process because I get to bring the kinds of programs that were meaningful to my students when I was in the classroom. 'Writer me' loves this because I get to support other writers, performers, and artists in our area.

This past week brought two enrichment programs. First, Loree Griffin Burns met with grades 4 through 6 to talk about what real scientists are doing out in the field. The best part was when she told the kids that they are real scientists. Staff and students especially loved learning about field research kids can do to help further scientific learning.  Those projects are described in Ms. Burns' book, Citizen Scientists. The kids asked lots of questions and told stories about frogs, ladybugs, and butterflies they have seen in the wild. Ms. Burns encouraged them to get "photographic evidence" to help with identification. Following the presentation, one boy emailed her photos of the butterfly he spotted over the weekend and a teacher emailed photos of a frog she had observed in her garden. Both Ms. Burns and I love that students and teachers alike were looking closely at the natural world following her presentations.

Last night was the annual art show. This year featured a new project-the creation of a large mosaic 'Tree of Learning' to honor the school's retiring Principal, Jay Ryan. Dreamed up by the art teacher, Joanne Smith, this project involves all members of the school community. Every child, staff member, school committee member, etc. was asked to contribute one small object to be used in the mosaic. The Cultural Committee paid for mosaic artist, Jim Bowen, to teach the students about mosaics, guide the creation of the mosaic leaves during the art show, and assist with the installation of the tree some time in June.

We had so much fun choosing our special objects. My son chose a LEGO block because he loves LEGOs, but also because Mr. Ryan guided us through a building expansion and renovation.
My daughter chose a small button because "Mr. Ryan wears lots of button down shirts." I chose a bead I bought in Niamey, Niger to remind Mr. Ryan to keep a sense of adventure.

The entire process has been meaningful and fun. Now we can't wait to see the mural installed a little later this month.

Does your school have a committee to fund these kinds of cultural programs?  What great presenters have you had? Homeschoolers/unschoolers, you probably participate in programs like this as a matter of course. What suggestions do you have for schools?

Related Post: Drum to the Beat