Saturday’s Book: “The Believers” by Heller

Naomi’s photos

It’s the weirdest thing.

I’m usually quite sure what exactly I like and don’t like about a book. All very clear.

Except for this book. I liked it but I really can’t put my finger on why I did.

On the back cover there is a review-comment from The Daily Mail “Funny, moving and very very true…a brilliant brilliant book”.

I don’t think the book is funny – I don’t find such a dysfunctional family funny. I am strongly suspect of the “true” aspect of it but willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Though the mother’s character is a bit much…

Yet there is something about this book. I don’t know if “brilliant” is the right word but each chapter sucks you into a scene completely. When you are  released and turn to the next chapter you find yourself not where or when you expected to be, yet it all makes sense.

I’m glad I read it.


Hey! “Incidental Comics” Knows Why I Blog!

Let the marbles roll…
(Naomi’s photos)

As someone whose own blog is all about connecting words and visual input, along with book reviews thrown in for good measure (or my own pleasure, to be precise), the decision to subscribe to Grant Snider’s “Incidental Comics” blog was a no brainer.

I was rewarded almost right away. There, in my inbox, was the perfect explanation of why I blog.  Actually, an explanation of why I need to blog! In a strip called “Cogito Ergo  Sum”, the last four panels sum it up beautifully ( I can’t embed it here, click on the title to see the complete original, in context with the drawings):

” I think, therefore I read.

I read, therefore I rethink.

I rethink, therefore I write.

I write, therefore I am.”

By Grant Snider


Is that why you blog?

P.S  Did you notice the word “dental” hiding in the word “incidental”? Snider is an orthodontist, there could be a connection…

P.P.S – Looks like there is a lot of useful material for class, too.





A Video for an Imaginary Staff Meeting on “BALANCE”

Never enough time… (Naomi’s photos)

Note – I first learned of this video from the Film English blog, a blog well worth following.  If you are looking for an additional lesson plan for students with this video, I suggest visiting  Cristina’s blog, Blog de Cristina .

There’s never enough time at school to talk about some things. So many truly pressing issues take priority. And aren’t we are all in a hurry to get home at the end of the day?

Or maybe issues such as “balancing all the ways a teacher should ideally be meeting the students’ needs” simply seem obvious to everyone. No point in discussing obvious things, is there? That’s what blogs are for – I shall hold an imaginary staff meeting. Perhaps you’ll join me?

Different Strokes, different colors, different needs…
Naomi’s Photos

At my imaginary staff meeting, everyone is sitting comfortably,  sipping their favorite beverage and not worrying about the time (I did say imaginary…)  I would begin by showing the following powerful video. Without uttering a single word, this video manages to be truly moving and to raise several issues worth discussing. I’ll settle for discussing the following one.

Alike short film from Pepe School Land on Vimeo.

In what ways do teachers strive to keep the balance in their classes between letting students express themselves and learning the material that must be learnt? On one hand, when watching the video, it’s truly heartbreaking to see the child’s creativity being snuffed out. The child literally loses her colors! On the other hand, we are doing children a big disservice if we don’t teach them how and when to follow rules. If you don’t learn to form your letters in the standard, accepted way, no one will be able to read what you have written. If you don’t learn the importance of coming to class on time (because perhaps you stopped to watch your street musician) you may have a hard time holding a job in the future.

We like to think of book reports or projects as opportunities, or outlets, for students to express themselves, but is that enough? I teach in the format of a learning center, which enables students to get up and move around during the lesson, and do a little “happy dance” if they need to. Which is something I’m pleased about but I don’t think that’s the point either.

A balancing act…
Naomi’s photos

If we return to the video for a minute, think what would have happened if the teacher had responded differently to the little girl’s drawing. Perhaps she could have said that she would create a folder for the child’s lovely artwork so it could be kept and admired but now she also needs to practice her letters. Otherwise no one will be able to understand what she writes. In other words, the teacher tries to get her to see the point of what she is asked to do, gets her on board with the rationale.

Isn’t understanding the point of what you are doing a critical step in taking ownership of your learning? Then, perhaps, it would be much easier to find the balance between academic learning and self-expression. It is, of course, easier said than done. Teachers have to prepare students for high stakes exams. Sometimes the reason for doing something is “it’s on the exam…”

Then again, perhaps the whole take away from a teacher’s perspective should be that making the student feel noticed and special can make a world of difference. It can let her keep hearing the violin play in her head!

What would you say if you attended my imaginary staff meeting?



Belated Book Post – The People of Paper & People of the Book

People of Metal…
(Naomi’s Photos)

Would you believe I found two books with such similar titles on the same visit to the library? But the similarities pretty much begin and end with the titles.

It is my understanding that  “The People of Paper”  by Plascencia is supposed to present an innovative form of writing.  Well, I’m afraid I’m not progressive enough to enjoy it. Large portions of the book are written in columns, with each character’s point of view appearing in a different column. I was prepared to accept reading like that for a few chapters, until the author went overboard, as far as I was concerned. New characters were added, remembering which character was which grew confusing and time frames jumped between different character’s tales (or between one column to the next) and I got totally lost.

I abandoned the ship.

On the other hand, People of the Book by Brooks is very easy to read. It’s historical fiction and each time frame is clearly distinguishable. The book is rich with details, in fact it seems ready to be adapted for the screen. You have everything Hollywood usually wants.

Which leads to  my main problem with the book. It is basically a good book but I dislike it when you can tell the author had a kind of checklist of “Hollywood” elements that need to appear in the book – sex must be brought up at regular intervals, unknown fathers, the mother who basically sacrificed her child for her career, etc. And while I’m all for “girl power”, I found some parts regarding the female heroine in every single period a bit hard to believe, particularly the really ancient times.

Nonetheless, it was an interesting book and I would recommend it.

Let’s Hear it for The-30s-CAN-ROCK Teachers!

Aren’t the flames a bit TOO high?
Naomi’s photos

No, I’m afraid this post is not about all you truly wonderful teachers who are in their 30s.

Nor is this post about finding educational lessons in the comedy show called “30 Rock” . I actually tried but I couldn’t find anything on the theme of “keeping the flame alive”. All I found was this and it simply won’t do…

” Can I share with you my world view? All of humankind has one thing in common – the sandwich. I believe that all anyone really wants in this life is to sit in peace and eat a sandwich” (Liz Lemon, 30 Rock).

So, lets just pack the sandwiches in the lunchbox (along with a salad and an apple, please!) and head on to school to talk to those teachers around the world who have been teaching for more than 30 years and are still going strong!

What is the secret?

I prefer this version of “flaming trees” (Naomi’s Photos)

The organizers of the upcoming ETAI conference have once again given me space to present pearls of wisdom from teachers around the globe, this time  on the topic of “How to Keep Motivated after 30 years of Teaching”!

I need everyone’s help with this one! Even if you aren’t a member of this select group of teachers and can’t answer the ultra short questionnaire below, I’m sure you know someone whose words of wisdom should absolutely be on it. I would appreciate if you could share the link or bring up the questionnaire in the teacher’s room.

Replies are limited to only one sentence.

I may exercise my right as the organizer and add two sentences… Yup – you guessed correctly. I’m a member of this select group myself!



Saturday’s Documentary – “Houston, We Have a Problem”

Take a good look!
Naomi’s Photos

Honestly, just watch the trailer and see if you can figure out how to watch the documentary. To say much about this in advance is a spoiler.

Our whole family just watched it at the Docaviv Documentary Film Festival and it is fascinating. We’ve been talking about it all evening – it is so cleverly done! It brings up the issue of what makes us believe what we believe, combining a take on former Yugoslavia and today’s media quandary… We keep noticing yet another detail used to prove a point.

Worth making an effort to watch!

Revisiting a post -“Oh, But there ARE ELT Emergencies!”

The annual cycle of exams…
Naomi’s Photos

Once again I’m bracing myself for the national matriculation (“Bagrut”) exam day. We have them three times a year but this is the major one, with the largest number of students taking the exams.  So what has changed since  I first posted this in 2012?   Well, I don’t teach in a private language school anymore . In addition, this is the first exam without the envelopes mentioned in the post (new system) so who knows what new emergencies can arise? Expect the unexpected and hang in there!


There is a wonderful post which I really recommend reading: “Can you have a normal life and work in ELT” on the TEFLGEEK Blog. I really identify with that post!

But I just had to comment on the following statement from the post:

“But I can think of absolutely no situation within my own teaching experience, that could possibly be classified as an emergency”.

Epstein Family Photos

So here are a few ELT emergencies, beginning with the ones least causing palpitations:

First of all, as someone still fairly new to the world of “for profit” schools (I’ve recently begun teaching my second course at a private language school) I’m amazed as to how everything is treated as an emergency. When a client squawks  all able-bodied hands should report for duty at once:

* I peek at my phone during the break at the high school. Four (!!) unanswered calls from the private school. I call them back. A student contested his grade, they need me to come over right away. Fortunately, I have  a clever husband who said ” I bet they could scan and email the exam to you”. He was right, they could and did, when I knew to ask.

* A student mailed me a query through the private school’s website less than two hours before the lesson (begins at five p.m). I only saw the query after the lesson. Confident that I had discussed the issue with the student personally during the lesson I did not answer the letter. At eight a.m the very next morning (!!!) there was a letter from the private school intended to draw my attention to the fact that there was an unanswered letter to a student in my inbox!

However, lets return to those ELT emergencies that involve running, physically.

I took this one myself…

National Matriculation day (our leaving exams are called “Bagrut Exams”) is often a source of drama at high-schools round the country. Being a special ed. teacher adds more combustible pieces to the puzzle, but doesn’t make my situation seem like an exception to the rule:

* Mad dashes down long corridors and up/down steps to get to the photocopying machine when:
a) not enough exam papers were sent

b) the envelope containing the special section for the students with hearing problems got sent to the wrong room by mistake and no-one knows which room (more running, photocopying of master copy if necessary)

c) one of my students who has emotional issues (my students arrive early on exam days as they don’t have transportation for exactly when they need it in the afternoons) tore his watch strap while horsing around with another boy and threw a temper tantrum, screaming and banging on walls of classrooms where exams where taking place. More running to get available staff over to remove him from the testing area and help him calm down. Quicker than trying to get people on the cell phone because they are probably on the phone!

True, none of these emergencies required a police escort, as described in the blog post. Though my husband would have appreciated one the day  he had to make a special trip to the high-school because I had left the candies we give out on exam day at home!

Saturday’s Book – “The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint” by Udall

Naomi’s photos

Talk about opening lines! This book catches your attention right away! I honestly recommend not reading many details about it before you begin – let the story surprise you as you join Edgar Mint’s unusual journey into adulthood.

As unusual as the story is, the main draw here is the writing, the skillful storytelling. I’m looking forward to reading other books by Udall, there were passages that caused me to pause for a minute and think about how they were written.

My only complaint is that  book is too long, especially the middle part which seemed to go beyond what was needed to  serve the story line.

Miracle lives seem to be a popular theme, but don’t pass up on writing like this.

Witnessing a Teacher Breathe Life into History – Volpa, Belarus

Volpa, Belarus

Note – This is post number five and our final stop on our Heritage Trip to Belarus. Once again, we were dealing with the time period in which Dora lived, but since our relatives from here are from my husband’s side, this post is not strictly part of the “Dora posts” series.

The amazing history teacher Teresa Kudrik and former principal Yuri, in the school’s museum. They gave us a very warm welcome and a fascinating tour.

Imagine you are a student in a small rural school, in a small, sleepy village. One day your teacher takes your class out for an unusual kind of “treasure hunt” around the village, a sort of “story in a suitcase”. At each stop along the way, you meet Basya (one of the older school girls played Basya, dressed up in the old style), supposedly a Jewish girl who once lived here, who tells you what  once used to happen on this spot. The girl’s name was taken from a class photo. In the last years before the Nazi’s took over a few Jewish girls studied in the local school.

The “Mikveh” once stood here.
The synagogue in Volpa was such a unique building that it was known the world over. Poland named it a national treasure in 1929. The only drawback was that it wasn’t heated. In winter it could only be used on the Sabbath and the congregation would try to rush the services because of the cold! It was made of wood and burned quickly during the war.

Imagine Basya explaining that Jews had different places to buy food because of the dietary laws. She would have used  this photo to show that all the children were neighbors and could play together.

A picture found in a villager’s attic. The two neighbors & friends bound forever in the same frame, a Christian boy and a Jewish one (alone in the photo).

Now you must imagine how the walk around the village ends – with Basya revealing that only her spirit could remain in Volpa, since she perished along with all the other Jewish residents (only one survivor).

Can you imagine planning such a tour for the school children?! I was dumbfounded to learn of this project that the amazing history teacher Teresa Kudrik organized. Teachers can work magic, you know! Even more so to learn that Teresa had been on a course at Yad Va-Shem in Jerusalem!

The school has a small but very impressive museum devoted to the history of the place. They raised tobacco here.

In the Jewish section of the museum they used pictures from the Volkovysk Yizkor Book (Memorial Book), where Volpa is mentioned. This was the first place on the trip where we found the complete list of names of the former Jewish residents that perished. We did not encounter such  a list in Antopol or in Volkovysk. It was also our first encounter with someone who was delighted (in fact, the first real smile we encountered on the trip!) to hear that Roni’s grandparents were from Volpa and was happy to receive copies of the few photos we have from those days, for the museum.

The section on local Jewish history
It was thanks to former principal Yuri that we got to visit the museum and tour the school.
Our guide, Andrei Burdenkov, also smiles when he isn’t busy listening and translating for us!

As a teacher, I was also very interested in the school itself. It was very modern looking and attractive. We got to see the fine computer lab and the biology lab. I was surprised to see chalk boards in use but Andrei explained that chalk is abundant in these parts. The classes are very small, the number of residents in such villages is dwindling.

The highlight of our tour!

We took a short walk around town before heading back to the cemetery. We had actually started with the cemetery, if you could call it that. We never would have found it on our own, it is so very easy to miss entirely. Andrei had coordinates. There’s barely anything to see, tall grass (with ticks!) and no fence. But at the museum we learned that a memorial marker had been erected there and so we returned to find it.

Local mailboxes
Spring must be roof mending time.. The winters around here are harsh.

What is left of the cemetery of Volpa…
Volpa cemetery memorial

A memorable visit indeed!

Our guide, Andrei Burdenkov, prepared this video “Driving through Volpa”








Could You Hear the Wolves Howling at Night in Volkovysk, Father?

Note – This is post number four following our Heritage Trip to Belarus. My husband’s father was Dora’s contemporary but naturally, this post is not strictly part of the “Dora posts” series.

Volkovysk – The founding year is proudly displayed

Local legend has it that the name Volkovysk (or Vawkavysk) means Wolf’s Howl. Whether or not a young boy, who later became my husband’s father, ever lay in bed at night, listening to the wolves howl, is something we will never know. Like so many others who literally lost everyone and everything, who for years didn’t even have a picture or a simple memento to place on a shelf, he closed the door firmly on his pre-war life and did not speak of it.

We certainly didn’t hear any wolves from our hotel situated  in the center of the city, and I believe there aren’t any to be heard even on the outskirts of the city nowadays. Winters are harsh in these parts and the windows are thick. Our guide explained that even back then people would nail on  an extra window frame from inside the house for the cruel winter months. Sawdust would often be placed between the frames for extra insulation. Perhaps wolves couldn’t have been heard through all those layers of protection…

The city’s symbol. The supermarket with the multiple cashier adventure can be seen behind it (see first post)!
The view from our hotel. Wide streets, very clean, not a lot of traffic.

Volkovysk was a real battleground during World War 2 and large parts of the  city were destroyed. We heard a lot about that part of local history at the local museum. 13,000 people lived there before the war, 7, 000 of them were Jews. 40 Jews returned after the war.  The museum is dedicated to Military History and not to the general history of the place. They were able to tell us that the Jewish community had its own hospital, in addition to the school. There was a large fire back in 1909 that burned down the entire street where the synagogue was situated. The fire was so intense that the foundations cracked and the building collapsed.  The only pictures of pre-war Jewish life they had were from the Yizkor book (community memorial book written by  former residents after the war) which we are familiar with.

The military museum. They had a small exhibition on dinosaurs too!
Volkovysk after the war, from the museum

So what can one find from the 1920’s after such destruction?

Well, the river is still there. We believe my father-in-law grew up in a house that also served as a shop and we surmised the general location with old maps we had (many thanks to the many people who helped us obtain a copy of an old map, more on that in another post…).

I’m not sure this section of it should actually be defined as a river but it’s lovely!
This is an old house which could have functioned as a shop and a place of residence, or…
…or it could have been a two-story affair, with the residence above the shop (from the museum)
The train station was also there. But when the Jews were forced to board, it wasn’t at the station, but rather further down the tracks.
The descriptions of what happened here in the Ghetto are pretty horrific. It’s now an industrial building.

If we thought that the cemetery we had seen in Antopol was destroyed, the one here is barely  discernible (though more so then the next one to come…). We never would have found this field strewn with stones, a few barely recognizable as headstones without our trusty guide. This one structure in the center is the lone sentinel who, unfortunately, does not speak.

There is no fence, sign or marker

This was once a headstone. A passerby wouldn’t dream it was a cemetery.

The memorial we did find was erected by a killing field, which is located inside a Christian Cemetery.

Remembering the Jews of Volkovysk who were cruelly murdered by the Nazis. 1941-1942 May their memory be blessed.

It’s a strange feeling. It was a gorgeous spring day around us but there were lots of dark shadows too…


Here’s a video our guide, Andrei Burdenkov took of the streets of Volkovysk.


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