Saturday’s Book: “The Land of Decoration” by Grace McCleen

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This book should have come with a personal trigger warning: Don’t read this book until you have recovered from reading “Educated” by Tara Westover. I found “Educated” to be a deeply disturbing book.

The fact that I could not stop reading the book even though I wanted to, is a testimony to how well the book is written. I had to see it through.

“The Land of Decoration”, like “Educated” is about a daughter in a family with extreme fundamentalist beliefs ***. In both books, I found the depths of the misery that such extremism lead to hard to read about. “In this book, the end of the world is at hand and life revolves around this fact. For motherless 10-year-old Judith, who lives with her father, there is no Christmas to celebrate. Birthdays aren’t celebrated either. Everything about her life sets her apart from the children at school, who bully her constantly. The neighborhood is derelict, the teacher at school has a drinking problem and there is a strike at the plant where her father works.

I wanted to airlift that child elsewhere, immediately.


Judith is highly intelligent and blessed with a wonderful imagination. She created, out of odds and ends from what other people would call junk, an entire model of the town in which she lives. Judith called it “The land of decoration” and it is her escape from reality. It is she who narrates the tale,  a child struggling to reconcile the different realities she is faced with. Her “voice” is riveting!

When Judith begins to talk to God and make miracles with her “land”, what begins with snow literally “snowballs” into a lot of trouble.

The author really makes sure the reader sinks into depths of misery, along with that poor child before finally rescuing everyone. I’ve been known to abandon books but, as I said, I had to see it through.

I don’t know whether to recommend the book or not…

*** This book is a work of fiction. “Educated” is a memoir. 

Should “Dated” Worksheets Be Tossed Out?

The school year may be a new one, but the question is a recurring one:

Should “dated” worksheets be tossed out?

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Imagine giving your adolescent students a delightful questionnaire dealing with the question: “How Romantic are You”? My students really like that sort of thing and I have been using such questionnaires for years. **

Now imagine that one of the questions asks the students to consider what they would do if their love interest was late for a date. One of the possible answers is a suggestion to look for a pay-phone and place a call.

Most of my students can’t even recall ever seeing a pay-phone. There are very few left on our streets, as far as I can tell…

Then there are personalized grammar worksheets. My colleagues and I, over the course of many years, have created quite a few grammar practice worksheets designed either to sneak in some general knowledge or to personalize the material by mentioning famous people who the students are interested in. Personalizing the material is supposed to be a good thing, right?


Will Smith no longer seems to be “the most popular actor in Hollywood”,  and none of my Deaf and hard of hearing students seem to have heard of Angelina Jolie or the movie “Avatar”.   A reference to President Clinton (Clinton as in Bill Clinton) could be seen as a mistake made by “an ignorant” teacher who apparently doesn’t know who won the last presidential election in the United States…

Naomi’s Photos

So what am I going to do?

Truly successful worksheets, like “the romance quiz”, stay in my repertoire, dated or not. When we get to the “pay-phone” part I simply ask them to imagine how long they would wait before turning to their phones. Their answer, invariably, is to send a text message the moment they arrive at the meeting point, so I just say that response correlates to the least romantic option.

Let me take a deep breath before talking about the grammar worksheets. I would like to say that I make new versions of all the dated ones so as to keep them relevant, but I don’t. It’s totally unrealistic, the workload as a teacher is heavy enough.  If the worksheet is a good one, in terms of pedagogical grammar, I keep it. So I’ve lost the personalized effect,  I can live with that. It’s just like another page in a grammar book. If the percentage of unfamiliar cultural references becomes an issue and a distraction for the students, I get rid of the worksheet.

What do you do?

** My students’ favorite questionnaire on the topic of  romance came from this site, though many years ago:


Double Book Feature: “The Guests” and “Back from the Valley of Rephaim”

**Note: I am so behind with my book-posts that I’m resorting to a double feature!

** Another Note: I read both books in Hebrew. Books by both authors have already been translated into English so you may find these in the future as well.

Photo by Gil Epshtein

For me, both of these books are connected to language, words, books and how they are written.  Things I happen to be interested in…

In “The Guests” by Ofir Touche Gafla, the author takes a well-worn idiom literally (extremely literally!) and builds a whole unsettling new global reality with it. Everything is very realistic, “not sci-fi like” except that the people in the world, as we know it today, have to deal with the events of one highly unusual week and its aftermath.

Please concentrate a moment on the idiom ” Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes”. Now imagine that every adult in the world wakes up one morning to find a pair of his /her dream shoes, exactly the right size, and color, just begging to be tried on. That act causes people to become someone else for a week. Not just “any” someone else, but the person they hate the most…

Can you really imagine all of the ramifications of such an event? I think not. Don’t worry, Gafla has done the imagining for you. The book is an intriguing read, even though I believe that the book could have been a bit shorter.

Epstein Family Photos

In “Back from the Valley of Rephaim”, the author Haim Be’er captures our interest right away by presenting us with an intriguing situation, raising a host of questions.  A highly successful (fictional) writer, from an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish background, passes away and is buried in a Christian cemetery in the German Quarter of Jerusalem.

A young filmmaker and his friend from the radio peel back the layers of the surprising mysteries surrounding the writer’s life, death, and work, with the help of many colorful figures whose lives intersected with the that of the writer. It’s also a tale of different time periods and places. I really don’t want to give you any examples, that would be a real spoiler here.

The use of language in this book was delightful – such a rich use of expressions, idioms, and surprising metaphors! I admit I had to look up a few unfamiliar ones! Frankly, it seems a challenging book to translate – I sincerely hope someone will do it!




Saturday’s Book: “The Weight of Ink” by Rachel Kadish

Naomi Epstein’s Photos

What a book!

What a VISUAL book!

I’m sure I have never ever said this before: I feel like I finished reading (actually it was listening, it was an audiobook) a book AND watching a mini-series. The descriptions of the different time periods and settings (mainly 17th century London and early 21st century London and more) along with the depiction of the characters, was so vivid and rich that I felt I was watching the story unfold as I was listening.

You have it all :

You have historians as detectives (which they can be! I know!)  following the tracks left behind by a 17th-century non-conformist Jewish woman, who was among the first Jews who returned to England from Amsterdam since the expulsion of all of England’s Jews in the 13th century. The woman is fictional but many of the characters she interacts with are not (and some are quite famous, but no spoilers!).

You have a wealth of historical information – I really knew very little regarding the great plague and fire of London, for example. If it were television I would call it a “period drama” or “costume drama”  – so vivid.

You have several love stories taking place in different time periods. The stories, as you might expect, tie in with each other in a way.

But mainly, you have characters trying to figure out their place in the world, particularly intelligent women who refuse to let others dictate what they can or can’t do.

My only complaint is that the author could have given the readers a bit more credit – some things didn’t need to be stated, the readers could deduce how the characters felt about something or why they reacted in a certain manner.  I personally am a fan of understatement so maybe it’s just me. In any case, the book could have been just as a good and a little bit shorter – 30 hours of audio!

But that’s quibbling.

I really enjoyed the book!

In Defense of Using Coloring Pages in the EFL Classroom – A Comment


The sky IS there…
Naomi’s Photos

“You can’t color the clouds purple”!

“Why aren’t you being more careful about coloring in the lines”!

I too cringe at hearing such sentences directed at a child.

So, when Lauren Ornstein recommended the post: “Coloring Books and Worksheets: “What’s the value of staying in the lines” by Steve Drummond, I read it with great interest.

Yes, and yes.


I don’t care about children coloring in the lines and I do agree that having children create their own drawings is certainly better for them than being limited by the drawing on a printed page.

But please don’t abolish coloring pages in classes of English as a foreign language! They can be a useful teaching aid!

Work with what you have! Naomi’s Photos

For starters, coloring pages are great for exercises in following instructions. They can be quite creative and hilarious, but such activities can only be used if all the students are holding the same coloring page.  Let’s take, as an example, the activity I call “Can you keep a straight face?” One by one the teacher calls on a student to stand up and give the class an instruction to color in one object/person/element on the page. The instruction should be as wacky as possible (the more unusual and ridiculous the better!) and the student must not smile or laugh when giving the instruction. If he /she does, the instruction must be given again (I teach special education, I don’t have children lose a turn!).  Then the following exchange can take place:

Student:  “Color the cat purple and yellow”.

Teacher: “Which cat? There is a cat on the sofa and another cat on the rug. ”

Student: “Color the cat on the rug purple and yellow”.

Another student in class asks about the color of the eyes in whatever form you imagine your students might be capable of asking.

Teacher (addressing the student speaking): “Please tell the class which color to use for the eyes. Remember, don’t laugh!” Note: It gets harder not to laugh when someone tells you not to laugh!

Student: “One orange eye and one brown eye”.

This activity can have a million variations. Students can write instructions for other students and then check to see if the result matched what they wrote. Students can look for pages matching descriptions they received, etc.

Just follow me!
Naomi’s Photos

You might say that some of these activities would work equally well with drawings that students made on their own.

Not really.

The quality and quantity of how a student colored in the page is totally irrelevant, there just has to be enough color that one can tell what’s what. This way you are leveling the playing field. A child’s artistic ability is totally not a factor and there is no room for being judgemental or competitive on that score. And that matters. A great deal.

I can’t end this post without bringing up the calming aspect of coloring pages. I’m a Special Ed teacher – having a box of interesting coloring pages is a life saver for everyone in the vicinity of a child that needs to calm down and collect himself/herself.  Perhaps just giving a blank page and nice crayons would work for some students, but certainly not for all.

If you invest a bit of effort in the coloring pages you bring in, you sneak in some general knowledge as well. It’s a really good feeling when a child raises his eyes and comments: “So this big clock is in London?”

That’s good too.