All posts by Naomi Epstein

Hi! I teach English as a foreign language to deaf and hard of hearing students in Israel and am a national counselor in this field. http://visualisingideas.edublogs.org

“Of Longing & Belonging” : An Interview with Anne Sibley O’Brien

Books.

Readers of this blog know that I love to write about books and do so regularly.  But it’s not often that I get a chance to interview a children’s book writer and illustrator! Well, exciting things happen when the English Teachers Association of Israel, aka ETAI, celebrates its 40th anniversary with an exciting international conference!  So, I now have the pleasure of introducing plenary speaker Anne Sibley O’Brien.  from Maine, U.S.A., a children’s book writer, and an illustrator who has published 37 books featuring diverse children and cultures.  (see details about the conference here).

 

An illustration from “Someone New”, by Ann Sibley O’Brien. The teacher on the left says: “Jin just arrived. He loves to write stories”. The teacher on the right says: “Emma, please help Fatimah feel at home”.

 

Naomi: I was once ” the new kid’. My first reaction to the illustration was – “Oh, the teacher on the left is introducing the new student as someone who has something to offer in a relationship by saying that the new student likes to write stories! He’s not someone who simply needs to be pitied and will be totally dependant on others”.

Is that the kind of reaction you were hoping for?

Annie: Yes, exactly. The driving purpose of these two books is to portray the richness and fullness of the lives of people who become immigrants and refugees. They’re not blank slates who come with nothing and need to be filled up. I want people in receiving communities to recognize that new arrivals are already whole people, with a family, a language (often more than one), a history, a culture, interests, talents… and that they have so much to offer. They bring gifts.

I also want people to get a glimpse of how challenging the assimilation period is. In order to adjust to the new place, immigrants and refugees have to learn so many aspects of life all over again, and the more differences they encounter — race, language, culture, religion, etc. — the greater the challenge. 
Joy in the classroom!
Figures by Yankol. Naomi’s Photos.
Naomi: Your books are about inclusion, accepting others and celebrating diversity. What made you so interested in this subject?

Annie: When I was seven years old, my parents moved my three siblings and me from rural New Hampshire in the States, to Seoul, South Korea. Working in Korea (my dad was a doctor) was a dream come true for them. I went from always blending in to suddenly standing out, feeling as if someone had turned a spotlight on me. I became fascinated by differences as a result of being “the different one” — but uniquely in a position of high status and extreme privilege, not the standard experience of being the Other! 

At the same time, our family was being so warmly welcomed into the Korean community, from which I absorbed the idea that we are all one human family. That combination of experiences gave me my life’s work.

Naomi’s Photos
Naomi: You drew the illustration presented above yourself and all the illustrations for your books. What do you start with – the illustrations or the words?

Annie: I’ve illustrated 33 picture books, about half of which I also wrote, half by other authors. Recently I also wrote a couple of picture books that were illustrated by someone else — that was fun! When it’s someone else’s book, then the illustrations usually come second to a completed manuscript.

When it’s my own book, it completely depends on the project, and sometimes on the individual scene or page. I may have strong images and wait to find the few words I need to tell the part of the story that isn’t already in the pictures. Other times I have the story and need to find the images that will enrich, support, and amplify the text. Often it’s both processes in the same book, going back and forth between the two approaches.
Imagination!
Naomi’s Photos
Naomi: I understand you visit schools a great deal. Have you found that the children are interested in discussing these topics?
Annie: Absolutely! Children have so much in-depth experience of in-groups and out-groups and issues of difference, even if they live in places where most people look like them and they haven’t had much exposure to the diverse cultures of the world. The subject of human difference is so often fraught with conflict, dis-ease, and discomfort, so I like to model ease in discussing race and culture, as an invitation — we can talk about this! 

Naomi: And the final question I ask all the speakers I interview;

What do you do in your free time? 
Annie: “Free time” is a bit of a slippery concept since I’m self-employed and there aren’t any preset boundaries around my schedule. It’s also funny because much of my work time is spent doing things — writing, drawing, reading — that other people consider being leisure activities. But I love to read, watch movies, walk or bike on our beautiful Maine island, go out to dinner, and best of all, spend time with our 5-year-old grandson!

Providing the Experience of “Language Immersion” – An Interview with Sarah Gordon

Time – 40 Years of ETAI!
(Naomi’s photos)

The English Teachers Association of Israel, aka ETAI, is celebrating its 40th anniversary with an exciting international conference! As one who has learned so much over the years thanks to ETAI, I’m honored to have the opportunity to interview the plenary speakers for the upcoming conference (see details about the conference here).

ETAI conferences have always been places to meet people who INSPIRE and Sarah Gordon is just such an educator. An educator who didn’t settle for musing “wouldn’t it be nice if…” but took an idea and actually made it happen.  Sarah founded Israel Connect, an organization that partners over Skype hundreds of students and mentors in the English-speaking world to provide students who study English as a foreign language in Israel with authentic English language immersion experiences.  In fact, Sarah has just been awarded the “Sovereign’s Medal for Community Service” for her work in Israel Connect. It is an honor awarded on behalf of the Queen of England for community impact.

Every drop makes a difference!
Naomi’s Photos

Naomi: How was the idea for the Israel Connect program born?

Sarah: I studied teaching for two years in Israel. I took English as my teaching specialization since it was an easy way for me to get credits due to English being my first language. After I left Israel to finish my teaching diploma in North America (I actually am a Math teacher by training) I kept in touch with a few friends in Israel who went on to become English teachers. One teacher was teaching in a school in a bit of a rougher neighborhood. We were chatting and she explained to me how difficult it was to get her students up to par in the meager 45 min of English they had. Many were very disadvantaged as their parents were learning Hebrew as a second language and they did not have the opportunity to travel much. I jokingly told her that here kids are so smart they spontaneously begin speaking English at age three! We laughed, but it is true, immersion is the best and most painless way to learn a language. I started by finding mentors in my community for three of her students who struggled academically and had behavioral issues, just for some homework help. Those students turned into top students, they started sitting at the front of the class and participating nicely, now that they felt confident and accomplished. My friend then asked for more mentors. She told me some of her friends and co-workers were jealous and wanted some of their students to be tutored as well. At this point, I realized we were onto something extraordinary. These are the results you wish for when you become a teacher. I realized I was in a very unique position to help people. I quit my job as a teacher and began working on this program full-time, standardizing the process so we could scale and deliver the program across the country. And as they say, the rest is history or rather a lot of really really hard work, and no one wants to hear about that.

Naomi: That is so amazing! An idea blossomed into an organization that helps so many students!

Partners
Naomi’s Photos

Naomi: You currently reside in Canada and have a perspective on education in both Israel and Canada. Do you find significant differences between the attitudes toward education in both countries?

Sarah: The differences are massive. In Canada teaching is one of the best-paid professions, it is so in demand to find a teaching job that people wait on “subbing” lists for years. Classes are also smaller. In addition,  in Canadian culture, being polite is a very strong cultural ideal. This is, in turn, is passed on and expected of students. That being said,  in both countries no one teaches because it is an easy job, you teach because you think there is nothing more important than education. In both countries, teaching is work that comes from the heart and every teacher I have ever met gives it their 1000%.

Step outside the classroom…
Naomi’s Photos

Naomi: My final question is always the same for all the hard-working educators that I’m fortunate enough to interview:  What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Sarah: I do like to go to school and collect degrees, I guess you can call it a hobby.!

 

I’m looking forward to hearing more at Sarah Gordon’s plenary session at the upcoming ETAI conference!

 

Saturday’s Book: “The Story of San Michele” by Munthe

In Axel Munthe’s home, San Michele
Naomi’s Photos

This book “took me” on an exciting, wild journey with the author and I enjoyed it immensely. It’s always full of life,  fascinating, funny at times or quite sad and moving at others.

While the book is presented as Munthe’s memoirs, describing his time as a young Swedish doctor who studied under Charcot in Paris at the end of the 19th century, his work in Italy, various wild adventures and his love affair with the Isle of Capri and the home he built there, San Michele, it should not be seen as a factual biography.

According to the Wikipedia entry about the man and the book, it seems Munthe omitted all sorts of things (such as the fact that he was NOT single and even had children…)  and may certainly have exaggerated some of his adventures. Nevertheless, there is no dispute regarding the fact that while Munthe earned a great deal of money from the rich he constantly used his skills as a doctor to serve the poor without any remuneration and was a great lover of animals.

In Axel Munthe’s home at San Michele
Naomi’s Photos

Frankly, Munthe was a wonderful storyteller and it doesn’t bother me that the lines between what actually happened and what he would have liked to have happened were blurred. The book is a great read!

Once again, as I have said before, I’m “book lucky”.  I recently visited Munthe’s house (well worth visiting!). On returning home I discovered that the book is already in the public domain and is available for free download on various platforms. It’s great to read a book I enjoy that ties in with my trip like that!

Are Cell Phones Killing Students’ Word Processing Skills?

Before the days of word processing…
Naomi’s Photos

At first, I thought it was an isolated phenomenon.

I tried to hold on to that thought but I really can’t ignore it anymore.

The number of students who don’t have a working computer at home is rising steadily.

And they don’t seem the least bit perturbed by that fact.

There have always been some students who didn’t own a computer, but that was clearly due to their family’s economic difficulties. In many such cases in the past, wonderful teachers and administrators were able to get a hold of computers for these students thanks to various donations. The students were glad to receive these computers – it was clear they really wanted to own one.

But now I hear the following more and more often:

Am I stuck in the past?
Naomi’s Photos

“We have a computer but it stopped working and we never got it fixed. Nobody wants to use it anyway, every member of the family has their own cell-phone”.

I talked to a student about the issue the other day and she tried to show me that everything the school system could possibly want CAN be done on the cell phone.

I am not convinced.

We have two computers in our English Room.  They are in use most of the day. The students have tasks in their Edmodo groups which require written answers and literature papers which some students choose to type (they are allowed to hand in these papers in handwriting if they wish). All of these require that the students use WORD (and PowerPoint!) installed on the school computers.

I now find myself teaching students how to toggle between languages on the keyboard – which used to be an absolute basic thing to know about using a computer in this country! They hit Caps Lock as a solution and then don’t understand why they can’t access sites that require a password that is case-sensitive.

Naturally, when you are only using the Caps Lock the text won’t progress nicely from left to right instead of right to left, especially if you are using numbers or bullets. That also causes problems when I point out they have forgotten a word and then the students can’t seem to add it in the right place.

Students also don’t align the text and the issue of spacing is completely ignored…

Today a student called me over to look at his work and I saw he had totally ignored the red and blue markings that “WORD” used to indicate errors.

Sigh…
Naomi’s Photos

There certainly still are students who know their way around a computer way better than I do but their number seems to be steadily decreasing.

So, is teaching word processing skills something I’m supposed to be adding to my curriculum for next year?

Sigh…

Do you teach such skills as well in your lessons?

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday’s Book: “84 Charing Cross Road” by Helene Hanff

Different lives behind different windows can connect…
Naomi’s Photos

What a BIG SMILE of a book!

That may be a grammatically incorrect statement but it is the best way to describe how reading the book made me feel.

I read this quite short book, composed entirely of an exchange of letters, in 24 hours. I began it before bedtime (and turned off my reading lamp rather later than usual) and completed it as soon as I got home from work the next day.

I think I smiled the whole time.

The correspondence begins shortly after the end of World War Two and is between the actual author, who presents herself as a poor American screenwriter and author, living alone in New York and an Antiquarian bookseller in Charing Cross Road, London. The touching, engaging and often humorous correspondence spans 20 years.

I  don’t want to give too many details in case you haven’t read the book ( I’m sure many have somehow I missed it!) as it’s better to discover the characters’ lives as you read, but I also found it interesting to be reminded of an era when people traveled less and there was no Internet. Helen has no idea how to “translate” pounds into dollars and sends actual cash in envelopes (we actually used to do that for years, too!!!). More than that, it was a revelation to her how difficult times were for the British in the years right after the war ended!

Sometimes,  “sharing” (via a book) a friendship between people from different countries who have never met, is just what a person needs to read and be reminded of.

Particularly so when one takes into account the fact that I learned of this book AND was lent a copy by a friendly colleague whom I lent the book “Address Unknown”, which is another book composed of letters.

It’s always good to talk to people about books!

Enjoy!

 

 

When an Error Turns into a “Very Lonely Felt Jacket…”

Distortions…
Naomi’s Photos

“Wow”, I thought to myself as I moved between the students who were working individually on their reading comprehension tasks, “this student’s error is a classic mistake! Here is a great opportunity to remind the class of the dangers of ignoring parts of speech and the importance of using the dictionary wisely”.

So I called everyone’s attention to the board. In my 12th grade class of Deaf and hard of hearing students, all comments for the whole class must be made while standing by the board where everyone can see me, and I can write-up the words and sentences as needed. The students are used to me pointing out errors in this manner. They know I absolutely never ever make fun of a student. I also thank the student for giving us this opportunity to pay attention to some point. Since this happens once with one student’s error and then with another, the students are all well aware that they are all “in the same boat”.

Appearances deceive – a  boat that is a bench…
Naomi’s Photos

The source of the problem was the word “felt.” One word led to multiple errors.

“I felt certain that my second attempt would be successful”.

The student had forgotten the meaning of this irregular verb so he looked up the translation in his electronic dictionary.

However, he did not pay attention to the fact that he was looking for a verb and that the electronic dictionary first presents translations that are nouns.

The student wrote down the noun meaning of the word “felt” (as in a type of cloth) which in Hebrew is a three-letter word “leved”.

The electronic dictionary does not use diacritics and the student understood those same three letters to mean a totally different word in Hebrew, “levad”, which means “alone”.

Therefore, the student could not understand the sentence in the text.

A textbook error to be presented to class, right?

Or, as it turned out, an excellent example of how explaining too much can totally confuse students and introduce other mistakes!

Lost my way…
Naomi’s Photos

I should have just reminded the students of how to pay attention to the syntax and look up the word “felt”  as a verb and left it at that.

Sigh…

When we looked at the meaning of “felt” as a noun it turned out that not a single one of those students knew what the material felt was. I didn’t have anything made of the material felt in the room to show them and none of the students were wearing anything made of felt (it’s a hot country, you know!).  I started trying to explain. The only example I could think of at the moment was a  “felt jacket”.  I’m sure if they had touched the material it would have been familiar but they simply did not have a word for it in any language they used.

The fact that  I had also been trying to explain how the first student had made an error with the meaning of the noun as well, confused the students even more.

No, there were no “felt jackets” mentioned in the sentence.

Yes, yes, I agree, jackets, made of felt or any other material cannot be lonely, so it is ridiculous to use the word lonely in the context of a jacket except that aren’t any jackets in the sentence.

Aargh!

Sometimes less actually is more – explain less!

The sentence remained on the board when the next class came in.

I simply pointed to the word “felt” and reminded the students how they could (and should!) know the word is a verb even if they forget it’s meaning.

No “lonely felt jackets” were allowed into the room!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday’s Book: “The Leavers” by Lisa Ko

Journeys…
Naomi’s Photos

This is a good book.

A sad one and an important one very relevant to our world today.

Vivid, clear, engaging and moving.

The book is told from the point of view of the two main characters and in their “voices”. The tale moves between these voices.

There is the story of a young Chinese woman with an individualistic streak, who dreams of making her own way in life, forgoing the future mapped out for her. We learn how she arrives in the USA, saddled with debt to those who brought her there, how she is taken advantage of as a worker, striving to pay off these debts. Her son is born in the US…

The other voice is that of the son. One day, when he was in the fifth grade, his mother vanishes. No one knows what happened to her. No one can explain to him why his mother abandoned him and his whole life turned upside down. He is adopted by well-meaning people who bring him into an environment with no diversity, he is the only who looks different despite his new American name.  The feeling of exhaustion arising just from being so conspicuous every single day wherever he goes is just one of the several issues that could be discussed while reading the book.

What happens to each of these characters unfolds as you read on.

I believe the book would be even better if it were a little shorter – more focused. I found that when the story was told from the point of view of the son it was a bit too long, belaboring details that were clear. I did not have this issue during the parts told by the mother.

I certainly recommend the book.

Who Were You, Dora? Now the Bones are Quite Literally Crying Out…

Dora 1935

I’ve delayed writing this post for several weeks.

It’s really hard to write about.

I’ve been making every effort to focus on the LIFE that once was before all hell broke loose, but the bones are, quite literally, crying out their reminder of the DEATH.

This post is an unplanned postscript to the Saturday Series, in which I, with crowdsourcing help, try to unravel the mysteries hidden in previously unknown letters written by my mysterious step-great aunt Dvora /Dora before and during WWll in what was then Poland.  For further explanations about the series see the previous post here.

As I wrote in my posts,  my goal was (and continues to be) to find out as much as possible about Dora’s LIFE – the schools she went to, how she spent her time, what her neighborhood looked like and more. The LIFE she lived in Brest, Belarus (then Poland) before its violent end,  most likely on October 15, 1942,  aged 22, at nearby Bronnaya Gora.  Dora and her father were registered by the Nazis when entering the Brest Ghetto in November 1941, as you can see here. Dora’s name is on line four. Her father’s name is the one on the last line.  To read about the fate of those who entered that Ghetto, read here.

brest ghetto passport
Brest Ghetto registration

 

 

 

But was that Dora’s fate as well or was the following how her life ended?

In February of 2019, on a  construction site of an apartment block in Brest (Dora would have referred called it “Brisk”)  the remains of about one thousand murdered Jews was discovered, with bullet holes. Remains of people of all ages. The site is on the location of the Brest Ghetto. It seems that those who somehow managed to escape the massacre of October 15 were murdered here. This is a link to the BBC post which will give you more information, without pictures of the bones themselves – those can be found on other sites.

I can’t possibly answer and will not try to answer the question of whether or not Dora’s remains were there as well.

What I can do is repost Dora’s last letter here, dated August 25, 1940, when she was 20, years old, her dreams of going to university long gone.  It is fitting to reread her words.

Dora aged 15
Dora aged 15
Dora aged 15 in photo

“Dear Sister,

Your postcard procured us a great pleasure because we did not hope yet to get letters from you. Nearly a whole year passed that we did not correspond one with the other and has delightfully is that we can at last write one to the other. I forgot almost write English during the time, because I am not using it.  

What to me I have none news. As you know I did not succeed in life to this time. I must reconcile with that. The housework is very not interesting and I am busy day by day at house.

From Palestine we have not any letter. There is very unquietly. The father works at a state working place. He will also write you a letter the next days.

Write as soon as you will get this card. Let us hear good news one from the other and the rest family.

Your sincere Dora”

No good news came.

So very very sad.

From Quasimodo to “The Magic of Validation” – A Comment

Sad…
Naomi’s Photos

Watching the footage of the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris yesterday was really difficult – so very sad.

Like countless others, I found myself thinking of Quasimodo, the main character in Hugo’s famous book “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and of Walt Disney’s animated film, who spent his life living at the cathedral.

Quasimodo’s thoughts or feelings interested no one.  You might say his voice wasn’t heard. Speaking of hearing, you may recall that Quasimodo was deaf, a hearing loss caused by being in close proximity to the church bells on a permanent basis.

Deaf…hmmm… I can imagine Quasimodo being a student of mine… I would like to believe he would be “heard” in our classroom.

Hmmm…

Looking up…
Naomi’s Photos

Luckily, Jennifer Gonzalez channeled such thoughts of mine pertaining to alternate realities into the infinitely more practical realm of the classroom and staff room in her post “The Magic of Validation” (thanks to Adam Welcome for pointing the way!).

I mean actual reality. Gonzalez takes the somewhat abstract sounding concept of validation (which we’ve all heard about before) and breaks it down into sections, including why validating matters, how it is done and why we resist validating. Her examples could be taken from almost any classroom or staff room.

Schools are a place in which conflicts arise – diffusing conflicts before they escalate into unnecessarily explosive situations with “negative snowball side effects”  is a highly relevant skill.

We need to hear Gonzalez’s reminder, again and again (and spread the word!) that validating a colleague’s feelings does not mean you agree with his/her opinion and are now going to do everything her way. Validating a student’s opinion does not mean you have to be “touchy -feely“: “Okay, validation doesn’t have to look and sound like you’re in a therapist’s office. You can develop your own style. It can sound tough, it can be quick…” 

If Gonzalez can quote her gym teacher, I can quote my gym teacher too (I’m most certainly not doing CrossFit, by the way!): “I know this exercise is hard for you, Naomi. That’s exactly why it is important for you to keep doing it!”

Too many to count?
Naomi’s Photos

Gonzalez doesn’t talk about the numbers of students in a class. I’m concerned that class size matters. How do my colleagues who teach classes of 40 students manage to make every student feel heard? Don’t ask me – I’m a teacher of Students with Special Needs, my classes are small! Perhaps part of the answer lies in this quote from the post “The thing to remember is that validation is not necessary in all interactions…

You see, people want to be heard. Despite rumors to the contrary, students and teachers are people too.

If only poor Quasimodo had the opportunity to be heard before it was too late …

 

 

 

Saturday’s Book: “Pompeii” by Robert Harris

The earth can move…
Naomi’s Photos

There may all sorts of luck in this world but I am certainly a “book – lucky” kind of person.

I’ve hit the jackpot again!

The book Pompeii was waiting for me in the “readers for readers” corner outside the local library. Slightly water damaged but otherwise in good condition.

It just so happens that I plan to be in Pompeii, Italy NEXT WEEK!

This is not an academic book nor a travel guide-book! Harris managed to create an “absolutely-can’t-put-down” book full of action, suspense, and surprising turns even though the end is clear and known in advance. That volcano is going to erupt and the author knows you know it.

But the people in the story don’t know it.

And the people seem very real indeed.

I’ve read a book by Harris before, he researches the history behind his fictional books meticulously. Harris brings to life the people, the sights, sounds, and smells (it seems many think stank in those days, despite the Roman baths!) of Pompeii in its heyday, In addition, the story is told from the point of view of “The Aquarius” – the title held by an engineer in charge of an aqueduct.  I feel as if I’ve been personally introduced to the awe-inspiring wonders of the Roman Empire’s water system. To think that rich citizens back then could have RUNNING WATER in their homes, some even had hot and cold taps (pipes led to their homes), a version of toilets and swimming pools in the FIRST CENTURY AD is mind-boggling when you think about running water around the world for the centuries that followed…

If all that wasn’t enough, I really enjoyed Harris’ use of language. The descriptions are rich and vivid.

In short – this was certainly a book to “get lost” in.

Great book!