Friday, November 20, 2015

You call this progress? Dumbing down our kids in the name of Education Reform

I've been working my tail off the last few weeks revising both of my 2016 novels, CHARMED I'M SURE (S & S Aladdin) and IN CASE YOU MISSED IT (SCHOLASTIC).  ICYMI is the one I told Mom I sold on a three page proposal. She died suddenly and unexpectedly four days later, so I have not only been writing and revising this novel through deep grief while helping my siblings deal with Mom's estate, I've been doing it on an incredibly short deadline. I think that qualifies as "grit" don't you?

In this latest round of revisions on ICYMI, my editor queried if high school students would know what the Rosetta Stone was.

     When something like this comes up, I go on social media and ask teens, HS teachers and media specialists for the answer. I also get answers from my peers who have kids of that age. What I found from this query was that everyone of my generation - ie/ graduated high school in 1980's or before had learned what the Rosetta Stone was in either middle school or high school. 

Today - not so much. A few high schools yes. Most no. Some whose kids had been to London knew it, because they'd been to the British Museum. 

Why is this? 

Well,  this might explain something. 

I've written many, many many times about how the overemphasis on standardized testing is damaging education.  But now, when we see candidates for the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATE making claims that the pyramids were built by Joseph for grain storage it's all the more important that our kids know about the Rosetta Stone - so they know that it was the key to deciphering hieroglyphics and can use their critical thinking skills to put two and two together to realize "No, Dr. Carson, we know your bizarre theory isn't true because the Egyptians WROTE THIS STUFF DOWN!"

We need to study history so that as we hear all the anti-immigrant rhetoric being bandied about by politicians about Syrian refugees, kids know about the tragic voyage of the SS St Louis, "The Voyage of the Damned", a shipload of Jews trying to escape Hilter's Germany who were refused by country after country and were forced to return to Europe - many to their death. If you haven't read it, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum put out a powerful statement yesterday:

When I write about the overemphasis on standardized testing and STEM, I inevitably get anonymous commenters on my political columns making statements like this with no evidence to back it up:

Except then you look at the evidence:

So we're narrowing the curriculum on the false premise that it pays. And meanwhile, we are taking away the very subjects that provide context and meaning. The subjects that help students develop empathy and theory of mind. The subjects that might prevent us from making the same mistakes we did in the past. 

George Santayana

 Please. Get involved. Lobby your politicians. Lobby your Board of Education members. Fight this. Our country depends on it. Our world depends on it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

How my writing kids (ages 10-12) would vote to change society

      When I went to meet with my Writopia writing workshop kids this evening, I'd just read that voter turnout in my town was a mere 20%, and that really depressed me. I know it's not a Presidential election year, but municipal elections count. We're electing the people who run our towns and cities and perhaps most importantly, our schools. As it turns out, there was a late burst which brought us up to 33%, but still, that's pathetic.

If you don't vote, folks, you shouldn't complain when things aren't the way you want them to be. Yes, there are problems with the system, and yes, it often feels that our voices don't count nearly as much as the deep pockets of corporate interests, but not voting is an illogical option.

We always do a short writing warmup, and this evening, I spoke to my kids about how sad I was about the low voting turnout and so for the 10 minute warmup, I asked them to think about what issues would be important to them if they had the power to vote.

The answers were worth listening to - particularly for politicians.

  • more subjects in school, such as social studies, chemistry, and much more.
  • more gun safety.
  • more air conditioning, because some schools don’t have any air conditioning.
  • more activities, so kids can learn more, such as music, karate, art, and more.
  • more recycling.
  • more medicines for sick people.
  • more homes for the homeless.
  • no more war.
  • no bullying, not just in school, but everywhere.
  • good education for kids, and parents get paid a good amount of money.
  • healthy food in school cafeterias.
  • more food donations for the poor.
  • food for less money, for poor people that have at least a little money.

  • All guns illegal
  • no homeless people, and everyone has a least a small apartment
  • Things cost less
  • You can drive at age ten, but only in small cars, and you can’t go on main roads or highways
  • School lunches gave real food, and not some horrible mixture of stuff that they call salad.  Also, they have a real menu, and fancy waiters and stuff
  • Everyone gets a phone, at age seven in case of emergencies, but it only calls parents and 911 until they're older
  • no homework, you spend six hours in school why should you spend another hour with mountains of homework
  • no war

  • I would change gun laws. I would make guns illegal all over the world. They don’t solve anything. Except killing people.
  • I would make a law so that people of any race could vote.
  • Cafeteria Lunches. They suck and they aren’t healthy. I would make sure every kid in America would get a healthy lunch.
  • Every kid could get a good education.
  • Every adult could get a good paying job. And they would get paid more than the minimum wage.
  • Make sure that schools are safe for the kids. Make sure that no shootings happen or bomb threats… Make sure there are at least 2 police officers on guard every day.
  • There wouldn’t be as many homeless people. Make sure they have food, water, and a little shelter.
  • People that live in places where a lot of hurricanes, tsunamis… happen. They could have a place where they would be safe. Equipped with food, and water, and most importantly candy… J.K( but candy would be nice)

That 10 minute writing prompt told me so much about kids in city schools.They want more from their education than core curriculum and standardized tests. They want arts and music and the things that other kids have.

Holding class in Stamford on the day after a woman was shot dead in a city park, these kids want gun safety laws.

But most this was the sentence that spoke to me most: "No racism!!! It kills people on the inside!!!"

Out of the mouthes of babes...

Friday, October 9, 2015


I've written about my struggles with depression before. I've also written (and testified at our state capitol) about how private insurers discriminate against mental illness and the need for mental health parity. I've chosen to be open with my struggles, particularly with young people, because I think it's important for them to see that with therapy and medication (and it can take years and a lot of trial and error to find the right combination of medication, because medicating the brain is art as much as it is science) it is possible to lead a productive, fulfilling, purposeful life experiencing a full range of emotions including happiness and joy.

I'm also open with it because adults, who have their own preconceived notions, need to understand that people with mental illness diagnoses are productive, tax paying members of society, who contribute to their communities. For too long, the stigma surrounding mental illness has created a sense of shame for far too many people. I can't tell you how many people have thanked me for being open after I've given a talk, and then whispered to me, tears in their eyes, about their own experiences. Or the number of adult women who have picked up my YA novel PURGE, as if they were going to buy it for teen, and then quietly confessed that they, too, are or were suffering from an eating disorder.

Medication will be a part of my life, forever. I've had well-meaning, but incredibly ignorant people tell me it's "a crutch", that it's "a pharmaceutical conspiracy to keep me enslaved," that I should use exercise, a walk in the woods, music, meditation...... Yeah. Done all of those. In fact, I still exercise, walk in the woods, listen to music, and pray/meditate. But my life as a functional productive human being who has written 14 novels in the last ten years, as well as more political columns than I have time to count right now, raised two kids, dealt with the loss of both my beloved parents, and tried to give back to my community, could not have happened without being on the right cocktail of medication.

For that, I am blessed that I can afford to keep seeing the same psychiatrist out of network for the last 15 years. I made that choice, because she understood me when I got out of the hospital, where they'd put me on lithium, and I said, "I feel like they opened up a door inside me and took away all my creativity." She understood when I told her how when I was in the hospital for the second time in 12/01, I'd watched a documentary about a photo shoot People Magazine did of women who'd been pregnant on 9/11/01 and lost their spouses and since had their babies.  She understood that it was the kind of thing that would normally have me bawling and going through half a box of tissues, but I watched it completely dry eyed with the thought, "Wow, that's sad." She knew such lack of affect and emotion wasn't the real me, and she was willing to try something different to help me come back to myself instead of just telling me to "be a good girl and take my meds."

Together, we found the right combination, which has worked for over a decade. Sometimes we have to tinker, depending on external circumstances, but generally it's been a working formula. I've also been blessed with some great therapists over the years who have helped me work through the day to day struggles. None of this could have happened without insurance and being able to afford it.

How many people are like me, but can't afford it the treatment?  How many of them end up in prison instead of being able to be productive members of society living in the community, because resources and treatment aren't available, or they can't afford their meds copays?

Think about that when you look at the State Budget. Think about that the next time a politician says they're going to scrap ACA as the first thing they do when they get into office. As a self employed person, I used to have to worry every year that my insurance would be rescinded at renewal. ACA protects me from that. I've asked several of the big mouth politicians who say they want to scrap ACA how they will protect people like me (SELF-EMPLOYED ENTREPRENEURS WHO PAY TAXES, I MIGHT ADD)  if they do that and the response I get is *crickets*.  They don't have an answer. They just want to destroy without having a better plan. That isn't acceptable. It's reprehensible.

#IAMSTIGMAFREE And I am angry at people who play politics with the things that allow me to remain that way, and who want to cut the programs that could help others achieve the success that I have.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Why I hate Accelerated Reader - Part II

Last night, I received this email from a reader through my author website:

I've written before about why I'm not a fan of programs like Accelerated Reader.   But getting this email reminded me once again of how a generation of kids is being restricted from developing a love of reading in a way that I, fortunately, was not. Then we wonder why we have problems with literacy, comprehension, writing and critical thinking and inquiry. In my experience, these things are related.

When I was growing up, I had the good fortune to be a free-range reader. I was not restricted by ridiculous programs like AR. Nor was I restricted by parents censoring my choices. I was blessed with parents who encouraged me to read well above my grade level, and librarians who handed me books to keep my habits sated.

If I found an author I liked, I was free to read EVERY SINGLE BOOK THAT AUTHOR WROTE if I wanted. When the librarians at the Marylebone library handed me Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, I subsequently inhaled Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and Around the World in 80 Days.  Or when I got interested in historical fiction and read my first Jean Plaidy novel, I read the rest of them without worrying if they were "in the system." I just read, read read. And while I was reading I was learned history, often looking up things in the encyclopedia to learn more about a certain time period because it fascinated me or because I wanted to see if what was in the novel was the real story.

It enrages me that school systems are spending scare funds on expensive programs like Accelerated Reader which LIMIT kids' reading choices. If we want to encourage a genuine love of reading and creative inquiry, this is the wrong way to go about it.

Fortunately for my correspondent, my book WANT TO GO PRIVATE?  is in Accelerated Reader, but when I wrote back, I said they should discuss with their parents first because it's recommended for 9th grade and up. My parents would have let me read it. I would have let my kids read it with discussion before and after. But it's up individual parents to do the parenting. Each kid is at a different level of maturity and can handle content and situations at a different time.

That's the great thing about books, when kids are allowed to read freely. If they aren't ready, they put them down and move on to the next one.

We don't need Accelerated Reader. We should be spending the money we're spending on AR on certified school librarians. Decades of research show they make a difference. 

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Bittersweetness of Honeycake

Every Rosh Hashanah, we could always count on Mom to make us all honey cake - and her honey cakes were delicious. Last year she sent some in a care package to my daughter, who had just started her freshman year at college and wasn't able to come home for the holidays.

It's almost six months since we lost Mom so suddenly and unexpectedly, and although we are carrying on, working, surviving, doing the things we need to do,  and trying every day to honor her memory, there is still such an enormous hole. As I told her when we were together at StoryCorps:   (see podcast episode 421, end "remembering Susan Silverstone Darer") "If our family is a wheel, you are the hub."

This weekend, it hit me all over again that Mom isn't here to make the honey cake. Like taking over the responsibility for hosting the seder, which made me feel like I really was a grown up who would never again sit at the kiddie table (the place from which I always wanted to be promoted and suddenly longed for again) it's time to make the honey cake. 

I knew I had the recipe somewhere, because I have made it one or two times before. After a bit of digging I found it, still on the fax roll (anyone remember thermal paper?) from when Mom faxed it to me in 1997, when my son was four and my daughter was one. Because it's on thermal paper, both the recipe and Mom's handwriting are fading. My written notes in pen are still clear, as I made my own marks on the recipe. 

The honey cake recipe - still on original  fax paper, which is now fading. 

And so we pass on the traditions from generation to generation: L'dor v'dor.  Someday, G-d willing,  I hope my children will make this honey cake for their children, and remember their grandmother as they eat it. And me, too, after I am gone. 

Wishing you all a L'Shanah Tovah - and may all the people of the world experience the sweet blessing of peace. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Alienating the Mishpoche in favor of the Rapture: Israel's destructive US policy

During the Bush Administration years, Chabad of Greenwich, where I attend Shabbat services, had a speaker from the Israeli Embassy at our Kiddush lunch. His title was something to the effect of “Outreach to Evangelicals.”

I listened with attentiveness and interest to his speech about efforts to garner increase support from Protestant Evangelical mega-church leaders and their flocks. Afterward I raised my hand and asked the question that had started to bother me as he spoke: “Why are we allying ourselves with people who only want there to be an Israel so that the Rapture can happen, and then if we don’t accept Jesus as our personal Saviour we take the down escalator to the hot and fiery place?”

He shrugged and responded “We don’t believe the Rapture will happen and Israel needs support now.”

While I understand Israeli pragmatism, the response bothered me then, and as I watched the recent GOP debate, I couldn’t help thinking how this full-throated embrace of right wing evangelicalism has been incredibly short-sighted on Israel’s part, serving to alienate a wide swathe of American Jews.

During the debate, several candidates made statements that were contrary to Jewish law on abortion, in attempts to pander to evangelicals. Scott Walker said that there should be no exception to save the life of the mother, claiming it is a “false choice.”

"I believe that that is an unborn child that's in need of protection out there, and I've said many a time that that unborn child can be protected, and there are many other alternatives that can also protect the life of that mother. That's been consistently proven," Walker claimed, despite the fact that back in 2012, in response to another GOP politician making such claims, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists stated: “Despite all of our medical advances, more than 600 women die each year from pregnancy and childbirth-related reasons right here in the US. In fact, many more women would die each year if they did not have access to abortion to protect their health or to save their lives. These inaccurate comments are yet another reason why (The College) message to politicians is unequivocal: Get out of our exam rooms.”  

Mike Huckabee, Israel’s Evangelical BFF who in July claimed that by negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, President Obama would “take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven” went even further. “I think the next president ought to invoke the fifth and 14th amendments to the Constitution. Now that we clearly know that that baby inside the mother's womb is a person at the moment of conception."

Interesting, because under Jewish Law, the unborn fetus is not considered a person until it has been born. In fact, until forty days after conception, the fertilized egg is considered as “as water.” Yet this man, whom the Israelis court and view as a friend, went so far as to claim,"It's time that we recognize the Supreme Court is not the Supreme Being.” 

Perhaps Governor Huckabee – and the rest of these pandering candidates -  should read George Washington’s Letter to the Jews of Newport  to remind themselves the precepts of religious freedom upon which our nation was founded.

As if this weren’t enough to turn off a thinking, literate, American Jew, there was the recent “inspirational Christian romance” from Kate Breslin, For Such A Time, in which a concentration camp inmate falls in love with the SS Officer commandant, billed as a retelling of the Story of Esther with a magic New Testament.

I. Just. Can’t. Even….

My dear mishpoche in Israel, who send emails telling me how I should vote…(not to mention the disgustingly racist ones that if one substituted "Jew" for "Muslim" read as if Goebbels had written them, which I've learned to delete without reading) this is why I ignore your advisements.

You’ve chosen to ally yourself with forces in our country that you wouldn’t dream of electing in your own.

What’s more, we’re then subjected to insulting pieces calling us “cowards” for supporting Israel without blind obedience, like this recent one:  “Liberal Jews are afraid to oppose the Iran Deal” by Vic Rosenthal posted on the Jewish Press. The Jewish Press was formerly edited by the late Meir Kahane. 

While insulting the vast majority of American Jews, and complaining what a shanda is it that the AIPAC meeting supporting the Iran deal has to be held in an Evangelical church instead of a synagogue, Rosenthal conveniently neglects to mention the long list of Israeli military and intelligence officers who support the deal. 

He isn't the first American Jew to make such insulting and patronizing remarks. Years ago, I spoke to a retired men's club at a local conservative synagogue. I was told, as a member of the press who writes opinion columns, that I should keep any criticisms of Israel "in house." 

Apparently being a Jew isn't compatible with my First Amendment rights. Yet these same gentlemen were asking why moderate Muslims weren't speaking out against extremists. Perhaps moderate Muslims were getting the same message I was? 

I was also berated loudly by a man at shul during the period of saying kaddish for my father because I said I wasn't going to the Stand with Israel Now rally. I explained that I felt conflicted about the bombing of Gaza, something that caused this man to go red in the face and start shouting at me.Israeli soldiers in the IDF who fought in Protective Edge apparently have the right to feel conflicted and express themselves about it, but I, as an American Jew, do not. 

If Israel is losing support amongst American Jews, it is their own government's policies they should blame, not American Jewish cowardice. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Why you can't post my entire book on WattPad: For Dummies

I just spent what was probably the most difficult four and a half months in my recent memory writing a book that we sold to Scholastic on a very short proposal less than a week before my mother died suddenly and unexpectedly of a deep vein thrombosis.

After turning in the book to my wonderful editor Jody Corbett last Friday, I set off with my daughter, sister, and two young nephews to visit my cousins at their house up in Maine for a much needed break.

I was so determined to relax that I didn't take my computer with me. But I did have my phone, and when I was on wifi, I got this email:

So I recently read your book, Backlash. I love it. It is an amazing book and I'm in the proccess of reading it for a third time. I would like your permission to post your book on a website/app called Wattpad. It would give thousands to millions of people to read the book and enjoy it as much as I have. It would be written just as it is in the book and all credit will be towards you. It would be published within the next few months. Please get me back to me as soon as possible.

Seeing as I had just had to notify my publisher about someone publishing chapters of Backlash wholesale on WattPad so they could get their legal department to issue a takedown notice, and I'd sent them a list of about 15 websites claiming to offer "free PDFs" of my books, this was not good for my blood pressure and relaxation.

I forwarded the email to my agent, the wonderful Jennifer Laughran, with a brief message: "OMG WTF?!"

Her response was equally succinct: "LOL WTF?!"

I decided to wait till I was back in front of a computer to write a response, because, my lovelies, Auntie Sarah is going to need all ten fingers for this rant.

We authors LOVE that you LOVE our books. We LOVE that you read our books more than once. People wonder why I still have books from my childhood on the overcrowded bookshelves in my house. Why I still have books from my mother's childhood, and the copy of Noel Streitfield's Ballet Shoes that my Aunt Marilyn read in her childhood.

It's because these books are like old friends to me. I cannot bear to part with them and I love to walk into a room where I am surrounded by my old friends. It gives me joy to think that a book that I have written might someday be old and worn on someone else's shelf, and similarly handed down as an old friend.

BUT - and here is the big but...everyone in my family PAID FOR BOOKS, even if we bought them second hand. Now not everyone can afford to pay for books, and at the rate I read, I would have read my parents out of house and home. So my parents would take me to the library every week and I'd come home with a stack of books to keep me sated until the following week.

"Oh, but Auntie Sarah," I hear you whinge, "It's such a HASSLE to go to the library....and I'm TIRED and it's HOT or RAINING or it's COLD and SNOWING" or _______________(fill in excuse here).

Guess what?! There's this great thing called OVERDRIVE that many libraries offer so you can borrow ebooks onto your e-reader or phone or laptop without your butt even leaving the comfortable surface upon which you have placed it!

I use this myself and it is both fabulous and convenient. You can even put books on hold and they will automatically download to your bookshelf when they become available. It couldn't be easier!

What's that I hear?   "But Auntie Sarah...what about me posting your entire book on Wattpad, where  it would give thousands to millions of people to read the book and enjoy it as much as I have. It would be written just as it is in the book and all credit will be towards you" ???

Oh yes. That.



Why am I being so mean about this, you ask?

Let me explain a few financial facts of life for you, Dear Reader.

If you mean what you say about loving my books, you should know that I write these books you love from a home upon which I must make mortgage payments. I am a single mother with two children, who is self-employed, and therefore does not have health insurance as a benefit of employment. Such health insurance doesn't come cheap, but it is very, very necessary with the medical conditions I have in my family.

I'm not complaining about working hard. It's what I do and it's how I was brought up. I work many different jobs in order to be able to pay my bills.

 But nothing makes me more depressed and demoralized than looking at the search terms that are used to get to my website. My name is the 1st, but the 2nd through 10th terms are "free PDF" and permutations of my various book titles.

If you say you "love" my book, but then have the chutzpah to ask me to publish it on WattPad, it's exactly the same as saying, "Hey Auntie Sarah, I love what you do," at the same time you're picking the wallet out of my purse.

 Then when I call you on how wrong it was to do that,  telling me that losing all my money and credit cards because you want to give the money I've spent years working for and am counting on to pay my mortgage and health insurance (not to mention keeping THIS GUY in dog food and Lambchop toys) to 'thousands and millions' of random people because.....???? I'm not really sure why. "Exposure?" Honey, let me tell you a fact about banks that hold your mortgage and health insurers (see also, electric company, gas company, car mechanics, gas stations and grocery stores): THEY DO NOT ACCEPT "EXPOSURE" AS VALID CURRENCY FOR PAYMENT.

Here's the thing, dear readers. If you keep posting and downloading my books illegally and my publishers don't make money and therefore I don't make money, then why am I going to bust my butt to write a book when I'm intensely grieving my mother, who modeled a strong work ethic as well as respecting others and not stealing?

I write because I love it and it's what I've always wanted to do, even when I was getting my MBA in Finance and being told I'd never make a living that way by my late father. Do me a favor: don't make my father right by illegally downloading my books. Or any writer's books.

If none of the above is enough to convince you to cease and desist, know this: it would kill my very soul to have to go back to working on Wall Street because you've made it impossible for me to make a living doing what I love.