...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Friday, January 09, 2009

Baruch Dayan Emet

That's what a traditional Jew is supposed to say when witnessing or learning of a death: "Blessed is the one true judge."

Around 1am, early Wednesday morning, I learned that my beloved rabbi, teacher, and guide Aryeh Hirschfield drowned while snorkeling on vacation in Mexico with his family. (Here is the article from The Oregonian). Cassandra, the woman I spoke to on the phone, said "Aryeh drowned," and I kept turning it over in my head and trying to come up with a way that "drowned" wouldn't mean "died."

The words "baruch dayan emet" popped into my head but I couldn't say them. It didn't seem right. I thought that if I said those words it would be suggesting that Reb Aryeh's death was just. I can't see it that way.

Last night there was a community gathering at St. Mark's, where P'nai Or holds services. I rode there in silence with three other people. There were at least 200 people there, completely broken and devastated. After I found a seat I saw my former thesis adviser and teacher Sylvia walk in. She said "Oh, Jessica" and held out her arms and I fell onto her sobbing. I heard and felt her crying as well. The last time we had seen each other was at my bet din, at which Aryeh officiated.

I can't believe he's gone.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Leap Frog: designed to keep children passive and dumb

Take a minute to watch this commercial for the Leap Frog reading ("reading") toy. The toy system seems to consist of electronic books about different TV and movie characters. When a child runs the corresponding Leap Frog electronic wand over the words in the "book," the character's voice speaks the words. This is touted as a great way to make kids love reading FOR LIFE!

This commercial, and the Leap Frog reading system in general, makes me so angry. Speaking as an early child educator, I feel that Leap Frog is actually doing children a tremendous disservice. Let me count the ways:

First: I find objectionable the crass commercialization and plasticization of children's toys and materials. I don't like reading books about TV and movie characters to children because I think they limit children's own imaginations. I'm thankful that my preschool uses mostly wooden toys and natural materials and non-commercial books. I don't have anything against intelligent children's TV, but I find that intelligent programming is becoming increasingly hard to find.

Second: The colors of this toy are garish and ugly. I think it's insulting to the intelligence and sensitivity of children to assume that they don't have an eye for subtlety and beauty in their materials. The Journal of Amphibious Species or whatever the commercial positions as the Anti-Leap Frog is, in my opinion and according to the philosophy of Reggio Emilia as I understand it, a much healthier material for a child that will actually stimulate and encourage his/her natural curiosity and inquiry into the natural world. It doesn't talk, Mr. Garish Frog Man, because books aren't supposed to talk.

Third: The commercial suggests that kids need the Leap Frog system to make reading fun. Bullshit. Reading can be and should be fun, but children who use the Leap Frog system to support their reading are being sold a bill of goods. Cartoon characters are not always going to be able to read to them; what happens when they outgrow Leap Frog and actually have to start exerting effort to read words themselves? Having been trained by Leap Frog and similar toys to be passive rather than active learners, reading will seem difficult and unrewarding. Reading becomes a novelty that can be shunted aside as soon as the next shiny plastic piece of junk comes out. Instead of helping kids love reading for life, Leap Frog helps kids love reading for five minutes.

Fourth: Children who use this toy are not actually reading. Reading is an active process. Even being read to by an adult, looking at the pictures, following the words on the page, talking about the story, making predictions, etc. can be an active process. The Leap Frog system encourages passivity. It's not education, it's edutainment.

Fifth: I find the Leap Frog system to be indicative of a general societal discomfort with difficulty. It's true that it can be difficult to learn to read; I was a late reader myself. But many valuable things are difficult; to paraphrase Rilke, the fact that they are difficult is all the more reason to pursue them. Achievements that come easily are often valued little. If a child is struggling to learn to read, I don't think giving him or her a Leap Frog reading toy will make it any easier, at least not in the long run.

What do you think? I'm curious if anyone can parse out more reasons to hate this commercial.