Monthly Archives: April 2016

Dynamo Girls

A few weeks ago, our younger daughter surprised us when she insisted that we do a “backyard birthday party.” We asked her what that meant, wondering whether she had in mind a throwback party from our own childhood birthday parties at home, before the age of parties at Sky High, Monkey Joes, and Sports Connection.

“Games,” she said. “Running around. But not with a counselor we don’t know. With you.”

Momentarily challenged, we quickly enlisted our older daughter and four of her friends to help us play games with eighteen second grade girls. It took some planning and some baking. There was basketball, corn hole, swinging on the swing set, cupcake wars, water balloon toss, and some epic rounds of freeze dance. Best of all turned out to be the simplest: donut on a string.

It was so much fun to watch these girls have fun. For 2.5 hours, it seemed that they never stopped moving or playing. They were loud. They were competitive. They laughed when they got out, got tagged, or missed a shot. They howled with glee when they threw water balloons at each other. They casually wiped away the powdered sugar that got all over their faces and the chocolate frosting that covered their hands, or left it there and didn’t care. It was beautiful and unruly all at the same time.

My friend Vanessa Bennett, founder of Dynamo Girl in New York, had a piece in the Huffington Post this week that really resonated for me. The first-person essay begins, “We are living in an age of girls’ empowerment. Every shampoo and tampon commercial tells us so — urging girls to be themselves, stand proud and redefine what it means to be a young woman. Around the country we espouse language that encourages girls’ efforts over results; risk-taking over complacency; speaking out over keeping quiet.” 

Vanessa is right about the soundtrack of youcandoanythingyouputyourmindorbodyto currently playing in girls’ lives. But what’s remarkable is seeing the origin of that soundtrack — it’s the girls themselves. They know these things intuitively and act accordingly.

To Writers Who Dare


People close to me know that my favorite author is Virginia Woolf. The image featured here is from a gift my friend Vicky gave to me just today with a pink sticky note attached: “Dear Jess — I saw this and couldn’t resist getting a copy for you.”

I owe my mother for my appreciation for Woolf’s writing; an English professor, my mom was the one who encouraged me to read rather than watch tv and gave me my first real books — Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

I didn’t always understand Woolf’s political essays, but I always felt connected to her works of fiction. I wrote a paper in college on Between the Acts about the role of pauses in both theater and life, and a paper in graduate school on the importance of shopping in Mrs. Dalloway. I think I have read To The Lighthouse six times, each time more inspired (how did she create such a haunting, indelible text?) and depressed (when will I ever contribute anything remotely as worthy?) than I was the last time.

It was brave, then, for my friend Rachelle to give me her manuscript to read last week — she knows that I read a lot of pretty legit stuff. It’s a book about an older woman, her family and her circle of friends, and the simple but beautiful contributions she makes to her world. It’s about more than that, but I don’t want to give anything away. It’s a work in progress. It’s the product of two years of her time and more than a pound of her flesh.

I told her with some bravado that I’d be able to read it on the plane to and from Chicago and have feedback ready for her within the weekend. But even 5 pages in, I knew that I had not only overestimated my own abilities as an editor, but also vastly underestimated the weight — literal and figurative — of a real live author’s words.

Balancing her book on my thighs while I hunched over it on the plane, in my hotel room, and in my study at home upon my return, I thought about how indebted I am as a reader, a teacher, and a human being to writers everywhere who have dared. Especially those writers who, like Virginia Woolf, pioneered a space in their homes and in their societies despite commitments, subtle or overt resistance, or doubt.

For staking out a room of her own, and sharing her sometimes strange and always beautiful vision with others, Virginia Woolf remains the patron saint of writers everywhere.

When it Comes to Words Per Minute, Less is More

“The Power of Handwriting,” a recent Wall Street Journal article by Robert Lee Hotz, argues what many teachers already believe: that students who handwrite their notes learn better than those who type.

According to Hotz, faster note-taking does not correlate with deeper or even adequate understanding of the material. Researchers have found that “the very feature that makes laptop note-taking so appealing — the ability to take notes more quickly — was what undermined learning.”

Interestingly, digital note-taking does appear to result in short-term gains for note-takers. But after 24 hours, those who type notes start to forget the material they transcribed. Researchers at Princeton and UCLA compared the work product of students who took longhand notes and found that they retained knowledge for longer and more readily understood new concepts.

Hotz reminds us that taking notes by hand has been a key learning strategy since ancient times and tells us that “writing things down excites the brain, brain imaging studies show.” Adds Michael Friedman of Harvard, when we take notes, we actually “transform” what we hear, making information acquisition both dynamic and personal.

Any notes are better than no notes, say researchers. But teachers can attest to the greater level of focus they see in students who write down their thoughts as they listen and learn vs. those who type transcript style notes. The sharpest edge still belongs to the student who can distill and synthesize information as he/she hears it, and commit it to memory through a practice of writing notes by hand.

There is a reason we are sometimes allowed to take a handwritten notecard into an exam with us — in deciding what is essential information to have with us in the exam room, we have likely undergone a very rigorous and helpful process of separating the wheat from the chaff, and committed to long-term memory those very concepts we are most likely to be tested on.