The Next American Heroes

(Article first written back in 1997 for a newspaper I was interning for- ‘The Resident’ in NYC)

Much of a child’s learning comes from the examples set forth by those who influenced them. At the 92nd St. Y the fun-filled exhibits in the “Discover America” museum can set children on their way to becoming influential people by inspiring them to stand up for what they believe in.

A series of questions such as: “Who is a hero to you?” and “What is a heroic act?” are posed to help children explore what it means to be a hero. The theory is that having heroes and role models helps children form their identities while they are still growing .These interactive exhibits illustrate thatwho a child wants to be is as important as what a child wants to be. They are geared to young people ages 3 to 10, with the goal of helping them understand the issues of community, the qualities that make someone a hero and what it means to be an American.

“A hero can be anyone from a child’s family, community or school,” Said Fretta Reitzes, the director of the 92nd Street Y Center for Youth and Family. “Heroes from the past as well as from the present are equally important in a child’s life. Children have a responsibility to learn about American history because this is their home.”

One exhibit literally opens doors to the lives of well-known and not so well-known heroes from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. These doors reveal people who have been brave enough to take a stand for something they believe is important. Profiled behind these doors are Jackie Robinson, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr., Golda Meir, Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, Harriet Tubman, Chief Joseph, Clara Barton, and Rosa Parks. Children in the program find a picture of the hero or heroine and a brief summary of their lives and the way they changed society by taking a stand for what they believed in.

Storytelling is another way the students learn about heroes. First, the story of Noah’s Ark is told, and then children are allowed to explore its model for themselves and act out the story using hand puppets. A smaller arc is also available for younger children. The moral of this story is that working together as a community makes a big difference. Children can look at pictures of popular heroes such as firemen and hospital workers or piece them together in a puzzle.

Learning about what it means to be an American and American values is another subject presented in a manner entertaining to children. They can sit down with life-size puppets of Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln at a table where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are on display. The children are asked “What do you think they are talking about?” and “What do you want to ask them?”

On the morning of May 8, the Primary School of the Creative Arts came to visit “Discover America.”

“They were very thoughtful, eager to get involved and eager to come back for another visit,” said Reitzes. The children wrote down who they thought was a hero to them and why. These papers were hung on the walls declaring such heroes as: Mom and Dad, President Clinton, policemen, grandmothers and brothers. These are heroes to the children because they “work hard” or because they “bring bad guys to jail.” Five schools have already visited “Discover America” and 45 more schools are scheduled to visit.

Children are encouraged to look into the future by entering outer space in a glow-in-the-dark room where they can wear space helmets and “leave their mark on the future” in the form of a handprint on the wall. They are asked to tell the other “astronauts” what they think is important for tomorrow’s America. The “Ticket to the Future” exhibit asks “Who is important in the community you live in?” It also makes the children decide what they want tomorrow’s America to have and what they don’t want in it. The “Star Ticket” encourages children to share what is important to them, what they are good at, what they worry about and what they can contribute to a new community.

Every child feels special by the time they are ready to leave because they learn that someday they can be a hero and make a difference in the world. A mirror awaits children as they are leaving and on it are the questions “Who are you now?” and “Who will you be?” This sets their minds working on how they can become a hero too.

This program is presented in collaboration with My Jewish Discovery Place of greater Los Angeles and is part of the Y’s Project America, which explores and celebrates the many meanings of America.


November 14, 2012. Tags: , , . Articles. Leave a comment.

Stop that Wandering Mind

How to recover the lost art of listening

(article written in 2001 for a college course)

The voices in your head never stop. They fight endlessly for your attention. Which one will win out? It doesn’t seem to matter as long as nothing interrupts their attack. How could your friend, mother, coworker, or significant other compare with all those battering voices?

Kristen Langellier, Professor of Communication at the University of Maine, says, “If we spent as much time teaching people to listen as we spend teaching them to talk, the world and our relationships would be in better shape. Speaking and listening and interrelated.”

Wouldn’t everyone in your life benefit from knowing they can count on you to really listen to them? You might be pleasantly surprised to find them returning the favor.

Why have good listening skills?

Angelee Johns, Instructor of Speech at Triton College in Illinois, points out, “Many of us don’t listen well-really hear what another person is thinking-but rather filter what is being said through our own perspective.”

Listening has become a lost art in modern society. So little communication actually takes place face to face, it is easy to lose touch with other people in our lives.

When you have a conversation, it is easy to assume you have the other person’s undivided attention and interest. Unfortunately, it is just as easy for the other person to be consumed with his/her own thoughts, only feigning interest in what you are saying.

The Art of Conversation

Our minds are seldom silent. The brain can process a large volume of information simultaneously, making it more difficult to be anything but preoccupied. Thinking can be so efficient that we often lose sight of the value of inner silence.

People have the ability to listen at a rate of 500 to 1,000 words per minute, while the average rate of speech is only 150 words per minute. The speaker is at a disadvantage because he is constantly competing with your thoughts.

During most conversations, many people are guilty of wondering about what they will have for lunch, what will be on television that night, or how much work they have left to complete. Time is previous and we often think we can’t afford to waste it on a leisurely chat.

The World Outside Your Head

Sometimes the situation consists of conversation we are very interested in, such as a reunion with an old friend, or a fight with a loved one. The question still applies: How much listening are you actually doing? You might just be mentally rehearsing what you wills ay and waiting for your turn to speak, or picking up on snippets of information that are relevant to you.

In these instances, the other person’s points often go unacknowledged as you quickly attempt to steer the conversation in your own favor. You may also find yourself distracted by the other person’s physical appearance, wondering why they chose to wear that sweater, or put on so much perfume.

Human beings are so easily distracted that it is difficult to pay attention to that which requires the most attention-the words coming out of the other person’s mouth.

If you quiet your mind and stop thinking of hot to top the other person with your own experiences and witty commentary, you might discover that you are not the only one out there with problems, emotions, and concerns worth examination.

Listening means sincere interest in hearing what someone has to say. In other words, try to escape your own mind and focus on the person speaking to you.

Human beings are social creatures. Showing others that you value them, their thoughts, ideas and feelings will not only benefit them, but you as well.

When others find that you are willing to listen to them, open-mindedly and without interruption, they are compelled to open up to you. The effect is similar to having a heavy weight lifted off their backs.

The act of listening, according to essayist Brenda Ueland, is a “magnetic and strange thing, a creative force…When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life….”

Good listeners are rare and finding them is often a refreshing experience. Here are some tips to keep in mind the next time you find yourself in conversation:

  • Pay Attention
    Try to put aside all your preoccupations and focus on the person speaking. “Good listeners should stop doing everything they’re doing and give the speaker their undivided attention,” says Kelly J. Watkins, author of “Listening: The Silent Side of Communication.”
  • Maintain Eye Contact
    There’s nothing worse than trying to have a conversation and find that the other person is looking over your shoulder, at the floor, at their watch, etc.
  • Don’t interrupt
    Wait for the person to stop speaking before asking any questions or giving your opinion. Be courteous and patient. In her article, “Listening for Success,” Georgia Beaverson suggests, “Be willing to stop talking. A good listener spends 70 percent of his or her time listening and only 30 percent talking.
  • Be empathetic
    Experience the other person’s position as much as possible. Listen for feeling and meaning between the words. Angelee Johns at Triton College explains, “Poor listening means we miss information we need to have, judge people wrongly, become unnecessarily defensive, become stubbornly opinionated and on and on.”
  • Repeat and Summarize
    Show the other person you have been listening by giving constructive feedback, paraphrasing what has been said, and asking for clarification. Show your interest in the exchange that has just taken place.

It is natural to be concerned primarily with our own lives and experiences, but we should consider taking a break from ourselves and be more receptive to the people around us.

As Johns points out, “When people speak, they are expressing their own thoughts and ideas. When people listen well, they are able to hear the thoughts and ideas of others. When people are limited to their own thoughts, they are just that—limited.”

Initiating conversation is often an attempt to relate to another person, to share an understanding or create a pleasant atmosphere. You might learn interesting details about your friends and acquaintances or think of situations from another point of view.

“When we can listen carefully to the thoughts of others, we have the opportunity to look at our own thoughts in new ways. That broadens us, helps us understand the world, other people and ourselves better,” Johns explains.

There is nothing to lose by becoming a good listener, and the rewards are great. The greatest reward just might be a life-long friend.

November 14, 2012. Tags: . Articles. 2 comments.