No TV Week: A Worthy Challenge

This last week students and families at Monterey Hills and Arroyo Vista Elementary Schools were encouraged to participate in “National TV Turnoff Week.” A special pajama story-time at each school was held on Thursday to drive home the value of turning off the TV, turning on a book, and sharing special moments together.

Consider the following statistics by “TV Free America,” a national nonprofit organization founded in 1994 and sponsor of the National TV Turnoff Week: number of minutes/week that the average parent spends in meaningful conversation with their children – 38.5, hours/year the average American youth spends in school – 900, and hours/year the average American youth watches TV – 1500.

The challenge to South Pasadena families was to turn off the screen, except online research for necessary homework. It is a straightforward and simple concept, right? Well, not so simple to accomplish.

To not engage in electronics was optional, but done in an effort to encourage more meaningful interactions with people (especially family) and discover the wonderful, sometimes forgotten world of physical activity and worthwhile pastimes (like reading, enjoying nature, and playing).

Translation: no video games of any sort, no movies, no computers, no smart phone browsing, no YouTube, no Facebook, no nothing I do all day. In this area, I failed. But my kids… they did great!

Arroyo Vista’s librarian, Joanna LaFave, distributed “Get Out & Play, Read A Book” guides. Inside, it encouraged families with a list of best books to read, non-electronic activities to try (from the South Pasadena Public Library), a PlayDough recipe, puzzles, and a certificate of completion to be exchanged for a prize.

LaFave also participated at home, but admitted, “It [was] hard on me because I’m a big sports fan.”

With a bright yellow “CAUTION” tape, included in the guide from Arroyo Vista, wrapped around our TV screen, my forth-grader was vigilant about sticking to the rules.

The computer was a necessity for me to do my work, so it was unrealistic to do away with that aspect all together. And my boys, thankfully, do not have the kinds of social connections I have online, but they will, all too soon.

But to rid the home of the extra media entertainment (TV, movies, games), I must admit, was refreshing! And most of the parents I spoke with agreed.

There was the occasional chanting from my four-year-old, “I want TV, I want TV, I want…” But beyond that, it was a good week.

One Arroyo Vista Parent, Suzanne Ebner, dusted off an aging “Clue” board game and enjoyed watching her son and his friend discover this new, yet ancient, form of entertainment, playing 3 times straight through.

Michelle Hammond, parent at Monterey Hills, did not watch much TV to begin with, so foregoing the screen was not too painful. But it also didn’t come completely easy either since she relies on it during dinner preparations, “It’s the only way she [younger daughter] won’t injure her big brother.” The most important thing for Hammond, “that he [older son in first grade] wants to do it himself. He’ll feel more accomplished if I’m not forcing him.”

A mother at Arroyo Vista, Gina Chang, said of the challenge, “There was no complaining from the kids [one in kindergarten and the other in second grade]. Especially if it’s a school-wide thing, they think, ‘why not.’” She noticed that certain TV viewing sometimes had adverse effects on her son with the occasional over-stimulation, causing him to be more ornery than usual. So the break was a welcome change for the entire family.

We live in an age where electronic media is as common as drinking water, perhaps more so since I definitely spend more time online than I do drinking the recommended water intake to keep me healthy.

Certainly, TV and electronics are not all-together evil, unless it becomes the glowing babysitter for hours on end. But it behooves us all to stop and think: can we use our time better? Can engaging the mind and body to actively learn something be better than passive learning via TV? What am I giving up to engage in this form of media?

Simply saying, “NO” to this omnipresence is a challenge for most and even a near impossibility for some. But it is an endeavor that is well worth the effort.

If you missed the official National Turn Off the TV challenge, and believe it could do you some good, do not wait to try and catch it next year (be honest, it’s probably just an excuse to not attempt it at all).

Rather, give yourself a healthy diet of periodic TV or electronics fasts. Read a book. Try a new hobby. Take a walk. Meet your neighbor and get them to stop watching TV. Re-think life. Do nothing. Talk with and really listen to the humans closest to you. Take the no electronic plunge or wade a bit by taking just one thing away for a day; you’ll be glad you did.

For an entertaining look at the effects of Television, I highly recommend a classic read by Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

For kids (and kids at heart) to learn everything one should know and do while growing up, try “The Dangerous Book for Boys” by Gonn and Hal Iggulden and “The Daring Book for Girls” by Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz.

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Chess is Cool at Marengo

Enthusiastic arms shot up in unison with muffled “Oh, oh, oh’s” in a thick crowd of third to fifth graders at Marengo Elementary School. You would’ve thought someone was giving away the latest game consul on the market; but no, this was chess.

Tom Eilers challenges chess player.

Nearly 60 boys and girls, heavy on boys by just a little, participate every Thursday after school for an hour of masked learning (education via fun) through lessons, one-on-one chess play, creative team chess, and deciphering original chess puzzles created by volunteer chess coach, Tom Eilers.

Marengo’s chess club is a free activity for the children, made possible by wish night donations that help toward buying the necessary chess sets and learning tools.

Lisa Robinson (third grade teacher, member of the Marengo family for 19 years, and teacher for 26 years) is in her 13th straight year as the club’s advisor. “This helps me keep in touch with the kids and have fun.”

Robinson, Eilers and Sandra Moore (who has since moved away) started the chess club in 1999. Then, Eilers had two children at Marengo. Now he volunteers for the pure fun of it.

Though Eilers took a break from the club for several years, he has been back in full force for the past 2 ½ years, starting a chess club in neighboring Alhambra, organizing chess tournaments, tutoring in chess, and teaching chess at Mathnasium in South Pasadena on Saturdays. Not to mention, he also has a non-related full-time job.

When discussing the countless hours Eilers puts into helping children with chess and hundreds of puzzles he joyfully makes to challenge players, he couldn’t help but joke, “My wife thinks I’m a little obsessed.”

Robinson especially relishes in being a part of the club because “There are kids who do sports and kids who don’t. They come here and they’re equals. There’s no pressure to be a chess genius… The kids are wonderful!”

Chess club is a stimulating place to be. And it’s not easy to keep 60+ elementary-aged children engaged for an hour when they’ve already had a long school day and hunger pangs begin to set in after 2:45 PM.

But somehow, Robinson and Eilers along with other volunteers (parents, an occasional middle school student and high school students who can even receive ROP credit) come in, encourage, teach, and get the job done with fun at the core.

When asked about why he volunteers, John Tashiro, parent of two boys in chess club and faithful chess club volunteer said, “[Chess] makes these kids think ahead, anticipate more, and strategize… I like watching these kids grow and see how they think.”

In the background, teams of chess players cheer and give each other high 5’s as if their team just won the super bowl. A smile and some chuckles escape an on-looking parent. His kids are enjoying chess.

At the end of the day, Eilers reflects on his time with the young chess enthusiasts, “I can’t think of a better way to spend my time, making kids happy while they learn.”

And simply put, the bottom line is emphasized by third grader, Zoe Albornoz, “It’s really fun!”

If you are interested in having your K-8th grader join-in a chess party and tournament save the following Saturdays: February 25 (for K-3rd grade) 2-4 PM or 4:30-6:30 PM; March 3 (for 4th-8th grade) 4-6:30 PM; March 10 (for K-8th grade) 2-6:30 PM. There is a $12 entry fee for each session, with trophies and prizes for all.

To register for and for more information on chess tournaments and classes, contact Tom Eilers at tomeilers1@gmail.com or (626) 375-5135.

What Would You Wish?

Peace-tagged olive trees, elementary school children, and Yoko Ono have converged on South Pasadena’s soil.

At Arroyo Vista Elementary (AV), children in all grades, K-5, drew or wrote their wishes for peace on sending labels and tied them to the branches of two donated olive trees.

While picking-up my son at school, I noticed a few children sifting through branches of these lofty potted trees, intently reading what looked like blossoms from afar. They were reading wish-filled tags, saying, “Hey, listen to this one…”

Intrigued, I too, read some… And I actually began to tear. Then I laughed. And then I did a double take. Surprised by what I read, I was in awe at the profundity of children’s hopes:

“I wish that my Geanie Pig was still with me and my sister.” “I wish my sister and brother wouldn’t fight with me.” “I wish my mom and dad wont fight anymore.” “I wish that everyone had a bed to sleep in.” “I wish we had a much cleaner and non-polluted WORLD” “I wish that all of the animals would be free and safe.” “I wish that people got more money!$” “No more war” “I wish that God will bless the solgers in the war fighting for this wonderfol place.” (Quotes are as is.)

As we live amidst an ailing economy, wars fought for the greater good, and hurting people, the hope for peace is often a distant ethereal dream. But without that dream, where would we reach?

Leslie Brill, volunteer parent and secretary at AV, took an active step toward peace and initiated the Wishing Tree Project out of a desire to inspire the children by providing an opportunity to voice their hopes while celebrating the United Nations’ International Day of Peace (September 21) “to recognize the efforts of those who have worked hard to end conflict and promote peace… It is also a day of ceasefire – personal or political,” added Brill. And her hope for the kids was “to think of a wish that was bigger than their selves.”

When the principal, Cheryl Busick, was asked about what she especially liked about the project, she responded, “I love walking out in the courtyard and seeing 6-12 students gathered around the quotes. It’s so inspiring knowing that these kids can change the world and make our school’s wishes come true.” Her own wishes include, “Happiness for all – I am a believer that if kids are happy, they will learn.”

A wish tree is not a new concept. Many cultures have their versions of a wish tree: the Norfolk Island Pine in Australia from the early 1800’s, the sacred Camphor tree at Meiji Shrine in Japan, and a healing ash tree in Scotland, to name a few.

At the core of these wish trees, there is a sense that certain trees have unique, even supernatural quality that draw people to whisper wishes toward it, touch it, walk around it, or place their written wishes on branches or at the base. For many, these decorated trees are a reminder and a representation of peace, hope, and a common unity that serves us all well (like the olive trees at AV).

The project at AV was modeled after one done by Yoko Ono, an artist, performer, and widow of John Lennon. Since 1981 she began to popularize the wish tree with her interactive “Wish Tree” project that spanned the globe. People in various cities placed their wishes on tags and tied them to branches of various trees.

Heavy and drooping with wishes, Ono eventually collected the one million plus tags and placed them in capsules around the “Imagine Peace Tower” of light in Iceland, her art piece commemorating her late husband while promoting peace and solidarity. The unveiling of the tower occurred in 2007, and was recently relit on October 9, 2011 in memory of Lennon’s 71st birthday.

With the holidays quickly approaching and the decking of our beloved trees and homes upon us, I search for meaningful traditions to help my kids think beyond the tangible joys of the season (lights and presents). The wishing tree project inspired me to prepare for a new tradition for our family this year: placing our written wishes on the Christmas tree and maybe even the trees outside our home, then choosing a couple and making them come true through the new year. Maybe you can do the same or some creative version of it.

This way, wishes are more than lofty dreams, they’re stepping-stones to a new reality.