What is this thing called Civics?

And then there were two…candidates for the presidency, that is. The 90-day race is on. Our lives will be filled with opportunities for discussion of the issues. There will be debates, TV commercials, town hall meetings, news articles, and tweets. These are all fodder for dinner table discussions, water cooler gossip, and schoolyard shouting matches. But there is also the opportunity for so much more. There is an opportunity to teach and learn about all things civics.

What Exactly is Civics?

So what is civics, anyway? The Merriam-Webster definition is a good one, I think: “The study of the rights and duties of citizens and of how the government works.”

One thing I love about it is it challenges us to understand a lot more than just the election and role of the President. It relates to understanding and having a say about senators and judges, representatives on both the federal and local levels. It also calls upon us to understand the numerous issues that our government tackles for us.

The other thing I love about this definition is that it is about our responsibilities as well as our entitlements. “Rights” and “Duties” operate hand in hand.

Our Civic Rights and Duties

So what are these rights and duties? There are many specifics, of course. But I would say at least these two things: (1) the right and duty to vote and (2) the right and duty to get the facts that prepare you to make an “informed” vote.

That’s where the debate parties and the dinner table conversations come in. But a lot of this may go over kids’ heads. Or may not be in a format that appeals to them.

Civics for Kids

Enter iCivics – a GREAT website for kids (quite frankly, I am enjoying it as an adult!) It’s loaded with games that give kids the chance to think about and role play how governing is done. Argue one side of a case (you choose which side) about matters related to the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Take a turn running each of the three branches of government. Strategize how to use your country’s resources in the international community – will your people be better protected through war or peace? And so much more.

Share your thoughts on teaching civics.

Showing Our Girls: Yes We Can!

As I watched Hillary Rodham Clinton accept the nomination for President of the United States last night, I had flashbacks to scenes from my childhood. You know how memories, especially those from the long ago past, come at you in splintered pieces? Almost like still photos or film clips.

Miss America and Girls in the 1960s

I remember an annual highlight for me and my sisters was watching the Miss America pageant. I have an image of women parading across a stage in bathing suits. We scrutinized their looks: their hair, their eyes, their teeth, their clothing. And each of us would zero in on one young woman we wanted to win. Throughout the contest, for that one night, we wanted to be that woman and all that we had deemed so likeable about how she looked.

I remember watching the nightly news with my father. We were fans of Huntley and Brinkley (both men). I especially liked Chet Huntley. To me, he seemed so calm and serious, his dark suit and tie and his low measured voice made me feel so secure.

I remember the volatility of the Civil Rights Movement and of the Vietnam War and the 1968 Democratic Convention that took place in Chicago, my own backyard. The faces (all of them male) that flit across my memory: Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Richard Daley, Richard Nixon.

I remember elementary school, sitting quietly at my desk all day, diligently following teacher’s instructions, understanding that what was expected of me was good grades and good behavior. It paid off with Ivy League college admissions.

Stretching Our Horizons in the 1970s

In the mid-1970s, I was a young woman attending Yale University, a college that had been all-male just 6 years before I arrived. But I remember feeling that more was being expected of me than ever before. My teachers, men and women, pushed me to stretch my thinking beyond just “the right answer.” And though it was more of a backdrop than something I thought about every day, I was aware that during my junior year, Yale was being led by a woman, Hanna Gray.

I have a picture of Hillary Clinton on my phone. She looks barely in her 20s. . She is standing with Bill across the street from the dormitory I lived in for three years. The picture must have been taken just a few years before I arrived on campus. She is smiling, her chin jutting forward just a little, a look of self-confidence and of complete comfort in her own skin. She looks like she cannot wait to make her mark on the world.

We’ve Come A Long Way Baby!

Last night, Hillary Clinton accepted the nomination for President of the United States. I watched her in her white suit, her eyes shining, her not-so-low voice clear and strong. The images of influencers from my childhood flashed through my mind. I thought at that moment: The memories of the little girls growing up today will include Hillary. Her beauty and her power to make them feel secure. This moment will be seared on their minds, a snapshot that informs their sense of possibility, that drives their self-expectation, and impacts the choices they make.

Today, as I go about my work, Miss America, Chet Huntley, Hannah Gray, and Hillary Clinton are all perched on my shoulder, pushing the continued expansion of my own sense of possibility and self-expectation. We’ve come a long way baby. Thank you Hillary Rodham Clinton for shaping women across the generations, inspiring us to live fully in the knowledge that, “Yes we can!”

Share your stories of formative memories that shaped you.

Summer Books: Water Play!

Summer vacation. Just thinking about it brings out the smiles. And sometimes it lives up to its billing. But sometimes a bit of boredom or anxiety is part of the mix. Here are a couple of kids books that may keep the smiles coming.

Pool by JiHyeon Lee

It’s summer. It’s hot. It’s pool time. On the hottest days, the pools are CROWDED! So what happens when two shy kids try to navigate their way through the pool crowds? In this book, the story is told strictly through illustration. No words. Page by page, we are taken through an underwater adventure that springs from the imagination of the kids. The illustrations are terrific – giving the reader the feeling of looking at things through the screen of water under the surface of a pool. A great summer read to cool off with! Pegged for Preschool-2nd Grade.

Surf’s Up by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Daniel Miyares

Surf’s Up is about the joy of reading in summer’s time away from school. Bro and Dude are on a beach vacation. Dude calls on his friend Bro to join him surfing. Bro is immersed in a book. “Not yet Dude.” But he hops onto Dude’s scooter, bringing his book with him. It’s a thriller and Bro vocalizes his excitement: “Wowie Kazowie, Whoa Daddy-O, Booyah!” Now Dude wants to know what is going on in the story that’s keeping his friend on the edge of his seat . Find out what happens when they get to the beach. Kwame Alexander wrote the fabulous Newbery Award winner, The Crossover, that I reviewed last year. Alexander’s ear for rhythm and sounds is once again impeccable. And the illustrations are great at capturing the characters’ emotions. Pegged for ages 4-8.

Share your favorite children’s books about summer vacation!

One Great Reason to Read

A short blog post today.

I’ve had my nose in a book a lot lately. Sound solitary? Actually, I’ve gotten to know a lot of new people. And I’ve had catch up sessions with old buds. I’ve followed the adventures of a black soldier of the French Revolution (The Black Count), the journey of a poor British girl in World War II London (The War That Saved My Life), the efforts of Jamestown settlers to avoid starvation in seventeenth century Virginia (A People’s History of the United States), and the latest trials and successes of my favorite movie stars (courtesy of People Magazine). I would never have the chance to know these people face to face. They are either long gone, never really existed outside the author’s mind, or don’t run in my circles (perhaps you might say I am unlikely to run in theirs). But through reading, they are part of my world and they enrich my life.

C. S. Lewis said, “We read to know we are not alone.” Of course, there are other reasons to read, too. But that sure is a good one.

What’s in your book bag?!

It’s Summer: Take a Donation-Vacation!

We are full into the fun of summer sun. Some of us kick back at the hometown beach or pool or tennis court. But some of us are looking to experience something new – a new place maybe, a new culture perhaps. If you’ve got the itch for a new adventure but you’re still mulling over just where to land, you might consider a “donation-vacation.”

What Is A Donation-Vacation?

What exactly is a “donation-vacation” you might ask. Well, it’s simple. There are many places around the world in need of volunteers. To help build houses. Or clean up after a natural disaster. Or restore natural habitats.

Why Take A Donation-Vacation?

It’s a great two-for-one concept: you get to experience a new place and/or new culture; those in need get a new roof over their heads or nutritional food on their plate or whatever else you are providing by donating your time.

Here are some websites you might look at for starters:

Looking to take the kids along? Check these opportunities:

Want to combine a leisure vacation with a volunteer component? Check these sites:

Many hotels and cruise lines all over the world offer volunteer opportunities too. If this interests you, be sure to ask!

Just think how much stronger the world would be if we each, just once in our lifetime, took a “donation-vacation.”

Share information about other donation-vacations.

The Great Serena Williams

Serena Williams has just notched another huge win to her record. Some say she is the greatest woman tennis player of all time.

For those out there whose kids are Serena groupies and also for those whose kids appreciate stories of grit, triumph in the face of challenge, champions…here are a couple of suggested reads by Serena herself.

My Life: Queen of the Court.

Why not get the story from straight from the source?! The great thing about this book? Serena tells about how she got to where she is today starting with her childhood. Playing on a ratty old court with worn out tennis balls, developing strong relationships with her siblings, dealing with racism. Packed with inspiring tales for your teenager.

Venus and Serena: Serving from the Hip: 10 Rules for Living, Loving, and Winning

In this one Serena and Venus team up (with Hilary Beard) to talk to teens. It’s less about tennis and more about life advice. And it’s divided into 10 rules for success. There are anecdotes on the importance of family, friends, staying in school, taking care of your body, etc. Pegged for 7th grade and up.

Share your favorite children’s books about champions!

Champions: Nature or Nurture?

Yesterday was a good day. Serena Williams won her 7th Wimbledon singles title. It was also her 22nd Majors title tying her with Steffi Graf for most wins in the “Open Era” (translation: since 1968) of tennis. A few hours later, Serena teamed up with her sister Venus to win their 6th Wimbledon’s women’s doubles title.

Nature or Nurture?

Two sisters. Both great at tennis. So what are the ingredients of this success? Is it nature or is it nurture? Do the sisters have cream-of-the-crop genes? Or has their life experience shaped their greatness?

Certainly the girls started young. The story I’ve heard is that their dad was TV-channel-flipping one night and happened upon the winner’s ceremony of a tennis match. When he saw the amount of money awarded to the winner for four day’s work he decided upon careers in tennis for his children. He poured over instructive books and videos on tennis and began to train Venus and Serena almost as soon as they could walk. Flash forward 35 years and his girls are the best of the best.

So did Mr. Williams have some sort of crystal ball about his daughters’ talent? Or did he, himself, have an incredible coaching talent? Or did a bunch of factors come together in just the right way? Nature or nurture?

The Answer Is…

I don’t have a pizzazzy answer but it is a satisfying one, I think. Just last year the results of a study conducted over a five year period in countries around the world concluded…it’s both. Nature AND nurture. And, guess what? It’s pretty much a tie in terms of what impacts us most.

The study itself is pretty interesting. It compiled 2,748 studies of identical twins and looked at more than 17,000 traits. Some physical traits were more the result of genetics – such as having a cleft lip (98% heritable). Bipolar disorder was found to be 70% genetics.. But on average, 49% is genetics, 51% is environment.

Nurture: The Williams Way

Back to the Williams sisters. Genetics blessed them with strong, agile bodies. Their environment did the rest. Here are some things I’ve read about them:

  • Daily two-hour practices for the pre-schoolers instilled discipline
  • Training on tennis courts in impoverished, gang-ridden Compton, under a hail of insults from passersby taught them to be tough in the face of criticism
  • Protection from local gang members who surrounded the courts to fend off those that might hurt the girls taught them community pride and loyalty
  • The Williams family lived by the old adage “blood is thicker than water” providing family support through good times and bad

Nurture: Your Way

Many of us pour our hopes into our children the same way Richard Williams did. This doesn’t mean they will all be champions (or make lots of money!). But as confirmed by the recent study, the environment we provide has tremendous impact on our children: who they are and what they become. A lot of it is up to us — to provide love, discipline, encouragement, grit, creativity, intellectual thinking, and all the other things we value and hope for in our children. We parents and caretakers have both a powerful responsibility and a great opportunity. That is good news indeed.

Share your stories of nature vs. nurture

Our Single Garment of Destiny

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail,” 1963

This quote appears on the home page of Inclusive Communities Project (ICP) a nonprofit working in Dallas, TX.

I wrote this post just hours before the shootings in Dallas last night. I almost decided to scrap it thinking that we are too raw to hear about ICP’s work right now. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I am convinced it is a fitting part of our reflections today as we mourn the recent shootings in towns and cities across our country. We can be fearful. We can be angry. We can cover our eyes in an attempt to shut it out. But the fact remains: we are tied in a single garment of destiny.

Single Garment of Destiny: Making the Best of It

So what can we do to make this mutual destiny a whole lot better than we’re living it now?

ICP has an answer that is simple to say, challenging to live out. ICP works for the creation and maintenance of thriving inclusive communities. What does this boil down to? The elimination of segregation.

The Supreme Court Agrees

Before you dismiss this goal as pie in the sky, listen to this. The Supreme Court agrees with ICP. I won’t attempt to outline here all of the legal issues that are part of the June 2015 decision. If you are interested, you can read the Supreme Court’s full decision in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs et al. v. Inclusive Communities Project, et al. Here’s the impact. Affordable housing must be distributed in a way that gives low income and minority families access to high opportunity, high growth areas.

Building Inclusive Communities

This legal case arose out of the advocacy component of ICP’s program. ICP uses the LEGAL TOOL only when cooperation isn’t working. For those who want to build inclusive community, ICP acts as a RESOURCE.

    • ICP researches to find out where racially and economically inclusive housing opportunities exist and then shares this key information with cities, other non-profits, and individuals.
    • ICP works with individuals looking for high opportunity housing.
    • ICP works with high opportunity communities: those that are looking to become more inclusive; and those that are already inclusive but are looking to become more vibrant

Here is what ICP says about its mission:

There are many things that cities, organizations, and individuals can do to promote and support inclusiveness, fairness, and opportunity in the community in which they live and work. The work can begin with understanding the value of inclusiveness to the overall health and well-being of communities in 21st century America. There are models of success and people willing to work with you to achieve the benefits of such communities. But you have to make the effort. Separation by race/ethnicity and class has historically been an organizing principle of our economy, politics and social circles. It won’t disappear overnight, but you can make a difference.

It won’t disappear overnight, but you can make a difference.

Share information about other people and organizations building vibrant inclusive communities.

We All Scream for Ice Cream!

It is HOT out there. And HUMID out there. Sweat begins to drip off your face about 5 minutes after you venture out of the air conditioning. What to do? The beach? Maybe. The mall? Maybe. How about….ice cream?!

Here are a couple of books that will have you running to your nearest frozen food section or local creamery. ☺

Ice Cream by Elisha Cooper gives you and your kids the inside scoop on how ice cream is MADE. Of course, there’s the cow. But wow! There are a lot of machines involved in the process. And this book walks you through it all in a light-hearted, fun way. Pegged for ages 4 and up.

Should I Share My Ice Cream? by Mo Willems go straight into raptures about the joys of EATING ice cream. Especially on a hot day. Elephant is all set to eat the cone he has just purchased when he starts to think about his best friend Piggie. She loves ice cream, too. To share or not to share? That is Elephant’s question. A dilemma with a happy ending. Pegged for ages 4-8.

Share your favorite children’s books about the joys of ice cream!

Out of the Mouths of Babes: If You’re So Upset, Do Something!

The other day, as I was ranting about the latest world atrocity, my daughter let me know she is done listening to my complaints. With a stern look, she reprimanded me: “Quit complaining. If you’re so upset, do something.” I stopped mid-sentence. One of those mother-daughter role reversal moments that floods me with parental indignation alongside chagrined concession that she is absolutely right.

Stop Complaining…Then What?

So I am hereby declaring a personal moratorium on lamenting, raging against, or just plain hiding from the current state of world affairs. And I have begun answering the question “What to do instead?”

To be fair to myself (someone needs to be!), it’s not as though I have ONLY been ranting.

I have also been writing a book about some of the very same issues we face today – only the story I tell took place nearly 100 years ago (the painful similarities are, themselves, grounds for a rant). More about this as we get closer to publication date in Spring 2017.

And I have worked for decades with high-poverty schools to increase educational opportunities for children.

Now I have this blog. Which offers me the chance to interact with other people and pass along information about the inspirational nuggets that shine amidst the debris.

Community-Based Action Perhaps?

A lot of the inspiring groups I have blogged about are issue-based. Today, I draw your attention to a faith-based approach that looks more holistically at community as its organizing principle. Key components of the model:


  • Roots its work in a strong community gathering center such as a church or a school
  • Trains ordinary people to lead
  • Sets its agenda by LISTENING to people in the community served
  • Teaches the art of COMPROMISE and NEGOTIATION so that the community can find common ground with those who hold the political power on issues affecting the community


In this time when it seems like outshouting one another is too often the default MO, the idea of listening, negotiating, and compromising is a breath of fresh air.

A Little Help from Our Friends

If this excites you, check out the PICO website. It’s loaded with ways to join in on community action already in progress. It also provides toolkits to help you organize your own community. Say, for example, around engaging your legislators. Or creating a social media campaign.

PICO operates in 17 states. My home state of Illinois is not one of them. A shout-out here to a friend who directed me to a similar local organization, the Community Renewal Society.

So for those of us who are tired of wringing our hands, using our outdoor voices indoors, or covering our ears and eyes, there is an option to join hands and “do something.” Together.

Puts a little wind in my sails this 4th of July. I hope it does the same for you.

Happy Holiday Weekend!