Rec’s and Reviews: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”


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Everyone is talking about a certain movie this season, and that is “Star Wars: The  Force Awakens.” The seventh episode in the Star Wars universe, “The Force Awakens” is the long-awaited sequel to the three original films. Directed by J.J. Abrams of “LOST” and “Star Trek” fame, the film stays true to the original films not only in theme, but in content. With canonically low levels of graphic violence, language, and sexual content, this is an adventure the whole family can enjoy.

We will skip a major summary to avoid spoilers. Instead, we’ll say that, like the other Star Wars films, this one explores the conflict between good and bad. There are evil characters and group who do evil things, but there are also good characters who do what’s right “because it’s the right thing to do.” New characters mix with original characters, and many of the same themes are revisited and acknowledged.

One of the most lauded positive messages in this film is the cast diversity. The original films have been criticized for being too racially 1-D. This film is definitely a massive step in the right direction, with the main characters including a young woman and people of color.

The film also emphasizes that people can decide to do the right thing and make good choices, no matter what they have been taught. Themes of teamwork, courage, loyalty, and friendship also abound. Like the other “Star Wars” films, the plot centers on the balance between good and evil, with good being presented as the right (or “light”) way to go.

Because of the good vs. evil theme, there are acts of evil in the film. The characters are at war, and battles, lightsaber duels, and explosions are prevalent. Even with all the action, blood and gore are relatively absent, as are language and sexual content.

“The Force Awakens” is a “Star Wars” film. If you have seen the other films, it is likely you know what you are getting yourself into. Families can watch one of the previous films at home to see how kids handle it, but like its predecessors, this is likely a film the entire family can enjoy.

On Common Sense Media, parents and kids agree that “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is suitable for ages 10 and older. The film is rated PG-13. For more detailed reviews, visit:

Rec’s and Reviews: Talking to Kids About Tragedy

hands-circleDue to recent tragedies, advice on talking to children about terror and sadness has been in high demand. Parents and guardians may find it difficult to comprehend the situations themselves, much less talk about it with their kids. The discussion is important, though, especially for older kids who will start to see things on social media and in the news. Even younger children may wander into the room when the news is on or overhear things and have questions.

With that in mind, we have compiled seven tips from several articles and resources that may help you navigate these difficult conversations.

1. Keep age in mind.
Many articles we came across split their tips into sections by age. A discussion with an elementary student will be notably different from one with a high school student; young children may need to express themselves through play or art instead of talking. In the end, you know your child and what they are ready for best.

2. Ask questions.
Many experts suggest asking your children what they already know, if anything. With younger children, this can help you determine if you need to have the conversation at all. For older children, it provides an opportunity for them to ask questions back and express their feelings.

3. Create a safe space.
The best way to make them feel safe during these situations is to support them — take their feelings and fears seriously instead of dismissing them. That said, it never hurts to remind kids you love them and give them an extra hug.

4. Monitor media consumption.
Another part of creating a safe space can be monitoring what your kids are seeing. You may not be able to completely shut down the media machine for older kids, but it is okay to keep young ones away from the disturbing images often on the news. Make sure to redirect them calmly. Panicking and other dramatic reactions can create more anxiety and more of an impression.

5. Be honest and accurate.
Children often know if you are not telling the full truth, even if it is to protect them. This can send the message that they should be afraid. To reassure them, be direct, but again — keep age in mind. Elementary-aged kids may not need to know every detail, while older students can use help sorting through the information they are finding.

6. Correct misconceptions.
Keep your kids grounded in reality. Do not exaggerate or blow things out of proportion, and don’t let them do it either. It can also be a teachable moment. If they are beginning to conflate terrorists with larger groups, have a calm talk about prejudice and diversity.

7. Lead by example.
Focus on hope and peace. Remind them that most of the people in the world are good. Share your feelings with them as well. Remind them to “look for the helpers,” in the words of Mr. Rogers. If you want, help them take action by donating or volunteering their time. Let your kids know it is okay to feel upset, but also empower them to make the world better.


discussion1Articles on this topic have become common in recent weeks, as more tragedies are brought into the public eye, but these tips can apply to any sad or scary event in your child’s life. Here are the resources we referenced for the tips above:


TIME: How to Talk to Your Kids About the Attacks in Paris
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: Talking to Children About Terrorism and War
The Washington Post: When terror strikes, here’s what you should tell children
The Huffington Post UK: How To Talk To Children About Terrorism
FOX News: Paris Terror Attacks: Talking to children about terrorism
911 Memorial: Talking to Your Children About 9/11
Savvy Psychologist (Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D.) from How to Talk to Kids About Terrorism and Violence


Here are some other articles that might be valuable, but are more personal or based on the authors’ experiences and opinions:

  • The New York Times: How to Talk to Children About Terrorism (opinion)
    • This op-ed was written by Pamela Druckerman, author of “Bringing up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.” She and her family live six minutes away from Le Bataclan, a major site in the Paris terror attacks. It also includes a video featuring “Le Petit Quotidien,” a French children’s newspaper that “refuses to sugarcoat the horror of the Paris attacks.”
  • The Daily Beast: How to Talk to Your Kids About ISIS (essay)
    • An older article, closer to the date of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks, this piece covers the author’s personal experience, but includes strong examples of options, from what the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. does with her children to explaining terror to kids with Batman’s help.
  • The Telegraph: Paris attacks: How to explain the horror to children (column)
    • This column includes advice from Gemma Allen, a senior bereavement counsellor from Britain’s leading charity for bereaved children, who writes about her personal experience discussing the attacks with her children.
  • The Guardian: How to talk to your children about the Paris attacks (opinion)
    • This opinion piece is filled with do’s and don’ts for talking about terror with children. It features examples from the BBC, French newspapers, and the “Daily Beast” article above.

CE Highlight: Feed the POD at Indian Hills Junior High

Feed the Pod PosterIndian Hills Junior High is holding their fifth annual Feed the POD event from Nov. 17–24 for their I-CARE service learning project. Students and staff are filling a POD storage unit with non-perishable food and personal care items, all to be used by the Food Bank of Iowa. This effort is part of the Indian Hills Week of Caring.

So far, students and staff have brought in canned food, personal care products, and non-perishable fruit juices. Today, Friday, Nov. 20, the school is collecting cold cereals, and students and staff will bring in cash donations on Monday.

The Food Bank of Iowa emphasized that one in eight Iowans struggles with hunger, including one in five Iowa children who do not have enough to eat. For every donation of $1, the Food Bank of Iowa can provide 4.5 meals to those in need.

Please consider assisting Indian Hills Junior High in meeting their goal of helping those in need. All donations are to be dropped off at Indian Hills Junior High, 9401 Indian Hills Drive, Clive, between 7:35 a.m. and 2:35 p.m. The POD will be picked up at noon on Nov. 24, and students and staff will follow the POD to the Food Bank of Iowa for its delivery.

To find out more about Feed the POD, contact Heather McKinney, the I-CARE service learning coordinator for Indian Hills Junior High. Service Learning is a program of WDMCS Community Education.

HungerHomelessnessWeekNational Hunger and Homelessness Week is observed annually in the week before Thanksgiving. Find out more on the National Coalition for the Homeless website.

Instructor Tips: Julie Gieseman — Health for the Holidays

dietitian_gieseman2013Staying healthy during the holiday season is a common struggle. We’ve compiled five simple tips from Julie Gieseman, RD, LD, CDE, a Hy-Vee dietitian and member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the Central Iowa Dietetic Association. She is also a Certified Diabetes Educator and trained wellness coach.  She recently taught a LEARNwest class on Holiday Appetizer & Wine Pairing.


Five Tips for Keeping the Holidays Happy and Healthy

  1. It’s tempting to stay up late decorating, shopping, and cooking during the holidays so don’t forget to Stop, Drop, and Roll: Stop what you’re doing, drop into bed, and roll over! Your body will thank you for the extra sleep which can help you fight off illness, make better food choices, and have more energy to enjoy the holidays.
  2. Stick with your exercise regimen. Especially during the holidays, it needs to be a priority. Remember: minutes, not hours — ten minutes is better than nothing. It can burn off a few hors d’oeuvres or a drink and be a healthy release of stress.
  3. Make sure to still get your nutrients. Fill up on healthy food by eating five fruits and vegetables each day, before allowing yourself to snack on holiday treats. Have a hard-boiled egg, an apple, and a healthy drink like water or tea before you attend gatherings where lots of unhealthy foods will be available.
  4. Be mindful of what you’re eating. Pace yourself by taking smaller bites, chewing thoroughly, and putting down utensils between each bite. You can also record what you eat, to help you avoid a holiday binge.
  5. Don’t forget one of the best parts of the holidays: enjoying the people around you. This can also help with staying healthy. Socializing can provide a distraction from food, and you can showcase your holiday spirit by sending your leftovers home with others.

Mythbusting Monday: Brighter Beginnings

ced_brighter_beginnings_thumbnailBrighter Beginnings is a West Des Moines Community Schools Community Education program that aims to make the world brighter for parents and children by providing fun early childhood family learning. We updated the registration process this year, and we want to bust any myths about Brighter Beginnings before registration for Session II begins.

  • Myth: Brighter Beginnings is free.
    • This myth is FALSE.
    • The first session of Brighter Beginnings is complimentary for families living in the West Des Moines Community Schools district. There is a $75 fee for additional sessions and out-of-district families.
  • Myth: Registration begins in December.
    • This myth is TRUE.
    • Registration for Session II of Brighter Beginnings (Feb. 2–May  6) starts Dec. 14 for in-district families. Out-of-district families can register starting Jan. 11.
  • Myth: You can register for all Brighter Beginning classes at once.
    • This myth is FALSE.
    • To register for Brighter Beginnings, you must complete a registration card and return it to WDMCS Community Education, Learning Resource Center, 3550 Mills Civic Parkway, West Des Moines, IA  50265-5556.
    • To serve as many families as possible, registration is limited to one class time per family per session. A separate registration card is necessary for EACH session.
  • Learn more about our Brighter Beginnings program on the WDMCS Community Education website or by contacting Sonja LeSher, Brighter Beginnings Program Coordinator, at or 515-633-5009.

Monthly Motivation: Family Literacy Month


(Image source: National Center for Families Learning)

November is Family Literacy Month, and we wanted to help all the families in our community get motivated to read and learn together.

Family Literacy Month is organized by the National Center for Families Learning, which defines family literacy as two or more generations in one family actively learning together. It is a time to “lift up and celebrate the tireless efforts of family literacy and family-focused programs.” The Center offers several resources for families who want to learn about something new together, from healthy habits to fun facts. They also provide “30 Days of Family Learning,” a guide to celebrating the month with different activities each day. Activities include puppet shows, group storytelling, art projects, and a mystery dinner.

For more ideas, visit online resource partnership ReadWriteThink. ReadWriteThink encourages families to expand their bedtime reading repertoire by having parents and grandparents share their favorite childhood book with children in their family.

Let us know how you are celebrating and learning together this month!


Rec’s and Reviews: “The Color of Us”

Image source:

Image source:

“Brown is brown, right?” asks Lena. Lena’s mother is an artist, and together they discover the beauty in all the skin tones of their friends and family through paint colors and descriptive words.

This popular book by Karen Katz helps children celebrate different skin colors through wonderful illustrations and a touching story. It falls short of truly encouraging diversity and understanding by falling back on tired stereotypes.

“The Color of Us” is a good introductory read for ages 3-6, but we recommend supplementation with other books that dig deeper.

Options include:

  1. “One Green Apple” by Eve Bunting, the story of a Muslim immigrant who goes on a field trip with her class
  2. “Round is a Mooncake” by Roseanne Thong, which follows a Chinese-American girl as she discovers culture through shapes
  3. “The Sneetches and Other Stories” by Dr. Seuss, a classic story that teaches about tolerance
  4. “Two Mrs. Gibsons” by Toyomi Igus, about a girl with a Japanese mother and an African-American grandmother
  5. “Ramadan Moon” by Na’ima Robert, which helps explain the wonder of Ramadan to people from all cultures
  6. “The Sandwich Swap” by Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan and Kelly DiPucchio, a story of two friends who are unfamiliar with foods from each other’s cultures
  7. “I Have a Dream” by Dr. Martin Luther King, a strong and clear introduction to discussions about the civil rights movement
(written with contributions from Holly Burns, Preschool Programs Coordinator)

CE Highlight: Preschool Palooza 2015

PP-4cThis month’s CE Highlight is Preschool Palooza, the fun and educational event for children 2-6 and their parents. Children will be able to enjoy activities like face painting and Music-n-Motion while their grown-ups gather information about early childhood opportunities in the WDMCS district.

All activities and snacks are free, so kids can come enjoy inflatables, exploring City of West Des Moines vehicles, and more! Parents can talk with WDMCS district staff about kindergarten registration, the WDMCS district preschool programs coordinator, preschool directors and teachers who participate in SVPP, and the WDMCS district nutrition department. Here are some photos of the fun times had at Preschool Palooza in past years:

Mythbusting Monday: National School Bus Safety Week

Pre teen boy getting on school busWDMCS bus drivers safely transport about 3,600 students each day. Each school year, they drive more than 700,000 miles. To celebrate these drivers and National School Bus Safety Week, Oct. 19-23, we decided to bust some myths about buses and the West Des Moines Community Schools Transportation Department.

  • Myth: School buses are yellow to make them more visible.
    • This myth is TRUE.
    • School buses must, by law, be painted “National School Bus Glossy Yellow.” The color was originally chosen in 1939, during a conference that established national standards for school buses and school bus safety. It was the easiest color to see, especially in the hours when buses are on the road. Originally called “National School Bus Chrome,” the yellow is also easy to see in peripheral vision.
  • Myth: School buses are not safe without seat belts.
    • This myth is FALSE.
    • School buses are designed as the safest way to transport children. The design, and the way buses protect passengers, is totally different from a car’s design. School buses use what is called “passive restraint.” This means that all a child must do to be protected is remain seated.
    • The American School Bus Council explains it this way: “School bus passengers are protected like eggs in a carton — compartmentalized, and surrounded with padding and structural integrity to secure the entire container.” The entire bus is designed to be safe and protect all the passengers at once, so seat belts can be more of a hazard or distraction than a safety measure.
  • Myth: Other drivers must stop when school bus lights flash.
    • This myth is TRUE.
    • The first step to knowing what to do when you meet a bus on the road is understanding what the bus and its lights are telling you. This content is a simple breakdown of Iowa code 321.372, known as “Keep Aware Driving — Youth Need School Safety Act.”
    • What do the lights mean?
      • The yellow lights are a warning; the red lights should be treated as a stop light. Iowa law says a bus driver must turn on the yellow/amber flashing lights before they stop. They must turn on the yellow lights within specific distances, depending on speed limits in the area.
      • The driver turns on the red flashing lights when they have brought the bus to a full stop. They will also extend the stop arm. This is the point when students will enter or exit the bus.
    • What should a driver do?
      • If you meet a bus with flashing yellow lights (a warning), slow to 20 mph or less. Bring your vehicle to a complete stop when the red lights flash and the stop arm extends. Proceed with caution only after the stop arm is retracted.
      • NEVER try to “beat the bus.” Drivers must not pass school buses when the red or yellow lights are flashing. Bring vehicles to a complete stop 15 feet or more away from the bus.
Examples of what to do when you meet a bus on a two- or three-lane highway. (Image source: Iowa DOT)

Examples of what to do when you meet a bus on a two- or three-lane highway. (Image source: Iowa DOT)

There is one exception to these rules: If you meet a bus on a street where there are two or more lanes in each direction, you do not need to stop if you are traveling in the opposite direction from the bus.

Examples of what to do when you meet a bus on a four-lane highway. (Image source: Iowa DOT)

Examples of what to do when you meet a bus on a four-lane highway. (Image source: Iowa DOT)

Here are some more quick reminders for drivers and for students.

American School Bus Council
National Education Association
Mental Floss
Iowa Legislation: Code 321.372
Iowa Department of Transportation

Monthly Motivation: Happy Handwashing Day!

GlobalHandwashingDay2015Happy Global Handwashing Day! Global Handwashing Day is celebrated annually on Oct. 15. The first Global Handwashing Day was held in 2008, when over 120 million children around the world washed their hands with soap in more than 70 countries. This year’s theme is Raise a Hand for Hygiene, and events are being held in countries all over the world including Argentina, Kenya, and Pakistan.

The day serves to increase awareness and understanding of the importance of washing your hands with soap (that’s the extra important part). Handwashing with soap is an fast, inexpensive way to prevent disease and save lives. The day is used to design, test, and replicate creative ways to encourage with-soap handwashing!

To make handwashing a little more exciting, you can watch this TED Talk video from Joe Smith, lawyer and “powerful advocate for proper paper towel use,” He teaches viewers how to end up with completely dry hands without overusing paper towels.