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The Journey of 10,000 Hugs

Posted by on Apr 11, 2014 in Jena Ball, Mutts, News | 1 comment

Ms Jenaia Hugs2 Framed 1000x746

Daisy Marino and I arrived at Warren Elementary School at a little after 10:00 a.m. Daisy and her good friend Angela Moses have been CritterKin champions since the three of us met in a Twitter chat session back in December. In typical adult fashion the three of us had created a schedule for me, blocking off sections of time to visit with each grade and making sure I had time for lunch and potty breaks.

I was introduced to the principal, vice principal, superintendent and several teachers, all of whom have been incredibly supportive and open to the idea of allowing their students to meet and spend time working with me. We shook hands, smiled and let a little bit of our own child-like exuberance show. This “CritterKin thing,” as we’d started calling the excitement being generated by our creative collaboration was turning out to be extraordinary. Not only were students getting a chance to flex their creative and emotional muscles, but they were using the more traditional intellectual skills touted by common core to execute their projects. In short, we all agreed, it was a win-win for everyone. We couldn’t wait to see where this collaborative adventure would lead us next.

Then the first group of students on their way to recess marched past us in the hall and a little earthquake shifted the center of my day. “Ms. Jenaia!” a third grader with a corn yellow buzz cut exclaimed, bursting out of line and flinging his arms around my waist. “You’re here!” All around me the adults scolded, apologized and urged my little friend to remember his manners. We ignored them of course. I hugged him back, marveling at how a body so small could generate so much heat. “This is Trotter,” said one of the teachers. “I’m sorry he tackled you like that. We’re all just so excited to meet you in person.”

“Please don’t apologize,” I said, looking over Trotter’s head at the smiling faces of another two dozen kids. “I love hugs!”

That was the moment I began to realize what the real agenda of my trip would be. I’d thought it was about putting faces to names, seeing and celebrating the CritterKin Kindness Mural the kids were working on, and doing my own little song and dance routine as the author of the CritterKin books. Instead, I was experiencing in a very visceral, heartfelt way what Daisy Marino means when she says, “It’s all about the kids.”

For the next five hours I plunged headfirst into the emotional, touchy feely soup of childhood. Setting my adult self aside as I stepped into each class, I let myself be present, open and responsive to the kids. Together we read stories, watched videos, asked questions and danced the CritterKin Wiggle Waggle. And, though I was clearly the person in charge of orchestrating events and guiding the discussions, the usual teacher-student hierarchy was suspended. I can honestly say that I learned as much as I taught; that the kids and their questions, their willingness to throw self-consciousness to the wind and dance with the goofy lady in overalls tore down the walls between adults and kids and made us co-travelers in this game of learning.  I left Warren Elementary School physically exhausted but emotionally, intellectually and spiritually inspired.

Skeptics will point out that my visit was anything but ordinary – that I was there for a single day and the kids were on their best behavior. All of that is true, and yet I submit that the kids’ ability and willingness to engage with me, their honesty and direct curiosity, speak volumes about the environment at their school. The 400 children at Warren Elementary are known and loved. Their teachers understand the value of emotional as well as intellectual learning. They have gone out of their way to find and build relationships with other educators, such as myself, who can help their students experience different ways of seeing and being in the world. But most important of all, they work very hard to make learning entertaining, engaging and relevant.

The roughly 500+ hugs I received at Warren are the first in my journey towards 10,000 that I hope will include interactions with students and teachers around the globe. As an author, I believe that stories are a marvelous way to help children evolve into compassionate caring adults, and an ideal way to help adults think outside the rigid mindsets we’ve developed around education. Take a look at the celebratory video produced by Angela Moses of my day at Warren and let yourself feel the palpable joy.  Then ask yourself if that isn’t the best and most effective way for kids to learn, and what you can do to help make it a reality at your school.

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Sillyicious – Do the Wiggle Waggle

Posted by on Mar 25, 2014 in Jena Ball, Meet the Mutts, Mutts, News | 0 comments


We all need the occasional reminder to be good to ourselves. This is particularly true if you are in a profession like teaching, where you give constantly to others, or are intensely focused on sharing a dream like CritterKin. The work is engaging, demanding and fun, but as the saying goes, “all work and no play makes Jack or (insert name) a dull boy.”

Last week I was well on my way to becoming a dull girl. I was busily engaged in blogging, Tweeting, reading to classes, posting updates to Facebook and cropping images for the new CritterKin Flipbooks and slideshows. Then two things happened. First, a series of charming photos of socks began appearing in my Twitter, Facebook and email feeds (see below). You have to admit that there’s something delightful about a bunch of feet wearing mismatched socks; or as my niece used to say when she was three, “socks are sillyicious!”

The photos turned out to be part of the “Lots of Socks Campaign” being held to raise awareness about Down Syndrome. This reminded me of my little friend Maggie whose fondness for bright pink tutus and cowboy boots and spontaneous giggles never fails to brighten my day. Maggie is proof that difference is a good thing and should be celebrated. Besides, aren’t we all a little different in one way or another?


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My second dose of sillyicious came at the end of a reading to third graders at Bellevue Elementary  in Nebraska. I’d been playing around with the idea of a CritterKin dance for a couple of weeks, but felt a little self conscious. But there was something about those kids – their open smiles and willingness to bark, squeak, whine and howl like the dogs as the story unfolded – that told me they were all in. If I wanted to be silly, they were right there with me.

“How would you guys like to help me figure out my new dance called the CritterKin Wiggle Waggle?” I asked

“YES!” they responded with glee.

The kids and I danced our way through two hilarious rounds of the song, stopping and starting  when I forgot the words or they got tangled in one another’s feet and tumbled to the floor. It was deliciously silly and kept me smiling for the rest of the week.

So just a reminder to dance, smile, sing  and get a little silly. And if you and your students are interested in doing a little Wiggle Waggling, just drop us a line at or give Karin Lippert a call at: (416) 923-4707.


Start with the Heart

Posted by on Mar 23, 2014 in Jena Ball, Meet the Mutts, Mutts, News | 0 comments


Start with the Heart - page from PPT1Click link to see visual summary of Start with the Heart:

Something delightful is happening at CritterKin. Our goofy pack of mixed breed mutts, led by their intrepid if slightly offbeat person Ms. Jenaia, is inspiring teachers, students, parents and community organizations to work collaboratively to create projects centered around kindness. The initial catalyst for these projects is the CritterKin series of books, but the kids and their supporters are cheerfully taking the creative baton and running with it.

The result is learning that is at once engaging, entertaining and relevant – giving children the opportunity to learn and practice core intellectual skills (reading, writing, math, etc.) while acquiring the emotional intelligence needed to become respectful compassionate and responsible adults.

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To Find Out How You and Your Students Can Get Involved Contact:

Karin Lippert: (416) 923-4707 or

Find Us on Twitter

CritterKin: @CritterKin
Jena Ball: @jenaiamorane
Marty Keltz: @martysnowpaw

Find Us on Facebook

Technical Denial

Posted by on Mar 20, 2014 in Jena Ball, Mutts, News | 0 comments


Jena Black and White 1
I have spent most of my adult life in a love-hate relationship with technology. Trained as a graphic designer and illustrator long before anyone had heard the word Photoshop, I was appalled when I learned that people were manipulating and even creating images using a computer. My first reaction was that they were cheating. Using a machine to draw was NOT art. My second was that there is no way anyone was going to get me to cheat using those programs.

I was saved from the inevitable wake-up call by an offer to teach English in Japan. I boarded a plane and ended up in a remote, conservative town where children would gawk and follow me around whenever I set foot outside my door. For two years I taught English to adults at companies where pencils and paper were as high tech as it got. Then SONY Corporation offered me a job writing technical papers and Akio Morita’s speeches. I wasn’t wild about the idea of technical papers, but couldn’t resist the chance to meet and hob nob with Mr. Morita and his SONY co-founder Mr. Ibuka.  My days of technophobia were about to come to an abrupt end.

On my second day at SONY, a researcher arrived carrying a very large JumboTron. He placed the set on my desk and said he was there for help with a paper he was writing about the JumboTron’s CRT technology . He spoke almost no English and my Japanese lessons had not included technical jargon. For one long moment we looked at each other with dismay. Then he shrugged, opened the back of the set  started pointing at the various parts and looking up words in his dictionary. It was a long and arduous process but I learned by doing – taking things apart, pushing buttons and turning dials until I understood exactly what the TV did and why. Seeing the resulting paper in print was one of the most satisfying moments of my life, and I’m happy to say that I’ve never been intimated by technology since.

Intimidated or not, the idea of creating art with a computer program did not appeal to me.  I was in Japan almost 10 years and still hadn’t looked at Photoshop by the time I returned. I might never have learned how the program worked if it wasn’t for a Photoshop teacher who hired me to edit her book on the program. She liked my work so much that she recommended me to Osborne McGraw-Hill where I edited a series of manuals on everything from Pagemaker to Dreamweaver.

Of course writing about a program is very different from  actually using it, and I might still be in denial if I hadn’t discovered what they could do for me. I now use Photoshop, Corel Draw, Autodesk Pro and a whole host of online photo and video manipulation tools like Pic Monkey, Camtasia and Animoto to get the results I want. However, it might interest you to know that each and every one of my illustrations begins with a pencil and paper. They are my favorite technical tools, hands down.

And that’s really what I have to say to anyone who is leery of technology. You must approach the programs the way you approached more traditional tools like scissors, crayons and glue sticks when you were first learning to use them. Once upon a time you had no idea how to use those tools either, but you learned. And that’s exactly how you must view technology.  Be willing, curious and selective. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that there is an endless array of gadgets out there. Find and use the ones that speak to you.

Oh, and one more thing? Never, ever drag yourself kicking and screaming to a computer screen because someone said you “should” learn something.  Learn what makes you smile at the pace that fits your schedule.  The rest will take care of itself.

About Jena
Jena is a writer, illustrator and educator with more than 35 years penning everything from technical papers and marketing collateral to personal essays and online classes for writers. Her latest endeavor is the CritterKin series of books designed to help kids learn that animals (critters) are family (kin).  She is aided and abetted in her efforts by a very large orange cat named Oscar. To learn more about Jena visit

Review – Lead With Your Heart 1

Posted by on Mar 17, 2014 in Reviews | 0 comments

Lead with Heart and Download 200x229Empathy and pit bulls — what a perfect combination!, March 16, 2014

By Amazon Customer

Amazon Verified Purchase

This review is from: Lead With Your Heart: A CritterKin Tale (Kindle Edition)

This is a wonderful story about a rescued pit bull named Lance, a loving family who took a chance on him, an amazing teacher of kids and dogs named Jenaia and a really scared woman who learned the truth and overcame real terror to find the bridge over her fear.

This story focuses first on Marshall, the brother, but it’s Reny, the shy, sweet, quirky girl who is often bullied, who steals the show. Lance is her support (burying 1/2 half per pair of her hated shoes), her strength and courage. When she’s bullied at school for her shoes, Ms. Jenaia and the school principal decide it’s a great idea to bring dogs to school. It’s then that her schoolmate’s mother sees that Lance is a pit bull and, in terror, suggests breed-specific laws banning pit bulls. How they used empathy to overcome prejudice and fear is something every kid (and adult) should learn.

This book is about positive reactions to difficult situations, about empathy for people who may seem adversarial, how fear is based on bigotry and ignorance and how bullying — of dogs or children — is never okay. While it may seem like it covers an awful lot of topics, they all blend into a seamless whole and all written appropriately for nearly any age of children to easily grasp and still not come off as oversimplified. This is a book that people should get for children they love and, as I believe that empathy is a topic that should be part of every school’s curriculum, I feel this book would be a very good place to start.

I cannot recommend this enough!