The Underground Railroad: Facts and Fictions

I’m currently reading Colson Whitehead‘s historical novel, The Underground Railroad. It is a remarkable work, worthy of all the accolades. I had been eagerly awaiting it having been a fan of Whitehead’s earlier work (especially The Intuitionist and John Henry Days) and it is everything the critics say it is, monumental, original, and brilliant. Working off historical facts, Whitehead has created a profound work of fiction. Like others it makes me think of  the magical realism of García Márquez as represented in his One Hundred Years of Solitude.  It is intense and is taking me time to read it as I have to take breaks as I go. But it is worth it — I can’t recommend it enough.

I also recommend ‘s New Yorker essay, “The Perilous Lure of the Underground Railroad” where she considers Whitehead’s novel and Ben Winter’s alternate history novel, Underground Airlines within the context of history, historians, and how it is all playing out today. Most powerful to me was her thoughtful commentary on our current way of considering this particular past. She concludes:

One of the biases of retrospection is to believe that the moral crises of the past were clearer than our own—that, had we been alive at the time, we would have recognized them, known what to do about them, and known when the time had come to do so. That is a fantasy. Iniquity is always coercive and insidious and intimidating, and lived reality is always a muddle, and the kind of clarity that leads to action comes not from without but from within. The great virtue of a figurative railroad is that, when someone needs it—and someone always needs it—we don’t have to build it. We are it, if we choose.

Powerful, powerful stuff.

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Coming Soon: The Great Gilly Hopkins Movie

I was fortunate to attend a screening of an early cut of this warm adaptation of Katherine Patterson’s beloved book The Great Gilly Hopkins and found it to be honest and true to the book. With a remarkable cast, it is full of charm, heart, and out this October.

Here’s the official description:

A feisty foster kid’s outrageous scheme to be reunited with her birth mother has unintended consequences in The Great Gilly Hopkins, an entertaining film for the entire family. Gilly Hopkins (Sophie Nélisse) has seen more than her share of foster homes and has outwitted every family she has lived with. In an effort to escape her new foster mother Mamie Trotter’s (Kathy Bates) endless loving care, Gilly concocts a plan that she believes will bring her mother running to her rescue. But when the ploy blows up in Gilly’s face it threatens to ruin the only chance she’s ever had to be part of a real family. Based on the award-winning young-adult novel by Katherine Paterson (Bridge to Terabithia), The Great Gilly Hopkins stars Sophie Nélisse, Kathy Bates, Julia Stiles, Bill Cobbs, Billy Magnussen, with Octavia Spencer and Glenn Close. Directed by Steven Herek; Screenplay by David Paterson. Lionsgate Premiere will release the film in theaters and On Demand October 7, 2016

 

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So I Read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

My brief and informal goodreads review:

I wasn’t sure at first if I even wanted to read this not being a fan fiction reader, but was encouraged to do so and am glad I did. That said, this is clearly in that realm as it requires a relatively strong background in Harry Potter lore to make sense of it all. So much revisits pieces of the earlier books, amplifies themes, characters, and possibilities. I found that great fun (especially after having recently spent a pleasurable day at Orlando’s Harry Potter World).

I also am a regular theatergoer and so enjoyed reading the script and imagining the staging. I’m guessing it will eventually end up on Broadway and I will then have a chance to see it.

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R.I.P. Father of Kids’ Coding, Seymour Papert

In a previous professional life I specialized in technology education. In the early 1980s I became very intrigued in the educational potential of personal computers and started a second masters (the first was in international education coming off my Peace Corps time) in computers and education at Columbia University Teachers College. I was in one of the earliest cohorts for the program and it was a heady time. Having always struggled with math as a child I was terrified about programming, but it turns out I was good at it.

While we worked in more standard-for-the-time languages (in particular, Pascal, for you coding historians), the one that was really the focus of our interest when it came to kids was Seymour Papert‘s Logo. It was a programming language based on kids doing, constructing their own understandings. I loved, loved, loved it. My current school brought me to them and created a special position for me. I taught whole grades Logo, did animation with interested kids, was an adjunct instructor for Logo at NYC and Columbia, and explored writing and research on those early pre-web computers. My very first published article was “Empowering Young Writers with Technology.

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We even had a real robotic turtle!

Wherever I was Papert’s ideas were at the front of everything related to this. Many whom I connected to had worked directly with him. We all saw Logo and the ideas around it as having the potential to revolutionize education — to have kids construct their own learning, create their own theories, do it for themselves rather than have it done to them. His book, Mindstorms, was constantly referenced, a bible for us.

I wrote papers. I attended conferences. One of the headiest was Logo 86 at M.I.T. where I presented a paper with another enthusiast, “The Second Revolution 1986.”  (The premise was that Dewey et al were the first revolution in education and Papert and Logo were the second.)  I’d read and revered Papert and finally got to see him at this conference.

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(That’s me sitting on the left:)

As personal computers caught on in school my interest in using them in writing and researching grew replacing my Logo focus. I was invited to be part of a group of teachers launching the first online teacher place, Scholastic Network (on AOL as it was before the web), I did work with the Library of Congress as they began digitizing their holdings. and —as the web grew —  fell completely into the world of children’s literature. But I’ve always remembered that time and the ideas that Papert promoted. That children could do computing — they are today with all the coding around!  That kids should construct their own learning — that is still important to many of us though somewhat muffled due to the testing mania, sadly.

I celebrate Seymour Papert a major influence in education and in my own life too.

Further reading:

The New York Times Obituary

MIT In Memory: Syemour Papert

MIT Media Lab Remembers Papert

History of Logo

 

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My Gullah Week

Thanks to my dear friend and former colleague, Lesley Younge, I have been including the Gullah of the Sea Islands in my teaching of the Transatlantic Slave Trade due to their historic connection to Sierra Leone. While I’d long been aware of this connection it took Lesley to research and create compelling curriculum featuring these remarkable people. And the more I taught this and investigated them on my own the more I wanted to go visit the Gullah myself. This summer it finally happened.  

Last week I was incredibly fortunate to attend an NEH Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshops, Gullah Voices: Traditions and Transformations. Conceived and run by Dr. Robert Stephens and Dr. Mary Ellen Junda, professors of music at the University of Connecticut, it was a remarkable experience. Over many years Bob and Mary have carefully researched and cultivated relationships with members of the Gullah community, experts, and informed academics to created an important and memorable learning experience.

We were centered in Savannah, Georgia. I arrived early morning on Sunday and since my room wasn’t ready and the institute wasn’t starting till late afternoon, I took the hotel concierge’s suggestion and went a trolley tour. While I’d seen Forrest Gump when it came out and knew of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, it surprised and amused me how often the tour guide pointed out places featured in both. At moments we would stop and a costume actor would board, speaking about his or her moment in Savannah history. (On our final morning three of these actors showed up at our hotel’s breakfast, pleasing some of us more than others:)

The institute began with introductions and the glorious Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters. You can get a taste of them here. The next day after a captivating talk by Dr. Erskine Clarke, we went on an African-American tour of Savannah led by the passionate and informed Karen Wortham. Traveling in the same sort of trolley as the day before, I was struck by how different the information I was hearing as we drove through many of the same places.

At the African-American cemetery Karen showed us a whipping tree, pointing out the visible marks of the whip.

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She took us to a burial of someone born enslaved who fought with his master for the Confederacy. She said over and over how important it was not to erase these discomforting pieces of history, but to keep them to understand them.
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Karen spoke of “The Weeping Time,” the Butler auction  (that I recall being so movingly memorialized by Julius Lester in his Day of Tears)  and of the Ebenezer Creek Tragedy.  She also told us about this hanging tree that is in one of the parks I passed in my tour the day before (but heard nothing about then).

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Chilling too were the slave barraccoons near the river. I’d written of the ones in Mende country in Africa is My Home so to see and be in one was just one of the many many tear-inducing moments of the week.

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That afternoon we listened to the compelling Dr. Peter Wood and then went off to the Pin Point Heritage Museum. Here we are learning about crab net knitting.

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And here is dinner — a yummy lowcountry boil!

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On Tuesday we traveled to St. Helena’s Island and the historic Penn Center which was one of the first school for freed slaves , one of the most important African-American institutions in existence. Having long heard about this place it was thrilling to finally see it for myself. We were so honored to have as our guide Mr. Robert Middleton who had been a student there.

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The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr used Penn Center as a retreat and stayed at this house.

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Many of the beautiful trees are over 400 years old.

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We then traveled to St. Helena’s gorgeous public library for a fabulous lunch catered by Gullah Grub and more interesting speakers including the distinguished Emory Campbell, organic Gullah farmer Sara Green (more about her work here),  Victoria Smalls of the Penn Center, and performer (and creator of the television show Gullah Gullah Island) Ron Daise.  Our day on St. Helena’s ended with a visit to the Praise House with Mr. Middleton.

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Emory Campbell

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Ron Daise

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St. Helena’s Praise House

On Wednesday we were taken to aesthetic, historical, and emotional highs by way of visual artist Leroy Campbell.  I didn’t take photos so be sure to go check out his amazing work, especially the on-going series, Gullah Collection.

Our final field trip was to Sapelo Island where there is still a Gullah community of 47 permanent residents. (Great New York Times article about the place here.)  In preparation for this day we had read resident and cultural historian Cornelia Bailey‘s memoir, God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man and so meeting her was another of many highlights of the week.

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Dayrise on Sapelo Island

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Resident Mrs. Handy’s son was our tour guide. Loved her additional remarks!

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Sapelo Island Post Office

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We were incredibly fortunate to be able to wander the Reynolds Mansion (as it is usually occupied — you can rent it for a remarkably reasonable price!)  I’m not going to put all my photos of the place in this post, but it is one crazy place (you can see them on my #gullahvoices twitter feed if you are interested.)

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Lunch with Mrs. Bailey was a special time indeed.

For me probably the most emotional day was Friday when we heard from Wilson Moran who spoke of the research done that linked his family to another family in Sierra Leone via a song. I knew about this and had thought I’d seen the movie about it, “The Language You Cry In,” but viewing it early in the morning before Wilson’s talk had me in tears as they filmed it when the war in Sierra Leone was still going on. When Wilson mentioned mutual friends he saw my grin and we connected afterwards. So so moved by this.

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There was, of course, much more to the week. My fellow-scholars were so impressive and I loved getting to know many of them. One of them, Line-Andrée Marshallhas done a lyrical, poetic, and beautiful post on our week as well:  “Shall We Gather By the River? Gullah Voices and Echoes.” Please be sure to view it as it is much better than this one.

Thank you, Bob and Mary Ellen and to everyone involved in creating this moving and memorable experience.

 

 

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The Art of Translation

I grew up knowing German and so can find certain English translations of familiar books disconcerting. Take Hoffman’s Der Struwwelpeter.  I knew it first in German and delighted in certain rhymes, say the cats warning Paulinchen if she played with matches:

Und M i n z und M a u n z , die Katzen,
Erheben ihre Tatzen.
Sie drohen mit den Pfoten :
“Der Vater hat’s verboten !”
Miau ! Mio ! Miau ! Mio !
Laß stehn ! Sonst brennst Du lichterloh !”

Much later I came across two very different English translations.  One seems to be more common, serviceable, but completely lacking the rhyme of the original.  Here’s that translation for the cats’ warning to Paulinchen:

The Pussy-cats saw this
And said: “Oh, naughty, naughty Miss!”
And stretched their claws,
And raised their paws:
“‘Tis very, very wrong, you know,
Me-ow, me-o, me-ow, me-o,
You will be burnt, if you do so.”

But then one day I came across Mark Twain’s translation.  His lesser known version captures for me far more successfully the energy and rhyme of Hoffman’s original German:

And Mintz and Mountz, the catties,
Lift up their little patties,
They threaten with their pawses:
“It’s against the lawses!
Me-yow! Me-yo! Me-yow! Me-yo!
You’ll burn yourself to ashes, O!”

(If you can, try scanning all three and you may see what I mean.)

Perhaps because of this early experience and subsequent time in countries where other languages dominated, I’ve always been fascinated by translation. So much is involved beyond the simple matching of grammar. Today’s Guardian article, “The Subtle Art of Translation” is excellent, featuring thoughts from a number of translators. While the focus is on adult fiction, their ruminations are completely applicable to all translation, children’s books too. Highly recommended.

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A Monster Calls, New Movie Trailer

So this is very much the antithesis of the BFG movie, I’d say.

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