How to Read Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage

Yes, I too have been waiting seventeen years for this one. But now that I have it, how to read it? Gulp it down? Savor it? Decisions, decisions!

 

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In the Classroom: Good White Teaching

Many of us good white teachers have been in the profession for a long, long time. We’ve stayed in it because we love teaching and feel we are good at it. Our identities are wrapped tightly up in this. And now we are having to rethink who we are professionally as we navigate difficult and necessary conversations and situations in our classrooms involving race. While we veteran white teachers may have successfully resolved conflicts, dealt with festering situations of non-race-based social aggression, and led sound social emotional learning activities with our classes, these experiences may very well not be models for us as we engage in work with our classes on race.

While I have been teaching about Sierra Leone, about the Transatlantic Slave Trade, about Civil Rights, and more for a very long time I have not done nearly enough of direct and frank work with my 4th graders and race. But I have to and I will even though it feels challenging and –hardest of all — one that I’m not going to do well. Something I will probably fail at and have to try to do better the next time. And that last is probably the toughest of all for me, a teacher in her fourth decade as a classroom teacher. To fail in this sort of thing is difficult and disturbing. And I say this because I suspect that is the case for many of my older white teacher colleagues. We are so proud of our work as teachers, our reputations as smart and caring, and we are doing the work to be better when considering race. But in our own classrooms? Changing what we do there is probably way harder.

We tell our students that taking risks is good. That they need to be ready to fail and try again. But are we veteran good white teachers doing that when it comes to race conversations? We need to be prepared for that. We are not experienced in this at all, at all. We are no better and probably worse than those just entering the profession. We need to do all the learning we can, we need to take advantage of POCs around us who are interested in helping us, do a whole lot of listening, read, go to workshops and the like, and we need to try, understand where things went poorly, and try again.

We veteran white teachers still dominate our country’s classrooms even though the children in them are more and more POCs. Considering how to acknowledge this and have necessary conversations from kindergarten to twelfth grade is something we must do. But we also have to be aware of ourselves and that we need to not assume we know how to do this as well as we do so much else.

Avoidance is not an option. Failing and picking yourself up, thinking about what went wrong, doing more listening and learning, and trying again is.

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The Book of Dust “…will be devoured.”

In it, Lyra is 6 months old and being hunted by henchmen of the Magisterium. The action unfolds in Oxford, but an Oxford unrecognizable from its spire-crowded postcard form — the city is a damp and threatening place of inns and drunks and amiable nuns. For half the book they are all submerged in a catastrophic flood. Malcolm navigates the waters in his canoe and becomes Lyra’s chief protector. After a gentle start, the novel accelerates into an action thriller, with cameos from fairies and river gods. There are boat chases, hints at romance. It will be devoured.

From Sophie Elmhirst’s lovely profile of Philip Pullman in the New York Times.

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Rick Riordan’s The Ship of the Dead (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, #3)

Just finished this last night and the more I think about it the more impressed I am.  A few months back I wrote a post celebrating Rick Riordan and all the things I noted there are in his latest, The Ship of the Dead. Here’s what I just wrote on Goodreads:

Highly enjoyable. Interesting how Riordan reuses a plot trope (deadly deadline) so freshly and imaginatively in different titles including this one. I think this is because he develops each character so distinctively, brings in the mythology smoothly (so not didactic), and has a crisp and witty writing style. And also, regarding those characters — he is brilliant at weaving in so many different life experiences. The gender fluid Alex and the devout Muslim Samirah stand out here most of all. And in this case, he takes on religious belief — really terrific. Then there’s Magnus’s (the main character) love life. How often do we see this in the main character of a highly popular work of genre literature for middle grade readers? (Right now, as I’m hoping that this will change in the next few years.) Hmm…. started by giving it four stars because the plot seemed a tad standard, but as I write this I am in such admiration for what this writer has done here that I’m bumping it up to five. Yay to Rick Riordan!

 

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Museums and Their Presentation of Uncomfortable Truths

I have been really struck by the contrast between the Dr. Seuss Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture when it comes to the difficulty realities of the people they are highlighting.

When visiting the latter in July I was so impressed with their handling of Bill Crosby. They included him in several places, but didn’t shy away from anything about him.

 

Contrast this with the lack of commentary by the Seuss Museum on their creator’s racism which has been criticized by many since it opened earlier this year. Repeatedly they had argued that it wasn’t their responsibility to inform their visitors. Their response to Mike Curato, Lisa Yee, and  Mo Willems’s  public letter explaining their withdrawal from a festival at the museum because of racist imagery in a mural was initially no different. In their letter the three describe a ““jarring racial stereotype of a Chinese man who is depicted with chopsticks, a pointed hat and slanted slit eyes.” You can see it for yourself in the lower left of this photo of the mural I found in this article:

The museum’s initial response? From the Washington Post’s article:

In a letter sent to the authors, Kay Simpson, president of the Springfield Museums and Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden, wrote that the museum “contains unedited material by Dr. Seuss during his lifetime” and that “we do not alter or edit an artist’s work.”

“Dr. Seuss’s books taught life lessons, from being a faithful friend, to not discriminating based upon appearances, to keeping your promises,” Simpson wrote. “Dr. Seuss was a product of his era and his attitudes evolved over time.

“It is our hope that parents and teachers can use the evolution of Dr. Seuss, including the mural of Mulberry Street in Springfield from Dr. Seuss’s first book published in 1937, as a teachable moment for children in their charge.”

The museum has finally in the eleventh hour said they will remove the mural, but clearly they are only doing it after enormous pressure and not because they think they have any responsibility to teach their visitors. This, I find, horribly wrong, wrong, wrong. Staying silent is, to my mind, a complete dereliction of duty. Not an option in this day and age. Kudos to the many institutions (such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture) for doing the work.

 

 

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In the Classroom: Close Reading of Charlotte’s Web

Yesterday I modeled a close reading/annotating of the first chapter of Charlotte’s Web, something I’ve been doing with my 4th graders yearly for decades. It was, as always, an amazing experience because the book is such a remarkable piece of writing. Every year my students discover new aspects to note. You’d think there wouldn’t be anything new after so many years, but the book is so gorgeous and elegant and my students so captivated by the process that — yes — there is always something new. (That is, after some of them got over the idea of writing in the book — this shocked them!) After doing the first chapter together each child chose one to do independently. They will then present their chapters at a series of seminar sessions — can’t wait!

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In the Classroom: Using Melissa Sweet’s Some Writer! in an E. B. White Author Study

For decades I’ve been launching my 4th graders’ school year with an  E. B. White author study. You can read more about it here and find the materials for the students here. As you will see there is close reading, passionate essay writing, and art. I’ll still be doing all of that this year, but I’ve added in something new that I’m very excited about — Melissa Sweet’s glorious Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White.

As the children read or reread Charlotte’s Web at home in preparation for our close reading, in school we read Some Writer! together. I gave each child a copy of the book and they followed along as I read aloud, stopping frequently for us to marvel at the art, the primary sources, and the information. At the end of each chapter the children spent five minutes going back through it, taking notes on what seemed most interesting in terms of their forthcoming work with Charlotte’s Web.

This week they will be working in table groups to pull out their most significant, important, and related notes and put them into a Padlet, a digital workspace. These will then become another source for them when they begin their close reading of one chapter of Charlotte’s Web. I’m so excited to see what they’ve come up with and how it informs their explorations.

I’ll be back to let you know how it goes!

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