Monthly Archives: November 2006

Everyone Can Join

The other day I idly looked over the shoulder of one of my most fabulous 4th graders and saw that she was creating a sign-up sheet. Titled, “BS Club,” it was for a popular after-lunch card game and she’d already filled in the first few names. “Everyone can join,” she assured me before I could say anything and I’m sure that was true. Still, I said, “Sorry, but no clubs,” and she, familiar with the potential problems, immediately crumpled up the paper and tossed it.

Why was I so tough? Shouldn’t I be applauding this child’s initiative rather than squelching it? As the after-lunch game became more popular, as more wanted to join, things were becoming unwieldy. (I’d heard some raised voices on more than one occasion.) Thus, her thought that a club might help. One for everyone who wanted to join.

Just as everyone could join the recess football game. So I was told after one player stomped off in a fury with the ball (his) causing the game to come to an immediate halt and me to become involved. At which point I discovered that, yes everyone could play, but not everyone got the ball passed to him and not everyone got to participate equally.

It is this pernicious issue — not just who is part of things and who is not, but who is more important and who gets to do more — that made me stop the BS Club and work long and hard with the football players to help them make their game more participatory for all. An issue, I should like to point out, doesn’t go away when we grow up. It is something we deal with all our lives.

Yet I wonder how many of us adults are able to acknowledge our own participation in exclusionary groups. There is something disquieting in our earnest efforts to get children to avoid cliques while continuing to be involved with them ourselves. I certainly understand why. So many of us involved with children, be it on a daily basis in the classroom or library or by writing for them, have memories of being excluded and marginalized when young which make it easy for us to empathize with children coping with similar problems. But, to be blunt, we grown-ups are hypocrites if we do not recognize how we may be complicit in the very same behaviors today.

My school is full of cliques and a number of them consist of folks well over the age of eighteen. There is the group of teachers (all guys, I believe) that plays basketball on Wednesdays after school, some 7th and 8th grade teachers that like to work in the office together, and mine — a bunch of mostly current and former 4th grade teachers. Oh, if any teachers from my school are reading this: you don’t have to have taught 4th grade to be part of our group. Everyone can join.

Late last Saturday night I passed the Opryland Hotel’s Delta Lounge on the way to my room. The music wasn’t terrible and so I briefly considered going in before deciding I was too tired and went off to bed. The next day I heard there was a YA author dance fest going on there and for a brief moment I felt left out. Why didn’t someone tell me about it? I knew some of them, didn’t they like me? Or maybe they didn’t really, were all just pretending to like me so I’d write and say nice things about them. And for that second I felt as I had in 7th grade, a total outsider to the clearly way fun world of YA authors.

Earlier that evening the shoe had been on the other foot. At a child_lit drink gathering someone mentioned a publisher’s party to which some of us, but not all it turned out, had been invited. Well remembering my last NCTE at the Opryland Hotel when I was pretty much on my own with no idea such parties even existed, I felt terrible for those who had been left out.

With experience we adults presumably are able to better weather the slights of inclusion, exclusion, cliques, and clubs. But behaving better than when we were young? Not always. Something I recommend we remember the next time we attempt to inform (in person or in writing) a young person how to be.

Feeling like a loser? Not to worry, everyone can join.

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Reading Aloud Coraline

Dear Coraline,

It has been such a pleasure having you back in my classroom. Our first time together was so much fun that I couldn’t wait to have you again. However, I had to be sure that I had a class that was ready for you. There couldn’t be too many who knew you already or any likely to get nightmares from you. Fortunately, this year’s class seemed ready. I have one child working her way through V.C. Andrews, of all things (big sister is reading them so she is too with her parents’ okay) and so you seem pretty darned tame in comparison. As for the rest (none of whom knew you), when I told them I was going to read them a creepy story they were game, quite eager, in fact.

But then, a few days in (while you were still mostly in your own flat), one boy admitted that creepy stories sometimes scared him and he’d had a weird dream about you. But he still wanted to listen to you so I had him sit near me as I read and kept an eye on him wondering if I should encourage him to sit this one out. At first the other kids sweetly checked in on him too at scary moments, but soon it was clear to all of us that he was enjoying the book completely and we had no need to worry.

Still I am maintaining a few precautionary measures. For example, my apologies to your wonderful illustrator, Dave McKean, but I haven’t been showing them the illustrations. I just couldn’t risk it. I think some of my listeners (such as the boy I already mentioned) are on the very edge of scaredness. Those illustrations, to my mind, might just take them over it. I also am very careful to end my daily readings at parts that aren’t likely to linger into their dreams. I like to stop with cliffhangers and you are full of them. Makes my class agog and eager to listen to you at our next session!

I did begin by showing Dario and Gabriela’s amazingly cool book-trailer. It wasn’t too scary, just intriguing. I plan to show it again after you are gone (which should be soon as you’ve got the three souls and were heading for the mantelpiece when I last read to them).

Another little thing I did was when you got all three soul-marbles I pulled out a little bag of marbles I received from your publisher when you first came into existence. They are blue instead of gray, but the kids still think they are very cool. I now toss them in one hand as I read, the quiet clinks creating a satisfyingly ominous sound.

The kids enjoying speculating as to how the story will end. They seem confident that it will be a happy ending. It is a quest, a journey they tell me, and those have to end well. We have recently begun a look at Cinderella and fairy tales and so this idea of “happily ever after” is an intriguing one we’ve been talking about a lot of late. Are you a fairy tale? That will be an interesting question for them once you are gone.

So tell your dad, Neil Gaiman, that he did a great job with you! We teachers shouldn’t be afraid of you or your relatives, The Wolves in the Walls or The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish. We’ve had great visits from them too. I do wonder about your big sister, Mirrormask though. My friend suggested she come for a visit, but I’m not yet sure if she is too old for my class or not. What do you think?

So thanks for stopping by! You are welcome anytime.

Fondly,

Monica

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Blogging and the Personal Essay

I started this blog with the vague idea that it wouldn’t be that much additional work because the posts would be similar to the ones I’ve been doing for years at child_lit, ccbc-net, and adbooks. Having a rather compulsive disposition, my main worry was that I’d feel an incredible pressure to constantly post (in order to avoid losing the audience I’d hopefully begin to gain). Fortunately, so far, while I’ve always chaffed at recommendations to write daily (as I always feel that my writing needs to come when I’m ready), a self-imposed requirement to post here at least once a week isn’t bothering me at all.

And I’m beginning to get a better sense of the sort of blog I want this to be. I started with a few links on the side, but got rid of them when I realized that I don’t really want to do a blogroll. Others have much better ones; go to them if you want great links. In fact, this blog is a kind of erratically published ‘zine, I guess. Not a particularly cool one, as much as it is (or so I aspire it to be) a sort of one-woman magazine full of the sort of personal essays you read in the New Yorker Magazine. Say by E. B. White or Adam Gopnick.

If you have read this blog steadily since its birth a couple of months ago, you will know how much I admire and adore E. B. White. I’m a fan of Adam Gopnick too. At a recent Lewis Carroll Society of North America meeting here in NYC, Adam gave a superb speech on the influence Carroll and his work has had on him. Having taught his son a couple of years ago, I’m eager to read his new book, Through the Children’s Gate, in which he featured both of his children. For an informative article on Adam and his view of the personal essay, check-out “Art of the Personal Essay” in the Denver Post.

Personal essays have a long and distinguished history. Too often the form is now associated with college admissions or self-indulgence, but those in the past were anything but. One of my all-time favorites is E. B. White’s “Death of a Pig.” Certainly, one of my favorite places to find great personal essays has long been The New Yorker, but more and more I’m finding great ones on blogs too.

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The Real Gossip Girl?

Confession: I get a kick out of The Gossip Girl series. Someone handed me the first few a couple of summers ago and, after reading them, I could swear that Blair, Serena, Nat, and the rest were right in front of me as I walked to my Upper East Side school. While I don’t think it is a model for any in the books, some of our students may be (along with their peers in similar NYC private schools) and so I am amused by Von Ziegsar’s over-the-top parody of their lives. When Roger Sutton recently expressed bemusement at Jenny’s “perky” rubber boots (in the spin-off It Girl series), I had to clue him in that they have been hot items for years in that neighborhood.

For those who fear these books are a terrible influence, I can at least reassure you that my now-16-year-old niece and her friends from suburban Boston are safe. Such girls are nowhere to be found in the books; they are good girls without money who are mainly into theater, but still get a kick out of the books just as I do. These girls and the general readership of these books are, I’m confident, savvy enough to know what is what.

And savvy indeed seems to be Kay S. Hymowitz as she takes on the real Gossip Girl, Paris Hilton in her City Journal article, “The Trash Princess.” An astute consideration of the attraction of Paris and of Paris herself (who seems more Serena all the time).

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The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume One: The Pox Party

I am delighted that this won the National Book Award for young people’s literature. It is an extraordinary work. Congratulations, M. T. Anderson! While I can’t claim to know well the primary sources of the period in which this book takes place, I have read some and Anderson’s success in creating a character of his time while also making readers today think of issues of today is nothing short of genius.

In a post last month about historical fiction, I wrote of my admiration of this book. I’m off to the National Council of Teachers of English convention in a few hours where I will be meeting with the Notable Children’s Books in the Language Arts Committee. One of the books I hope we will discuss is this one. It is such a wonderful book I’d love to have it on our list, but our audience is K-8 and I do think this book is probably for older kids. (Oh, I’m delighted that one of our 2006 books is the same author’s The Serpent Came to Gloucester. The man’s creativity and ability to stretch to a variety of genres and audiences is remarkable.)


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The Holocaust for Young Children

passport4.jpg

I do not understand.

Why this urgency to introduce the Holocaust to young children? The plethora of picture books and middle grade fiction on the topic seems never ending. Book after book about horrible events with little to anchor them historically, the latest being John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

That’s my father’s 1938 Third Reich passport up there with its big red J for Jew. He came to the US with his mother at age 14; his father chose to stay and was killed. As for my mother, she left Berlin in 1942 for England where her Jewish parents were interned as enemy aliens. So the history of the Holocaust is also the history of my family and you’d think that I’d be thrilled to see all these books, that I’d want children to be exposed to the Holocaust as soon as possible.

Um…no.

A primary purpose of Holocaust education should focus on teaching students the history of the Holocaust. This means a focus on what happened and why it happened; the key individuals and groups engulfed in the history and the myriad ways in which they affected and/or were affected by key decisions and events; and when, where, why, and how key decisions and events were played out, and the ramifications of the latter. If it neglects to focus on the history, then what is the purpose of Holocaust education?

Samuel Totten, Should there be Holocaust Education for K-4 Students? The Answer is No” (from Social Sciences and the Young Learner, Volume 12, Number 1, September/October, 1999.)

In fact, I’m with Totten. What is the purpose of introducing the Holocaust to young children? In the case of the recent books I’ve seen, it seems to be to inform, engage, and expose young readers to a dreadful crime against humanity, a genocide that the adult creators laudably want to be sure never happens again in any way. (Or at least not here as it does seem to have happened again in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Darfur.)

But is this intended child audience developmentally ready to really understand the Holocaust? Certainly my 4th graders admire the acts of heroism and bravery, are shocked at the situations of incredible cruelty and prejudice, and are able to empathize with the suffering presented in these books. And they can go beyond them to talk of intolerance and injustice. But to even begin to understand the Holocaust in history, in the way it really needs to be understood, not at all. They are not ready.

While elementary students are able to empathize with individual survivor accounts, they often have difficulty placing these personal stories in a larger historical context.

Teaching about the Holocaust: A Resource Book for Educators, page 3.

So how about waiting until they are ready? Despite some people’s worries, the Holocaust is not going away any time soon.

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To Buy or Not To Buy, That is the Question

Check books out of the library instead of buying them. . . . New releases of hard-cover novels cost $25 and more these days. If you buy just two a month, that’s $600 a year.
From “Ten Sure Ways to Trim Your Budget,” in the News.

New Yorker writer Ian Frazier’s response is here.

Having attended a conference at her Taos home years back (and remembering vividly the bathroom windows painted by D.H. Lawrence), I’m particularly fond of the pronouncement of “Ms. Mabel Dodge Luhan (dec’d)” on the matter.

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Respecting Snicket

My fellow educators, a word referring to those who attempt to instruct children, do not care much for the works of Lemony Snicket. Oh, they tolerate the books, may even have read one or two or three (enough to get the gist I’m told), understand that children like them, but do they consider them serious works of literature for children? From my experience, not really.

Now I’m sure neither Mr. Snicket nor his representative Daniel Handler will lose any sleep over this, the former being far more likely to be moping about Beatrice and the latter busily playing the accordian. However, as an educator who much admires The Series of Unfortunate Events, here’s my small effort to get more of my colleagues to give them another look.

Now first of all, let me say that I certainly don’t expect everyone to like these books. Snicket warns his readers at the very start that, “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.” Not only are these not for those who would go for works like Loney M. Setnick’s The Pony Party!, but they are also not for kids who are looking for books of true sadness, like the wonderful Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia.

No, these are for those who enjoy the irony of that first sentence, adore the snarkiness of Roald Dahl, relish the language play of Lewis Carroll, can’t get enough of books with endless puzzles and clues, and delight in the macabre works of Edward Gorey. They are for readers who can tolerate ambiguity, dangling story threads, unresolved questions, even “The Great Unknown.”

Some years I’ve had whole posses of Snicket fans in my classroom. There was a group that would spend recess after recess, no matter how gorgeous the weather, busily studying the books for clues. Not this year though. The End sat on display in my classroom for days untouched until a former student came in, saw it, and begged me to lend it to her (which I did, of course). Other former students have come in to puzzle over that final book, the enigmatic Beatrice Letters, and to speculate what, if anything, is going to happen next.

For while adult readers are expressing satisfaction with the end of The End, my young Snicket fans are not. And while adult fans find the numerous dangling questions in keeping with the moral that “life is like that,” the child fans I know are waiting for more. Not only am I too, but I’m confident there will be more.

I mean, Snicket and company (e.g. HarperCollins) have been masterful at playing with his fans, really playing with them. There was, for example, the wonderful website that they created for the then nameless twelfth book, providing daily puzzles that bit by bit revealed the book’s title as The Penultimate Peril.

Oh sure, I accept that The Unfortunate Events are at an end. But Mr. Snicket is still out there seeking answers just as we readers are. Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid is evidently coming in May and Mr. Snicket’s representative, Daniel Handler, has clearly indicated that we can expect more from him in the future.

“I already find your interest on such topics [more books] to be quite unhealthy. But I do admit that Mr. Snicket has expressed interest in some other cases that may have some overlap with the Baudelaires. But I don’t think you should read them and so I think you should forget that I ever said that.” (In this Toronto Star article.)

“I’m sure we will hear more from Mr. Snicket.” (At the end of this NPR interview.)


I’ll wait.

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The Mary Sue Project

Lelac Almagor, a 5th grade English teacher at the National Cathedral School for Girls in Washington, D.C., has a terrific article about a writing activity she does with her students in the new Horn Book Magazine. And it is available for free online right here!

We met on child_lit and then in person when Lelac visited my school to observe my lesson annotating Charlotte’s Web. It is such a delight to meet someone like Lelac, a classroom teacher doing smart, creative teaching with children’s literature. In this article she describes a unit where her students have to write themselves into a work of literature. I’m now trying to figure out if my 4th graders are ready to do it (as it does require a fairly sophisticated ability to identify a particular writer’s style and then imitate it) and, if so, where and when I could stick it into my already-very-full curriculum. But if I was teaching older students, I’d do it in a second! A very, very cool lesson indeed.

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We interrupt this blog for a public service announcement

For those who have asked for a feed link, I think I finally did it! See that little orange icon way at the bottom over on the right (below the label “subscribe to the educating alice feed)? That’s it! Or so wordpress tells me. If it doesn’t work, please let me know so I can fix it.

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