Monthly Archives: December 2006

Teaching Dilemmas: Journals or Blogs?





Journals are bedrocks in my teaching practice. On the first day of school I give each child a composition book and a letter from me that begins like this:


Welcome! I am very excited about our year together and hope you are too. We are going to do all sorts of interesting things and I hope very much that you enjoy them. One of these will be corresponding in this journal. That is, we will write letters back and forth to each other. So, let’s begin by introducing ourselves to each other. I’ll go first.

Every week or so after this the children write to me in their journals and I write back. These letters are about personal stuff, thoughts that arise out of our literature discussions (e.g. “Who is heroic in Charlotte’s Web?”), responses to prompts related to the curriculum, suggestions on how to resolve classroom problems, and about their independent reading.

I love these journals. They are safe places for children to communicate with me, especially those children who might be too shy to approach me directly. In them I advise, recommend books, and just connect to my students. They are such great teaching environments, places for my students to develop their basic writing skills as well as their intellectual ones. In these letters they learn to organize paragraphs, to argue effectively, to write a concise summary of a book, to critique effectively, and more. As time consuming as it is for me to write substantial letters back to each of them (as I promise them that if they write a good letter to me they’ll get one back from me), it is worth it.

Last week, feeling a need for something new, I changed the rules. Instead of writing me, they wrote to the class. And now, instead of my writing back to them, they are all writing back to each other. And — duh — I realized that I’d just had them do paper blogging. Those responses they are writing to each other — a form of commenting, of course! And so I began thinking about having them move from their composition books to the computer — to start them on blogs. Only one thing held me back. You may laugh when I write this, but here it is — handwriting.

Yes, handwriting. Pretty much all the other writing my student do is on a keyboard. They are fortunate to each have a Alphasmart to use for the year, a small portable word processor. We also have access to a cart of laptops and so just about all writing is on keyboards. The one place they must write by hand is in these journals. What, I’ve wondered, would happen if they no longer had even that to do by hand. Would their handwriting atrophy before it had even solidified? What would happen to them in the future if they had to compose by hand? Would they even be able to do it if we did not force them to occasionally? However, after speaking to my colleagues, I’ve decided to move forward with the blogs. They reminded me of other places where the children will still be writing by hand. Besides, moving from the journals just seems like such a natural next step now.

I’ll continue to fret about cursive, script, print and whether they will, in the future, be able to write legibly and comfortable using those increasingly obsolete articles — paper and pencil. But if I’m having a blast blogging why shouldn’t my students have a chance at it too?






Filed under Reading, Teaching, Writing

Babble about Bibliographies

Evidently Norman Mailer has provided a 126 title bibliography for his new novel, The Castle in the Forest, causing such a stir in the book world that the venerable New York Times weighed in with an editorial yesterday, concluding:

But readers of, say, William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central have every reason to be grateful for his lengthy bibliography — not as a talisman against plagiarism or a sign of his own learning but as a guide to further reading. In fact, the only real risk we see in a bibliography for a novel is that it will come to be a kind of obligatory disclosure. As far as we’re concerned, novelists are obliged to disclose nothing besides the art of the stories they have to tell.

Hmm…and so how about fiction for young people? Ideally I’d say, no difference. However, in the case of historical fiction, I’m on the fence. I’ve written and spoken frequently about my ambivalence on using these books to teach and learn history. But so many people do promote and encourage educators to use these books in just this way — to inspire, excite, and promote an interest in a particular historical event or period. Because of this and because of my own personal passion for the teaching and learning of history I can’t help but wonder about the research behind such books.

In some cases a bibliography may actually hurt a work of fiction. Some time back, in a bookstore, I looked at the bibliography of a new historical fiction work for children on a topic I know a lot about. The bibliography was so problematic that I was completely put off the book, didn’t buy it, and have yet to read it despite the generally favorable and sometimes glowing reviews.

While I admit that the lack of any sort of information about the author’s research makes me uneasy, I don’t necessarily need an an extensive bibliography for reassurance. Here are how the authors of four recent books of historical fiction I admire do it.

First up is Julius Lester’s Day of Tears. This highly original and moving work is based on a real event, the facts of which seem hard to imagine today and so I appreciate the details and list of references Lester provides in his author’s note. The references are solid, mostly primary sources, and reassure me that he got the details right.

Next in the pile is M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. I’ve already written here about my admiration for this book which gives every impression of being meticulously researched, reinforced by the author’s note. Yet Anderson has made a presumably deliberate decision to forgo a bibliography or any specific references and ends his author note by advising readers, “The origin of the Revolution is fascinating and I recommend that those interested in exploring it further go beyond my brief precis of circumstances to examine the documents themselves and historians’ interpretations of these momentous events.”

My third book is Alan Gratz’s Samurai Shortstop. I was completely drawn into this intense story about life in a late nineteenth century Japanese boarding school. Knowing nothing about the topic I greatly appreciated the author’s extensive notes and bibliography at the end. Without them I suspect I’d have been left uneasy about the historical underpinnings of the book.

My final book is Katherine Sturtevant’s A True and Faithful Narrative which regular blog readers know I adore. While the author does not provide a bibliography in her author’s note, she does provide some primary source references and a sense that, like the others mentioned here, she did copious research.

Interesting, right? One tentative conclusion for me is that novels that take place in unfamiliar cultures and/or involve controversial and sensitive topics work better for me when I’m assured via an author note that the authors have done ample research. Readers, young and old, who want to know more about the history they encounter in a work of fiction should take Anderson’s advice to heart; that is, they should seek out and then “…examine the documents themselves and historians’ interpretations of these momentous events…”


Filed under Historical Fiction, Reading, Writing

Learning About Africa: Second in a Series




Many of the children’s literature bloggers have a tradition of posting poems on Friday. And so in the spirit of the day, here is a lovely book of African poetry. Selected and illustrated by Veronique Tadjo, the poems in Talking Drums give a sense of the vast variety that is Africa.

From the Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) herself, Tadjo writes in her introduction, “Let me tell you a secret; this selection of poems is in fact a story, the story of Africa as told by some of its very best poets.”

The poems are from all over the continent and their subjects are equally wide-ranging from animals to people to death and more. Some of the creators may be familiar names (for example, the Nigerian Ken Saro Wiwa who was executed some years ago), others less so, and then there are some poems with no named authors — traditional poems from a range of cultures. Here’s one:


The European

In the blue palace of the deep ocean
dwells a strange being.
His skin is white like salt
his hair long like plaited seaweed.
His dress is made of fishes,
fishes more charming than birds.
His house is built of brass rods
his garden is a forest of tobacco leaves.
His country is strewn with white pearls
like sand on the beach.

Traditional, Gamma





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Filed under Africa, Children's Literature, Reading, Teaching

Diamonds are not my Friends

This beautiful place is where I spent Christmas 1974; it happens to be a diamond mine in Sierra Leone.

Conflict diamonds, blood diamonds, these terms had not yet been coined when I lived in Sierra Leone. However, diamonds? Everyone knew about them. In Kono, where the above mine was located, people panned for diamonds whenever possible. At night you had to drive slowly along the dirt roads so as not to run someone over. Everywhere you could see the lights of the miners. Everywhere the necessary equipment was for sale. It was like the North American gold rush; everyone and their brother desperately seeking the diamond that would make them rich.

The stories were wild too — of someone hiding a diamond in his mouth, spitting it into an orange when he feared being discovered, and then the orange tossed and the diamond lost forever. Or of someone who swallowed one and then — well, it didn’t end well for him.

In the early 1990s a group of us former Peace Corps volunteers, Sierra Leoneans, and others began meeting here in NYC and in DC, trying to figure out how to get the world to notice the horrible things that were starting to happen in this beautiful country. It seemed hopeless; attention was NOT paid. We eventually became one group, The Friends of Sierra Leone.

For me the worst time was in January 1999. Americans were paying tremendous attention to the horrors of Kosovo. It was only when Freetown was invaded that they finally paid attention to the horrors that were happening there.

I’m not sure I can bear to go see the new movie Blood Diamond. I understand now why my father cannot see Holocaust movies. I lived in Freetown for two years, it was horrible enough to see the actual images of the invasion, seeing a fictionalized recreation of all of it — I’m not sure I can do it.

But about those diamonds. Just so you know, a certificate that the one you bought is not a conflict diamond, not a blood diamond — don’t count on it. If Kono was wild and unruly in 1974, it can only be worse now. Please keep in mind that there are not policemen on every corner checking that the diamonds are honestly mined, honestly bought, honestly sold. No way. Those stories I remember of swollowed and lost diamonds are propably laughable compared to those of today.

In the midst of the war I was in another country and unexpectedly brought to a diamond factory — a place where they were cleaned, polished, and prepared as jewelry. I refused to go in. The country was far from Africa and my fellow tourists looked at me askance and I did understand how they must have seen me — smug and sanctimonious. But I didn’t care. Just being outside that factory made me sick to my stomach.

I just listened to a NPR program on blood diamonds in which someone mentioned that Tiffany has its own diamond mines as a way to assure their customers that their products are conflict and blood free.

Whatever. Just please don’t give me any diamonds this holiday season. Thanks, but no thanks.


Filed under Sierra Leone

Surprises Among the Best

And so the year’s best lists start to arrive. And as always they are as different as different can be. Understandable as individuals with individual tastes make up these lists. On each are plenty of books that make me happy, some that make me wonder, and a few that are delightful surprises. Here are a few of the latter.

Kudos to The New York Times for including Lemony Snicket’s The End on their list. As I wrote about this author already, he isn’t given sufficient due as a really good (dare I say great?) writer for children. I’m thrilled to see this on a list of seven books.

The Horn Book’s Fan Fare List is full of wonderful books that have already gotten quite a bit of attention, but one that hasn’t so far (to the best of my knowledge) is Silvana De Mari’s The Last Dragon. I must admit, despite being an avid fantasy fan, that I feel slightly drowned in dragon books of late and so I didn’t exactly rush to start this one. But once I did I was drawn in immediately. I think what elevates this one above its peers is the language. Poetic and lyrical, this book is ripe for more readers.

Happily some of those readers are at Kirkus which also included De Mari’s book on their best of list. Lots of terrific books show up on this list including one that may not be for everyone, but that I loved. This is James Howe’s Houndsley and Catina. A sweet chapter book that harkens back to those of Lobel and Steig, I am particularly fond of the first story in which Catina decides she is going to be a famous writer. Her kind and generous friend, Hounsley offers to read her effort, Life Through the Eyes of a Cat, all seventy -four chapters and figures out just what to say when the ordeal is over. “‘I am at a loss for words,’ Houndsley told Catina when he had finished reading the book. ‘I am speechless.'” Catina beamed and I did too.

Publishers Weekly recognizes a graphic novel among its nonfiction picks, Siena and Mark Siegel’s To Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic Novel. This book has gotten some deserved attention, but mostly as a graphic novel. Pretty cool, I think, to see it recognized here as a notable work of nonfiction.

To Dance is also on School Library Journal’s list as is, hurray, my beloved A True and Faithful Narrative! One on their list that was a surprisingly pleasurable read for me is Joseph Bruchac’s Wabi. I’ve always admired Bruchac’s work, but his books are often for me very earnest. I usually am unable, as I read, to forget that he is teaching me something. But I was swept away when reading Wabi, the story was so intriguing, the characters so captivating, that I just became lost in the story.

I’ve by no means begun to delve into all the lists out already, but this is enough for now. And so —

to be continued.


Filed under Reading


There was an interesting article in the New York Times last week about the unschooling movement, a form of homeschooling. According to the article, it is “…a philosophy that is broadly defined by its rejection of the basic foundations of conventional education, including not only the schoolhouse but also classes, curriculums and textbooks.” The children in these homes, direct their own learning.

Rejecting the traditional elements of education is indeed not new nor is the idea of putting young learners in charge of their learning. I can think of several schools started by visionaries with ideals that seem remarkably similar to those of the unschooling movement. There is Summerhill, started by A. S. Neil, where students still decide whether or not to go to class, the Sudbury Valley School where students, “explore the world freely, at their own pace and in their own unique ways” and the inner city Albany Free School also inspired by Neil. More recently, here in New York City, a group started the Brooklyn Free School with the, “… belief that all students must be free to develop naturally as human beings in a non-coercive educational environment and empowered to make decisions affecting their everyday lives and that of their community.”

A little Internet research on the unschooling movement brought me to John Holt, whose 1967 bestseller How Children Learn sits on my bookshelf next to Ivan Illich‘s Deschooling Society and Jonathan Kozol‘s Free Schools. Evidently Holt eventually gave up on schools completely and is now considered by many to be the grandfather of the current unschooling movement.

There are several aspects of the unschooling movement that trouble me.

First of all, I think one important aspect of school is the idea of community. A group of varied children, different in ability, interests, family background, and more come together in a classroom to learn together. And this learning is not only what they do by themselves, but also what they do as a group. These children learn from each other, they learn how to adjust and deal with those different from themselves, they learn to compromise, to empathize, they begin to consider when and when not the needs of the group take precedent over their own. My biggest reservation with all forms of homeschooling has always been this missing element. It is something that Neil and the founders of the above-mentioned schools felt strongly about. Their schools have vigorous governments in which everyone (children and staff members) participate equally.

The other aspect that concerns me is my impression that unschooled children are even less likely than students like mine (in a highly regarded private school) to deal with problems. That is, children need to deal with disappointment, with things not going right, with (yes even this) occasional boredom, teachers they don’t like, disputes, upsets, and more. Parents, with the best of intentions, want to smooth the way for their children; they do it at my school, they do it to varying degrees outside of school too. But making things always as perfect as possible means that children have no experience dealing with imperfect situations. My school is full of great teachers, but not every child is going to connect with every single one of them. And so they have to cope, how to still learn, how to thrive even when they are not close to a particular teacher. It happens. And children need to have these experiences in order to deal with them as they go through life. And so this shielding against disappointment, against less-than-perfect-educational-experiences worries me. To my mind, dealing with this is an important part of education too, one that homeschooled children are less likely to encounter.

I enjoy teaching a group of children. I love watching them grow, getting to know each individual, helping them become a learning community. And I love bringing to them what I loved as a child. Those projects I did outside of school — making books, toys, costumes, and habitats as well as plays and elaborate fantasy games with my friends and little sister. With the exception of kindergarten (when we did a circus) I can’t recall doing any of this in school. And so I do it now as a teacher. We create books, performances, and more. The sort of things, I suspect, many unschooled children chose to do. But my students are guided by me; I readily admit that. They don’t decide to do an anime of Alice in Wonderland. I do. They don’t decide to do immigrant oral history picture books. I do. And that is, I suppose, the biggest difference between my in-school students and unschooled children. They are indeed in complete charge whereas I am unapologetically in charge in my classroom.

I have known and do know parents who homeschool and understand their reasons completely. When school options are dire, when individual children have experience or learning styles that require special teaching, when children have been isolated, unduly marginalized — there are many many good reasons to homeschool. It is not for me to dismiss any of them. But as a professional and skilled educator I can still comment on my worries about what I think homeschooled children may be missing. And so I do here.


Filed under Teaching