Monthly Archives: January 2007

Daniel Radcliffe’s Johnny

The second season of the HBO series Extras is underway with a very hilarious episode this past Sunday featuring none other than the very-randy Daniel Radcliffe. The creator and star of the show is Ricky Gervais who also created the original BBC series, The Office. Extras is about the movie business; each episode involves dour Andy (Gervais’s character) and his close friend Maggie working as extras on a movie. Like The Office this series is parody that is very close to real life — one minute you think they are over the top, the next you are squirming with discomfort, and still the next you are feeling unbearably sad for Andy or Maggie.

In this episode Radcliffe is starring in an adventure/fantasy as some sort of overgrown Eagle Scout. Hilariously he comes on to thirty-something Maggie in the most arrogant-celebrity-adolescent way you can imagine. There are many wonderful scenes, but I think my favorite is his etiquette lesson with Dame Diana Rigg. And someone put them, where else, on YouTube here. Enjoy!

On the show’s website you can vote on “Who has a better chance of doing it with a girl, intercourse-wise?” My choice is definitely Radcliffe in a scout uniform!

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Grappling with Greatness

The bestowing of awards and honors always raises the issue of greatness. As soon as the latest American Idol is revealed, the league’s Most Valuable Player celebrated, or the Newbery medal announced the debates begin — were these winners truly great?

When I was a distance runner it seemed pretty easy to determine greatness in that sport — someone like Greta Waitz who won nine New York Marathons would have been easily agreed upon. In the higher echelon of overall sainthood-level greatness, few would disagree with, say, Nelson Mandela. But what about books and their creators? Are there any that most of us rabid readers would agree are great? And does it matter if it we are adults determining this for an audience of children?

To me it doesn’t matter. In fact, I’m generally wary of placing too much value on child response. (Sorry, kids!) I’ve had fourth graders who were familiar with a lot of books (usually because they were avid readers themselves, but sometimes because they had been read to a lot), thoughtful readers and listeners and valued greatly what they had to tell me about the books they read. But I’ve also had fourth graders who had not yet read widely, who were just becoming readers, and had simplistic notions of greatness who still were very comfortable telling me what made one book great and another not (“boring” being often the kiss of death — more likely I suspect a synonym for “too hard” not that they’d admit that.).

Quite a few of my students right now, for example, if asked would call Eragon a great book. Why? Some (the avid readers) would give reasons related to their engagement with the story, the characters, and the world Paolini created. But others (for whom this may be the first book of this length they have ever read) have spoken to me of their admiration of it because the author was sixteen when he wrote it, because they made it into a movie, and — most significantly — because it is popular.

Popular. This issue is quite the sticking point when it comes to book awards and the bestowing of the crown of greatness. This year I’ve watched Eragon read by children who would otherwise read realistic fiction, prefer sports stories, and who would otherwise never take on such a long book. These readers work their way through it proudly — for them simply being able to do so and then become part of the crowd that read the book is what makes it great. Illogical? Perhaps, but this is the way of the classroom, the way children often make decisions about what to read and what is great. In other words, popularity often rules among children.

And that is to be expected. The social issues of childhood —- popularity, inclusion/exclusion, best friends (anyone see the latest episode of Monk?) cliques are front and center in the lives of these books’ intended readers. And if that is the case, all things being equal they may well gauge greatness by popularity. As do many adults who work with children, understandably. That is, how great can a book be if only a few kids like it?

Pretty great, I think. “When we are confronted with a delicate, odd little novel, that pretends to no encyclopedic knowledge of the world, that offers no journalistic signposts as to its meaning, that is not set in a country at war, or centred around some issue in the papers, we seem to have no idea how to read it.” writes Zadie Smith in her wonderful Guardian article, “Fail Better.” Last year’s Newbery winner Criss Cross anyone? It is the fact that we can’t fall back on our tried and true ways of reading, that we are challenged to create new maps for reading, that I am made to think beyond the immediate scope of the book — these are some of the reasons why I think Criss Cross is great. Popularity has nothing to do with it.

And despite all our fervent belief in choice, in the individual, in personal viewpoints, Smith points out that we are mostly reading by system. That a particular ur novel comes into being and then there are bunch more just like it — once we know how to read a particular one, all is copacetic. I think here of A Series of Unfortunate Events. That snarky intrusive narrator (new to child readers if not to adults familiar with Sterne, Dickens, and their ilk) is now quite common (dare I say popular?) in children’s books — having read Snicket it is easy to read others in that system— A. N. Bode’s Anybodies say or M.T. Anderson’s Thrilling Tales. (Oddly enough, Snicket’s a case of popularity being damning. Oh how inconsistent we adults can be — dismissing Criss Cross for its small child readership on the one hand while dismissing A Series of Unfortunate Events for the opposite reason.)

Coincidentally, cartography is also referenced by Deborah Stevenson in her September/October 2006 Horn Book article, “Finding Literary Goodness in a Pluralistic World.” Notes Stevenson, “….that just as one learns writing by writing, one must learn reading by reading. We each of us have an individual map of literature, constantly being redefined on multiple axes every time we read…. A new book gets slotted into the constellation according to its relationship to what’s already there, ‘good’ is a book that’s in some ways like the books of its kind that have already been judged good, and not so much like books of its kind that have been judged lacking….” (p. 514.) Stevenson both recognizes the experienced adult reader and the importance of the intended child reader in her article. “…the adult-child gap, though, isn’t so much the forgetting as the additional knowing, the broader awareness of literature and art as well as the inuring through repetition to many life events (using the potty is no longer a cause for household celebration once you’re an adult, and really that’s just as well.” (p. 517.)

I’m running out of steam here, but this is a topic that is going to be at the front of my mind as I read a lot of children’s books this year, try to figure out which one I think is the greatest, and then try to persuade 14 other people to agree with me.

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Sleepy in Seattle

“Go home” were the welcome words of one of my companions after tiring of watching me try desperately to stay awake through dinner Saturday. And so, passing on Campagne‘s clearly scrumptious desserts, I did. Back at the Grand Hyatt Seattle, I groggily pushed the switch that electronically lowered the shades (can I tell you that is one very cool hotel?) and was out like a light.

Jet-lag aside I had a fabulous time in Seattle attending Midwinter ALA. Years ago I attended one of my first NCTE conventions there and discovered that it is one of the best cities around for conventions. The weather (compared to NYC) made walking pleasant, the eating is wonderful/fantastic/extraordinary, and the downtown is just a very cool place to be at any hour.

My congratulations to all the ALA media award winners and to the committees that chose them. I was so happy that I had read and very much enjoyed Newbery winner, The Higher Power of Lucky (and in fact have to congratulate the long-forgotten person who urged me to get the ARC last summer at ALA as she had pegged it as Newbery caliber way back then) and so had a copy to show my students upon my return. Having also read Rules, Hattie Big Sky, and Penny from Heaven, I can say that all three well deserve the honor. All four are books that are very accessible to children and will be read, I’m hopeful, year after year. I must admit I was most excited when the Sibert winners were announced — all are very cool books, but I was especially enamoured with Team Moon and absolutely thrilled that it won.

Since our flight on Monday didn’t leave till almost midnight (seemed like a good idea when we booked and a horrible one while waiting for it at the airport), Roxanne and I had lots of time to play in Seattle and we did! After the press conference a bunch of us got crepes from a place outside the convention center (didn’t I tell you the eating is amazing?) and then found a corner to chat about all that was going on. After some made final circuits of the exhibits we headed to the one and only Pike Place Market and then on the Pan Africa, a restaurant I had found online and was eager to try. It was terrific — while the West African groundnut dish wasn’t quite what I’d have gotten in Sierra Leone, it was still very tasty as were the other dishes as well.

After gelato nearby, Roxanne and I ambled over to Pioneer Square where we followed a guy wearing one into the Utilikilts store. Anyone who knows her will not be surprised to learn she bought one and wore it for the rest of the day. After a quick wander through the inviting Elliot Bay Bookstore we went on BILL SPEIDEL’S UNDERGROUND TOUR . I had done this years ago and I recall it a bit differently (say a more obvious street and a more teasing ghost situation), but it was still fascinating and fun.

By this time my sleep deprivation was kicking in. We hiked to the Red Lion Inn to go to the ALSC/YALSA/AASL reception, then back to the Grand Hyatt for a bite before the airport. There we both conked out for an hour, got on the plane, slept until JFK. (My neighbor by the window noted that the fact that all three of us took Ambien may have presented a problem if we had indeed had to do our exit row duties.)

I picked up a ton of 2007 ARCs and shipped them home — and so my year on the Newbery begins!

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Zadie’s Smith’s matter of morals

Part II of Zadie Smith’s brilliant Guardian essay, “Read Better” is now available here. Thanks to Linda Lowe for the link.

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The Diamond Age miniseries

Well, I thought the following was exciting:

From GalleyCat: “Among the programs in development at the Sci-Fi Channel for 2007: a six-hour miniseries based on Neal Stephenson‘s The Diamond Age. Stephenson will be adapting his “post-cyberpunk” novel, which won the 1996 Hugo for best science fiction novel, for executive producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov (who previously collaborated on the TV shows K Street and Unscripted, as well as the motion picture Good Night and Good Luck)”

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Zadie Smith on the best way to fail

I am besotted with Zadie Smith’s essay “Fail Better,” in yesterday’s Guardian.  The woman thinks, reads, reflects, reads some more, and continues to ponder while writing with incredible depth, intelligence and panache.

In this piece Smith addresses some of the most fundamental truths of fiction writing  — lifting the veil so to speak, on some of the most difficult realities of her art.  She points out the contradictions inherent in the very attempt to write, factors in failure, considers the revelations of self, craftsmanship, delusion, myopia, talent, and selfhood to name just a few in her thought-provoking article.

After much bluntness about writing and writers, she ends with a focus on readers and reminds us that “A novel is a two-way street, in which the labour required on either side is, in the end, equal. Reading, done properly, is every bit as tough as writing – I really believe that.”  Me too.

With the ALA book awards to be announced a week from tomorrow, various Mock Newberys being decided,  and other lists of the best children’s books of 2006 being produced, this essay really hit home for me. That is, it reinforced my belief that what makes a book great and award-worthy is something that goes beyond audience,  something that has more to do with the relationship developed in the act of reading between a talented writer and a talented reader whatever their age.  As Smith notes, “The ideal reader steps up to the plate of the writer’s style so that together writer and reader might hit the ball out of the park.”

A long and  demanding read, but well worth it.  Highly, highly, highly recommended.

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Teaching with Blogs: Children Commenting

After each child posted to his/her blog, we invited them to comment on each others’ blogs. They had some idea of this already from the comments most had received on their amazon reviews (thanks, Chris!), they had written them in their journals, and so I felt confident that they would write them thoughtfully and sensitively.

But a different problem arose almost immediately — the social dynamics of the classroom being replicated in the commenting. That is, some children were getting multiple comments while others were getting none. As soon as I noticed this, I wrote each child a comment and arranged for each to comment on three other blogs; thus, each child will eventually have at least four comments on their first post.

This made me think about this interesting tension between our desire to give the children more freedom to write when and as they wish while also needing to be aware that by doing so we also give them the freedom to exclude by simply commenting on some blogs and not others. The children are aware of how to write the comments, they are kind and supportive. But this lifelong issue of inclusion and exclusion is much trickier, one I’m sure I’ll be grappling many times as I explore blogs in my classroom.

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Teaching with Blogs: Our Launch

Yesterday we introduced the blogs to my 4th graders and they managed beautifully. Worried that the kids might get bogged down in technical troubles we had a whole crew of adults on hand to help, but all was copacetic. The children were patient, attentive, and did it all just as we had hoped. Afterwards Ellen (my technology teacher-partner) and I were floating on air!

The class was well prepared; all are fairly competent with computers as they’ve been using them pretty much their whole lives after all. This school year they’ve already done lessons on Internet searches (developed and taught by my librarian colleague, fairrosa), those amazon reviews, blog-like journal entries and responses, and lots and lots of writing.

Yesterday’s lesson was mostly to give them a sense of the blogs’ environments, how to log on, how to post/comment/read, and so forth. Each step went beautifully! Along the way we talked a lot about safety and security. As soon as Ellen and I are confident that they understand completely all aspects of these issues (e.g. never writing anything that might identify them or their classmates) and how to write comments on each others’ blogs (e.g. they need to be supportive always) we will make their blogs public.

Until then you can visit our class blog with our initial posts from yesterday on it. And stay tune for more on this topic!

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Newbery 2008

I’m on it, the 2008 Newbery Committee that is, which means I’ll be reading A TON of books this year. Perhaps not as many, I’m told, as I’ve had to read for the NCTE Notables committee, but I suspect I’ll be reading some of them over and over and preparing very differently for this award. The NCTE committee has very specific criteria related to language arts instruction and we chose thirty books; Newbery is not nearly so straightforward. We award one medal to “the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published in the United States during the proceeding year.” I suspect it is easier to decide what is notable for language arts instruction than what is the most distinquished work of children’s literature of the year. The “I know it when I read it” gut response is not going to fly, I suspect, when I meet up with my committee mates next January. And so, I start out this year feeling awed, honored, and hopeful that I’m up to the task and that we chose a book that is truly a winner in every sense of the word.

Now just to clarify what I’m allowed to say and not say here, my chair Nina Linsday, points out on her soon-to-disappear-blog, that while, “All actual committee discussions, lists, and voting are confidential forever” we committee members may voice our own opinions about books under consideration. Indeed, the Newbery manual itself states that, “Committee members are urged to discuss books under consideration with others throughout the year to obtain a variety of critical opinions. However, it is important to remember that, in these discussions, committee members may only express their own opinions, and may not quote the opinions of other committee members or indicate in any way which books are under consideration.” (pg. 14)

And so, I’m planning to continue to do what I’ve already been doing on this blog since I started it and on the various lists like child_lit for years: write and talk about books I’ve read, books I’ve read aloud to my class, and other books about which I have something to say. Some of these may be books under consideration for Newbery, some may not. Either way, as Nina notes, “Individual committee members, though, HAVE to be able to always state their individual opinions about books, exactly so that they CAN discuss books throughout the year and form well-thought justifications.”

So here’s my plan — to read, read, listen, read, think, read, consider, read, talk, read, blog, read, write, read, opine, and hopefully help select a book that stands the test of time.

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Teaching with Blogs: Others Doing It

Once I became interested in doing this I started looking around to see if there were other teachers doing the same thing. Here are a few I came across in my brief travels to date. If anyone knows of others, especially those working with kids the age of mine, let me know!

  1. The Fisch Bowl
    This is a “staff development blog for Arapahoe High School teachers exploring constructivism and 21st century learning skills.” While these are high school teachers, they are incredibly creative in using technology in imaginative ways so I find this blog and the linking ones (the different teachers have class blogs too) very worthwhile.
  2. Tell the Raven
    This is a “community writing project for my Grade 4 students in Fairbanks, Alaska. The Raven totem pole stands in the middle of our playground. Our stories go out to the world.” This is one of the fewsites I’ve found where students the age of mine have their own blogs. Their teacher also has a very interesting blog, Borderland.
  3. A Really Different Place
    This teacher has also set up individual blogs for her middle school gifted and talented students. “…. Students will learn to be safe and responsible social networkers. They will understand intellectual property and copyright issues. Students will have the opportunity to write real and relevant content which is viewed by an authentic audience. The content may be original thoughts or stories, comments in response to peers or response to reflection questions posted by teachers as blog entries or threaded discussions…”
  4. WatsonCommon
    This is the blog of a high school English teacher. In a recent post, he wrote, “Originally, I started this blog as an experiment to figure out how to use blogging tools, where they might fit in an English class, and what it feels like to participate in a collective, ongoing dialogue about education. Now I find myself re-focusing and redirecting.”
  5. 2 Cents Worth David Warlick is clearly a major voice in educational technology these days.
  6. Bud the Teacher Another really thoughtful high school English teacher.

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