Monthly Archives: April 2007

Much Ado About Something: The Campaign to Save Book Reviews

There’s been a lot of discussion on blogs lately of book reviews — where they are published (e.g. newspaper, literary print journal, literary electronic journal, personal blog, or something else), who they are for (e.g. librarian considering what to purchase for a collection, a person looking for a book for herself, a parent looking for books for his child, etc), and so much more.

Recent changes in newspapers’ commitment to book reviewing caused the National Book Critics Circle to initiate A Campaign to Save Book Reviews. They’ve had a number of people weigh in on their blog, defending newspaper book reviews. They’ve also received criticism that their focus on print publications is a slap in the face to blogs. And so today, they have a post on their blog responding to this.

There is such a paradigm shift going on at this point with the resulting tensions fascinating and understandable. Who knows how it will all fall out?

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Robert Pinsky on Difficult Poetry

I grew up among intellectuals, admit to being one, and like to teach kids the joys of intellectual activity as well.

Now I read many sorts of things in many ways. To my mind there are many ways to read with pleasure. Roger Sutton suggests a high school course in reading (“… designed to demonstrate the breadth and methods of reading in one’s life quite apart from the pursuit of educational degrees.”) that does sound fun. Ironically, I have always known how to read for pleasure the sort of genre literature Roger is proposing be central to his course; what I never have gotten enough of is reading the difficult stuff with great teachers. In fact, what I wish I’d had in high school wasn’t a course of the sort Roger proposes, but teachers who taught the books we did read with passion. I didn’t particularly like some of the classics I read, but I bet that I would have found the experience much more interesting and rewarding if those teachers teaching those books had done something to get me to look at them in a way that was exiting and stimulating.

Which is sort of what Robert Pinsky is all about. As it is National Poetry Month and tomorrow is Poetry Friday (when I will be slogging through pouring rain with my 4th graders at Plimoth Plantation). I draw your attention to his article “In Praise of Difficult Poetry: the Much Maligned Art.” He’s discussing poetry for adults, but I think it applies to poetry for kids just as much. I mean, there is an awful lot of lightweight poetry for kids too. Fortunately there is lots of great poetry that they can dig their teeth into as well, in just the way that Pinsky suggests.

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Kids Writing Historical Fiction: All Sorts of Research

As I’ve mentioned here before, I spend much of the year with my fourth grade students studying historical fiction; at the end they create their own works of historical fiction about the Pilgrims. I’ve written about how we begin, especially their work with primary sources. To motivate them to get the basic facts we did a Pilgrim Jeopardy game and now are on to the really fun part — the kids have created composite main characters and are “interviewing” them. That is, they are using the same questions they used for their fall immigration oral history interviews to create an imaginary interview with their composite Mayflower passenger.It is amazing how just about all the questions still work. (The only ones that don’t are those asking about how they learned English and about their progress in citizenship.) And they make great research questions. The kids have to really dig deep to figure out how their characters would describe their old countries (England or Holland in the early 1600s). They use books written for children and adults, primary sources, and some excellent web sites.

The absolute best research source for them is our trip to Plimoth Plantation. The folks there do a brilliant job of recreating the settlement as accurately as they can based on the material available. In fact, our whole unit is the result of my meeting someone from Plimoth long ago who told me about the place and sparked my imagination. The rest is….as they say…history! And so tomorrow Dalton’s whole fourth grade is off for their two day trip back in time. At the moment the kids are far more considered about the long bus trip and we teachers about the weather (doesn’t look good for Friday), but I guarantee that we will all come back in awe once again of the whole experience.

We will go first to the Mayflower 2, a recreation of the original ship which is populated by actors playing passengers as if it were April 1621. We’ll stop by the teeny weeny Plymouth Rock and then walk through the actual location of the original settlement to Burial Hill. I love doing this because the kids really can see exactly why they chose the spot. We then go to the Plantation for a colonial dinner and various activities (writing with quills, colonial games, dressing like a Pilgrims, etc) before bed (sleeping bags in their perfectly okay classrooms — we don’t sleep in the Village itself).

The next morning we go to the 1627 Pilgrim Village which is always just wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! My kids are so ready for this. They have questions related to their research all ready to go! The actors are always wowed by our students, they know so much and have such great questions. We also go to the Wampanoag Homesite which the kids love.

Then back on the bus, more videos, and home before dark. An exhausting and exciting two days always. And the following Monday — the kids will be ready to dive into those imaginary interviews bring all to them all the research they did while away.

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Filed under Historical Fiction, History, Teaching

Tilapia in the Lunchroom: My Year in Hell

For all we know, there is a disgruntled, shell-shocked first-year teacher somewhere on the Upper East Side, so overburdened with parent-teacher conferences, with field trips to Tuscany, with students begging for extra homework that he or she is already working on “Tilapia in the Lunchroom: My Year in Hell.”

Charles McGrath, “From the Foxhole” New York Times, April 22, 2007

August
I have wanted to be a teacher all my life. And at last I’m getting my chance —-I’m going to be teaching third grade at the best private school on the Upper East Side of New York City. It is a dream come true!

September
Sure wish I’d known Tony Hawk had been a visiting scholar last year before I tried the skateboard during recess. Fortunately, one of the parents is a plastic surgeon and took care of me pro bono. He said the scar would fade with time.

The school chef is French. Hot too!

October
Tilapia for lunch. Told Chef Amelie that it is my favorite fish.

Parent teacher conferences. Kids are begging for more homework. Guess I’ll take the principal’s advice and try Trollope.

November
Tilapia for lunch four times this month. Chef Amelie has really pretty eyes.

They are almost done with the Barchester books and again pleading for more homework. What to do? What to do?

December
Did some SAT prep tutoring in Vail over the break. Some of the kids were kind of young, but I think their parents are right — with college admissions being what they are seven isn’t too early these days. Made enough for the down payment on that condo I’d had my eye on. (Amelie came too and cooked lots of tilapia. Yum!)

January
Parents are telling me that the kids are finding Tolstoy too easy. I’m thinking maybe Dante in preparation for the spring Tuscany field trip.

February
More parent teacher conferences. Evidently the kids are complaining about the school food — too much fish the parents said. I wonder if it is because they are reading Moby Dick now?

March
Spring Break. Amelie and I went to Cancun. Didn’t go well.

April
No tilapia in Tuscany. No Amelie either.

May
Chipped beef twenty times for lunch this month. Kids want to know what happened to the tilapia. Jeez, can I help it if we’ve got a new chef who is a retired Army mess officer?

June
I don’t blame them. Really I don’t. But it ended quickly once I pointed out that college admissions might not consider a food fight in the lunchroom, no matter how well planned, a form of community service.

Anyway, doesn’t matter to me — I’m out of here; one of the parents runs a hedge fund and I’m starting there next week.

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Teaching with Blogs: The Miss Rumphius Award

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I’m so excited! I’ve just been awarded The Miss Rumphius Award for “… your impressive ideas for how to use a weblog to support classroom literacy at your Edinger House blog site at http://blogs.dalton.org/Edinger.”

 

Members of the RTEACHER listserv present the Miss Rumphius Award to educators who develop and share exceptional Internet resources for literacy and learning. It honors teachers who make our world a more beautiful place, like the title character in the book Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. Because Miss Rumphius scattered lupine seeds wherever she went, we use this flower as the symbol for our award.

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Reading Aloud Casey

Dear Casey,

Yesterday you came up in a chapter I was reading aloud to my class* from the forthcoming Candace Fleming title, The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School. You see, the fourth grade teacher in the book decided to hold a poetry contest and one child won by reciting from memory all fifty-eight lines of Ernest Lawrence Thayer’sCasey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic.” Nice, don’t you think? Especially given your….um….unfortunate experience in that poem.

Anyway, I finished the chapter at the end of the school day so today I started by reading your complete poem aloud. I decided to read from my favorite version of it, Christopher Bing’s absolutely glorious picture book version. Full of fake newspapers, tickets, ads, money, and even ripped paper the book is simply wonderful. As is the poem. Thayer really hit the nail on the head with his wonderful parody of the serious poems of his day (and I’m guessing one of his targets might have been the then enormously popular Longfellow).

The kids listened riveted. When I finished there were such smiles! One or two told me they knew what was going to happened because the last line was in yesterday’s chapter and a couple others had seen the book when much younger. But they all enjoyed your story tremendously. Perfect for this time of year!

A very different version of your book (that I told my class about not having a copy at school) is one by Kids Can Press illustrated by Joe Morse. Bet you’d like that one too!

Sure hope the good citizens of Mudville didn’t ride you out of town on a rail and that you came back in the next game.

Sincerely,

Monica Edinger

* We’ve now put a photo of the class on the banner of the class blog for anyone interested!

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Filed under History, Reading Aloud

Books and Imaginary Play

“Do children still know how to play?” asked Joanna Ridge Long in last Sunday’s New York Times. In her review of two picture books, Not a Box and The Birthday Box, each of which provides a creative-playing-with-a-box model for young children, Joanna hits on something that has been bothering me too for some time— that such books reflect a grown-up concern, “… that creative play is becoming a thing of the past. Some merely portray imaginative activities, as if children might not think to invent them.”

This seems somehow related to the following idea being planned for a new playground in New York City:

In an unusual public-private partnership, the city is developing a playground near the South Street Seaport that will have trained ”play workers” on hand to help children interact with features of the new playground: water, ramps, sand and specially designed objects meant to spur the imagination.

“New York Tries to Think Outside the Sandbox,” New York Times, January 10, 2007

I’m one adult who is confident that children are still able to initiate creative play straight from their very own imaginations, perhaps, but not necessarily stimulated by a story, any story, without any adult input whatsoever. Joanna reminds us of the creative play of the children in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, back in a time when stories out of books most likely generated imaginative play. In my childhood it was often television shows. My fourth grade friends and I cared for our imaginary horses every recess after seeing The Wonderful World of Disney’s “Horse Masters.” (And, believe me, no teacher or parent did anything other than let us be.) When I began teaching it was “Star Wars” the children played — running about with their X-wing fighters (with me simply observing and giving them space to play). Today it is more likely widely imaginary drawings (often comics), computer games (I hear much discussion of these, many of which tap at their imaginations in new ways), or television — say an erzatz “American Idol” competition. From what I can see and what I hear, children still know how to do it — they don’t need our help.

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The two books Joanna reviewed reminded me of a favorite book of mine when very young, Beatrice Schenk de Regniers’ A Little House of Your Own. What I loved so much about this book was that it validated my love of creating imaginary homes. I adored doing this be it a squirrel nest of pine needles under some trees in the backyard (perhaps inspired by an animal fantasy like The Wind in the Willows) or a camp for my runaway stuffed animals (most likely coming from my favorite kids-on-their-own-book, The Boxcar Children) or some doll accouterments (definitely coming from Rumer Godden’s Miss Happiness and Miss Flower as I still have them).

Other than providing me with materials and time, my parents let me be. (In fact, my poor father built us a playhouse in the backyard which we rarely used, much preferring to create our own places further back under the trees.) I think we adults can still let children be. And give them books with great stories that spur their imagination as the ones above did mine.

I just hope adults buy Not a Box and The Birthday Box to reinforce existing imaginary play, not because they feel the books are needed to initiate it.

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