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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Alice in Columbia Land

“Commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the Visit of Alice Liddell Hargreaves to Columbia for the Ceremonies observing Mr. Dodgson’s Birth Centennial,” the spring meeting of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America took place this past Saturday in Columbia University’s Butler Library a scant three blocks from my home.

The meeting being at Columbia, made for something of a full circle for me; you see, I attended my very first Society meeting there a decade ago. We met in an old, dusty classroom (most likely renovated by now), Michael Patrick Hearn* spoke on Tenniel, current president Andrew Sellon presented a lovely theater piece about Carroll, and I first met Leonard S. Marcus who came because he had a new edition of Alice’s Adventures coming out with photographs by Abelardo Morell (highly recommended, by the way).

The following summer I went to an extraordinary centenary programme at Christ Church, Oxford and bonded for life with Carrollians from all over the world. Since then I’ve gone regularly to meetings here in New York and once even zipped over to Toronto for a joint meeting with the Canadian society. When in the U.K. I usually meet up with Mark Richards and others of the British Lewis Carroll Society.

A day before the meeting three remarkably heavy boxes showed up at my building. More Newbery submissions was my first thought until I noticed they all were labeled Dark Horse, a name unfamiliar to me. But not for long. “A kid came by and knew exactly what they were,” the doorman told me. Aha, a comic publisher, I realized! These were the spanking new copies of speaker Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland that I’d volunteered to take over to the meeting. And so early Saturday two Carrollians came over (after breakfasting at Tom’s Restaurant) and together we lugged the books over to Butler where they were snapped up within the hour.

The meeting went beautifully. Our first speaker was Amirouche Moftefi who spoke on “Logical Writings by and About Lewis Carroll.” He was followed by Bryan Talbot who spoke with such passion about his work on Alice in Sunderland. This was the highlight of the meeting for me because Bryan and I are both members of the Yahoo Lewis Carroll Group where he had been keeping us informed about the project for years. I’d seen some of the pages, but to finally meet Bryan, hear him talk about it in such depth, and see the final book was a wonderful, wonderful experience.

I’d invited Betsy Bird to come and so we went off on our own for lunch at Kitchenette Uptown (narrowly escaping the worst of their Saturday brunch lines) and had a grand chat before heading back to get our books signed by Bryan.

The highlight of the afternoon was the dual presentation on annotating by Michael Patrick Hearn and Selwyn Goodacre. It was fascinating. Michael addressed the overall topic of annotating while Selwyn delved into the history of annotating the Alice books in particular. Afterwards they jointly answered a slew of thoughtful questions from the audience.

Next was a screening of the movie Dreamchild. I love. love, love this movie; while definitely a fiction (as the real story is quite different) it is just so lovely. It was filmed at Christ Church, Jim Henson did the puppets for the dream sequences, and it was written by the amazing Dennis Potter. Unfortunately, it is not available on DVD and so I lent them my precious VHS copy to use for the screening. After the formal meeting we all went to a Carrollian’s home for a lovely get together.

Please visit Betsy’s blog for another view of the events including a far more detailed accounting of the morning speakers (as well as a view of the sartorial style of male Society members).

* Michael’s wikipedia entry is not comprehensive by any means, but it gives you a beginning idea of what he has done if not, by any means, all.

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Nothing But Facts!

NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’

Mr. Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times

Twenty years ago E. D. Hirsch struck a provocative chord with Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. In this memorable book Hirsch told us why and then what: a third of the book is THE LIST, chock full of Facts that would have made Mr. Gradgrind very happy. Words like “byte” and “yuppie.” Phrases like “gilded cage” or “read the riot act.” Aphorisms like “three sheets to the wind” and “Win this one for the Gipper.” Names like “Borgia, Lucretia” and “Vulgate Bible.” Events like “Lusitania, sinking of” and “Spanish Inquisition.” Since then Hirsch has written more books and started the Core Knowledge Foundation which has developed curriculum, lesson plans, and more for those who wish to teach Facts.

And now Hirsch has a new book out, The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children. While I’ve read Cultural Literacy and several of his more recent books, I haven’t read this one yet, but I have read Albert B. Fernandez’s thoughtful and astute review of it, “The Almighty Facts.” I highly recommend it. After all, there are aspects to Hirsch’s ideas that are compelling; I too think children need to have a certain amount of common cultural knowledge. And while I can sneer with the best of them at that original LIST, I have to acknowledge that the Core Knowledge material is much broader. The problem, as Fernandez ably points out, is that Hirsch doesn’t seem to be interested in going beyond teaching the Facts to teaching how to Think about them.

To give you a taste of a current school curriculum based on Core Knowledge, check out the Baltimore Curriculum Project Lesson Plans. The fourth grade history lesson scripts for what I would be doing this rainy month (and “April showers bring May flowers” is in the original LIST) if I followed their curriculum are here. They are dense, dense, dense with Facts and full, full, full of a whole lot of teacher introducing, giving, telling, explaining, reminding, and directing. In the four lessons on the page, the word “think” is used once: “Ask: What do you think happened between these kingdoms? (They traded because each wanted or needed something that the other had.)”

“Dickens, Charles” is on Hirsch’s original list; “Hard Times” and “Think” are not.

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Teaching with Blogs: Reflections to Date

Teaching with blogs continues to be incredibly exciting. The biggest problem (as is always the case with something new) is time. Not only time for me to think through what I’m doing, but to plan, to look at other class blogs, to deal with technological woes (e.g. spam, spam, and more spam), for the kids to post (as we’ve got lots of other exciting projects underway), and to read every single one of their posts and comments (with eighteen kid blogs and one class blog it is a lot).

That said, I’m still loving it. Lately we’ve been having the kids simply post various things they’ve written or drawn. Their most recent posts are news articles about their forced immigration unit (an assignment done by a superb associate teacher) and are excellent! (You can read them by going to the class blog here and then to the kids’ blogs which are linked over on the right) I love the way the blogs are becoming electronic portfolios with just about everything the kids have been doing lately.

I’ve also been using the main class blog as another place to post assignments (in addition to my oral directions, writing on the board, in handouts, and on charts). Here’s a Pilgrim Jeopardy one we just did.

The class blog is also a great electronic bulletin board. A week ago I wrote a post here about my plans for a Literary Salon involving “Jabberwocky.” The event took place on Monday and throughout the week a number of kids were creating their own versions of the poem in art and words. Yesterday I was able to put those into a post for all to see.

And then there are those kids who are such avid bloggers that they do way more than what is required. These kids post additional book reviews, poems, and more. Check out c15am, c15ck, c15hu, c15jg, c15mb1, c15md, and c15zb’s blogs to see more!

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Filed under History