Daily Archives: September 3, 2007

Great Chicago Stories

Great Chicago Stories is a creative and engaging website full of history for kids.  It is the result of a two-year NEH project at the Chicago History Museum where teachers, museum educators, historians, technologists, professional writers, and a national board of advisors  (I was one) collaborated to create engaging stories, lessons, and units for students in both elementary school and high school.

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Thoughts on Newbery: Reading Old and Young at the Same Time

The Newbery award is given to a book, “… for which children are a potential audience. The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations. Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen, and books for this entire age range are to be considered.”

This means I look at books meant for a, say, five-year-old, trying to determine if it is well-written from the perspective of someone who has read and studied and knows a lot about good writing (I think:) and also sort of channeling the five-year-old I once was and the five-year-old I never was, but others were and are.

While I, no doubt like every member of every Newbery Committee, want desperately to give the award to a book that large numbers of children will genuinely love, that will be read by generations to come, that is not my charge. It matters not a whit that an eligible book is a hit among children. As long as it reads like a book for young people, even if only a handful of those young people read it, that is all that signifies.

But it is challenging. And I try to figure out all the time if certain things matter more to children than to me as I read. If a book has a beautifully paced plot that I adore in my guise as child reader, but an over-dependence on adverbs that irritates me as an adult reader, which takes the prize?

As I mulled this over I was intrigued to come across Eloise Millar’s Guardian blog post, “The Perfect Age for Reading.” Millar began thinking about this topic after reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series and being underwhelmed.

Try as I might, the Cooper books just didn’t do it for me. It might have been the writing (clumsy and portentous); it might have been the fact that any “Dark” that can be beaten back by an 11-year-old just isn’t that chilling … Or perhaps I’m just too old, and the Cooper sequence is of the non-crossover variety that only works for (i) children, or (ii) adults who read them when they were little and use them as a portal back into their own childhood.

So that is my problem too. Am I too old to read certain eligible books? Am I being as fair to them given the many decades that separate me from their intended audience?

Fortunately, there are many eligible books this year that satisfy the picky adult reader that I am and are well liked by the actual intended audience as well. But no doubt, whatever we end up choosing, there will be those who will say it is either not good because it is too popular among the intended-child audience while others will say it is not good because few of the intended-child audience will go near it. If the former, I’m happy. If the latter, I can console myself with the thought that maybe they will go back to it when they are as old as me and will read it as I did — both old and young at the same time.

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Art for our sake

A few weeks ago I read a New York Times article about the kerfuffle over Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland’s new study on art in the schools. They had concluded that art education does not result in improved academic test scores sending many advocates of arts education into a tizzy. These folks were understandably worried that the new study would support further erosion of arts in the school and continued to insist that the arts do help kids in their academic studies, that they do help them do better on the all-important tests.

But Winner and Hetland, while concluding that the arts do not help kids do better in the academics, are not arguing that there shouldn’t be arts in the schools. Not at all. Instead they are pointing out that the arts have their own skills, worthy of study all on their own — and that they need to be in schools because of this. In this Boston Globe article Winner and Hetland describe distinctive and worthy “studio habits of mind” that students learn in arts classes that are worthy all by themselves, not because they prop up academic studies (e.g. math, reading, writing, etc.). These include , “visual-spatial abilities, reflection, self-criticism, and the willingness to experiment and learn from mistakes.”

As I read the article I thought, “Well, I do a lot of this in my language arts teaching,” and so was glad to see toward the end of the article a note that there are teachers like me whose curriculum encourages this sort of thinking.

Despite the pressures to prepare students for high-stakes tests, some teachers and schools continue to use methods similar to those in the art studio. Ron Berger, a fifth-grade classroom teacher in a public school in Shutesbury, Mass., provides an inspiring example. He adopted an arts-like approach to all subjects, including math, language arts, science, and social studies. His students engage in long-term investigations rather than one-shot assignments or memorization. Their work is continually assessed publicly in critiques so students develop the ability to reflect and improve. Projects are “real work,” not “school work” – work that is original and makes a contribution to knowledge.

Yay, Ron! It is easy for me to argue for this sort of teaching because I’m in a private school and don’t have to deal with NCLB. But here is someone who does and can still create a thoughtful, creative, and thinking classroom.

Anyway, enough from me; go read the article: Art for our sake – The Boston Globe

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