Monthly Archives: June 2011

Happy NOLA and ALA

Yesterday I came back to NYC from New Orleans in the early hours of the morning pleased to see my dog and a slightly cooler and less humid town. I had been incredibly disturbed at what I experienced and saw in 2006 so it was fantastic seeing tons of tourists, streetcars (weren’t there six years ago), and a city more like the one I remember from visits before Katrina.

I spent my first day with friends brunching at Dooky Chase, a fantastic place I’d been to many years ago and was so heartened to see revived after the storm; taking the St. Charles Street streetcar through the Garden District to the end and back; having drinks at Napoleon House; and visiting the Voodoo Museum, a place I first went to years back because of the connection to African spiritual beliefs and practices I knew of from my time in Sierra Leone.

The following day Sarah Ketchersid, the editor for Africa is my Home,  and I went to the Amistad Research Center to look at the original Amistad materials. Since the book is going to be interactive — Ology-like with flaps and envelopes and such — we wanted to see if we might use some of the materials in the book.  The staff was incredibly helpful — thank you so much, Chris and Andrew — and seeing and handling the materials again (as I’d first done in 2006), this time with Sarah who has been equally immersed in the story for a couple of years now, was moving beyond belief. We read Sarah Margru’s letters as well as those from other Amistad captives, their supporters, and even John Quincy Adams.  One side note — editors read differently than you and I.  That is, I read fast and scan and so I would take a look at a letter with its faded-difficult-to-make-out copperplate-script and figure there was nothing for us in it. But then Sarah would keep looking and suddenly point out a reference to the “children” or “the girls.”  Editors know how to hone in and read in a way we don’t!

The convention itself was grand — seeing friends and their books, learning about forthcoming ones, connecting with new folks, eating (and eating and eating and eating…) terrific meals, and enjoying the touristy parts of NOLA.  I don’t wish to make anyone reading this too terribly jealous, but some especially memorable experiences were:

Thanks to all for making my NOLA and ALA time so delightful!

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NOLA Then and Now

I’m off to New Orleans for the ALA convention and look forward to seeing a different city than the one I last saw in 2006. Here is what I wrote to the child_lit list serve after coming back:

I got back early this AM and I cannot write about the convention
without first writing about New Orleans, a city I’d know before as a
tourist and convention-attendee. A place I know now as so sad, so
harrowing, so disturbing, and so full of the most remarkable and
courageous people I’ve ever met.

People like Pat Austin of the University of New Orleans who spent
three days after Katrina in a Baton Rouge motel parking lot in a tiny
Toyota with her sister and eleven cats. Pat who lost her house to a
levee breach, but who is totally and utterly and passionately
committed to her home — New Orleans. Pat, who wanting me to bear
witness, spend most of yesterday touring me in that same Toyota
through her beloved city. 9/11 made a New Yorker out of me just as
Katrina has made Pat more devoted to her hometown than ever.

Pat had shown me photos when I saw her at NCTE in November and again
when she stayed with me in March, but I have to say they and news
coverage had not prepare me for the magnitude of what I saw yesterday.
I think it is not possible to appreciate it unless one is in it. The
unsettled feeling I had around the convention center and the Quarter
(with so many places still closed and boarded up) was nothing compared
to the feeling I had yesterday on my tour with Pat.

She began by pointing out to me the miles and miles of destroyed cars
under the highway we drove along. They were being brought there from
all over, a dreadful Katrina automobile graveyard. I’d probably seen
them on my way in from the airport, but hadn’t known what I was
looking at.

She next took me through the Lower Ninth Ward and the adjoining
neighborhoods. Pat had taught there years ago and had been there many
times since Katrina and so was able to point out specific landmarks
to me. We drove around there for hours. The only analogy I could come
up with was being at Nazi concentration camps — that is, how the
vastness of the devastation really hits home when you are physically
seeing it rather than experiencing it in photos or film or in words.
And seeing, so many months later, lace curtains in a window of a
collapsed home, a tricycle atop of pile of destroyed home stuff, the
official markings (which Pat translate for me) indicating the death of
people and pets, the ironic communications (“Baghdad”) and the
heartrending pleading ones (“donations needed for rebuilding”), the
signs (for lawyers doing claims, for people needing evidence, for
businesses specializing in demolition and rebuilding), the workers
(say a group having a lunch break in a playground), empty businesses
with signs as if they were open (strips of fast food places and other
familiar businesses) — all destroyed.

Worst of all was the horrible eeriness of emptiness. The sense of the
thousands who lived there, the ghosts of a vibrant and busy community,
of people who had worked to buy these homes, now uninhabitable. Mile
after mile after mile after desolate mile.

We then went to Pat’s neighborhood, to her house. She’d shown me the
photos back in November, but again there is no comparison to the
experience of being there. Of standing in her living room and seeing
the remains of her library stuck on the floor. Seeing the beautiful
chandelier which feels like the only thing the water missed as it
stopped a foot or so short of the ceiling. The sodden scratching
post. The waterlogged copy of Pat’s own children’s book (THE CAT WHO
LOVED MOZART
) placed by her in the newspaper holder in front to remind
those who came of those who lived there.

After that inexpressibly sad experience Pat took me to her new home.
What a joy to see that she has a lovely new place that she is making
beautiful with new and old. (For example, she showed me a photo of a
plush toy Babar in the midst of her old home’s destruction and then
showed me a washed Babar on the new bookshelf next to his book.)

But I’m not done for then she took me to the wealthy areas near the
lake that were as destroyed as those in the poorer communities we’d
already been to. She took me by the infamous levee break, by the
university run out of trailers, by homes being raised on pilings as
now required by the local government, by churches being restored, by
well tended gardens in front of gutted houses, by a remarkable
Vietnamese temple all bright and restored among desolation, by FEMA
trailers and storage units in front of elegantly expensive homes, and
by more and more and more. She explained, she pointed things out, she
kept apologizing for overwhelming me. Yes, I was overwhelmed, but it
was important that I saw. I still feel that I don’t have the right
words to express all of what I saw.

As for the convention itself, it was sad too. As much as everyone
wanted it to be normal, it wasn’t. The exhibitions were quiet, much
more than other times. Maybe it was just me, but there was a subdued
quality to many of the events and receptions. Remembering New Orleans
before, it was hard for me not to notice the difference and so walking
from place to place, to event or reception, it was difficult to forget
what had happened there only months before.

Yes, there were happy moments, of course. Watching Shannon Hale in a
red dress dance in bare feet up to the dais to receive her Newbery
Honor was joyous as was Chris Raschka’s homage to Karen Breen as was
Lynne Rae Perkins’ beaming face. Oh, and Chris’s duet with Norton
Juster was great fun too. I (usually a curmudgeon about this sort of
thing) proudly wore my “I LIKE MIMI” button (done in the style of the
old “I LIKE IKE” button) to honor Mimi Kayden who received a life-time
achievement award. Bill Joyce had to rescind his invitation to enjoy
absinthe (evidently the W Hotel wasn’t willing to host something still
illegal), but the mint juleps weren’t bad.

But what I’m coming home with and still processing clearly is not the
ALA convention, but New Orleans. I sure hope they can come back; I
really really really really do.

And from all I hear they have.  Can’t wait to witness it for myself!

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In the Classroom: Nothing But the Facts

A few days back I was in a rollicking debate with Marc Aronson at his blog over the recently released results of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), this one focusing on history.  Disgusted by the 4th grade test I wrote in one of several comments:

I’ve been studying the questions for the fourth grade test and they got me crazy. I want to know at one point in the school year the test was given, did the kids study, etc etc. As for the Chicken Little “The sky is falling because they don’t know what Lincoln did” business, as Gary Nash and others have pointed out in various publications over the years, it was ever thus.

My curriculum is history-centered, but it is deep engagement and not the sort of superficial kind those fourth graders would have had to do well on that assessment. Teaching to this particular test isn’t going to make for better citizens, people, etc etc that I assume is what people want in the long run (or do they just want kids to be able to say what Thanksgiving is about evermore)?

I have not noticed a focus anywhere on memorizing and retention of facts when people fuss about schooling today. Some of the questions actually asked the kids to think, but far too many of them are simplistic fact-based ones.

At my school teachers sometimes express SHOCK when a class of fourth graders doesn’t know something in history, say indeed details about Lincoln, and my response is why should they? We don’t do a massive US history survey in third or fourth grade where they’d be exposed to Lincoln and I bet even if we did there still be many who wouldn’t remember. In my opinion what would make them remember would be the sort of deep engagement Myra [Zarnowski] is talking about and that ain’t gonna happen if they have to be ready for a test with questions such as these.

Yuck.

And so I’m now gratified to see Nick Paumgarten’s equally skeptical take on it in The New Yorker with the money quote from one of my favorite thinkers about kids and historical thinking:

“We haven’t ever known our past,” Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford, said last week. “Your kids are no stupider than their grandparents.”

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Michael Sims’ The Story of Charlotte’s Web

My personally annotated copy of Charlotte’s Web is a sad-looking thing, a paperback edition that was already showing its age in 1990 when I plucked it off my classroom library shelf to use at a Princeton University summer seminar on classical children’s literature. Having never particularly cared for the book (too soppy), I figured an old copy would do me just fine. Twenty-one years later I’m still sorry. By way of a close reading, the brilliant Uli Knoepfmacher showed me just what an extraordinary book Charlotte’s Web is and, using that tattered paperback, I’ve been doing the same for my fourth grade students ever since.

This long personal history with one of America’s great children’s books caused me to approach Michael Sims’ The Story of Charlotte’s Web with a great deal of trepidation. I was somewhat assuaged after seeing that Sims had previously annotated one of White’s and my favorite poetry collections, Don Marquis’s archy and mehitabel, but still wary.  What, I wondered, could anyone bring to White’s opus that hadn’t already been said elsewhere and, most likely, better?  Having read it I can now answer: plenty.  Sims gives White and his story a bright new light —- refurbishing known information in an engaging way and adding in here and there new (at least to me) bits as well.  Beautifully written and researched, the book is well worth anyone’s time, not just those already acquainted with Charlotte’s Web and its author.

Sims makes clear his path from the start — his focus is on the aspects of White’s life that connect to Charlotte’s Web. It may be that those more well-versed in his biography than I will feel there are missing parts, but I was most satisfied with the way Sims brought in details I knew such as White’s childhood love of nature and writing, his family, and his early love of Maine. And I enjoyed tremendously the small elements that were new to me, say  Sims’ careful consideration of what the young Andy would have read — reviewing, for example, what else was in the editions of the well-known-at-the-time St. Nicholas Magazine to which the young White contributed. And his overview of the debate going on nature writing between those who were more scientifically-inclined (e.g. John Muir) versus those who went for a more dramatic and fictionalized approach (e.g William J. Long) was new and fascinating to me.

Slowly building toward the creation of the book itself, Sims gives us White’s development as a writer at The New Yorker, his writing of Stuart Little, his family life, and his experiences as a farmer in Maine.  He also gives us a lot about spiders, both general information and a history of White’s particular fascination with them. As for the actual writing, publication, and reception of Charlotte’s Web — even though much of it was familiar to me,  I was engrossed in Sims’ telling.

And so here I am, chip off my shoulder, to recommend this book without reservations.  Michael Sims’ The Story of Charlotte’s Web is not only for  E. B. White fans and lovers of Charlotte’s Web, but for anyone who enjoys a thoughtfully researched and written work of literary nonfiction.

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Thinking of My Father

My father, who passed away three years ago, continues to be a major inspiration for me.  In honor of him and the day here is a post from a few years back that captures a tiny bit of what he was all about.

Born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1922, my father Lewis J. Edinger fled with his mother to America at the age of fourteen; his father chose to stay, hoping to ride things out, but was deported and killed. Years later, as a newly minted PhD, my father took whatever jobs he could find; one of those was in Montgomery, Alabama at the time of the bus boycott.  I was reminded of this at yesterday’s event with Claudette Colvin and so here are some excerpts from my father’s memoir about that time in his life.

I got my haircuts at Maxwell Air Force Base from a black barber with unsteady hands named Raymond Parks  — a negro for polite white Montgomery society, a “n-” for most of the whites, and a darky for those who might say one and think the other. Raymond’s wife Rosa was a seamstress I had never head of until she was arrested. She had refused to comply with a city segregation ordinance that required her, like any black, to give her seat in the front of a city bus to a white man and find one in the back. Legend had it that Rosa Parks was defiant because she was simply too tired to surrender her seat. Actually it was a deliberate protest against the all-pervasive racial discrimination by a prominent activist of  Montgomery’s black community. Her arrest started the now famous, well-organized boycott of all the city’s public transport by half of its population. Fifty years after that unforgettable experience I remain proud to have had some part in it.

Early on I had an opportunity to challenge Martin Luther King Jr. on adopting Gandhian non-violent principles for the boycott. I owed our meeting to my wife Hanni and, more directly, to a mutual friend, Virginia Durr, a white woman from a prominent family who played a role in the boycott. She and Hanni had become friends through the small local chapter of the League of Women Voters that often met at our place and then through our membership in the Montgomery branch of the anti-segregationist, interracial Southern Conference for Human Welfare. At that—for me memorable—meeting with King I told him that while Gandhian tactics wore down law-respecting Englishmen in India they could not overcome white segregationists in Montgomery. Virginia Durr set the outside agitator –me — straight with an anecdote.

A debutant and prominent member of the Junior League in Mobile, the young Virginia was sent out of the Deep South where she was raised to get a degree from Wellesley College in Massachusetts. When she came to the dining room for her first breakfast she found the only available seat was next to a black girl and promptly returned to her room, true to her segregationist upbringing. Her grandpappy had fought and died to preserve Southern ways, as she put it to me, and her family expected her to remain loyal to a tradition that put negroes in their place below and most certainly not next to whites. That’s what she told the dean to whom she rushed to explain her position, whereupon that lady told her that if she could not abide by the rules at Wellesley she was free to leave. As she found that impossible Virginia stayed on and learned to live by new rules. And that, the knowledgeable Southern insider predicted, was how it would go with the segregationist rules of Montgomery once they had been declared unconstitutional. And indeed, respect for the law carried the day after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the city ordinance that triggered the precedent-setting, non-violent protest movement led by King.

Some incidents in our direct involvement with the boycott remain unforgettable. One was the impressive evening when a few of us white supporters were just for once allowed to stand in the back of a packed church to witness one of the  mass rallies that  sustained the commitment of the blacks. It took the form of a Baptist religious service with one after another of the local clergy evoking ever more fervent supportive responses from the congregation, capped by shouts of “who is the king – he is the king” when the boycott leader appeared for the climax.

Another time Hanni was driving our young cleaning woman  home when she was flagged down by a Montgomery policeman. He gave her a ticket for an alleged traffic offense, a mild form of harassment in light of what others in our support group experienced. A librarian living alone was driven by ever more threatening anonymous phone calls to commit suicide.

When the boycott did not end quickly the board of Montgomery’s city commissioners joined the radically-segregationist White Citizen Council and that led our little group to draw up a petition in which “we white citizens of Montgomery” asked them to reconsider such an action directed against the black half of their constituents. We decided to submit this petition if we got enough signatures to make an impression and then a work colleague and I approached those we thought would sign. Some did, others would not. It was an unpleasant surprise when supposed liberals from the North lacked the courage to stand by their expressions of anti-segregationist convictions. Phony excuses were induced by fear of McCarthy-style retribution.

Our principled position was put to the test when we asked a visiting black historian Hanni knew from New York for dinner. It seemed a great idea until it struck us that the parents of children Monica played with in our complex would then no longer let them do that. Reluctantly we decided that we could not let our three-year old suffer for principles that were beyond her understanding and moved the dinner to friends who lived in a house and not an apartment.  We thought it the right decision but were never entirely reconciled to it. It left us with a better comprehension of family conformism in Nazi Germany.

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Shan Tan on his Readers, Hollywood, Loneliness, and Other Aspects of the Creative Life

The brilliant Shan Tan does a wordless interview at Der Spiegel.   Wonderous.

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A Taste of Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck

Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck is wonderful, but will not be out for a few more months. Meantime, here’s a video that gives you a good taste of it:

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In the Classroom: Kate Messner’s Real Revision

There aren’t too many children’s book writers who also are full-time teachers. Kate Messner is one. Making a splash with her first book, The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. by winning the E. B. White Read Aloud Award for Older Readers and many other accolades, Kate continues to steadily write books for a variety of ages (picture books, middle grade novels, chapter books, etc), is active online, does school visits, teaches middle school English, and enjoys her family. Count me as VERY impressed.

At some point not too long ago she mentioned that she was working on a book for Stenhouse, a publisher of professional books for teachers (who happened to have also published one of my books way back when).  That book, Real Revision, is now all set to publish on June 22nd and you can get a complete sense of it today by reading an online version of it here.

I’ve read that online version and it is outstanding. Kate knows the realities of teaching writing in this time of tests and standards, knows middle school kids, and knows firsthand the ups and downs of writing.  She does a remarkable job connecting this all in a style that is pleasant, practical, and frank. I love the way she takes on the familiar-to-any-classroom-teacher woes of young writers and gives practical suggestions as to how to address them. Say the plan-or-not-plan conundrum, the contrary student writer, and so much more that will strike anyone who has spent substantive time in a classroom as real, real, real. Additionally, she shows just how she is able to manage this sort of real revision while also managing the realities of teaching in a time of tests and standards.  While the heart and soul of the book is Kate’s practical classroom material, there are many added touches such as quotes and suggestions from a range of published writers, a comprehensive appendix, and list of resources.

Kate Messner is the real thing and so’s this book. Highly recommended.

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Huck, Ethel, Dorothy, and Maddy

I just finished listening to Charles Portis’s True Grit and was then pleasantly surprised by a bit of back matter — an essay by novelist Donna Tartt who also narrated the audio book.  All three were excellent — the Portis novel, Tartt’s narration, and her essay.  The Coen brother’s recent film version of the novel brought quite a bit of attention to Portis who evidently had been a bit overlooked in recent years.  I’d not been aware of him at all and once I read that the Coen brothers did the movie because they loved the book so much I was eager to read the book myself.

In her essay “The Great, Abiding Pleasure of True Grit” (originally written as an introduction for a 2005 edition of the book), Tartt describes first reading the book as a child and then again and again and again as she grew up along with others in her family.  (Oddly, True Grit was one of the books recommended for “Young Men” in the infamous Wall Street Journal YA feature last week.)  I enjoyed her explication of the different characters, but I particularly appreciated her consideration of the book’s connection and context to other well-known books.

Like Huckleberry Finn (or The Catcher in the Rye, or even the Bertie and Jeeves stories for that matter), True Grit is a monologue, and the great, abiding pleasure of it that compels the reader to return to it again and again is Mattie’s voice.

She even references one of my favorite books, Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters.

Mattie’s narrative tone is naive, didactic, hard-headed, and completely lacking in self-consciousness—and, at times, unintentionally hilarious, rather in the manner of Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters. And like The Young Visiters (which is largely delightful because it views the most absurd Victorian crotchets as obvious common sense), a great part of True Grit’s charm is in Mattie’s blasé view of frontier America. Shootings, stabbings, and public hangings are recounted frankly and flatly, and often with rather less warmth than the political and personal opinions upon which Mattie digresses.

She also manages to get in Moby Dick, Buster Keaton,The Wizard of Oz, and Roald Dahl.  Highly recommended.

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In the Classroom: A Young Teacher

I’ve been a classroom teacher for a long time now and am grateful to be in a school that supports and values my way of teaching. It makes me very happy to spend my days with children who are talented, creative, and eager to learn. It also makes me very happy to work with a cohort of talented and committed colleagues, veterans like me as well as those relatively new to the profession. And it is the latter I worry about when I read yet another diatribe against our profession on how we educators are failing America one way or another. Will these newer to the profession, in this time of tests and standards and accountability, still be creative teachers?  Will they be able to ignore the calls for simplistic and limited teaching?

Yes.  Yes, they can.

I think today of a young woman who came to my school five years ago as an associate teacher, working in five fourth grade classrooms. She made her mark immediately, embracing every aspect of her position. Grammar?  Deadly, right?  Not with this teacher who thought hard about it and came up with creative and innovative lessons. During recess she was eagle-eyed, paying particularly close attention to the most vulnerable students.  And when a head teaching position opened up, there was absolutely no question that she would be the one to fill it.

Over the next four years this young teacher, while being a remarkable teacher for her own students, also brought so much to the fourth grade curriculum in general.  For our study of forced immigration she developed a unit on the Gullah who have been shown to be directly linked to the people of Sierra Leone.  At her suggestion and with the school’s financial support she and another teacher went to the Gullah’s annual Heritage Days celebrations.  And she didn’t stop with that, but kept thinking and considering the way we taught immigration through the year.  At our meetings and informally she spoke about her ideas, ways of adjusting and tightening our overall social studies curriculum.  Thanks to her it is now clearer and tighter.  Connecting to language arts to the immigration theme she developed an intriguing journey assignment which she presented at the 2009 NCTE convention. Additionally, she considered and added immeasurably to other aspects of our language arts curriculum and our math as well.

Moving beyond the fourth grade this extraordinary young teacher embraced other opportunities at the school — chaperoning high school students on trips for foreign language and service learning, taking on the high school cheerleaders and making them a force to be reckoned with, and heading up the 4-6 math department among much more. Recently she received a Spirit Award from our parent association for all that she did for the school community.

And now she is —  this bright light in education — moving on.  Happily getting married this summer she is relocating and will be joining the staff of another school –fortunately one that also encourages creative and innovative teaching, one that does not ascribe to the harsh rhetoric of the times. We at my school will miss her terribly and envy her new colleagues and students who will be the recipients of her thoughtfulness, creativity, and joyful approach to learning. Still I’m gratified to know that this superb young educator will continue to prove the pundits and naysayers wrong — with her America’s children will be in good hands for years to come.

Thank you, Ms. Lesley Younge (on the left with the poet Elizabeth Alexander and myself).


Also at the Huffington Post.

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