Monthly Archives: August 2017

On The Mocking of Bad Spelling

I’m a terrible speller. I came to pre-computer college with this liability coupled with a worse one — an inability to revise due to a terror of writing given to me by an AP high school teacher who told me I need to “work on my writing” but not doing anything to help me. Since all my attempts to revise made things worse, I would hand in first drafts (typewritten, of course), filled with spelling errors. I remember one time I forgot to put my name on a paper and it came back with “Monica Edinger, I presume” written on it by the professor. I always thought he recognized my work by the spelling errors.

Because of this I have always been sympathetic to poor spellers, not attributing it to laziness, carelessness, or anything else. And so I agree with 

  • Criticizing spelling is elitist.

…. Yet there is an even deeper sort of elitism underlying the criticism of spelling mistakes. It stems from people correlating accurate spelling with a good education and outsize intelligence, which is actually incorrect.

There is not much scientific evidence to suggest that spelling well is connected to high intelligence. In the same way that some people are naturally better at arithmetic than others, some are naturally better spellers than others (and some people have lexical disabilities, like dyslexia, that make spelling even more difficult). But if you spell well, you can still do lots of dumb things, and if you spell poorly, you can still be very smart….

  • Focusing on spelling blinds us to content.

….All of this suggests that we are simply giving too much weight to spelling and other typographical mistakes. Focus on what people say, not how they spell it…..

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Cover Reveal for Avi’s The Button War

The distinguished and award-winning author, Avi, has a fascinating and unique new work of historical fiction coming out next June from Candlewick PressThe Button War.

Here is the publisher’s description:

Twelve-year-old Patryk knows little of the world beyond his tiny Polish village; the Russians have occupied the land for as long as anyone can remember, but otherwise life is unremarkable. Patryk and his friends entertain themselves by coming up with dares — some more harmful than others — until the Germans drop a bomb on the schoolhouse and the Great War comes crashing in. As control of the village falls from one nation to another, Jurek, the ringleader of these friends, devises the best dare yet: whichever boy steals the nest military button will be king. But as sneaking buttons from uniforms hanging to dry progresses to looting the bodies of dead soldiers—and as Jurek’s obsession with being king escalates—Patryk begins to wonder whether their “button war” is still just a game. When devastation reaches their doorstep, the lines between the button war and the real war blur, especially for the increasingly callous Jurek. Master of historical fiction Avi delivers a fierce account of the boys of one war-torn village who are determined to prove themselves with a simple dare that spins disastrously out of control.

Here is a note from Avi about the book:

Many years ago, when my late father-in-law observed my young kids collecting baseball cards, he recalled growing up in Eastern Europe, when he and his friends collected (stole) uniform buttons from the ever-changing armies that passed through his village during World War I. That long-ago vignette was the basis for this book.

I think of this book as very different from my other books. Perhaps this will help to explain: When Graham Greene wrote the lm script for The Third Man (one of my favorite movies), he wrote it as a narrative. It was published that way and may be read as a novella. To some degree, I think of The Button War as a movie script, insofar that as I wrote I tried to visualize the book every bit of the way. (Usually I hear my books as I write.) A movie was not my intent, but in the sense that The Third Man was a movie script/novella, so too is The Button War.

Part of my research for this book was to look at many photographs of World War I. Newsreels too. I saw the boys as a real group. Watched them interact. Saw the world in which they lived — and its gradual destruction.

Moreover, I began to purchase the buttons (eBay!) and found them fascinating.

In short, this is a very real book to me.

In another Greene book, Our Man in Havana, he, for me, sums up what The Button War is:

“Childhood was the germ of all mistrust. You were cruelly joked upon and then you cruelly joked. You lost the remembrance of pain through inflicting it.”

And, tada, here is the cover!  Pretty intriguing, wouldn’t you say?

 

On sale June 12, 2018
HC: 978-0-7636-9053-3 • Also available as an e-book and in audio $16.99 ($21.99 CAN) • Ages 10–14 • 240 pages

Candlewick Press

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Total Eclipses of the Sun in Movies

Love the NPR piece, “In Movies,  A Solar Eclipse Means Change is Coming,” full of familiar and unfamiliar examples. Of the familiar, my favorite is the opening number from Little Shop of Horrors and of the unfamiliar, George Méliès’ 1907  “The Eclipse: Courtship of the Sun and the Moon” which you can see below. If you just want to see the eclipse itself go to 3:01. It is wild and pretty salacious too! (You may know Méliès from his “Trip to the Moon,” featured in Brian Selznick’s Hugo Cabret. They did a great job in the movie of recreating both movies and his process.)

Go to the article for the other clips and excellent commentary.

 

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Learning About Africa: Sierra Leone, Mudslides, and Absent Media

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It is the rainy season in Sierra Leone. The country being close to the equator, these rains are intense and this year it has been worse than usual. Early on the morning of August 14th especially heavy rains caused dense flooding and then mudslides that killed hundreds and left hundreds more homeless in and around Freetown.

As soon as I heard of this I looked at my paper of record, The New York Times, and could find nothing when I searched. After a few hours there was a brief AP article. While I got my news of the disaster through other sources I continued to watch the Times because it showed what sort of priority they gave to this. Tweeted them to ask why not, but it made no difference. Eventually some articles appeared and have continued, but you have to look for them as they don’t show up on the front page or even in the World section of their app. (Here’s a good piece also wondering about the lack of world attention on this disaster: “400 dead. Hundreds missing. Where’s the world’s outcry for Sierra Leone’s mudslide victims?“)

Then, even more disturbing to me, my constant retweets and facebook shares of articles (from other news sources) were minimally retweeted, commented upon, or shared either. (My great thanks to those who did.) I’m not sure why not. Perhaps people just weren’t looking at these when they were posted. Perhaps facebook hides them if they are shares or retweets. I don’t know other than it reinforces my sense of how Africa simply doesn’t register in America. Why, why, why is this?

For those who don’t know much about what happened and is still happening in Sierra Leone here are some sources:

I was back in Freetown a few years ago, the first time since living there as a Peace Corps volunteer in the mid-70s, and spent time traveling with a former US ambassador who pointed out to me the deforestation (due to people needing wood to make charcoal), the out-of-control building on the hills impacting the watershed, and the huge increase of impoverished  inhabitants (who came during the war and never left) who have created new dense communities that are highly susceptible to any sort of disaster be it mudslides or Ebola. This is a vulnerable country that needs to be attended to. It is a country with strong historical connections to the US from the Gullah to the Amistad and more.

Horrible things are happening in the US right now. But horrible things are happening in other places too and we need to keep them in our thoughts too, learn about them, consider them, and remember them. It isn’t just the US. It isn’t just North America or Europe or Asia. It is the whole world.

I am a member of the Friends of Sierra Leone, a group consisting of former Peace Corps Volunteers like myself, Sierra Leonean nationals, and others who care about the country. We have a place for donations and you will see a note as to how the money is already on the ground with a local NGO doing good. The article, Sierra Leone Mudslides: How Can I Help?,  is an excellent article with links to various organizations doing good work in country.

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Jews, Antisemitism, and White Privilege Today

Recently I attended a superb workshop at the National Museum of African American History and Culture called “Let’s Talk: Teaching Race in the Classroom.” At one point we were asked to join one of two affinity groups: POC and White. As I was heading to the room for the White group, the leader said loudly something along the lines of: “And Jews are not POCs. Judaism is a religion not a race.” This made me very uncomfortable because, while I identify as Jewish due to my ancestry, I have never had any connection to the religion, and I’ve never considered myself anything other than White. It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone in the room who identified as Jewish and had already spoken from the White perspective would think differently.

A POC friend also in attendance said afterwards, when I complained to her, that she had noticed that several Whites had not moved, perhaps provoking the organizer to make that statement. She also told me that one of the lead educators had told her that until recently Jews were identified as a separate race in the DC area and perhaps that was the genesis of the comment. I didn’t buy that as I was well aware of this being the case in many places around the country and the world, but didn’t see it as how we should think of ourselves. In fact, I feel strongly that far from identifying as a race separate from other Whites, we Jews need to acknowledge and own our White privilege. (See my post from a couple of years ago, “The Holocaust and White Privilege, for my thoughts on this.)

However, the events in Charlottesville and Eric K. Ward’s superb “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism” have me thinking hard about the reality of anti-semitism today in our country. Now a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Center, Ward has a long and distinguished career in civil rights as well as in leading campaigns against hate groups such as those who organized and participated in the Charlottesville event.

Ward’s essay is long, but very accessible to read, and so important for all to know more. Here’s a taste:

Over years of speaking about White nationalism in the 1990s and early 2000s in the Northwest and then the Midwest and South, I found that audiences—whether white or of color, at synagogues or churches, universities or police trainings—generally had a relationship to white nationalism that, at least in one basic sense, was like my own. They knew the scope and seriousness of the movement from personal experience, and—if they didn’t take this for granted to begin with—they were not shocked to discover its antisemitic emphasis. The resistance I have encountered when I address antisemitism has primarily come since I moved to the Northeast seven years ago, and from the most established progressive antiracist leaders, organizations, coalitions, and foundations around the country. It is here that a well-meaning but counterproductive thicket of discourse has grown up insisting that Jews—of Ashkenazi descent, at least—are uncontestably White, and that to challenge this is to deny the workings of White privilege. In other words, when I’m asked, “Where is the antisemitism?,” what I am often really being asked is, “Why should we be talking about antisemitism?”

I still own my White Privilege, but I do also think all of us who are concerned — whatever our identity —need to be aware and informed as to the centrality anti-semitism plays in the mindset of groups like those who were at Charlottesville.  These are dangerous times.

 

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Learning and Sharing: The National Museum of African American History and Culture

After Charlottesville

Learn More and Share More

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As part of a year-long consideration of people coming to America, I teach a unit focused on the Transatlantic Slave Trade to my 4th graders. My colleagues (who, over the years, have been white, black, Asian, and bi-racial) and I (white) are always grappling with how best to approach it as our classes become more diverse, as current events become more urgent, as we learn more. This year, I was fortunate in being able to twice visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The first was in May for a few overwhelming hours and the second was for a full week for a workshop on race (my post on that here) where I was incredibly fortunate to have hours and hours and hours to explore the exhibits. In addition to planning on using practices and activities I took away from the workshop I’m now working with material from their exhibits to improve my teaching, including the creation of a presentation featuring their “Slavery & Freedom” section.  The museum has done a remarkable job creating exhibits that are for all ages and their introduction to the slave trade is handled clearly, thoughtfully, sensitively, and bluntly.

I urge all who can to visit the museum. You can learn how to get the timed entry passes here.

Advance timed entry passes for individuals are released monthly. Our next release for December 2017 passes is on Wednesday, September 6th at 9 a.m. ET. Passes go very quickly when released.

My first visit in May was because of the time I spent on February 1st to get the passes. It takes time, but is worth it.

If you can’t visit the museum there is much more available from them.

 

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John Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters

I was eager to listen to Fuse 8 n’ Kate’s podcast of this week featuring a book I know well, John Steptoes’ Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters. This is a book that, I find, is often tossed in a Cinderella unit without much thought, I have often challenged some of the teaching that happens because of that. While it isn’t a book that should be pigeonholed into any one category — e.g. Cinderella tale, folktale, about Zimbabwe, etc — that is what I have seen happen. In my teaching I’ve used to use it as a textbook example of how not to rely on a work of fiction to teach actual history and geography.

Here’s a repost of something I wrote over ten years ago when I was teaching a course on fairy tales at Rutgers.

Folktales shouldn’t be used, except very cautiously, as windows into other cultures. (Judy Sierra,Cinderella The Oryx Multicultural Folktale Series, pg. 165)

In the Rutgers University grad course on fairy tales I’m currently co- teaching we just finished a lively discussion on multiculturalism. One of the books we considered was John Steptoe‘s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, a beautiful Caldecott honor book that is often used in lessons about Africa because it is mistakenly thought to be an authentic folktale from Zimbabwe. In fact, it is not. Steptoe himself is honest by writing that the book, “was inspired by a folktale collected by G. M. Theal and published in 1895 in his book, Kaffir Folktales. Details of the illustrations were inspired by the ruins of an ancient city found in Zimbabwe, and the flora and fauna of that region.” Unfortunately, few seem to have investigated to see if it really is an appropriate choice to help American children learn about a place that is very far away and unfamiliar to them.

One who has is Eliot A. Singer who writes in his article, “Fakelore and the Ethics of Children’s Literature“:

In The Horn Book Magazine (July/August 1987, p. 478), a reviewer notes of Steptoe’s (1987) celebrated and award winning Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters that the story is a “polished retelling of one from G. M. Theal’s Kaffir Folktales.” The actual title is Kaffir Folklore(Theal 1886), and there is no tale in that collection that remotely resembles the one in the picture book. Maybe getting a title right is a scholarly hang-up, but it does seem reasonable to expect a reviewer who claims something is a “polished retelling” at least to look in the card catalog. To his credit, Steptoe (1988) points out that he was simply inspired by Theal’s book to explore Zimbabwe tradition and come up with his own story, that he “did not write and illustrate a special interest picture book,” one “said to be based on an African tale.” Yet, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters is reviewed, sold, classified, and, awarded, I presume, as an “African” tale.

One of our students, Jenny Schwartzberg of the Newberry Library, tracked down an on-line copy of Kaffir Folk-lore and after reading through all the tales, I feel the one that probably inspired Steptoe was “The Story of Five Heads.” However, the commonalities are minor; Steptoe’s story is really an original, his alone. Additionally, information about Great Zimbabwe (found here and here) indicates a far more tangled history than can possibly be deduced from Steptoe’s story and illustrations.

Our students agreed by the end of our discussions that this book was better used within a language arts unit than in a social studies unit. I agree wholeheartedly!

My conversation with Betsy in the comments of her post went like this (and I hope is okay to copy them over here):

Me: I was puzzled you said that no place in Africa was identified in Mufaro. In Steptoe’s note in the front he writes that it was “…inspired by a folktale collected by G.M. Theal and published in his book, Kaffir Folktales. Details of the illustrations were inspired by the ruins of an ancient city found in Zimbabwe, and the flora and fauna of that region.The names of the characters are from the Shona language….” He also thanks some from the Zimbabwe Mission their help. So It is very much set in old Zimbabwe among the Shona people. This is a book I’ve done a lot of research on and used in various courses. (My concern is that it not be seen as an authentic Shona folktale, but appreciated as an original work. Not sure if it is the case, but too often in the past it was so identified.) Here’s an old post of mine about it: https://medinger.wordpress.com/2007/08/06/learning-about-africa-sixth-in-a-series/

Betsy: Excellent point, but the subtitle doesn’t say “A Shona folktale” or “Zimbabwe folktale”. I might be splitting hairs, though. Thank you for the link!

Me: But it isn’t an original Shona or Zimbabwean folktale, but an original tale inspired by them. In fact, you can you read the likely one that inspired Steptoe here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/afr/xft/xft06.htm (from the book he mentions in his note) and see how different it is from his. And so I think subtitles like: A Shona Folktale or a Zimbabwe Folktale would be incorrect. I find a good model for this sort of book to be Marilyn Nelson’s Ostrich and Lark, an Africana Book Award winner. (http://africaaccessreview.org/2014/02/ostrich-and-lark/)

Betsy: You’re beginning to inspire me to do a post on African folktales, a genre that flourished prior to me getting my library degree. You’re making excellent points about the fact that since this is an original folktale it would be incorrect to say it was specific since it doesn’t belong to that tradition. My question then is whether or not you find the subtitle problematic at all. Would it have just been better not to have a subtitle at all, like Ostrich and Lark, or do you have less of an issue with “An African Folktale” if it places it in context and has an Author’s Note to clear up confusion?

Me: The subtitle is “An African Tale” not “An African Folktale” so that leaves it up to being original. That said, I think the use of “African” in the subtitle is problematic as it reinforces stereotypes of the continent. So I think better to get rid of the subtitle completely and go the Ostrich and Lark route and provide a solid author note (as he did actually)

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