Category Archives: In the Classroom
As part of a year-long exploration of immigration, I’m currently teaching a unit on African Immigration at the time of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. And thanks to Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos’s Sugar Changed the World, I’m much more informed about sugar’s place in all of this, notably in the West Indies, today better known as the Caribbean. Thus, my wary interest in “On the Caribbean Rum Trail” in today’s Travel Section of the New York Times. At first there seemed to be next to nothing about the hideous history behind rum’s creation in this part of the world, but then as the article goes on, the reporter shifts gears, focusing more on history.
Nearby Saint-James [a Martinique distillery], the biggest, was overrun by French tourists lining up for rides through the cane fields on a Disneyesque “sugar train.” In its museum in a 19th-century Creole house, I pondered rum’s iconography: old ads depicting happy plantations with cheerful slaves, women with madras headwraps and seductive smiles.
My musings led to a dialogue with Michel Fayad, distillery manager and former history teacher. “Our whole history is wrapped up in this alcohol,” he said. “But what is it? Depends who you ask, yes? For the European visitors, it’s holiday. To the bekes” — white Martinicans, colonial descendants who still run the bulk of the island’s economy and all but one of its distilleries — “rum is pride. To blacks, locals, it’s also colonialism, slavery, alcoholism, sadness. We drink Champagne at weddings. Rum is for funerals.”
And powerfully ends it with this:
But during an audio tour that thoroughly covered rum history and production — maps, diagrams, photo exhibits, French-accented voice-overs — I decided that here lay the educational apex of distillery-hopping. I wandered through the plantation’s sculpture garden and, reflecting on the legacy of the liquid I’d been trailing, spotted something remarkable: blood on the leaves. A massive red statue of the word “Blood,” poised before a picture-perfect cane field. It evoked, of course, the Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit,” about lynchings in a pastoral Southern landscape: “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,” she sang. This scene, stunning yet haunted by perennial pain, struck me as perfect homage: Behold a spirit whose legacy contains all the paradoxes and complexity of the wistfully beautiful region that gave birth to it so long ago.
As a teacher in a private school I am not currently required to follow the Common Core State Standards. That said, because I am a teacher, I am following closely the discussion about them, their implementation, issues, and so forth. One resource I’ve come across is the Achieve the Core website created by Student Achievement Partners, who describe themselves as “….a non-profit organization working to support teachers across the country in their efforts to realize the promise of the Common Core State Standards for all students.” As for the site, they state the following:
This website is full of free content designed to help educators understand and implement the Common Core State Standards. It includes practical tools designed to help students and teachers see their hard work deliver results. achievethecore.org was created in the spirit of collaboration. Please steal these tools and share them with others.
So I decided to check out a few of the ELA/Literacy “Common Core-aligned sample lessons with explanations and supporting resources.” And the ones I looked at were so full of problems that it made me wonder who is vetting them as worthy of teacher use.
One that I looked at particularly closely is on Charlotte’s Web. (I came across it by looking through their lessons for fourth grade. I can’t link to it directly, I’m afraid, as it takes you to a word document of the lesson.) Because I feel I’m pretty expert at the teaching of Charlotte’s Web, I was curious about the lesson they had on the book. And I found it very problematic. The questions seem to suggest it is a play version of the book, but no reference for it is cited. No edition of the book or play is given although there are page numbers given for various questions. The level of questioning is simplistic, surprising given the desire of the Common Core creators to make experiences with reading more complex and rigorous. Since I feel White’s book is a wonderful one to use with children as an entry into close reading, the lack of it and very low-level engagement recommended in this particular lesson was something I found despiriting. It looked similar to the many poor lessons about the book I have seen over the years.
The final task is to “Write an essay explaining what makes Charlotte ‘no ordinary spider’. How do these special qualities help Wilbur? Use evidence from the story to support your answer.” That makes me so sad — there is so much more to this book. The major themes of the book (say that of life and death) that fourth graders are completely capable of discussing are completely missing from this incredibly muddled lesson plan.
I then also looked at a lesson focused on a single chapter from the book, “Escape.” It is evidently to be taught in five sessions over five days, 45 minutes each. I can only say that I’d curl up and die if I had to spend that much time with that particular chapter. Sure, it is a fun one, but it barely even gets to the serious themes of the book. While I could perhaps see spending more than a period on “The Cool of the Evening,” or “The Last Day,” even then I couldn’t see spending five periods on them or on any one chapter of any book. Further, in these five lessons there is little about the wonderful opening that was White’s original beginning of the book or anything much on the glorious writing itself, say White’s extraordinary use of language to convey sensory details. Now THAT I could and do spend quite a bit of time on (but still probably not a full period, much less five).
At the end, students are asked “Describe what lesson(s) Wilbur learns at the end of the story. What in the text helps you to know this?” The answer provided is:
Wilbur learns that sometimes we aren’t ready to accept the consequences for our actions/decisions. He also found out that he was too young to go out into the world alone.
Hmm…I don’t think that the first sentence is the point of the chapter at all. (I’m guessing it is more likely something the writer of the lesson wanted to emphasize for his or her own reasons.) The second is closer to what I think White had in mind, relating it more to the theme of growing-up that runs through the book. Yet to take five days to study this one chapter in isolation from the whole book — I can’t even imagine it.
Then there is the culminating task that is again about the moral lesson:
Wilbur has second thoughts about his choice to escape. First, describe what it means to have second thoughts about something. Then, use evidence from the text to explain how Wilbur’s second thoughts show that sometimes we are not ready to accept the consequences of our actions.
Nothing against moral lessons, but again, I don’t believe that is the main point White wanted to make.
I looked at a few more lessons and none of them seemed any better. So just be wary, folks, of some of the lessons being touted for Common Core.
I’ve been curious about the attention now being paid to the skill of close reading, something I began doing with my 4th graders decades ago. Judiciously. By that, I mean I only do it enough for the children to see how much pleasure they can take in the experience, but not enough for it to become a chore. Frankly, some of the current suggestions I see for close reading concern me because they seem utilitarian in the extreme and leave out the joy that the experience can be.
Joy? Yes indeed. Many years ago I was fortunate enough to spend a summer studying children’s literature in a scholarly manner and one of my favorite aspects of it was doing some close readings of parts of the books we were exploring. I wanted to see if I could help my 4th graders have the same experience and so returned to my classroom that fall and gave it a try with E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. It turned out to be a fantastic experience, one I now do every fall. I’ve written about it in books and articles, talked about it in presentations, and have been thrilled that other teachers have taken the idea and run with it. Now with close reading being so on everyone’s radar I hope some do read about how I do it and perhaps use some of those methods in their own classrooms.
Here are some posts about my teaching of close reading with Charlotte’s Web:
- Reading Charlotte’s Web
- In the Classroom: Annotating Charlotte’s Web
- In the Classroom: 4th Grade Scholars
- Charlotte’s Web Redux
I also do it with a few pages of Mourt’s Relation, a primary source of the Pilgrims and have written about that lesson as well in articles, books and in various posts including this one:
My 4th graders enjoyed my reading aloud Kathi Appelt’s latest, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp (my take on it is here) and so when some of them were at loose ends, having finished a big project their peers were still working on, I suggested they make a mural of the book. (I love making book murals! See the one we did of The Graveyard Book and this one of When You Reach Me.) After talking through a few ideas, I left them to it. After a… er…redolent day when they used undiluted mod podge to create a swampy background, they drew and cut and researched (old cars) and just had fun sticking in their favorite elements of the book. For a bit more about it and Kathi’s visit to our classroom, check out this post on our public 4th grade project blog.
There are many books out these days written by adults about social aggression — novels for children and teens and others, often nonfiction, for concerned adults. And sometimes there are firsthand accounts from children and teens themselves. Say by a former student of mine, Natasha Lerner, who has just started high school. She is a blogger at Huffington Post Teen and has just written a remarkably insightful blog post about her just-completed and often painful middle school years: “Middle School.” Highly recommended.
Two teachers in recent blog posts had some interesting points to make about meeting authors.
In “Fangirl” Donalyn Miller writes about often feeling starstruck when coming into contact with her favorite book creators.
Meeting authors isn’t like meeting Cameron Diaz to me—it’s like meeting Picasso. Writing is an art. Authors are artists—painting images with words, sculpting worlds to explore, evoking emotions that make me feel more alive. When you are a fan, reading is art appreciation.
In “Authors Demystified” Katherine Sokolowski writes movingly about how and why her meetings with Katherine Paterson were so special and distinctive from meeting other authors.
I think that when I was a kid authors were removed from us. I never for one moment believed that I could be one – that was something revered and special reserved for a chosen few. I didn’t know how you got to be that lucky, but knew that would never be in the cards for me.I didn’t know any authors. None ever came to the cornfields of Illinois so I assumed authors lived in magical worlds – or at least not rural towns like mine.
My entire goal as a teacher is to change this for my students. I want them to know authors, and illustrators, as I do. To demystify this profession. To make them cherish their words – and beautiful illustrations, but also see them as people.
Like Katherine I too did not meet any authors growing up. But I have to say I wasn’t interested in them, just in their books. Say Madeleine L’Engle. In 5th grade I desperately wanted my own copy of her now-rather-forgotten And Both Were Young. I was besotted with this teen novel which involved a Swiss boarding school (I’d spent time in European schools), a shy protagonist in a new school (I so identified with her having moved a lot), and a sweet romance. And so, after taking the book out of the library over and over, wanting to own it I started copying it out into a notebook, giving up after three chapters. (I don’t believe there was a bookstore in East Lansing with children’s books at that time, certainly the idea of buying it never occurred to me.) Yet for all my love of the book I never thought about its creator. Not once. Never thought to write a fan letter or find out anything about her.
Things are different and the same today. Different in that the Internet has made virtual connections between readers and book creators much more likely. As a result of my online connections I’ve met a number of book creators in real life and consider many of them friends. And so while I admire what they do I also think of them as regular people who have ups and downs in life as we all do. I want my own students who have access to information about authors in a way I never did to appreciate them as artists in the way Donalyn describes, but also to know that they are just real people as Katherine notes.
But what makes me happiest is what is still the same for my students — falling as deeply in love with a particular book as I did at their age. While they can easily get a copy and don’t have to resort to my crazy attempt to have my own, they still love books to tattered shreds, read them over and over just as I did. Sometimes I’ll suggest to such a kid that they might want to write to the author, but generally they aren’t interested. They just care about the book.