I like “one word” explorations to sum up an experience.

This time the experience was the National Council of Teachers of English Conference (NCTE) held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, November 19-22, 2015. This time my exploration uses the noun “context” which is defined at Dictionary.com as:

1. the parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage, usually influencing its meaning or effect;

2.  the set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event,situation, etc.

An important concept to know is that in the context of any English teacher conference, authors are rock-star-like celebrities that drive well-manner educators at every grade level to act like paparazzi at gala openings; it’s literary fandom gone wild.

Frankly, it’s embarrassing.

Staid teachers will suddenly go stalker-mode, staging selfies and pressing writers for autographs. When they do catch (trap?) an author, these articulate adults -who are capable of controlling legions of adolescents- will suddenly go tongue-tied, lining up to blurt out Hallmark-like sentiments: “love you” “you’re the best” or “you changed my life”…drowning the poor author in a litany heartfelt sentimentalities. At these conferences, authors should know to be careful not to incite such emotional responses.

Which makes me wonder how the author Dave Eggers made it out of the Minnesota Conference Center Auditorium in one piece!

Dave Eggers, writer and 2015 NCTE Keynote speaker

Dave Eggers, writer and 2015 NCTE Keynote speaker

Eggers was the Saturday night speaker (11/21)  where he delivered a heartbreaking speech of humor and pathos dedicated to teachers…and to one teacher in particular. He is the author of ten books including Zeitoun, The Circle and A Hologram for the King, a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. He is also the founder of McSweeney’s, an independent publishing company that also publishes Voice of Witness, a nonprofit book series that uses oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world.

He began by asking the all-educator-audience to picture a 14 year-old boy “covered in zits” with “foot odor”, a friendless outsider, “angry” and unhappy at home. Many teachers did not have to imagine such a 14-year-old; this brand of boy is often seated in their classrooms.

Eggers proceeded to explain how this boy’s anger led to a subversive approach in responding to English writing assignments: the argumentative paper he wrote promoted a bike trip to the inner mantle of the Earth; the  informational essay he wrote warned of the coming sheep apocalypse. When the anticipated confrontation to change topics did not come from his English teacher, the boy channeled energy into the papers….and he became less angry. Both assignments received an A-.

At the end of the year, there was an encouraging handwritten note penned across a paper:

“I sure hope you become a writer one day.”

Eggers detailed how such encouragement from his teacher brought the boy to the school’s newspaper, then to the school’s literary magazine, and then to the attention of the “elders in the tribe” of the English Department.

Heads nodded in approval.

“And because you are English teachers,” he conceded, “and you understand plot…you have figured out that the 14 year-old in this story is me….”

All heads nodded in agreement; they understood the “he is me” context.

“But, what you don’t know,” Eggers stated, “is that my English teacher is here tonight.”

Gasps….and hundreds of misty-eyed teachers stood in applause as the teacher, Mr. Peter Ferry,  rose from the front row to take a bow.

Eggers rushed down to him and handed over a box festooned with a bright red ribbon.

The applause was deafening.

“And what you don’t know,” Eggers continued, breathless from his leap off and back onto the stage, “is that the gift in the box is my latest manuscript…because Peter Ferry is also the person who reads my first drafts…”

More gasps and more applause.

“And what you also don’t know….” paused Eggers again, “is that I have been the first reader of the manuscripts to his two novels.”

Gasping air depleted, teachers could only clap harder in appreciation for such inspiration, and as cliché it sounds, there were teachers shouting their (intellectual) love for Eggers. But for the height of the stage, he could have been mobbed.

He  held off the crowd by answering questions, and this gracious opportunity provided another familiar educational context…the  Q & A interview. As Eggers is also involved in his own educational enterprise in supporting writing centers, he shared pictures of 826 Valencia  the first of eight tutoring centers for schoolchildren, 6-18.

His efforts began in San Francisco in 2002 with the plan “to close the academic achievement gap for under-served youth in the Bay Area by connecting caring adults to young people in need of individualized support.” In describing the activities at this writing center, he explained that the original space was zoned for retail, and that they needed to open a store. The ship-like surfaces of the former gym gave them the idea to open a pirate store, where the pirate supplies profits helped offset the rent to the writing center.

Eggers has spoken often about  826 National including his TED talk titled Once Upon a Schoola video (in one of its various iterations) is here below:

In sharing the stories of Mr. Ferry, 826 Valencia, and 826 National with English teachers, Dave Eggers served as an illustration of the the word context.

The etymology of the word context comes from the 15th C. Latin contextus meaning “a joining together”. The word context was originally the past participle of contexere, which means to “to weave together,” from com- “together” + texere “to weave, to make”.

Eggers’ speech recounted the initial context that joined together a teacher and a student – Eggers and Ferry- in order to “to weave, to make” good writing. His message to teachers in the context of this NCTE convention was powerful as he thanked the audience saying, “I had incredible uninterrupted string of great English teachers!”

That message helps teachers to encourage the students in their classrooms, the new authors and the next celebrities – and to encourage them “to weave together” stories to share…and to create those contexts where one may write to a student, “I sure hope you become a writer one day.”

Hey, Minnesota:

Warn those comma splicers….Alert those passive voice abusers….Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 9.48.19 PMThis third weekend in November is the traditional weekend for the annual National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Conference, and thousands of red-pen toting grammarians are descending on the city of Minneapolis!

My first time attending the NCTE Conference was in 2003 in New York City. I came back with new lesson suggestions, helpful tips on grading papers, and the names of fellow educators that have since grown into my own network of professional educators.

I came back inspired.

Since then, I have been fortunate to attend several other NCTE conferences as it moved annually to different cities across the country.  I even got the opportunity to present at conferences in 2010, 2011, and 2014.

This year I will be attending the NCTE conference with a young teacher from my district. Back in January, I submitted an engaging lesson that was created by English Language Arts teacher Caitlin Pinto, a 7th grade teacher from West Haven’s Harry Bailey Middle School.  That lesson was accepted as part of a session titled “Digital Pedagogies and Approaches to Media.”

In her session, Caitlin will be demonstrating how she has has been using social media templates in a literature circles to discuss historical fiction. In our middle school, the designed mashup of Facebook social networking with the format of the literature circle promotes literacy for students as social beings making connections. The inclusion of social media platforms in literature circles allows Caitlin’s students the chance to explore literature through multiple lenses as diverse as the platforms themselves. In addition, in giving her students the choice of different social media as tools to reimagine and evaluate literature shows that Caitlin values the ways that her students communicate.

In Caitlin’s lesson, the social media platforms that are familiar to students are incorporated as the traditional roles in literature circles: the Summarizer is reinvented when a student uses a Twitter template; the Connector is reconfigured when a student uses a Facebook template, the Researcher is expanded when the Pinterest template is followed, and the Illustrator is reimagined with the Instagram template

She will be bringing examples of how this approach has increased the amount that students write about the texts they read.
She will also be demonstrating how she works with students to improve the writing skills and processes that go into creating text.

Her students are excited that their “Ms. Pinto” will be a presenter at this conference. Her fellow teachers are cheering her accomplishment. Her administration is supportive, and her vice-principal even helped arrange for her conference expenses to be covered by the local Rotary Club.

I hope she will return with new ideas for lesson plans, perhaps with new tips on grading papers, and maybe even with her own list of fellow educators as she builds her own professional network.

I have experienced firsthand the power of the NCTE conference.

I know that Caitlin Pinto will come back to West Haven Bailey Middle School inspired.

Dear Teacher,

As the school year moves forward,  full of…… anyone? anyone? 

And you are no doubt planning the next …..anyone? anyone?

How can you get students to be more engaged?….. anyone? anyone?

How do you get them to respond?….. anyone? anyone?

Just wait.

Instead of droning on and asking question after question, just wait.

Three (3) seconds should do the trick.

That was the minimum amount of time Mary Budd Rowe found in order to move students from passive droolers to active listeners. Her seminal study (1972)  “Wait-Time and Rewards as Instructional Variables: Their Influence on Language, Logic, and Fate Control” set the ground work for the use of wait-time in the classroom.

The “wait-time” of three (3) seconds (or more) is the length of the pause or period of silence that should follow a teacher’s question.  In gathering her data, Budd observed classroom behaviors where the time between the teacher’s question and an answer then given by the teacher “rarely lasted more than 1.5 seconds in typical classrooms.” Some classroom observations also revealed that if a student managed to get a response in, teachers tended to ask another question within an average time span of .09th of a second. Budd noted that many teachers engaged in rapid-fire questioning, especially with low-level questions based on recall.

In contrast, when there was a period of silence after a question that lasted at least three (3) seconds, Budd noted a number of positive outcomes for students. The length and correctness of student responses increased, and the number of their “I don’t know” and no answer responses decreased. The number of volunteered, appropriate answers by larger numbers of students greatly increased as well as the scores of students on academic achievement tests.

Even more impressive was the positive outcome for teachers who deliberately waited three seconds or more. Their questioning strategies tend to be more varied and flexible, the number of questions decreased, and their expectations for student performance appeared to change. They increased the quality and variety of their questions including those that required more complex information processing and higher-level thinking on the part of students.

Rowe found that wait-time on the part of teachers increased the amount of “think-time” on the part of students, shifting them from passive to active learning in the classroom.

Building on Rowe’s research, Robert J. Stahl, a professor in the Division of Curriculum and Instruction, Arizona State University, Tempe, published his own research several years later (1990)  Using “Think-Time” and “Wait-Time” Skillfully in the Classroom. In these findings, he constructed the concept of “think-time”.

Think-time can be defined as a distinct period of uninterrupted silence by the teacher and all students so that they both can complete appropriate information processing tasks, feelings, oral responses, and actions. (Stahl,1990)

Stahl noted other variables, including the quality of questions, in improving student engagement. Vague or confusing questions would confuse or frustrate students, no matter how long a teacher waited for a response.

Stahl offered eight ways to identify pauses in the classroom so that teachers could  recognize when and where “wait-time” silence can be effectively used as “think-time” and to see how these could be employed as instructional strategies. Some of these include the Post-Teacher Question Wait-Time that requires at least 3 seconds of uninterrupted silence after a teacher’s clear, well-structured question, so that students have sufficient uninterrupted time to first consider and then respond. There is also the pause identified as Post-Student’s Response Wait-Time is three (3) or more seconds of uninterrupted silence that occurs after a student has completed a response and while other students are considering volunteering. This could be way that academic discussions are facilitated. There was also the Impact Pause-Time when a teach may use a dramatic pause way to place an emphasis on material. This pause may continue for longer periods, up through several minutes, depending upon the time needed for thinking.

Stahl’s research, along with Rowe’s, demonstrated that silence-even for as little as 3 seconds- can be a powerful instructional tool. Those three seconds can be enough to provide time for students to frame their own questions or to finish their previously started answers.

Just think…and wait.

Three seconds.
How hard can that be? (..one one-thousand; two one-thousand; three one-thousand….) Anyone?  Anyone?

Watching a HD live broadcast of a Shakespeare play is a surprisingly intimate experience, even on the big movie screen. The camera zooms in and out capturing the details on set pieces, on costumes, and on the facial expressions of the actors, even capturing a wrinkle or two.
There was a wrinkle or two in the audience as well watching the encore screening of London’s National Theatre production of Hamlet last Thursday night in Fairfield, Connecticut. National Theatre Live is the “groundbreaking initiative to broadcast theatre live from the stage to cinemas around the world,” via satellite to over 2000 venues in more than 40 countries.
Academy Award® nominee Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the title role of Shakespeare’s great tragedy in the National Theatre Live broadcast: http://ntlive.com/hamlet

Academy Award® nominee Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the title role of Shakespeare’s great tragedy in the National Theatre Live broadcast: http://ntlive.com/hamlet

The live and encore screenings of Hamlet allowed audiences in the United States access to one of the hottest tickets in London this season.  The reason? Benedict Cumberbatch was playing the title role. Cumberbatch has made a name for himself in the PBS series  Sherlock (2010) and in The Imitation Game (2014) which earned him a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award, and an Academy Award nominations for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

At 39 years old, Cumberbatch played a bellicose, mid-aged Hamlet.
But while  Cumberbatch was the reason for the crowd, this audience had more in common with Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. While the character of Gertrude could have been a child bride (12-15 years old), the youngest she could be is in her early 30s.
Hamlet is at minimum 12-16 years old, an age indicated in the Q1 or “First Quarto” the short early text of the play. The Gravedigger provides information that Yorick’s skull has been in the ground a dozen years since old Hamlet overcame Fortinbras, and that Yorick used to carry young Hamlet on his back.
But in a later version of the text (Q2)  the Gravedigger says that he has been in his profession since the day that Hamlet’s father defeated Old Fortinbras, on “the very day that young Hamlet was born.” He later adds that “I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years.”That would mean that Hamlet could be at minimum 30 years old, placing Gertrude at over 60 years old.
Anastasia Hille plays Gertrude

Anastasia Hille plays Gertrude

In this production, Gertrude was played by the actress Anastasia Hille as a woman in her late 50s. 10 years older than her co-star Cumberbatch, Hille was regal in each scene, graceful and lithe, her muscle tone noticeable in a brief appearance in a satin undergarment.

The audience clearly enjoyed the broadcast, hinting at familiarity with each scene. There was appreciation for some of the comic staging by the director Lyndsey Turner, including the arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with military play toys as set pieces.
By Act III, there was an detectable level of anticipation for the closet scene, the scene where Hamlet stabs Polonius hiding behind the arras. From Hamlet’s entrance, “Now, mother, what’s the matter?” the audience seemed to tighten, eager to hear how these two would play the scene: he the accuser and she the astonished.
As scripted, Polonius had no sooner hit the floor then Hamlet turned to accuse his mother of murder:
“…a bloody deed! almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.” (III.iv.27-28)
HD cameras closed in on Hille’s astonished Gertrude looking past the bleeding body on the floor and deeply into her son’s face for answers. Cumberbatch’s Hamlet continued in a frenzy, pointing to a portrait of his father on the wall and to the reproduction of his Uncle Claudius’s face on a cheap souvenir commemorative plate:
“Look here, upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.”(III.iv.54-55)
The tension from this exchange was palpable as Hamlet’s accusation spilled out into the air;
“….Ha! have you eyes?
You cannot call it love; for at your age
The hey-day in the blood is tame, it’s humble,
And waits upon the judgment:”(III.iv.67-70)
Translation? “Mom, you can’t possibly be swept off your feet–or make decisions based on sexual passion-you are too old!”
Audience response was immediate…a round of snorts and chuckles, that gave way to a few loud guffaws. This over 60 crowd, with its disproportionately high number of females in the audience, was having none of son Hamlet’s logic:
A mother’s heydey? Not over.
Gertrude tame? No way.
“What Hamlet doesn’t know,” they sniggered, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Was it the venue that let them feel more free to laugh?  Was it their way to express comfort with their sexuality? A response from a culture that celebrates “cougars” ? A reaction from the regular dose of TV ads promoting Viagra… for both sexes? I was struck at how this particular audience interpreted the line, disrupting the dramatic tension in so public a manner.
Their interruption was brief. Whatever empowered their response soon passed, and upon the entrance of the Ghost, the audience quieted.  The play continued without interruption, and by the end of Act V, the stage was littered with bodies.
This Hamlet in HD beamed by satellite to audiences around the world did not lose any of the emotional impact, and proves that regardless of how the production is presented, Shakespeare’s statement that “the play is the thing” is true for audiences. The National Theatre Live experience shared with aging baby boomers proves that who is in the audience matters as well.

What, How, and Why do you write?

The National Council of Teachers of English, The National Writing Project, The New York Times Learning Network, and the Teaching Channel want to know.

Today, Tuesday, October 20th, 2015, people everywhere are encouraged to respond to the prompt asking What, How, and Why do you write as part of the Seventh Annual National Day on Writing.

Reponses to will be shared in in a “tweet up” during the day using the hashtag #whyIwrite.

I have, of course, my own reasons why I write, but first I would like to share two statements made by the senior media correspondent for CNN, Brian Stelter at a Q & A session at the Inspire Expert Event at the NY offices at About.com (10/17,15). This event brought together the experts that write for the About.com website.

stelterBrian Stetler has been a media reporter for The New York Times and the editor of TVNewser He currently hosts the CNN Sunday morning show Reliable Sources.

In this Q & A session Stelter’s two statements on writing stood out, not because they were surprising, but because they were not surprising, especially for any of the other writers in the audience.

His first statement addresses the Why and How of the National Day of Writing prompt:

“The only way for me to sound smart on TV is [for me] to write all week long.”

This first statement speaks the importance of writing as a process for learning. Because I am an educator, I am expected to promote writing everyday at every grade level and in every subject. Because I write,  however, I can attest to how much more I learn about a topic when I write about that topic. Practicing writing is no different than practicing math facts or practicing for an athletic competition. Writing more improves writing.

Stelter’s second statement addresses the What of the National Day of Writing prompt:

“When I am writing and producing the stories, I discover another great story that has not been written yet, and I can’t wait to get it started.”

This statement by Stelter supports writing as a process of discovery, of finding out what one thinks, of enthusiastically embracing new ideas, of living with the creative disruption of ideas.

When I taught the Advanced Placement English Literature class, the timed in class essays that students drafted would often begin with one idea (thesis) in the opening paragraphs that would mature and change midway through the essay. Somewhere in the middle of this rough drafted essay would be this creative disruption-a new idea- like the discovery that Stelter claimed he found in writing. In these drafts, each student wrote his or her way into the new idea and (usually) developed a more confident position as he or she wrote.

Such an essay would conclude making a point different from the original thesis, a surprise to students who discovered a common experience- “I didn’t know what to write until I wrote it.” While this in class writing exercise from my students produced a series of poor to average drafts that needed revision, there was evidence of great thinking on these papers.

That is what writing is. Writing is thinking on paper.  Brian Stelter explained that thinking. Writers understand that thinking.

So What do I write? I write about education.

How do I write? Daily (mornings are best!)

Why do I write? I write to know what I think.

Happy National Day of Writing!

This is POST #400!
This is POST #400!

I just figured out that this is my 400th post. I began writing on 7/3/2011, a little over four years ago. I have discovered that writing for this blog has given me the opportunity to research many topics and to explore what I think about those topics as I write.

In other words, I have increased my own background knowledge through reading and writing on this blog.

So, what could be the best way to celebrate this 400th post?

I can demonstrate how a post can increase a reader’s background knowledge on a topic as simple as the number 400!

There are multiple topics in various disciplines related to the number 400.  Here are several examples of what I learned by basing this post on the  significance of the number 400:


If this post were in Athens in 413 BCE, it could represent the The Four Hundred , a group that organized a revolution during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Their coup was organized after a financial crisis caused by a series of unsuccessful military campaigns, made them seek to establish an oligarchy of the elite. These Four Hundred were the wealthy members of the ruling class, and they believed that the oligarchy would manage foreign, fiscal, and war policies better than the more democratic government in place. (source: Wikipedia)

If this post was part of a  Gregorian calendar year calculator, it would show the changes according to one cycle of exactly 400 years, of which 97 are leap years and 303 are common. (source: Wikipedia)

If this post was a message from the Internet, it would be part of an HTTP status code for a bad client request. Receiving the message 400 means that the request was malformed. In other words, the data stream sent by the client to the server did not follow the rules. (source: Wikipedia)

The Atari 400 Personal Computer was Atari's entry level computer. www.atari.com

The Atari 400 Personal Computer was Atari’s entry level computer. www.atari.com

If this post was in Forbes Magazine, it would be a listing of the 400 wealthiest people in the world. The methodology for gathering this information is from interviews with employees, handlers, rivals, peers and attorneys. Debt is also consider a factor. Other methods explained by Kerry A. Dolan from the Forbes Magazine staff in her article Inside The 2014 Forbes 400: Facts And Figures About America’s Wealthiest:

“We pored over thousands of SEC documents, court records, probate records, federal financial disclosures, and Web and print stories. We took into account all types of assets: stakes in public and private companies, real estate, art, yachts, planes, ranches, vineyards, jewelry, car collections and more.”

If this post was a socialite calculator for the mid-19th century, it would hold the number 400 as an elite standard based on a remark by from Manhattan’s most famous social arbiter, Ward McAllister. His remark “There are only 400 people in New York that one really knows,” was the basis for social reports chronicled in the New York Sun. According to Collins Dictionary Online,  The notion ‘elite’ is said to be from the selection of high society guests by the socialite Mrs. William B. Astor Jr., whose ballroom could hold 400. (source: Encyclopedia Britannica)

If this post was a passenger train, it would have the nickname “The 400″ because of the distance it traveled (400 miles) between Minneapolis/St. Paul and Chicago, Illinois in 400 minutes. (source: Wikipedia)

If this post was a highway, it would be part of the interstate system in Ontario, Canada, or part of the 400-Series Highways. These highways have high design standards,are regulated at 100 kilometres per hour (60 mph) speed limits, with various collision avoidance and traffic management systems. (source: Wikipedia)

 If this post was a boat yard, it would be the historic boat yard #400 in Belfast, Ireland, where the RMS Olympic was constructed, the first of the three Olympic-class ocean liners. The RMS Olympic was the RMS Titanic‘s sister ship. (source: Wikipedia)

If this post was an explanation of the appearance of celestial objects, it would explain that while the Sun is approximately 400 times the size of the Moon, it is also approximately 400 times further away. Their astronomical size difference is not comparable because of a temporary illusion causing the Sun and Moon to appear as similar size in the Earth’s sky.

If this post was a tree, it would be one of 400 in the ratio of the number of trees per human on Earth today.  A new study  explained in Science Tech Today (Los Angeles Times / NewsEdge) estimates the number of trees at somewhere around 3.04 trillion, or 400 trees for every person. The new study notes that this is a reduction in about half the number of trees that have been on Earth:

“‘The number of trees cut down is almost 3 trillion since the start of human civilization’ said Thomas Crowther, a postdoctoral fellow at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies who led the study. ‘That is an astronomical figure.'”

If this post was a batting average, it would represent (2 hits out of 5 at-bats) which is a numerically significant annual batting average statistic in Major League Baseball. Batting .400 was last accomplished by Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox in 1941. (source: Wikipedia)


"The 400 Blows" is seminal work of the French New Wave (1959) and directorial debut of 27-year old Francois Truffaut

“The 400 Blows” is seminal work of the French New Wave (1959) and directorial debut of 27-year old Francois Truffaut

If this post was a measurement of time between the writings of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament texts, this post would represent the Intertestamental period, or roughly four hundred years.

If this post was part of a Bible as Literature study analysis, then this post would be discussing the verses from Acts in the Revised Standard Version:

“God spoke to this effect, that his posterity would be aliens in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and ill-treat them four hundred years.‘But I will judge the nation which they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’”(Acts 7:6-8 )

If you were looking for this post in the Dewey Decimal system, you would be looking in the 400s-language section. (source: Wikipedia)

If this post was the central idea for a song, it would be for the song 400 Years by Peter Tosh (on the album Catch a Fire, produced by Bob Marley). Tosh was one of the core members of the band The Wailers (1963–1974), after which he established himself as a successful solo artist and a promoter of Rastafari.  Tosh explained that, “My songs are a revolution, not smiling songs.” He was murdered in 1987 during a brutal home invasion.  (source: Wikipedia)

The opening lyrics to this song:

400 years (400 years, 400 years. Wo-o-o-o)
And it’s the same –
The same (wo-o-o-o) philosophy
I’ve said it’s four hundred years;
(400 years, 400 years. Wo-o-o-o, wo-o-o-o)
Look, how long (wo-o-o-o)
And the people they (wo-o-o-o) still can’t see.
Why do they fight against the poor youth of today?
And without these youths, they would be gone –
All gone astray….
So, in celebration of the 400th post, you could listen to the song:


All of the above evidence on the significance of the number 400 is proof that every time I sit and write a post, the research that I do for that post has increased my background knowledge.

I hope you learned something new to add to your background knowledge from this 400th post!

Of all the national holidays, Labor Day is the most passive. It floats as the first Monday in September; it lacks a symbol, a song or ritual. Maybe that is not so strange for a holiday that has come to be a collective celebration of rest.

Labor Day is also set aside to recognize the importance of labor or work in our lives.

The importance of work is at the heart of a speech recorded by Retired Lt. General Russel L. Honoré for This I Believe, Inc. This I Believe is an “independent, not-for-profit organization that engages youth and adults from all walks of life in writing, sharing, and discussing brief essays about the core values that guide their daily lives.”

Honoré is best known for coordinating military relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina-affected areas across the Gulf Coast and as the 2nd Infantry Division’s commander while stationed in South Korea. Honoré, also known as “The Ragin’ Cajun”, offered an audio essay that was shared on NPR’s Weekend Edition, March 1, 2009.

Work is a Blessing


Honoré’s essay was titled To Work is a Blessing and in it he describes how his father influenced him to see labor differently. His own work experience began in his youth when he had to milk 65 cows twice daily:

“I remember complaining to my father and grandfather about having to go milk those cows. My father said, ‘Ya know, boy, to work is a blessing.'”

Honore described how he I looked at those two men, and “had a feeling I had been told something really important, but it took many years before it had sunk in.” As a young man, he joined ROTC to pay for college, and that obligation led to his 37 year career in the Army.

In the essay, he explains a visit to Bangladesh in the 80s and how he watched a woman breaking bricks with a hammer with a baby strapped to her back. When he asked if a machine would be more efficient than this form of human labor, an official explained that a machine would put that lady out of work. Honoré then understood:

“Breaking those bricks meant she’d earn enough money to feed herself and her baby that day. And as bad as that woman’s job was, it was enough to keep a small family alive. It reminded me of my father’s words: to work is a blessing.”

His position in the Army took him to multiple countries, where he grew to recognize that people, regardless of where they lived, who lived without jobs were not free. They become “victims  of crime, the ideology of terrorism, poor health, depression, and social unrest.” Instead, he argued that

“People who have jobs can have a home, send their kids to school, develop a sense of pride, contribute to the good of the community, and even help others. When we can work, we’re free. We’re blessed.”

Honoré’s essay is  (561 words); his audio recording of the speech is 4:02 minutes long. The readability level/Grade Level of the essay is 6.7 according to a Flesch–Kincaid readability calculator. Both the essay and the audio recording are available on the This I Believe website. In the audio recording, Honoré’s thick Louisiana accent personalizes his message, a form of a quick read-aloud while student can follow in the text.

Educators who might want to use this speech with students in grades 6-12 could align their questions to several Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for reading informational texts. Reading informational texts such as this speech help students build a foundation of knowledge in multiple fields. In addition to English Language Arts, this essay can be part of any social studies program from middle school geography to AP Human Geography. The background knowledge the essay provides helps them to be better readers in all content areas.

Below are four anchor standards from the CCSS and questions stems for each strand that could be used with this essay:

RI.9-10.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text of this speech says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

  • What textual evidence supports your analysis of the Honoré’s speech?
  • What inferences can you draw from specific textual evidence?

RI.9-10.2 Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of Honoré’s speech, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

  • What is the central idea of the speech?
  • How is the central idea developed?
  • What supporting ideas are included in the text?

RI.9-10.3 Analyze how Honoré’s unfolds a series of ideas or events, including the order in which the points are made, how they are introduced and developed, and the connections that are drawn between them.

  • What connections can you make among and between the individuals, ideas, or events in Honoré’s speech?
  • What distinctions can you make between the speech’s individuals, ideas, or events?
  • Analyze how Honoré connects the ideas and events of the text?

RI.9-10. 4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in Honoré’s speech, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone.

  • What does the word/phrase _______ mean in this selection?
  • How does the Honoré’s  use of repetition of ___________ impact the tone of his speech?
  • Identify and analyze which words or phrases specifically impact the meaning or tone?

Labor Day may be a passive holiday, but this day is important to recognize the importance of work in every life, and we should share that message with our students.

Honoré concludes his short speech by saying he has no plans to stop working, restating his belief in his father’s words:

“I believe in the blessing of work.”

The advertisement for the 55th Annual Mark Twain Library Labor Day Weekend Book Fair read,

“A large collection of Art books, Environment & Nature, Baseball books, many handsome sets and thousands of CHILDREN’s books..”

I want to make a correction to this advertisement.
There are 300 less children’s books at this book sale because there are 300 books in my car.
By next week those 300 books will be distributed into classroom libraries in grade 4-10 for independent reading.

The Mark Twain Library Book Sale in Redding, Connecticut, claims to be “the oldest – and one of the largest – in New England:”

The history of the sale begins with its namesake, Mark Twain in 1908. When Twain (Samuel Clemens) moved to Redding in 1907, he had more books than would fit in his new home so he donated over a thousand to start the Library. When Twain passed away in 1910, his daughter Clara donated more books for sale, and 107 years later, the Book Fair is still one of the library’s principal fundraisers.

This oldest book sale is also one of the best run in the state.

The sale is held in easily accessible Redding Heritage Community Center. As one entered, volunteers provided maps that detail the book table layout, from mystery selections to travel guides to a table marked ephemera.

The fiction tables in the adult section were organized by author (which made fast finding for copies of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). Of course, having the hardcovers and trade paperbacks grouped together could be part of a sociological study in recent popular reading trends as evidenced by multiple copies of the The Stieg Larsson Trilogy/Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series (the fascination apparently over). There were wide aisles to accommodate the “book sale bump”- a result of patrons trying to read titles while carrying overloaded bags or boxes.

The volunteer help was outstanding; students (middle-high school aged) manned tables to tally books or straighten shelves. Rather than shy away, they approached shoppers with retail-like patter, “Would you like a box to place your holdings?” They checked book prices book-by-book and reloaded bags once they finished counting. Their adult supervisors handled several cashier’s tables. Outside, there were boy scouts who sold baked goods and (predictably) asked if patrons needed help carrying books to cars.

This book sale was one smooth operation.

My finds?

Capturing interest from STAR WARS films

Capturing interest from STAR WARS films

One large box filled with a variety (40+) of Star Wars related books. I am anticipating renewed interest with the December (18th, 2015) release of The Force Awakens.
10 neatly stacked copies of Jeanette Walls’s powerful memoir of her homeless parents in The Glass Castle for a Grade 12 English course.
5 copies of Under the Same Sky ( 2005) by Cynthia DeFelice which deals with migrant Mexican workers on an upstate New York farm; ideal for a small book group or lit circle. (Good story; horrible book cover).
Multiple copies of books from R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps series and from Rick Rioden’s Percy Jackson series.


Selection of high interest titles

Final price for 300 good quality, high interest books for independent reading libraries in grades 4 through 10?


Thank you, Mark Twain Library Book Sale Library volunteers. As your founder stated, “We believe that out of the public school grows the greatness of a nation.” (see post)

I know that greatness of a nation starts and continues with the practice of reading.
Your efforts will be felt in many public school classrooms in Connecticut not so far away.


Twice this summer, I found myself thinking that maybe educators are not taking advantage on how we could show films  in class.

We seldom, if ever, show the film’s credits.

Perhaps the lack of attention to film credits is because there is not enough time already for what many educators might consider a passive activity of sitting and watching. I have worked for administrators who have limited or banned films entirely from curriculum because they perceived that a movie shown in class was merely a babysitting tool. In these situations, I would try to convince them that film is artful storytelling, one that engages the visual and audio learner very effectively.

Films and the Job Market

This past summer, after watching Pixar’s Inside Out (2015) and the last broadcast of The Daily Show (8/6/2015), I considered a different argument: films should be included in schools as part of career development.

Consider first this annual entertainment (film) ticket sales graphic over the past 20 years from Research and Market Reports:

Screenshot 2015-08-22 13.52.06

The explanation that followed:

The global movie and entertainment industry is expected to reach an estimated US $139 billion in 2017 with a compound annual growth rate of 4.2% over the next five years. This growth is likely to be driven by the acceleration of online and mobile distribution of movies, lower admission prices, and government policy initiatives in developing countries.

Or, read the report from The Motion Picture Industry Association on its website:

In the process of producing video content for today’s audiences, the American motion picture and TV industry contributes approximately $40 billion per year in payments to more than 330,000 local businesses across the country, according to the latest economic impact figures.

Credits for Pixar’s film Inside Out

Screenshot 2015-08-22 13.44.47Pixar’s film Inside Out was a 94 minute animation on the “headquarters” that managed the emotions of a 12 year old girl, Riley, during a particularly difficult time in her life. After the resolution, the first set of film credits (producer(s), director, actor/actress credit) ended with a montage of emotional centers running the lives of supporting characters in the film: Riley’s teacher, a pizza girl, a bus driver, a dog and (hilarious) a cat.

Then, another six full minutes of credits ran after the montage, a listing of all those who had contributed to the film. These credits scrolled listing teams of people involved in creating this animation: visual effects creators , sound designers, animators, editors, artists, etc. (an abbreviated listing is on  Internet Movie Database- IMDB page). Six minutes listing the names of people employed in a film that was very profitable:

  • Budget: $175,000,000 (estimated)
  • Opening Weekend: $90,440,272 (USA) (19 June 2015)
  • Gross: $335,390,545 (USA) (7 August 2015)
Jobs in the Film Industry

Educators are confronted with preparing students for employment in this 21st Century economy that is far more diverse domestically and internationally than any before it. The names of those who had worked on the film Inside Out  had been employed in creating a product for the Walt Disney Company, a major corporation which held assets worth a total of 74.9 billion (US dollars) in 2012.

Perhaps, instead of limiting the showing of a film and asking students about the message or information, we should slow the credits down and ask them to find out answers to some important questions:

What are the kinds of jobs we see in film credits?
How much does one of these positions get paid?
What skill sets do you (students) need to have to get each of these jobs?

There is a great amount of talk about teaching students to be collaborative, and any film can be an example of collaboration.  Unlike a poem, essay, or novel, a film has multiple authors who each bring a particular skill to its creation. The six minutes of credits illustrated how enormous this collaboration had been in Inside Out.

Giving credits-The Daily Show
Audience on the last night of "The Daily Show" as part of the final walk-through

Audience on the last night of “The Daily Show” as part of the final walk-through

I found myself thinking about showing credits again when, on the night of his last broadcast, Jon Stewart offered a backstage look at those who had worked on his show to make it successful. In one section of the show, there was an extended hand-held camera walk-through of the offices and studio taken from Stewart’s point-of-view. As the camera moved through the hallways and onto the set, Stewart rattled off the names of those who had worked in every aspect of The Daily Show‘s production: writers, designers, researchers, editors, make-up and costumers, and even his family.

The sequence took 6:46 minutes in total, culminating with the contributions of the viewers and studio audience. After the clip, Stewart repeatedly praised the members of this collaborative team as a positive experience.

Maybe that particular clip will never be shown in a classroom, but the walk-through raises questions educators should consider. What skills did these people have in order to get a job with The Daily Show? With The Daily Show as part of their resume, where will these people now find employment? How many in the television audience watched this walk-through and envied those who had a hand in creating this show?

Film and entertainment is a major industry in the US and international economy, and educators should make students aware of the possibilities. When showing a film in class, we might let the credits (slowly) and explain that these jobs could be something they would be interested in doing as a career. At the very least, teachers may have students do a little research and find out what the Gaffer does in a film.

The last part of the credits in Inside Out listed the names of the children born to the entire team during the six years of production. Following the names, there was a dedication from the entire collaborative team:

 “this film is dedicated to our kids. please don’t grow up. ever.”

But our role as educators, is different. Educators prepare them [students] to grow up….and maybe develop skills that could be featured in a scrolling film credits.

Several years ago, I was teaching John Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn to a group of sophomore students. While they did struggle with the first four stanzas of the poem, they lingered on the the memorable last stanza of the poem:

O Attic shape! fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!                           45
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’        50

Like other students before them in previous years, they wrestled with the conclusion that Keats arrived on with the closing lines:

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty”

What is beauty?

When I asked students, “What is beauty?” they had many different ideas. In one session, we discussed physical beauty. It was not a surprise that each student held a different idea about physical beauty. After they listed the characteristics,  I offered a photo of “beautiful” face. When I shared this photo, they all agreed she was beautiful.

Computerized face: Survival of the Prettiest by Nancy Etcoff

Computerized face: “Survival of the Prettiest” by Nancy Etcoff

After they agreed, I revealed that this particular face had been generated by a computer. The beautiful face was developed as part of the research by Nancy Etcoff, a Harvard psychologist and medical researcher. Her research on attitudes towards beauty resulted in a book titled, Survival of the Prettiest.

The face they all agreed was a beautiful face was, quite literally, an average[d] face. The graphic at right had been generated by a computerized program that averaged the faces of hundreds of women. In other words, this was not a single woman who defined beauty, but a representation of multiple women.

The conclusion my students reached was, although the face of the woman was beautiful, a  “virtual babe”, she was really just “average”.

The Truth in Averages

The students discussing the computerized face understood averages; they were confronted with the term daily. They maintained an attendance average; they received a grade point average. They knew mathematically that an average is a form of reduction; a division into an arithmetic mean. They also understood that calculating an average did provide a kind of truth in their performance, but not the whole truth. There was almost always a test or quiz or project that could be in “dispute” or “unfair.”

They did agree that the face created by the computer program was probably more equitable in making qualitative judgements. Every face was weighed by the software program in exactly the same way. They suggested that there was probably more “truth” (fidelity to an original or to a standard or ideal) in the averaging process in the face’s creation than in their GPAs.

Truth is Beauty?

“So, is this particular beauty ‘truth’?” I asked again, pointing to the computerized face, “…is this a true individual ‘beauty’?”
They did not think so.
“Collectively, then?”
“Mrs. Bennett, all this proves is everyone together is beautiful…and that is the truth!”

What say you, John Keats?