I recently underwent a hip replacement surgery for my left hip. This has meant that during the past several weeks of recuperation, I have had to relearn how to use my left leg and unlearn any movements that required me to bend more than 90 degrees in order to reach down and pick up something on the ground.

This period of recuperation has made me think about relearning and unlearning. Both should be used by teachers, especially middle and high school teachers, to teach writing in ELA, or any other content area, during the school year.

Relearning: What do the students already know

Students who had been out of the classroom for several weeks due to summer break will begin the year doing a lot of relearning.

The German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus was a pioneer in the study of memory and learning which led to his discovery of the forgetting curve and the spacing effect. In 1883, he determined that

“Relearning is supposedly the most efficient way of remembering information.”

I can attest. While I had to relearn to use my left leg to step up the stairs or to put on a pair of pants, my relearning was not very difficult. I was already proficient at these tasks before the hip surgery. According to Ebbinghaus, relearning is faster when the information is already stored, and the brain needs only to revive these memories and refresh them for use.

The level of relearning for each student will differ depending on the level of proficiency a student was originally able to attain on a task. That means the amount of time/attempts that a student took to meet a specified level of proficiency can be compared proportionally to the time/attempts he or she later needs to attain the same level.

Once school begins, teachers should take advantage of relearning by finding out first what students already know. While this may seem a statement of the obvious, a student does not come to class as a “blank slate.” They may already be familiar with information; what they may need is an opportunity to relearn.

There is ongoing relearning in English Language Arts classes at most grades because the literacy anchor standards for writing are almost the same for all grades. The difference in the relearning is directly related to the increase in sophistication required for reading (ex: character, plot, setting) and for writing (ex: noun, question mark, phrase).

Students have already been introduced to the rules for writing, those standard rules of English, at the earliest grade levels. They may need only “to revive these memories and refresh them for use.” That ability for a teacher to differentiate between students who need to relearn versus those who need to be retaught from the beginning can guide the framework for effective instruction for the school year.

Unlearning: Letting go 

Unlearning is harder. During this recuperation from hip surgery, I would repeatedly have to stop myself from reaching down to the ground to pickup whatever I dropped (and I dropped many items!) I had to “unlearn” the reflex action of bending.

“Unlearning is about moving away from something—letting go—rather than acquiring.”

In the same way, students may need to unlearn or “let go” before they can learn new information or try their own strategies in order to develop new skills.

Unlearning or letting go plays an important process  in learning how to write for grades 6-12. By the time students have reached the middle and high school levels, they will have been taught a number of writing formulas, mnemonic training wheels, designed to help them learn how to respond to a writing prompt. Some examples include:

RACE: Restate the question. Answer the question. Cite evidence. Expand/Explain.
TREE: Topic sentence. Note Reasons. Examine reasons. Note Ending
DIDLS: Diction. Images. Details. Language. Sentence Structure.

While many of these mnemonic devices are generally helpful to students, they are designed to be training steps or preliminary checklists. These formulas are meant to stir, not replace, the kind of good thinking that leads to good writing. As noted writer an editor William Zissner said in On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction,

“Writing is thinking on paper.”  Screenshot 2016-08-14 12.47.32

That is the goal teachers want their students to meet…to put their thinking on paper.

To turn their thinking into writing, students should be encouraged to “unlearn” and move away from the checklists and formulas.

Good writing does not follow a prescribed outline where student fill in the blanks, often without generating the important thinking they need to do for comprehension. Even more dangerous is the impression the outlines give to students that writing is neat and easily organized. Good writing is neither neat or easily organized, instead:

Writing is messy.
Writing takes time.

Unlearning the fill-in-the-blank outline can give students new opportunities to develop their own strategies in order to deepen their own understanding. And while students are unlearning the writing formulas they were taught in elementary school, they could also unlearn some of the myths or general misinformation that still circulate in high schools about the writing process:

  • myth: essays have 5 paragraphs;
  • myth: a paragraph has at least three sentences;
  • myth: “I” should never be used in a response.

The end result of misinformation and formula writing has generated years of sameness in student responses. While these same kinds of responses may be easier for teachers to compare and to grade,  the sameness in responses will never truly reflect an individual student’s writing ability.

Encouraging writers: Relearning & Unlearning

For students to become better writers, they may need to relearn some of the general rules for writing and unlearn many of the prescribed ways that writing has been taught to them in the earlier grades. Students will need to be encouraged to drop those outlines that were put in place to guide them -like training wheels- towards the goal of being good writers.

Two areas of focus for the ELA classroom this new school year can be relearning the standard rules for writing, and unlearning the formulas, the checklists, or misinformation that stop student thinking.

Students will need those teachers who are willing to support them as they experiment in the more sophisticated, but very messy, art of writing.

Relearning to remember and unlearning to let go; important goals for the school year in the grades 6-12 classrooms… and for post-hip surgery recuperation!

I had four large bags full of young adult fiction, and I stood waiting for the volunteers to tally the total.

“$60.00,” one told me.

I looked at the pile. I paused, “OK, Wait here….I’ll get more!”

rooster-booksUsually I attend the Newtown CT Book Sale on one of the opening days when the books are full price. I have waited in the early morning hours on a long line for first crack at the trade paperbacks. But, this was 1/2 price Monday, and I was getting TWICE the amount of books for classroom libraries. To be honest, I had never shopped on the 1/2 price day, assuming that there would not be any books left.

I was wrong.

After the weekend crowds had had there full, there were still hundreds of young adult (YA), “tween,” and upper elementary chapter books laid out on the tables. I could keep shopping!

I had also assumed that any remaining books would piled chaotically from the book shoppers over the weekend.

I was very wrong.

Once again, the volunteers for the Cyrus H. Booth Library in Newtown, Connecticut, had kept up with the steady stream of shoppers. They had alphabetized the books by author. They had kept the genres separated on tables for easy navigation. They kept signs visible: “Chick Lit” or “Classic Fiction.”

But I was right about the amount of help I would get from volunteers. One of the volunteers noticed the titles I had selected, and the logos on the bags I filled: Scholastic, Penguin Young Readers, Lakeshore Learning, Heinemann.  I was returning home from the International Literacy Association Conference (#ILA2016) in Boston, MA, and I was already using the “swag” that had been handed out by the different education book publishers in the conference exhibition hall. I was, quite literally filling these literacy tote bags with literacy books.

“You must be a teacher,” she noted, “I used to be a teacher.” So was her fellow volunteer.

Of course, it is not surprising that several of the library book sale volunteers were former educators; they know the power of getting books-these piles of gently used books-into the hands of young readers.

They tallied my piles, and we chatted about what students read, what book covers attract readers (dark and spooky, we agreed). Then, they loaded my purchases on a cart, and one former teacher helped load my car with the four bags plus two additional boxes of books.

In total, I spent $103 dollars. Shopping on 1/2 price day yielded 184 book titles, some of which included student favorite titles by Sarah Dessen, Rick Riordan, Sarah Weeks, Gary Paulsen, and Andrew Clement. These books will be going into classrooms, grades 5-9, for independent reading.

The School Library Journal published (2000) study Independent Reading and School Achievement by Bernice E. Cullinan, New York University. The study explained that “Independent reading is the kind students choose to do on their own; it is not assigned or assessed, but it has a positive effect on learning and school achievement.”

Thank you, again, CH Booth Library volunteers. Your book sale will help to have a positive effect on student learning and school achievement!

On occasion, I hear a statement that captures how much the classroom differs from the real world.

Such was the case at the International Reading Association Conference in Boston (July 9-11, 2016) when literacy consultant Mark Overmeyer noted that in the real world:

“Our most skilled writers have editors…the more skilled the writer, the more editors”

Then he pointed out the obvious,

“So why do we expect our 10-year-olds to write perfectly?”

Editors in the Real World

Overmeyer was speaking at the session to a roomful of educators, attending the session on “Grammar Matters: Promoting Engagement, Strategic Instruction, and Reflection Using Mentor Texts.” His statements highlighted the contrast between the support the best professional writers receive and the support an average student-at any grade level-receives is worth looking into for a moment.

First, in the real world there are different roles editors who specialize in stage of writing. Here is a description of editors, and how these roles are represented (or not) in the writing process in schools today.

  1. Acquisition Editor: This editor selects books for a publisher, and stays with an author in prepping a book for publication.
    Counterpart in education: The teacher may submit a piece for “publication” in a literary magazine, a writing writing contest, or hang student work on a bulletin board.
  2. Developmental Editor: This is the writing coach, or in some cases, the ghost writer, who supports the writer in moving the writing forward.
    Counterpart in education: Could be a teacher 
  3. Content Editor: In large publishing houses, there are Content Editors who review all writing.
    Counterpart in education: A teacher
  4. Copy Editor: This editor reviews grammar, punctuation, fact-checking, spelling, and formatting. There are Copy Editors for the different forms of publications: newspaper, brochures, books, etc. Some publishers use a line editor as well.
    Counterpart in education: teacher, student or student peer
  5. Proofreader: A proofreader reviews writing after an editor.image
    Counterpart in education: teacher grading the final product.


In the real world, there is an editor for every stage of the writing process. A book will go through an editorial review by a different specialist at LEAST four times before publication. In contrast, a student will receive editorial feedback from one single source….the teacher.

In making his observation, Overmeyer pointed out the fallacy of autonomy that is often seen in schools:

“We [teachers] purposely do not help,” he noted, “They [students] are on their own!”

He argued that there is an assumption by educators that the students should be able to produce “perfection”.

Writing Towards Improvement

Overmeyer’s point was that student writing should not be used to measure perfection, but used instead to measure a student’s improvement.

Contributing to the drive for perfection Is graded writing. Grading is a diagnosis, an informal or formal assessment of a particular skill set. Because graded writing is diagnostic, students are expected to perform without assistance in order to produce quality writing. More often than not, teachers do not step in to help with writing because they want to know how well a student can perform on his or her own.

Overmeyer’s comment, however, points out this fallacy of autonomy, the false assumption that because a student has been taught particular skills in writing, they should be able to produce correct writing independent of support.

Overmeyer’s reference to the enormous amount of support an adult writer receives in the real world stands in sharp contrast to what students are expected to do. For those adults wishing to enter the field of writing, there are a number of professionals willing -often for a price- to help anyone to become a published writer.

For example, consider the positive support offered by the site, NY Book Editors:

“[Our] editor’s goal is to make your story more engaging. Editors may correct spelling and grammar here and there, but that’s not their role. It’s the job of a copyeditor to fix your grammar, and he steps in at the final stages of the editing process.”

For multiple reasons (time, budget, teacher buy-in, etc.) however, this specialized editorial support is missing in the classroom. Instead of the supportive instruction available to adults, the teacher’s role may shift from developmental editor to copy editor or “corrector-in-chief.”

“Be Human”

The best way to improve student writing is through conferencing, and Overmeyer has detailed how to integrate the different kinds of conferring that can happen in the classroom in his recent book, Let’s Talk.

During the presentation, Overmeyer promoted the role of the teacher as a writing coach, reminding teachers to “be human” when they do provide their feedback to students. He provided an example of a student who chose to wrote about the recent death of a relative.

“That’s not when you correct his paper,” Overmeyer noted. “You need to be human…read the content.”

#ILA16

The International Literacy Association (ILA) Conference in 2016  brought together numbers of like-minded literacy educators and gave them the opportunity to share in order to move the education profession forward. This conference gave also teachers a opportunity to hear one voice -in this case the voice of Mark Overmeyer-pose the challenging question:

“Why do we expect our 10-year-olds to write perfectly?”

We can’t….and we shouldn’t.

It is summer, and most elementary classroom walls have been laid bare for repainting or for cleaning. Their empty exposure reminds me of a classroom from an earlier age, from my own elementary school. From grade 3 on up, I could count on one singular decorative element….the cursive alphabet that hung over the chalkboard:

Cursive

Of all the letter companions, neatly penned in upper and lower case, the most fun to practice, the most enigmatic, the most beautiful-and the most confusing if not done correctly -was the letter Q q or Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 6.01.18 PMScreen Shot 2016-06-27 at 6.01.05 PM.

Nothing else hung in the room.

Today’s elementary classrooms are markedly different. There are classrooms that receive Pinterest-inspired wall, door, or window treatments. There are multiple software programs that let teachers create posters or infographics chockfull of facts for every content area. Inspirational posters are ready to be to copied, to be downloaded, to be printed for every grade level. Once school is back in session, rainbow-brite colors combine messages with eye-popping fonts in a competition for attention.

And that’s the problem...competition for attention.

Apparently a supersaturated color and text-rich environment is not good for learning.

Beginning as early as preschool, classrooms may be decorated to an extreme. In many cases, “clutter passes for quality,” a  sentiment expressed by Erika Christakis in her book The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups (2016). In Chapter 2 (“Goldilocks Goes to Daycare”) Christakis describes the average preschool the following way:

“First we’ll bombard you with what educators call a print-rich environment, every wall and surface festooned with a vertiginous array of labels, vocabulary list, calendars, graphs, classroom rules, alphabet lists, number charts, and inspirational platitudes – few of those symbols you will be able to decode, a favorite buzzword for what used to be known as reading”(33).

In addition, hanging in plain sight, Christakis notes, are a myriad of mandated regulations: hand washing instructions, allergy procedures, and emergency exit diagrams:

‘In one study, researchers manipulated the amount of clutter on the walls of a laboratory classroom where kindergarteners were taught a series of science lessons. As the visual distraction increased, the children’s ability to focus, stay on task, and learn new information decrease” (33).

Christakis’s position is supported with research by researchers from The Holistic Evidence and Design (HEAD) which assessed hundred fifty-three U.K. classrooms to study the link of classroom environment to the learning of 3,766 pupils (ages 5-11).  Researchers Peter Barrett, Fay Davies, Yufan Zhang, and Lucinda Barrett published the The Holistic Impact of Classroom Spaces on Learning in Specific Subjects (2016) and reviewed the impact of different factors on student learning measured by progress in reading, writing, and math.

The principle of stimulation included the measure the impact brought about by color and complexity:

“The scientific research into color is extensive and color can affect children’s moods, mental clarity, and energy levels (Englebrecht, 2003). The measure of complexity here relates to visual impact from both architectural and display elements in the classroom. For example, Fisher, Godwin, and Seltman (2014) found more distraction and off-task behavior in children in more visually complex environments” (Barret, et al).

Their results showed that both reading and writing performances were particularly affected by stimulation.

Stimulation in the form of posters has
 the potential 
of
 overwhelming
 a student’s working
 memory. According to Michael
 Hubenthal and Thomas
 O’Brien
 in their research Revisiting 
Your Classroom’s
 Walls:
 The 
Pedagogical
 Power
 of
 Posters (2009) a student’s working memory uses 
different components 
that
 process 
visual
 and verbal 
information
. The “
visual 
complexity 
caused
 by 
an abundance
 of
 text
 and
 small
 images” can set up an overwhelming visual/verbal competition between text and graphics for which students must gain control in order to give
 meaning 
to 
information.

In contrast to overwhelming posters, there are good choices for classroom decorations. Education reformer Alfie Kohn published suggestions for decorating the classroom in his article Bad Signs  (2010) fall issue of Kappa Delta Pi. He listed several “Good Signs” that a classroom could be decorated as a model learning environment:

  • Walls covered with student work;
  • Evidence of student collaboration;
  • Signs, exhibits, lists created by students (not the teacher); 
  • Information and personal mementos from the people who learn in the classroom.

Kohn also stated that the best classrooms, regardless of age level or academic discipline, have a different approach to decoration, one that is distinctly non-commercial. The best classrooms:

“….often feature signs, exhibits, or other materials obviously created by the students themselves.  And that includes students’ ideas for how to create a sense of community and learn together most effectively — as opposed to a list of rules imposed by the teacher (or summarized on a commercial poster)” (Kohn).

Just as too much color or text complexity will have a negative impact on student learning, a sterile classroom with too little decoration may not help to activate the students’ brains. Therefore, teachers should be prepared to decorate a classroom to make it an active place to learn. They could ask the following questions:

  • What purpose does this poster, sign or display serve?
  • Do  these posters, signs, or items celebrate or support student learning?
  • Are the posters, signs, or displays current with what is being learned in the classroom?
  • Can the display be made interactive?
  • Is there white space in between wall displays to help the eye distinguish what is in the display?
  • Can students contribute to decorating the classroom (ask “What do you think could go inside that space?”)

These six questions can help teachers to create classrooms that can engage students without overstimulation.

Speaking of questions, the word questions starts with the letter Q…and thanks to that singular decoration in my elementary classroom, I know how to script a  capital and lower case letter “Q”:q

It is still a beautiful letter in cursive.

 

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s gift to high school social studies teachers is Hamilton, his Pulitzer and Tony award winning play.  Using musical theatre, he rescued history from the mind-numbing facts listed in textbooks and gave students an alternative narrative, a hip-hop lens to view the tumult of America’s creation.

His gift to English teachers came on Sunday, June 12, during the Tony Award Ceremony in NYC. These awards were held the night after a mass killing in an Orlando, Florida, nightclub, and throughout the broadcast actors and actresses paid tributes to the victims.

When Miranda’s name was called for Musical Best Score, he bounded on the stage. He began this acceptance speech (the first of 11) with an apology, “I’m not going to free-style” (note: he is famous for his free styling poems) ….”I’m too old (note: he is 36)…”

He opened a folded paper:

“I wrote you a sonnet instead.”

A sonnet!

One can imagine the heads of English teachers nationwide snapping to attention.

A sonnet!??

That 14-line poem with a variable rhyme scheme that originated in 14th Century in Italy? (Yes!)

Sonnet? As in...Shakespeare? (Yes!)

Miranda began to read:

“My wife’s the reason anything gets done
She nudges me towards promise by degrees
She is a perfect symphony of one
Our son is her most beautiful reprise.
We chase the melodies that seem to find us
Until they’re finished songs and start to play
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day.
This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers,
remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.
I sing Vanessa’s symphony, Eliza tells her story
Now fill the world with music, love and pride.”

Of course the sonnet was his choice to connect the joy of winning a Tony Award to his love and inspiration, his wife Vanessa. The sonnet was his poetic choice to contrast the heartbreaking tragedy of a massacre in a gay nightclub with the more powerful forces of music and love.

Why the sonnet?

Here’s a quick refresher on the sonnet:

  • it has 14 lines (could be stretched to 16 lines…and this sonnet was s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d)
  • it is written in iambic pentameter (a rhythm that sounds like 5 “heartbeats”)
  • it has a rhyme scheme:
    • Italian (Petrarchan): ABBA ABBA CDECDE or ABBA ABBA CDCDCD 
    • Shakespearean: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG (note: this sonnet is more Shakespearean)
    • The word sonnet means “little song.”
    • A sonnet traditionally settles upon a single sentiment (love, anguish, friendship, etc)
    • A sonnet has a “turn” (also known as the volta) where the question or problem posed in the first part of the poem is answered or solved in the concluding lines.

Miranda’s Sonnet

Like most poems, Miranda’s sonnet was filled with word play: allusions, metaphors, figurative language. Contained in the first quatrain of the sonnet was a musical conceit (extended metaphor), consistent with an award for “Best Score”; his wife and son are the “symphony” and “reprise” in this “little song.”

The next quatrain directly referenced to the Orlando shootings and the arbitrary violence, or “senseless acts of tragedy” that can happen at any moment.

Miranda then cited his play Hamilton as “proof that history remembers,” claiming that “hope and love last longer.” He then launched into eight (8) successive “love is,” an emotional refrain  (rhetorically, an epizeuxis: repetition without any words in between). He “sings” this symphony, just as the character Eliza Schuyler Hamilton tells the story of Alexander Hamilton.

And then came the volta or turn; the reason he “wrote you a sonnet, instead.” In the last line Miranda offers his answer, his solution to tragedy. His last line is a command, a command given to his audience watching the awards “to fill the world with music, love and pride.”

A Sonnet Instead

Tickets for the musical Hamilton will probably still be at a premium this coming fall, but this sonnet by Miranda is available-(and free!)- now.

English teachers can take this opportunity to share with their students these three points:

  1. That a poet who excels in free style rap chose a sonnet, instead;
  2. That a lyricist who reimagined American history through hip-hop chose a sonnet, instead;
  3. That an actor trained to gain an audience’s empathy through prose chose a sonnet, instead.

In making a choice in art to combat tragedy, the playwright Manuel Lin Miranda chose a sonnet, instead.

The term ekphrasis is Greek in origin, meaning “writing inspired by art”.

So, what better excuse for ekphrasis than Greek statues of antiquity? And where better to find Greek statues, than in a museum?

This past week, the Seine River that bisects the city of Paris ran over its banks, cresting at 21.3 feet. This flooding has meant that the curators of the many art museums and galleries that line the Seine scrambled to save works of art that had been stored below flood level. The Louvre Museum closed to the public as masterpieces were relocated to higher ground.

The lead story for the June 3rd, 2016 NYTimes, “In Paris, the Seine Rises to Highest Level Since 1982” (by Lilia Blaise and Benoit Morenne), reported on this disruption:

The evacuation of artworks from the Louvre, which was closed to visitors, has attracted particular attention…

…An estimated 150,000 artworks in storage rooms and an additional 7,000 pieces in galleries were vulnerable to flooding, and a large portion of those were moved to higher floors as a precaution, officials said.

 

6/3/16 NYTIMES: Staff at the Louvre scrambled Friday to move artworks to higher floors as Paris experienced its worst flooding in 30 years. Credit Markus Schreiber/Associated Press

 NYTIMES: (6/3/16) Staff at the Louvre scrambled Friday to move artworks to higher floors as Paris experienced its worst flooding in 30 years. Credit: Markus Schreiber/Associated Press

 

Here, then, is my art inspired poem-an ekphrasis

 

A Collection at the Louvre

 

Ancient visitors, unearthed from the basement,

fix their gaze on pieces from the collection

of 21st Century office furniture

in the famed Louvre’s Salon de Files.

 

They are stolid, polished rock, 

marveling at the smooth steel geometry:

a maze of files and crates;

appraising the nuanced shades of black:

obsidian, charcoal, onyx, jet;

admiring the asymmetrical shapes:

tall, narrow, wide, short.

 

They note the detailed inset pulls on metal drawers;

they puzzle over the labels on such Decorus artem,

translating into Latin or Greek

the names, dates, and numbers.

They pose and ponder in thought

as they have seen others do.

 

Sculptures who tilt an antique head

(if there is one)

or raise an antique arm

(if there is one)

to point and question, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?”

something they have heard others say.

 

Far in the background, 

a suspicious guard keeps watch

on this underdressed crowd.

 

They stand still, 

breathless,

as if poised to hear,

with their cool marbre ears,

the stories contained in these modern repositories.

“Si haec lima loqui. Quod si dixerint ad fabulas ?”

(“If only these files could talk. What stories would they tell?”)

 

This week’s Poetry Friday is hosted by Carol Varsalona on her blog Beyond Literacy Link. Stop there to visit some of the other poetic submissions for June 10, 2016.

The Memorial Day Parade in my town of Bridgewater, Connecticut takes 11 minutes.

Newcomers to town are told to “get there early, or you’ll miss it….and you had better get there early, because it begins at 8:15 A.M.”

Every year, there is a ceremony that follows the parade. The boy scouts lead the pledge, and students recite The Gettysburg Address. Small American flags are clutched in the hands of children, volunteer fireman in uniform stand at attention, and there is always a small puppy in the crowd.

The reason we gather together, however, is always for a more somber tribute. The names of those recently deceased residents who served in the military in defense of the country are read aloud. Then, there is a guest speaker.

Memorial Day

Bridgewater resident John Kracen telling his real war story

This year, resident John Kracen told a real war story.

He began his war story with the date: July 29, 1967, a “date that would change forever the lives of 5,000 men.”

He described the location: Gulf of Tonkin, during the Vietnam War.

He named the ship: the USS Forrestal.

As Kracen began his real war story, he described the ship, a Forrestal-class aircraft carrier: 990 ft at waterline, steam turbines, 33 knots. He then described the aircraft on board, and included the F-4B Phantom II that accidentally fired a Zuni rocket on the flight deck that July morning. He described how that misfired rocket hit another aircraft’s external fuel tanks leaking jet fuel, spreading a fire across the flight deck.

Kracen described how one of the Composition B bombs detonated minutes after the start of the fire, tearing a hole into the ship’s hull. He described how the shrapnel from that explosion pierced the water hoses of the fire crew and that the burning jet fuel drained into a lower bay of the ship.

Near me, a small boy sitting on the curb of the Green listening to Kracen turned to his mother. “What is happening, Mom?” he asked quietly.

“It’s a story,” she whispered back.

The boy turned his attention back to Kracen to listen.

Kracen continued telling the story of his friend, Stephen L. Hock, who had gone to help put out the fires that continued throughout the night. He described Hock’s kindness and his camaraderie.  He then told us that his friend Stephen Hock was one of the 134 men killed on the USS Forrestal because of the fire.

For a small town, 1,727 residents, Bridgewater has significant connections to history. During the morning’s Memorial Day Roll Call, there was “survivor of Iwo Jima” from World War II who had his name read aloud.  Now, his neighbors stood in the soft rain listening to a survivor from another historical event tell his story from a different war.

A war story has power when it is a first-hand account. The poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892) was a first-hand witness to events of the Civil War and his auto-biographical accounts of the Civil War were collected in several volumes. He spent time in the hospitals that were filled with the casualties from both sides, and the carnage led him to conclude,

“I now doubt whether one can get a fair idea of what this war practically is, or what genuine America is, and her character, without some such experience as this I am having. “

Whitman wrote of his difficulty to produce an “authentic” portrait of the war and in the essay titled “The Real War Will Never Get in the Books” (1875)  in Specimen Days, he wrote

Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors…

….Think how much, and of importance, will be—how much, civic and military, has already been—buried in the grave, in eternal darkness.

John Kracen shared his own story with a crowd on Memorial Day to commemorate the sacrifice his friend Stephen Hock made, a sacrifice like so many other American soldiers who now lay buried in the grave, in eternal darkness. Kracen’s emotional account of the disastrous fire on the USS Forrestal was compelling because it was his first hand, his authentic account, his own story.

Research proves that our brains are hard-wired for such stories. We tell our children stories to explain how the world works; our children learn the quality of empathy through story.

This past Memorial Day in Bridgewater, the small boy sitting on the curb, the students in the school’s marching band, and the parents in the crowd heard Kracen tell his story of his experience during the fire on the USS Forrestal. They heard a powerful real war story, one that may never, as Whitman said, get in the books.

Dan Brown has announced plans to release a young adult version of The Da Vinci Code.

The announcement was met with some critical commentary on Twitter:

How can people expect teenagers to read and write essays on Dickens but think that Dan Brown is too challenging?

Interesting that the tweet above compares Dan Brown with Charles Dickens. In the category of abridged novels, the author Brown has the edge…he has the opportunity to abridge his own work. The author Dickens has not.

While some may dispute an attempt to compare their literary work, it is true that both Brown and Dickens have been deemed successful authors.

Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (2003) has sold 82 million copies worldwide; two of his novels, Angels & Demons (2000), The Da Vinci Code (2003),have been adapted into films; Inferno (2013) is in film production.

Charles Dickens had three best-sellers to his name at age 27; he completed dozen major novels, short stories, plays, and several non-fiction books; his performance tour in the United States approximately $95,000.

Abridged Dickens

An abridgment is a condensing or reduction of a book or other creative work into a shorter form while maintaining the unity of the source
-Wikipedia

The abridging author selects what may or may not be important in original work in an attempt to recapture the tone and  message while making things easier for the reader.

There are multiple abridgments of Dickens’s novels and short stories. Like most 19th C writers, he is wordy. His style features multiple subordinate clauses or lists of descriptive elements that strung out sentence length. He also was offered financial incentives for increasing story length.

The following passage is from Stave One of a Christmas Carol. The words in blue are those that make up the abridged version on the LovingtoLearn (for grades 2-3) website:

The original version/abridged version:

“Oh!  But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind- stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.  A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin.  He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dogdays; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

“External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often came down handsomely, and Scrooge never did.

Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, `’My dear Scrooge, how are you. When will you come to see me.’ No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blindmen’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, ‘No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master! ”’

scrooge

Both passages were run through readability measures: Flesch-Kincaid,  Coleman-Liau Index SMOG IndexGunning-Fog ScoreAutomated Readability Index.
  • Dickens’s original version has 307 words/ 18 sentences/16.5 words per sentence. The passage is written at an 7.8 average grade level.
  • The abridged version or “children’s version” has 64 words/5 sentences/12.8 words per sentence. The passage is written at a  7.2  average grade level.

NOTE: There is no statistically significant difference between the original and abridged versions (grade levels 7.8-7.2 ) in readability; the only difference is in the length of the passage.

So, why bother?

What is Lost in Abridgment

Students who are given this “abridged version” of A Christmas Carol will still get Dickens’s message and plot. They will still learn about Scrooge’s redemption after the visits by three spirits. But in this single example they will miss experiencing some of the novella’s best figurative language:

  • Hard and sharp as flint (simile)
  • no steel had ever struck out generous fire (metaphor);
  • secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster (simile);
  • The cold within him (conceit or extended metaphor);
  • spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice (personification):
  • Foul weather didn’t know where to have him (personification).

Moreover, they would have missed a critical detail, that it was the blindmen’s dogs, seeking to protect their vulnerable masters from Scrooge, that would tug their masters into the doorways. Dickens himself, who had abridged this particular passage for public readings in the USA, included that small critical detail for a reason.

Ironically, when the Common Core State Standards for Reading Literature want to focus attention on author’s style and craft, the students offered an abridged version would have missed how well Dickens crafted his description of Scrooge.

Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code:

Dan Brown will have the opportunity to abridge his work, although the same readability measure used above confirms that his writing is already at the young adult 7.6 average grade reading level.  Take a  passage from Brown’s novel  from the opening chapter:

DaVinciCode cover“Almost immediately, a heavy fist pounded on Langdon’s door.

Uncertain, Langdon slid off the bed, feeling his toes sink deep into the savonniere carpet. He donned the hotel bathrobe and moved toward the door. ‘Who is it?’

‘Mr. Langdon? I need to speak with you.’The man’s English was accented—a sharp, authoritative bark. ‘My name is Lieutenant Jerome Collet. Direction Centrale Police Judiciaire.'”

The Da Vinci Code. Copyright 2003 by Dan Brown. Random House Publishers.

The passage above has 64 words/10 sentences/6.4 words per sentence. The average grade reading level falls into the range of Dickens; the difference between Brown and Dickens is the number of words in each sentence. The  difference again is that student needs to have stamina to read the complexity of Dickens extended sentences.

This means that tweets -like the one above criticizing Brown’s writing- are misleading. In the examples above, both authors are writing at roughly the same readability grade level average.

Abridged Version for the Young Adult

Ultimately, Dan Brown will have every opportunity to exercise his authorial voice in choosing what will be modified and what will remain in his abridged version. Given the maturity of some of his subject matter (description of Monsieur Saunière’s corpse; the murders by the monk/assassin Silas), there may be a toning down of the violence for younger audience. Young adult readers, however, have made publishers very aware that their tastes for blood (The Hunger Games, Twilight ) and conspiracy (Divergent) should be appreciated, and Brown may agree.

Regardless of what choices Brown makes, the excitement that surrounded the original The Da Vinci Code will not be duplicated. Brown may make his word choices more simple. His abridged book, as with the abridged versions of Dickens’s novels, will be shorter.  But, the YA version will not surpass the excitement of the original book The Da Vinci Code.
In competing with himself, Brown’s best chance is that his abridged version could be a tie with his original.

That is the best any abridged version-Brown or Dickens- could hope to be, a tie.

And a tie is, as the Michigan State football coach Duffy Daughtry once said, “like kissing your sister.”

It’s not a loss, but it’s not a win.
It’s a kiss…but it’s your sister.

This past week, I listened to a friend describe a SKYPE session with a children’s author that was particularly challenging; audio and video feeds were not running simultaneously. She described how she worked with others to solve the audio issue by stringing up a microphone to a different soundboard to boost sound. I was impressed, and I noted that how their experience with technology glitch in a carefully planned lesson is now a familiar experience for teachers at every grade level. Follow these steps:

STEP ONE: You, the teacher, plan that tomorrow’s lesson will use (NOTEmore than one answer may apply):
a. the SMARTBoard,
b. the Promethean Board,
c. the ENO board,
d. white board with projector,
e. TV Screen display.
STEP TWO: You, the teacher, plan and prepare the lesson using the software or digital platform on your (NOTEmore than one answer may apply):
a.  iPad or Kindle;
b. school or personal laptop;
c. school networked desktop;
d. your mobile phone.
STEP THREE: You, the teacher, get to class early to set up the (NOTE: more than one answer may apply):
a. projector;
b. speaker(s), microphone, and/or sound system;
c. classroom response system “clickers”;
d. computer cart with student laptops;

BUT!

Once the students are in the room, one or more of the following scenarios occurs: (Circle ALL that apply):
a. Internet access slows down as all students are logging on at the same time;
b. computers on the cart are not charged because the cart was left unplugged overnight;
c. Internet access slows because this is the date for the new IOS system download and everyone is upgrading!;
d. the “dongle” for the projector is missing (again!);
e. the program requires Adobe Flash or Java -neither of which is installed on one or more devices;
f. Internet access is not available to a handful of students who have forgotten their access passwords (again!!);
g. Audio cable or coaxial cable or HDMI cable is missing (again!);
h. Internet access is newly blocked to one or more of the websites you provided to students;
i. the speakers crackle and the soundtrack is inaudible;
j. video projection is too dark because of the fading (flickering) projection lamp (too expensive to replace at this time of year).

So….What does a teacher do when a technology glitch prevents delivery of the designed lesson?

loading-1

NOTE: Waiting for the software to load can be an annoying technology glitch in class!

Rather than despair when the lesson you have so carefully planned to deliver does not work because of a technology glitch, you may want to consider what new opportunity has been created. Instead of throwing up your hands, getting frustrated, or giving up, you should think of how to use this opportunity to teach students the lesson of how you deal with a technology glitch.

Model Behavior: Persevere and Problem Solve

Not only is this technology glitch an opportunity to model how to cope with failure an authentic life lesson, this is also an opportunity that is aligned to the Common Core State Standards for any grade level by way of the Mathematical Practice Standard #1 (MPS#1). The MPS#1 requires students to persevere and problem solve. By rewording some of the criteria of this mathematical practice to fit the problem of a technology glitch, a teacher can follow the standard’s objective:

When challenged by technology, teachers can look “for entry points to [a] solution” and also “analyze givens, constraints, relationships, and goals.”   Teachers can use “a different method(s)” and “ask themselves, ‘Does this make sense?'” (MPS#1)

Moreover, teachers who follow MPS#1 are employing a “teachable moment” that is so highly prized in evaluation systems. Students at every grade level are keenly aware of the behaviors that teachers are modeling in class, and researchers, such as Albert Bandura (1977), have documented the importance of modeling as an instructional tool. They refer to social learning theory which notes that behavior is strengthened, weakened, or maintained in social learning by modeling of behavior of others:

“When a person imitates the behavior of another, modeling has taken place. It is a kind of vicarious learning by which direct instruction does not necessarily occur (although it may be a part of the process).”

Watching a teacher model perseverance in order to problem solve a technology glitch can be a positive lesson. Watching a teacher model how to collaborate with others to solve a technology glitch is equally positive, and including students in a collaboration to solve technology problems, particularly at the upper grade levels, is a desired 21st Century skill.

Learning from Failure

Finally, the educational organization The Partnership of 21st Century Learning anticipated problems with technology in the classroom in the following standard:

View failure as an opportunity to learn; understand that creativity and innovation is a long-term, cyclical process of small successes and frequent mistakes.

Technology that malfunctions or fails in the classroom is one such a learning opportunity. So, the next time, teachers, that the projection bulb blows out, the Internet becomes unavailable, or the software is taking too long to load, take a deep breath and use this opportunity to model problem solving. Model the lesson of perseverance as a life lesson….and, just to be safe, remember to have a back-up plan.

What was the back-up plan for the SKYPE session? A read-aloud….decidedly low-tech and still popular.