On Sunday, September 17, 2017, we the people (of the United States) will be celebrating the 230th year of our Constitution. There was legislation passed in 1997 that designated September 17th as Constitution Day since this recognition marks that day back in 1787 when the delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the document in Philadelphia.

There were two provisions in the 1997 legislation that created Constitution Day. The first is that the head of every federal agency provides each employee with educational materials concerning the Constitution. The second provision is that educational institutions which receive Federal funds should offer a program for students every Constitution Day.

That second requirement for Constitution Day does not define the kind of program that schools should offer students; the requirement seems intentionally vague and small, considering the impact this document, and its multiple revisions, have had in defining the conditions of the American society our students will inherit. Educators are free to choose what to do in offering a program.

Given that Constitution Day falls on a Sunday in 2017, the day of recognition will move to Monday, September 18th. For those last minute Sunday night planners, there are a number of different websites with prepared lessons for all grade levels.

A quick google search for ideas, for example, yielded multiple websites for materials. There were lesson plans for elementary students on the Scholastic website for grades 3-5 . There are also Scholastic lessons for grades 6-8. Another website, The Constitution Center is offering a series of lessons as well.

If prepared lesson plans are not possible, educators can always share a selection from the Constitution. They could review (close read) the Preamble, the Bill of Rights, or any one of the 27 Amendments. Those educators who favor history can share the story of how the Constitution became necessary after the political and economic unrest that followed the Treaty of Paris in 1783.  They can explain how the efforts of four ultra-nationalists (James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and George Washington) prevented the United States from being a failed ex-British colony.

History trivia buffs can share that back in 1787, many of the delegates, including Madison who was most responsible for the document, doubted the Constitution would work. The delegates did not speak of it with the same reverence that today’s politicians do. Included with those doubters was the Honorable Benjamin Franklin.

Given today’s political polarization, a more timely Constitution Day activity in a secondary school would be to share Franklin’s feelings about the Constitution by having students review the opening to a letter sent before the Constitution went up for a vote:

Mr. President:
I confess that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present, but Sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it: For having lived long, I have experienced many Instances of being oblig’d, by better Information or fuller Consideration, to change Opinions even on important Subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own Judgment, and to pay more Respect to the Judgment of others.

Franklin’s begrudging acceptance of the Constitution could be a lesson to students, those future citizens being trained in the classroom, that political opinions can change. As Franklin stated, the Constitution that was ratified in 1787 was not entirely perfect, but he approved it because he respected the judgment of others. He advocated that other delegates do the same in the  conclusion of his letter:

On the whole, Sir, I cannot help expressing a Wish, that every Member of the Convention, who may still have Objections to it, would with me on this Occasion doubt a little of his own Infallibility, and to make manifest our Unanimity, put his Name to this instrument.

Franklin understood that the United States needed the example of unity by delegates at its political birth. As a result, for 230 years, the Constitution has been the framework which has kept the United States united.

Issues in contemporary politics could be addressed by educators who choose to use Franklin’s words as a model for healthy political discussions in class. The same respect for the judgment of others Franklin wrote about 230 years ago should be a model for respect shared in classrooms.  Educators can focus on having students doubt a little of their own political “infallibility” and to practice as fellow citizens to listen to others speak about their points of view.

That right to speak is guaranteed by our 230-year-old United States Constitution….so Happy Constitution Day!

There was a question posed by Frank Bruni on America’s simmering stew of identity politics.

He lamented, “Where are the bridges?” in his essay, “I’m a White Man. Hear Me Out (8/13/17)”

His cry was a reference to the single-mindedness of  identity politics that are defined as that:

 tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics.

Bruni’s question is timely.  There have been several polarizing political events in this summer of 2017. Over the weekend, a white supremacists’ march in Charlottesville ended in fatalities. Over the past weeks, there has been heat created by proposed immigration bans and the possible removal of transgender military personnel.  These ingredients have been added to the political goulash that already contained the Black Lives Matter movement, the Blue Lives Movement, and calls for a wall along the nation’s Mexican border. There’s even a dash of Google in an employee’s memo suggesting women are more neurotic than men. At the center of this ferment is a large slab of income inequity.

While the temperature of political discourse is rising, there is no melting of identity politics in America’s great melting pot.

“And where are the bridges?” writes Bruni.

I worry about those bridges; as an educator, I am trained to look for solutions.

I offer one possible low-cost, readily-available solution: reading.

Thoreau-empathy-quote

Reading provides the reader the experience of seeing through another’s eyes. That is the definition of empathy. There is research that supports the link between the reading of stories and empathy.  Therefore, my response as an educator to Bruni is that the bridges he seeks can be bridges that are built by reading stories.

In short, stories build empathy, and empathy builds bridges.

These bridges are found in narratives, memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies.

These bridges are found in allegories, fables, fairy tales, folk tales, and myths.

These bridges are found in chronicles, records, reports, and serials.

These bridges are found in confessions, contes, and cliffhangers.

These bridges are found in comedies, dramas, tragedies.

These bridges are found in parables, plays, and poetry.

These bridges are found in episodes, sagas, and epics.

The bridges Bruni seeks are built by our collective stories; the bridges can be seen through the points of view developed by empathy.

Thousands upon thousands of bridges exist, and educators can help students see those bridges and cross them through the experience of reading.

Educators have been responding to the article Why Kids Can’t Write (8/2/17) in Education Life, a piece by Dana Goldstein, education reporter for The NY Times.

I suspect that Goldstein may choose to expand this topic later in a book. She already has published the bestseller The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession.(2015)

A book would allow her a chance to expand her thesis as to why kids can’t write. Because she is an education reporter, however, she has not had the learning experience the same way a classroom teacher learns in teaching writing. An education reporter is not an educator.

That was the point taken by education blogger PL Thomas (Radical Scholarship). He responded to her article with his own argument, Why Journalists Shouldn’t Write about Education. He has a point.

Goldstein’s article is 2621 words long with some analysis on opposing arguments on the teaching of writing. She includes educator interviews as to why kids can’t write. She identifies a point of agreement, that teachers have “little training in how to teach writing and are often weak or unconfident writers themselves.” But overall, the article does not deliver what its title implies, an answer to the question why kids can’t write.

As a classroom teacher, I know there are many reasons kids can’t write. Blogger Thomas offered his ideas as to what is missing; I am adding my own here.

First, Goldstein uses data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP test) and the writing section of the ACT writing exam as evidence in addressing the claim, “three-quarters of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing.”

In teaching writing, classroom teachers do not rely solely on evidence taken from standardized tests such as the NAEP or ACT. They know that this evidence represents only one kind of writing, created for circumstances found only in schools.

The writing portions of these standardized tests are timed and that ticking clock can truncate the prewriting, drafting, revising, and editing steps in the writing process that they present in class.

Teachers know that the example provided by the ACT is, like other pre-college assessments, a DRAFT:

  • “Well Machines are good but they take people jobs like if they don’t know how to use it they get fired.”  (ACT response)

Teachers know more about a student (reading level, EL status, etc) to help better understand why a student may be confused in verb tense/or to or too  in the grade one example:

  • “Plants need water it need sun to” (1st grade)

Both examples are responses to a prompt-(I am guessing mechanized labor for the ACT- plants in grade 1) and the content appears correct but under-developed. In less stressful circumstances, given time necessary for authentic writing, each student should be able to follow the writing process, elaborate and make corrections.

Consider that as a professional writer, Goldstein had the advantage of time (even with a deadline) in writing Why Kids Can’t Write. She had the opportunity to pre-write (pitch), draft, revise, and edit. There’s a reason she did not put her first draft up for everyone to see; it is the same reason this response has taken me a few hours to write before I hit publish. Writing takes time.

But ask any teacher…in testing, in the classroom, there is never enough time to write. Dedicated blocks of extended thinking and writing time do not exist. Instead, there is a steady stream of disruptions or interruptions: announcements, slow word processors, scheduled specials, student behavior, etc. when students write.

A second reason that contributes to why kids can’t write is choice. In testing situations, students have no choice in their response to a prompt, and their (draft) work is collected (finished or unfinished) and sent off to a testing center, never to be seen again.

Research suggests that choice is directly connected to student motivation.  Goldstein probably had some choice in writing this article; her motivation comes from her profession, a paycheck.

Now add authenticity to choice. The prompts given to students in standardized testing vary in authenticity. They are written to determine a student’s proficiency with a genre, not for publication. Some examples of genre related prompts (grades 5-8) I found on released exams given in the past two years include:

  • argumentative: discuss the pros and cons of cursive writing.
  • expository: compare and contrast response about the potential benefits and drawbacks involved in organic farming as a vocation.
  • narrative: a  multi-paragraph story about a robot that all of a sudden comes alive.

The quality of the response to any of the above will not only depend on a student’s grasp of the standards of English (conventions) but also on a student’s interest, a student’s understanding of the task, and a student’s background knowledge. By middle school, students know test responses are “one and done” high stakes exercises. Practice for testing without choice only reinforces test prep as inauthentic classwork…a kind of fake news in education assessment.

Goldstein also included in a sidebar a student response to the pre-assessment prompt, “Explain why we study the past.” The instructions for this broad topic read, “write a complete paragraph that contains a topic sentence, supporting detail sentences, and a closing sentence.” While this pre-assessment is given to see what a student may or may not know, there will be some students who will struggle with such a prescribed writing formula in such a way that it defeats the purpose for writing. The average student cannot demonstrate (with details) all he or she knows about the past in a short paragraph.

In contrast, writing an article for the NYTimes is an authentic writing exercise. There is no paragraph formula. Goldstein’s paragraphs vary in length, and there are a few one sentence paragraphs.

Moreover, Goldstein’s article reached an audience outside of the classroom (1445 comments to date). The same cannot be said for the reader of responses for standardized testing; that single reader does not comment back to the student except through a grade.

Goldstein also glosses over another critical element in the teaching of writing. She mentions feedback only once in the article stating, “At every level, students benefit from clear feedback on their writing.” This statement grossly understates the critical importance of feedback in the form of the writing conference as the single most important tool in the writing teacher’s toolkit.

If a teacher wants to improve a student’s writing, a writing conference (teacher to student; peer to peer)  is the best solution. A conference with constructive feedback allows for teacher and student to focus on a skill that needs attention. The writing conference is more effective in addressing repeated errors made by a percentage of the class rather than whole class instruction. Whole class instruction and worksheets may be counter-productive; not every student needs to repeat the same grammar lesson.

Goldstein is even-handed in presenting the arguments of opposing factions in the teaching of writing. These arguments should sound familiar to those education veterans of the phonics wars (1983-2000) where explicit instruction in the foundations of language (phonics devotees) was pitted against meaning and strategy instruction (whole language devotees).

In framing a similar confrontation in writing instruction, Goldstein introduces writing experts who support “focusing on the fundamentals of grammar” in teaching writing versus writing experts who advocate “exposing them [students] to great writing.”

Arguing for the fundamentals of grammar side is Judith C. Hochman, the founder of a non-profit organization called the Writing Revolution. At the time of the interview, Hockman was facilitating a workshop where teachers were developing worksheets that would help children learn to write. “It all starts with a sentence,” Dr. Hochman explained. Writing Revolution offers subscription based support to teachers trained in their methods for a fee.

For the counter-argument on exposing students to great writing, Goldstein interviewed high school teacher Meredith Wanzer with the Long Island Writing Project, who intentionally “limits the time she spends covering dull topics like subject-verb agreement.” She was attending a program sponsored by the National Writing Project (NWP) that offers training to an estimated 100,000 teachers each summer.

Full disclosure: I am most familiar with this argument of exposing students to great writing. I attended a summer session for teachers sponsored by the NWP at Fairfield University (Thanks, Bryan Crandall).  Like Wanzer, I participated in writing and revising my own work over the summer so that I would be more comfortable in understanding the needs of my student writers. After all, I reasoned, it is hard to expect students to write if I did not write myself.

Over the course of the article, Goldstein presents both arguments, one for teaching structure (grammar) against the other informed by great writing (literature). She settles on a compromise, much like the compromise that ended the phonics wars: teaching writing is a blend. Goldstein concludes, “All of this points toward a synthesis of the two approaches.”

One final twist that is not included in this article is that students are expected to meet the same standards of English as a professional writer.  That professional writer, ironically, has the benefit of an editor…or maybe even a team of editors. Goldstein had an editor for this article. Moreover, the editor for this piece was not an English teacher….one who could have corrected her use of the informal “kids” rather than “students” or her use of a contraction “can’t” in formal published piece.

Perhaps the publishing constraints of print space are what limited Goldstein’s reasons as to Why Kids Can’t Write. She does include teacher training, grammar instruction, free writing, and the Common Core, but maybe her explanation falls short because of the most obvious reason, no experience as a teacher.

If she does choose to write that book, I hope tries her hand at writing instruction herself. She is a good writer and will appreciate how these everyday reasons- requiring students to write without time, without choice (motivation), without authenticity, and without feedback- are at the heart of why kids can’t write.

My school district recently purchased a class set of the March Trilogy, the graphic novel memoir that recounts the experiences of Congressman John Lewis (5th District, Georgia) in America’s struggle for civil rights including the marches from Selma to Montgomery. The comic book-style illustrations are engaging and some may mistake the memoir as something for children. Lewis’s experiences in the 1950-60s, however, were marked by violence, so the memoir is recommended for more mature audiences (grades 8-12).

The publisher, Top Shelf Productions, prepares audiences about the violence and language in the memoir by stating:

“…in its accurate depiction of racism in the 1950s and 1960s, March contains several instances of racist language and other potentially offensive epithets. As with any text used in schools that may contain sensitivities, Top Shelf urges you to preview the text carefully and, as needed, to alert parents and guardians in advance as to the type of language as well as the authentic learning objectives that it supports.”

The March Trilogy is the collaboration between Congressman Lewis, his Congressional staffer Andrew Aydin, and the comic book artist, Nate Powell. Their collaboration project began in 2008 after Congressman Lewis described the powerful impact a 1957 comic book titled Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story had on people like himself who were engaged in the Civil Rights Movement. The comic book has been reissued by the original publisher, Fellowship of Reconciliation with a new editorIsrael Escamilla.

Cover of the comic book that inspired John Lewis’s “March”

The 1957 comic book is also available as a PDF by clicking on a link available on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans (CRMV) website. The About page on this site has the following purpose statement in bold:

 This website is created by Veterans of the Southern Freedom Movement (1951-1968). It is where we tell it like it was, the way we lived it, the way we saw it, the way we still see it.

Under this explanation is the blunt statement: “We ain’t neutral.”

The decision to publish the Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story as a comic book in the late 1950s is a bit surprising.  At that time the genre of comic books in America had come under scrutiny. A psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham, made public his criticisms that comic books promoted deviant behavior. That claim in 1954 led to the creation of a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency along with the Comics Code Authority (CCA). That Authority drafted the self-censorship Comics Code that year, which required all comic books to go through a process of approval.

In 1958, the Friends of Reconciliation published the 16-page comic book as a challenge to CCA restrictions. An artist from the Al Capp Studios, creators of Li’l Abner, donated time to illustrate the book. Benton Resnick, a blacklisted writer, wrote the text. He concluded with a promotion for the “thousands of members throughout the world [who] attempt to practice the things that Jesus taught about overcoming evil with good.” The Friends of Reconciliation’s religious message passed the scrutiny of Senate Subcommittee.

The comic book also received Dr. King’s approval who called it “an excellent piece of work” that did a “marvelous job of grasping the underlying truth and philosophy of the movement.”

Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was distributed through churches, universities, social justice organizations and labor unions during the Civil Rights Movement. Now in reproduction, the comic book has been widely circulated to support international struggles for civil rights, including Egypt’s Tahrir’s Square.

Teachers can use this primary source comic book as a way to explain how nonviolent protests held throughout the South contributed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One of the first frames in the book holds a proclamation:

“In Montgomery, Alabama, 50,000 Negroes found a new way to work for freedom, without violence and without hating.”

Several frames later, there are illustrations showing Rosa Parks’s arrest when she refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. These events are narrated by a fictional character named “Jones”. His role is to introduce the reader to the 29-year-old Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr, a preacher from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Dr. King will become the charismatic leader who planned the bus boycotts in Montgomery.

In the comic book, several frames show how protesters rehearsed for confrontations during protests. King wanted protesters to practice the tenets of non-violence the same way that Mahatma Gandhi had used non-violence in liberating India from the British Empire.

The “Montgomery Method” that Dr. King promotes in the strip is based on religion; God is referenced as the motivating force.  An explanation of the different steps to follow the method of non-violence begins with the statement that God “says you are important. He needs you to change things.”

In the concluding pages, the comic book also has suggestions for activists that were used to guide those who worked for civil rights in the 1950s -1960s. Some of these suggestions are remarkably timely, and they could be used in class discussions:

Be sure you know the facts about the situation. Don’t act on the basis of rumors, or half-truths, find out;

Where you can, talk to the people concerned and try to explain how you feel and why you feel as you do. Don’t argue; just tell them your side and listen to others. Sometimes you may be surprised to find friends among those you thought were enemies.

This comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story can be used to prepare students for the graphic novel memoir by Congressman Lewis, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement. While he is not directly named in the 1957 comic book, he participated in many of the events and his memoir March provides another point of view to major events.

In Lewis’s recounting, March: Book I is set up as a flashback in which he remembers the brutality of the police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the 1965 Selma-Montgomery March.  The second book, March: Book 2 (2015) highlights the Freedom Bus Rides and Governor George Wallace’s “Segregation Forever” speech.  The final book, March: Book 3 (2016) includes the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bombing; the Freedom Summer murders; the 1964 Democratic National Convention; and the Selma to Montgomery marchesMarch: Book 3 received multiple awards including 2016 National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature, the 2017 Printz Award Winner, and the 2017 Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner.

In receiving these awards, Lewis restated his purpose that his memoir was directed toward young people, saying:

“It is for all people, but especially young people, to understand the essence of the civil rights movement, to walk through the pages of history to learn about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence, to be inspired to stand up to speak out and to find a way to get in the way when they see something that is not right, not fair, not just.”

He could just as well have been speaking about Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. They may belong to the genre of comic books, but they also are serious records of our history.

On a positive note, there is a new TV show ( creator: Craig Pearce) about William Shakespeare. The star,Laurie Davidson, is a casting choice who will make women swoon.

On the other hand, there will be purist English professors who will be cringing over a number of anachronisms they believe will need correcting.

Maybe why the series is simply titled Will...because there will be English teachers who will insist on separating facts from fiction.

I suggest, however, that students will remember more if they do the background research.

For example:

  • they will need to understand why Alice Burbage (for real) would have every reason to say Yes, I am that most useless of creatures: an educated woman!”.but would never have spoken this aloud;
  • they will need to discover that Elizabethan audiences, while quite raucous, did not sport brightly dyed mohawks, and there is little evidence of iambic pentameter rap battles in taverns;
  • they will need to appreciate Kit Marlowe’s place in literature;
  • they will need to consider why a character Shakespeare  might hide his Roman Catholic background in Elizabethan England.

What the series seems to get right is the tension created during religious purges throughout Elizabeth I’s reign. Students could do some quick research into those hostilities that were initiated by her father, Henry VIII in challenging the Roman Catholic Church. The TV series features gruesome scenes of torturing Catholics by (historically accurate) Richard Topcliffe that are hard to watch. His sadistic turn, even on the small screen, gives support to a description that he was one “whose inhuman cruelty is so great, as he will not spare to extend any torture whatsoever.”

Another right set of moments (Episode 3) center on our accepted understanding that most plot lines of Shakespeare’s plays are “borrowed” from other sources. For example, it is known that Romeo and Juliet is lifted in large part from a poem by Arthur Brooke (1562) titled The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet. The conceit that Will collects lines on his strolls through London’s streets for later use in plays is similar to how Tom Stoppard presented Shakespeare’s style of playwriting in the Oscar winning Shakespeare in Love. But Will’s producers who try to involve Alice as a collaborator may be taking their playwriting enterprise a (London) bridge too far.

Other accurate moments from the series opener are devoted to watching a tense dynamic between playwright and actor. In one scene, famed actor Richard Burbage, played by Mattias Inwoodhams it up during lines from an early production of Edward III;  he overplays lines about the futility of war as pickup lines for an attractive theatre-goer. In another scene, an out-of-control actor on stage escalates manically lewd behavior and moons the audience for laughs. Such exploitation by actors at the cost of a play’s meaning gives more support to why the real Shakespeare penned these lines for Hamlet:

“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
as many of your players do, I had as lief the
town-crier spoke my lines.”(3.2.1-4)

If teachers can see their way past the anachronisms, they may agree that  Will can help students visualize a dangerous London, its alleyways teaming with treachery.

Treachery is a Shakespeare trademark, according to Harvard scholar  in his essay in The New Yorker Magazine (July 10/17, 2017 issue) Shakespeare’s Cure for Xenophobia. In the essay, Greenblatt compares his own life experiences with the fear of the “other” or outsider that is present in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

Dangerous topics like xenophobia or plotting against the king, Greenblatt notes, are how Shakespeare “awakens” audiences to better understanding. Sounding much like the producers of Will, Greenblatt provides an allusion to King Lear,

“At a time when alehouses and inns were full of spies trolling for subversive comments,this is a playwright who could depict on the public stage a twisted sociopath lying his way to supreme authority.”

Greenblatt continues to note Shakespeare’s temerity, again referencing plot points from King Lear:

“This is a playwright who could have a character stand up and declare to the spectators that ‘a dog’s obeyed in office’.”

and then

“This is a playwright who could approvingly depict a servant mortally wounding the realm’s ruler in order to stop him from torturing a prisoner in the name of national security.”

Shakespeare, Greenblatt argues, had the audacity to produce such acts of treachery onstage in order to place us in a different point of view, a view that “offers the possibility of an escape from the mental ghettos most of us inhabit.”

In contrast, the producers of Will, keep the treachery off the stage and onto the streets.

Whether Will lasts as a TV series or ends before the season’s summer sun sets will be determined by ratings; Will currently has the distinction of being the lowest-rated TNT drama series premiere.

Will Will continue to be or not to be? That is a question.

Today marks the 200th birthday of American writer (poet, essayist, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist) Henry David Thoreau. I remember my first encounters with Thoreau were traditional, his essays read in my high school English class. Soon after, my choice of for a quote under my yearbook photo (a serious decision made after much deliberation) was his:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” 

“That’s a rather depressing sentiment,” my Aunt Rita had commented.
“It’s what I believe,” I had replied.

Therefore, I was surprised to discover that although I have taught his essays and discussed his literary impact on American Literature,  I have not yet written on this blog about Henry David Thoreau.  This post will correct my oversight.

In 2013, I created a Livebinder for my seniors who were reading the Bill Bryson book A Walk in the Woods. A Livebinder is a digital file cabinet where anyone can upload or link materials for others to use. The about page explains their purpose:

“We created LiveBinders so that you could do with digital information what you do with the piles of papers on your desk – organize them into nice presentable containers – like 3-ring binders on your shelf. With our online binders you can combine all of your cloud documents, website links and upload your desktop documents – to then easily access, share, and update your binders from anywhere.”

The materials on Livebinders can be accessed on all digital platforms, so that students could access it on their own devices. My Walk in the Woods Livebinder allowed me to place the link Thoreau’s essay “On Walking” explained in its republication in The Atlantic magazine

“In May 1862, the magazine published ‘Walking,’ one of his [Thoreau] most famous essays, which extolled the virtues of immersing oneself in nature and lamented the inevitable encroachment of private ownership upon the wilderness.”

I still remember the opening phrase from the essay, “I wish to speak a word for Nature…”.
A student had grumbled, “There’s a lot more than one word here…”
His was an understatement. This particular Thoreau essay runs about 20 pages; a total of 12,188 words.

I did not require my students to read the entire essay, although I encouraged them to try. Instead I had them peruse the text until they found a passage that seemed interesting. They had to choose a quote, much like I had for my yearbook photo, that they found particularly profound and then write an explanation on why this quote was interesting or meaningful. . I still remember some of their choices, and their reflections on why they chose a particular passage such as:

  • Which is the best man to deal with—he who knows nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all?
  • In short, all good things are wild and free. 
  • When we should still be growing children, we are already little men

I learned that Thoreau’s sentiments spoke to their frustrations of growing up, or being talked at by know-it-all adults. Many of my students were vocational agriculture students who wholeheartedly agreed with Thoreau’s attitude towards ditching the classroom and getting outside:

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.of having to spend time indoors.”

Using Thoreau’s essay “On Walking” was my attempt to complement Bill Bryson’s memoir of his hiking on the Appalachian Trail in A Walk in the Woods. Bryson’s writing was more accessible to the students than Thoreau’s 19th Century prose which is stuffed with allusions of all types. Unlike Thoreau, Bryson makes background instruction unnecessary.

Another accessible text for students was the picture book I placed on the Livebinder, the charming  Henry Hikes to Fitchburg by D.B.Johnson.

Thoreau reimagined as a bear, enjoying Nature!

In this tribute to Transcendentalist philosophy, Johnson cast the naturalist Thoreau as a bear who hikes his way on a route (actually taken by the author), stopping to engage with several of his famous American neighbors (Alcott, Hawthorne, Emerson) also as bears. Henry’s bear companion chooses to work in order to take the train, setting up a story that implies money cannot buy the experience of nature. Students found the message profound, and unanimously agreed that a bear was the perfect choice for Thoreau.

I also placed links to a number of other essays by famous (British) writers on walking:

…and some (American) song lyrics on walking:

I asked students to find their own walking songs to share in class.

There was also an audio essay from the series “Engines of Our Ingenuity” based on an invention (using clay) that Thoreau used to make better pencil out of inferior graphite. Who could have been more inspired to make a better pencil than a writer who used pencils in his writing?

I had hoped that students would be equally inspired to see the connections that Henry David Thoreau had to their lives, to see how he had inspired Bill Bryson and others to take walks in nature. How he promoted Nature as a way for students to gain knowledge about themselves and the world around them…. To encourage others to spend time in the kind of thought that “transcends” or goes beyond what they may see, hear, taste, touch or feel.

My hope was that my students could have Thoreau explain the importance of self-knowledge, “… and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” 

40 years after choosing that yearbook quote, I have not shifted in that belief.

This summer, I am shopping the CT summer library book sales with a specific genre and grade level in mind: historical fiction in grade 4.

If you are not already familiar with reading curriculum that incorporates the Reading Workshop model called Units of Study, then let me explain that the plan is to have our grade 4 students read historical fiction in book clubs this coming spring. That means all the classroom libraries in six elementary schools will need an increase in texts to allow students to choose books to read with each other.

Fortunately, the Cyrenius H. Booth Library book sale in Newtown, CT, with one of the most active library associations (read about the library’s history here)  had plenty to offer.

 

As this will be our first year implementing the Reading Units of Study in grade 4, I was not sure which historical fiction titles would be the most popular for student choice. Instead, I let my selections be guided by Connecticut’s Social Studies Framework which states as one of its 6 principles:

Social studies education has direct and explicit connections to the Common Core State Standards for English/language arts and literacy in history/social studies

The 4th grade social studies curriculum is dedicated to the study of the United States, the geography, history, and culture of our nation.

As I quickly eyed the piles of books, neatly lined, spines up, anything from the “Dear America” series seemed to fit that criteria. I located a number of titles of this series available, and I scooped up an entire box that included multiple copies (3-5 each) of:

Hope students will enjoy this historical fiction selection as much as I did!

I also secured a number of copies of the Laura Ingalls Wilder classic  Little House on the Prairie, a personal favorite of mine. There were copies of  Farmer Boy and Little House in the Big Wood for any student want to read more about the Westward Expansion. In addition, there were Michael Dorris titles that feature Native Americans: Sees Behind Trees and Morning Girl.  On top of my almost full cart, I added a layer of American Girl books: Meet Kaya! Meet Josephina! Meet Felicity! I did leave some of the American Girls for others to meet.

Noticing the heavy dose of serious historical events, I did add several individual copies of Jon Scieszka’s Time Warp Trio books….comedic time travel in history is still historical, as in See You Later, Gladiator!... right?

Once again, I must take time to compliment the volunteers who had the children’s book section alphabetized by author AND organized by series. This made my shopping a breeze…and I was at $99 (for 153 books) in a little less than an hour.

I asked Denise, the wonderful woman who tallied my purchases, if she was noticing a down turn in the number of books donated for sale this year. She indicated that the paperback trade books did seem to be less plentiful, but that “children’s books are still coming…” thank goodness!

What is remarkable is the amount of historical fiction there was for sale, an indication that this genre is popular for young readers in Newtown. Just living in this old New England town, settled in 1705 with Colonial homes lining many of the streets, makes them already familiar with American history!

The most recent iteration of Wonder Woman (2017) on the big screen has received much attention because of its woman director Patty Jenkins and its attractive and agile star at her most womanliness. Actress Gal Gadot admitted she was 3-5 months pregnant for the role of Diana during much of the filming. The film also offers a similar message to the one that reverberates from the young adult novel, A Wrinkle in Time by one of my favorite woman authors, Madeleine L’Engle

Sitting in the dark, above the explosive noise in an action packed sequence, I heard the argument posed by the villain of the film, Ares, the god of War. At the climax of the film (and I do not believe the following is much of a spoiler), Ares admits to seeding treachery into the souls of mankind and bellows for Diana to destroy mankind, to give into her rage saying:

Ares: “They do not deserve your protection.”

But, remembering the sacrifice of others, Diana makes a different choice:

Diana: “It’s not about what you deserve, it’s about what you believe, and I believe in love.”

That same argument Ares makes is the argument made in the climax of A Wrinkle in Time. Teen-aged Meg, the awkward nerdish heroine, confronts IT, a grotesque villainous mass that has taken a sinister control over the mind of her beloved younger brother Charles Wallace:

Mrs. Whatsit hates you,” Charles Wallace said.
And that was where IT made ITs fatal mistake, for as Meg said, automatically, “Mrs. Whatsit loves me; that’s what she told me, that she loves me,” suddenly she knew.
She knew!
Love.
That was what she had that IT did not have. (12.135-140)

Of course, Wonder Woman has supernatural powers that help her defeat her foe. She is also not above using violence to achieve an end….she is an Amazon after all.

Meg in contrast is bookish and insecure; without sword, shield, or lasso. Meg realizes that she is incapable of directly defeating IT:

 But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it. (12.141-143)

Meg must use her wits rather than physical strength, and she cleverly defeats IT in a confrontation with lines so deeply etched in my literary memory files that I can still recite them, as I did watching the film:

But she could love Charles Wallace.
She could stand there and she could love Charles Wallace. (12.144-145)

Perhaps it is not surprising that in both stories, and against impossible odds, Diana and Meg find the same elixir on their hero’s journey to be the power of love. Their stories follow that archetypal journey: the call to adventure, leaving the known world, meeting the mentor(s), the test, the sacrifice, the ordeal, and the return with the elixir.

Please understand that although I enjoyed the film, I am not elevating the screenplay, production, or even the performances in Wonder Woman to the high regard for which I hold A Wrinkle in Time.  Although they are both fiction, the D.C. Comic heroine does not hold the same place in my literary heart as does Meg.

My 9-year-old self identified with Meg, and I longed for a Mrs. Which to blow into my life with an adventure. My own copy of the novel, a mottled blue hardcover signed by L’Engle, is a treasured possession.(see story here) In my current role as an educator, I continue to encourage others to read the book. L’Engle tells a wonderful story.

I do not think, however, that L’Engle would be unhappy with my comparison. The similarities in comparing the message of Meg’s story to Diana’s story in the film is what Madeleine L’Engle meant when she said:

“Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.”

There are different ways to become familiar with our nation’s founding documents: reading, memorizing, studying, reciting are a few. But in our keyboard- swipe-click-centered world, rewriting by hand is not one that immediately comes to mind.

A story feature in the NYTimes The Constitution, By Hand (6/30/17) written by Morgan O’Hara explained her process for copying the United States Constitution out by hand with a few sharpies. She noted that:

Hand copying a document can produce an intimate connection to the text and its meaning. The handwriter may discover things about this document that they never knew, a passage that challenges or moves them. They may even leave with a deeper connection to the founders and the country, or even a sense of encouragement.

Whatever her original intent for deciding to hand copy the lengthy document, her explanation for discovering things about a text echoes the arguments put forth about close reading that were initiated with the Common Core. Close reading requires students to read and reread a text several times; each time for a different purpose.

The first reading is to understand what the text says. The first reading is for comprehension: Who (character); What (events); Where/When (setting); Why (plot or information) questions asked.

It is the second reading, however, that asks a reader to become familiar with how the text operates:

-What does _____ this word mean in this context?
-How is the text organized? (sequence. cause and effect, compare/contrast, description)?
-What ways does the author use punctuation to control the reading of the text?

Asking students to write out by hand the  United States Constitution with the Bill of Rights is akin to having them perform a second close read. In copying the words and the punctuation and imitating the structure (sequence),  they could, like O’Hara, focus on how the text operates. How this particular text operates is exactly what constitutional scholars, lawyers, and judges debate regularly in courts.

How the Text Operates

For example, if you copy out the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, you will notice that the framers used three commas and two semi-colons in order to to separate clauses:

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Recently, the first semicolon after thereof was at the heart of the case (January 2010) Citizens United . The Supreme Court determined that this semicolon links the free exercise of religion and the free exercise of speech and that the framers did not mean that each clause of the First Amendment should be interpreted separately. The decision gave corporations the same free speech rights as people, and that corporations should have the same free religious exercise rights as people as well.  Handwriting the First Amendment and pausing to consider that semicolon can bring attention as to how the author(s) or Founding Fathers used punctuation to control the reading of the text.

Punctuation in the Declaration of Independence is also recently under scrutiny. Danielle Allen, then a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., caused a stir when she located an extra period on an original copy of the document at the National Archives after the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (see photo clip)

National Archive copy of the Declaration of Independence (with questionable period)

Allen suggested that this period -which could be an ink blot- might be misinterpreted to mean that that the list of self-evident truths ends with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Ink blot or intentional sentence stop, Allen argues that Thomas Jefferson did not intend to separate the phrase using a period, but had intended a continuation with the phrase that follows:

“— That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

In an article that followed in The Atlantic, Have We Been Reading the Declaration of Independence All Wrong?Allen explains,

“The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights…You lose that connection when the period gets added.”

Legislators and scholars have argued about the intent of Thomas Jefferson since the release of the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Students should have the opportunity to add their voices to the impact of different interpretations on their lives as well.

Muscle Memory

Outside of noting the punctuation in primary source documents, there is a fair amount of research that promotes the writing by hand as a great instructional tool in developing muscle memory, which is described on the Logic of English research blog as meaning “the students can write quickly and legibly with little conscious attention.” Writing by hand helps students as a multi-sensory approach to reading and spelling. This understanding contradicts long held beliefs that copying does not improve understanding. There may have been examples of monks who copied Ancient Christian manuscripts who were unable to even read, but in these cases the goal was artistic, not  literacy. Moreover, in the 21st Century, there is an increase in attention being paid to the loss of writing by hand in our tech obsessed culture.

New research shows that a multi-sensory approach that combines the finger movements (kinesthetic) with the sensorimotor part of the brain shows how writing by hand helps us recognize letters. Researcher Anne Mangen (The University of Stavanger-2011) explained the connection between reading and writing and how the sensorimotor system plays a role in the process of visual recognition during reading, saying:

“The process of reading and writing involves a number of senses. When writing by hand, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions, together with the sensation of touching a pencil and paper. These kinds of feedback is significantly different from those we receive when touching and typing on a keyboard.”

Feedback like this may be helpful to students. Of course copying the primary documents such as the United States Constitution or the Declaration of Independence in their entirety would be a lengthy commitment. Copying entire sections or even phrases, however, can give students that same kind of motor action and brain feedback and help them better appreciate a passage for what it says (meaning) and how it says it (text structure).

At the very least, they will experience the same process of duplicating these documents in the authentic way they were created by our Founding Fathers….by hand.

My letter to the Social Studies Department Chair at West Haven High School

Dear Mark …and to every other Civics or AP Government Teacher in the USA:

Sorry to interrupt your well-deserved summer vacation.

But I have a resource that I think you should use next year in the Advanced Placement American Government class. You should share this resource with the Issues in Government classes.

This Sunday’s NY Times (7/2/17) magazine has special section devoted to a single spread layout, four pages long, that features an annotated United States Constitution.

 

How could this be used in your classroom?

You will note that on the front of the section is the editors’ statement about the Constitution, that “Schoolchildren are sometimes forced to read it.” You have mentioned several times that students at every level sometimes have difficulty reading a primary source document like the Constitution. They are not alone. The editors of the section also note that scholars “pore over it,” inferring they too are reading the text to better understand this primary source document:

“For most Americans, the United States Constitution remains a distant and archaic text, a relic to be revered but rarely consulted.”

In presenting this annotated document, the editors have given teachers a tool to help students better understand our country’s basic rules. They have implemented a literary strategy known as “chunking the text” which means breaking down a difficult text into more manageable pieces so that students can close read for better comprehension. Chunking helps students identify key words and ideas, develops their ability to paraphrase, and makes it easier for them to organize and synthesize information. Close reading requires students to read and reread a text multiple times for what the text says and how the text works in order to determine how the text has an impact on their lives.

Several sections of this annotated Constitution have commentary from a lawmaker or a scholar or an author or a NYTimes editor. Over 30 individuals offered commentaries printed in the margins including: Representative John Conyers (Michigan), Representative Adam B. Schiff (California), Senator Mike Lee (Utah), Senator Lamar Alexander (Tennessee), Senator Patty Murray (Washington) Janet Napolitanto (former Secretary of Homeland Security), Jamal Green (Columbia Law Professor), Lawrence Tribe (Harvard Law Professor) as well as staff writers Adam Liptak and Emily Bazelon.

Each short commentary, about one or two short paragraphs long, serves as a model for students to follow. Students can be asked to imitate what the contributors have done and chunk the text of the Constitution in order to rewrite text in their own words. By chunking the text, students are better able to identify key words, to analyze ideas, to paraphrase, and to synthesize information.

Each commentary is connected by an arrow imposed on the section being annotated. For several sections Amendment 14 -Civil Rights) there are several commentaries. In total, there are 40 commentaries offering multiple points of view on our founding charter.

For example, Senator John McCain writes about the “common defense”(Article I: Section 8):

“With the powers given to us by our founders, it must be the urgent work of Congress to meet our sacred obligations to give our service members everything they need to defend our nation and our liberty.”

Vanita Gupta, former assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice writes about the 14th Amendment,

“The struggle to realize the promise of this brief but important clause has been at the heart of every movement for civil rights in this country and continues to animate social justice activism of today.”

Their examples serve as models to show students how to analyze and to synthesize the language of the document.

What teachers have with this annotated Constitution are 40 mini-lessons they can share with students sequentially or by order of a trending topic (capital punishment, freedom of the press, etc.)

But that’s not all!

There is a prologue to the inside spread, a two page essay by author  Garry Wills, who has written about James Madison, framer of Constitution. His essay, titled “Child of the Enlightenment,”  discusses the principles derived from the the Age of Reason that guided the “secular miracle” of the Constitutional Convention over the course of a year: convened in 1787 and ratified 13 months later in June 1788.

Wills considers what he calls the “myth” of the checks and balances built into the Constitution, suggesting that:

James Madison was not so much as wanting to encourage “competing interests but to arrive at a ‘disinterested’ view of a common purpose, what Enlightenment philosophers call ‘virtue’ – or public spiritedness.”

Wills argues that such virtue was-and still is -the key component of all government.

Finally, at the the bottom of Wills’ prologue, there is a timeline marking several Constitutional milestones, beginning with its origins in Ancient Greece and ending with today.

Taken as a whole, the special section this Sunday eliminates the need for civics textbooks, which I have often suggested are dated. We both know that students are more motivated when they respond to the issues being discussed today.

This four page spread of newsprint is an entire civics course. ..you just have to get a copy! (or you can borrow mine).