Click bait headlines, such as the one above, may not have been “liked” instantaneously around the 13 original American colonies, but fake news and misinformation was still a factor in the news cycle of 1776.  A close look at American history reveals that fake news has been around since the country’s inception, and even the honorable George Washington had to confront the repercussions of intentional misinformation.

There are forgeries at the New York Historical Society known as The Letters from General Washington to Several of His Friends, written by a British sympathizer who planted the letters to create doubts about Washington’s commitment to the cause of the American Revolution. One of the circulated letters, included the following statement:

“Thus circumstanced, can you point out a way in which it is possible for me to resign, just now, as it were on the eve of action, without the imputation of cowardice ? I think not.”

The discovery and then release of this misinformation in these documents would have certainly delighted the hearts of British loyalists. In fact, the timing of this faked correspondence as news in November of 1776, soon after the disastrous military decisions Washington made in New York, was meant to encourage Tories in America and in Britain.

A Forgery: "Contemporary Letter from George Washington to Martha

A forgery: “Contemporary Letter from George Washington to Martha Washington, June 24, 1776” on exhibit at the NY Historical Society.

These forgeries, reported to be in Washington’s hand, were supposedly found in a large trunk, a portmanteau, that had been left behind while during the General’s hasty retreat to Fort Lee, New Jersey. The crafted propaganda pieces were intended to question the integrity of that upstart who was leading the American revolution.

Circulation of this fake news and misinformation was furthered when a London bookseller published the contents of the handwritten fakes in a pamphlet titled Letters from General Washington to Several of His Friends in the Year 1776. According to Edward G Lengelmarch  (

“British reviewers panned the clumsy fraud, but it sold moderately well, and a year later the letters reappeared in newspapers in British-occupied New York City.”

These letters portray Washington very different from how he is viewed today. While historians acknowledge that Washington was keenly aware of the many obstacles the faced in opposing the British, they are unanimous in saying that he was unwavering in his commitment to the American Revolution. In contrast, the forged letters suggest Washington was a man plagued with doubt. One fake letter states:

“At length, however, when a Continental army came to be voted for, my fears returned with redoubled force; for then, for the fifth time, I clearly saw our aims reached farther than we cared to avow. It was carried with an unanimity that really astonished me; because I knew, many who voted for it were as adverse to the independency of America as I was.”

The forgeries also impugn Washington as an individual who secretly remained loyal to King George:

“I love my King; you know I do: a soldier, a good man cannot but love him. How peculiarly hard then is our fortune to be deemed traitors to so good a King! But, I am not without hopes, that even he will yet see cause to do me justice: posterity, I am sure, will.”

The letters may not have had the desired effect at their release, but they caused considerable problems when they resurfaced again twenty years later in 1795. In that summer, Washington was in his second term as president when the Jay Treaty, which sought to normalize the new government’s relationship with Britain, turned into a political hot topic. Federalists Alexander Hamilton and the architect of the treaty, John Jay, supported the treaty. They were fiercely opposed by leading Republicans Thomas Jefferson and James Madison who believed the treaty was betrayal of America’s relationship with France, who was at war with Great Britain.

According to Lengelmarch,  Republicans wanted to “humiliate the president” and in a move that was calculated to “shatter the air of noble authority”:

“…they reprinted the fake letters from 1776 and cited them as proof that Washington had always been a British sympathizer. What had been a half-forgotten old joke now became a dangerously real slander.”

In his retelling, Lengelmarch suggests that Washington initially underestimated the power of such misinformation. Even though there were Federalists who decried the letters’ authenticity, the letters were repeatedly reproduced in Republican sympathizing newspapers. Washington finally broke his silence and repudiated the letters on March 3, 1797, his last day in office.

In 1799, Congress posthumously decreed that Washington was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” We also know that he was the first American president who had to confront fake news and misinformation.

Other American presidents have had to deal with fake news. During his Presidential reelection campaign in 1864, President Abraham Lincoln was challenged by the news circulated by  The New York World that claimed Lincoln and his Republicans advocated intermarriage between the white working class and blacks. Later that year, the Journal of Commerce ran a story that Lincoln was going to conscript a number of men. The origin of the fake news was a Brooklyn speculator who was trying to move the money markets, and a frustrated Lincoln had to shut down the Journal of Commerce for a couple of days.

The difference today is that the fake news and misinformation that Washington and Lincoln had to confront in their lifetimes was somewhat limited to the platforms of print media. They did not have to compete against a 24 hour news cycle fed by an increasing number of platforms that disseminate a crush of raw or unvetted information daily.

What is the same, however, is the challenge any American president faces in countering the efforts of a single individual, who with a handwritten letter, a text, or a tweet, can create fake news. Whether it be the pen or the keyboard, such misinformation can undermine the processes of democracy.

We should know that fake news and misinformation in American history is not a recent phenomenon. Therefore, we need to train ourselves -and our students- to be more skeptical. We need to consider who may benefit from a salacious headline or tempting tagline. When the clickbait seems too promising to resist, we must be ready to stop and ask who is promoting that information… and why? Without healthy skepticism, we may be just like those British sympathizers who were duped by tools of propaganda.

Washington reportedly never told a lie, but as for the charge of being a coward? History has the evidence to prove that charge was most definitely fake news.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were released in 2009. They are now seven years old.

I will admit that I was not initially enthusiastic about the English Language Arts literacy standards. (see post)

I felt they were heavy in non-fiction…(no, wait.. heavy in “informational texts”).

The CCSS suggested a typical student should have a reading diet filled with informational texts because of the authentic kinds of reading they would do once they graduated, in the real world. The CCSS recommended that a ratio of 50:50 of fiction and informational texts in elementary school should shift to a 30:70 ratio of fiction to non-fiction by grade 12th. These ratios made me concerned that fiction would disappear.

I should not have worried.

The year 2016 has proven that the genre of fiction, a genre of invented or imagined stories, is thriving in the real world. Sometimes certain fictions are posing as informational text.

The year 2016 has been marked by the rise of fake news, hoaxes, propaganda, and disinformation that has circulated on news and social media platforms, fictions that have been developed intentionally or spread unintentionally.facts-not-fiction

The growth of this kind of fiction may explain the decision of dictionary editors to award the word  post-truth as the 2016 word of the year. According to the Oxford Dictionary, post-truth is is defined as

“an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.”

The decision by the editors of the Oxford Dictionary to chose the word post-truth is a decision that also highlights a phenomena studied by by Troy Campbell and Justin Friesen. Their experiments tested the relationship between facts, bias, and untestable beliefs.

The March 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published their paper titled The Psychological Advantage of Unfalsifiability: The appeal of untestable religious and political ideologies. This research examined the circumspect methods people use to get away from fact(s) that contradict a deeply held belief.

Participants in the Campbell/Freisen’s experiments used facts to support or dispute a position. The experiments revealed that when the facts opposed a deeply held belief, the participants argued that facts did not matter but moral opinion did. But, when the facts were on their side, they more often stated that their opinions were fact-based and much less about morals.

“In other words,”Campbell/Freisen’s noted, “we observed something beyond the denial of particular facts: We observed a denial of the relevance of facts.” They concluded,

“…when people’s beliefs are threatened, they often take flight to a land where facts do not matter.”

One example of a land “where facts do not matter”, was the radio booth for the Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio (NPR) on November 30th, 2016. Guest Scottie Nell Hughespolitical editor of RightAlerts.com and contributor to CNN appeared midway during the Diane Rehm’s show. Hughes was discussing the effective use of social media in bypassing more traditional media outlets to direct message. At 10:20, she made the claim that looking at facts is  “kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true.” Then she stated:

“There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.”

Her statement was greeted with immediate derision by other journalists on the show. James Fallows of The Atlantic magazine shot back, “First I’ve got to pick my jaw up off the floor here. There are no objective facts? I mean, that is — that is an absolutely outrageous assertion.”

Hughes statement was hardly original; she may have been channeling her inner Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche who had also claimed (1887), “There are no facts, only interpretations.” But Fallows dismissed such philosophies on air, concluding:

“I believe that the job for the media and civil society now is essentially to say there are such things as facts.”

In contrast to Hughes, the use of facts as supporting evidence is essential to the CCSS. The CCSS recognized that 21st Century students would need to deal with an exponential growth in information, a future where rote memorization of facts cannot keep pace with knowledge that is doubling every year. As a result, the CCSS at each grade level outlines the skills students need to identify and to incorporate relevant facts they will use to write argumentative or explanatory responses.

For example, CCSS writing standards require students to:

“Develop the topic with well-chosen, relevant, and sufficient facts, extended definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples appropriate to the audience’s knowledge of the topic.” CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.2.B

In addition, the Common Core promotes the use of text-based evidence , gathered when  students “read closely” (aka: “close reading”):

“The Common Core emphasizes using evidence from texts to present careful analyses, well-defended claims, and clear information. Rather than asking students questions they can answer solely from their prior knowledge and experience, the standards call for students to answer questions that depend on their having read the texts with care.”

Prior knowledge or experience are no substitute for evidence. For the past seven years a common teachers’ refrain has been, “Can you show me where that evidence is in the text?”

All this hunting for text-based evidence may be the best training our students could have received as preparation for this post-truth world where pundits dismiss facts as unnecessary and media platforms promote factual inaccuracies through fake news.

Seven years ago, I could not imagine that I would be pleased about the Common Core, but the push for text-based evidence may be exactly what our students will need if educators are ever going to fulfill all those mission statements in student handbooks that outline how to make students into productive citizens and life-long learners.

 

John Glenn-Spaceman and Lollipopimage

A few days after John Glenn orbited our Earth three times, Mrs. Murphy gave each of us a lollipop to make an astronaut.

I was in kindergarten when she counted out three pipe cleaners and showed us how to carefully, carefully, carefully wrap them:

one fuzzy wire around the middle, three times for arms;

one fuzzy wire around the bottom, three times  for legs;

one fuzzy wire bent in circle around the top for the space helmet.

We were a classroom of John Glenns in different favors, with white pipe cleaner arms waving, cheering, pointing, celebrating.

We could not understand the vastness of space or the feats of engineering that had launched him into history, but we all imagined with our spacemen.

We were six; we understood the world was suddenly different.

My John Glenn, spaceman and lollipop, was orange, and I gave him to my father,

My father took this tribute and put it in his brief case, a high honor for a craft project. For years after, I would look to find my John Glenn in the brief case, buried beneath files and papers.

His arms and legs were always bent in celebration, and he still wore his space helmet.

Only his candy head showed his age, the clear cellophane wrapper protecting the orange-white powder and tiny shards of sparkling sugar.

“Space dust,” my father assured me, “he is made of space dust.”

 

 

Continue Reading…

If you Google the explorer John Cabot, you could get a web page from the website All About Explorers that states:

“In 1484, the explorerJohn Cabot moved back to England with his wife and eleven sons. He developed his own website and became quite famous for his charts and maps depicting a new route to the Far East. At this time he also introduced his half-brother Richard (whom the family always called “Ringo”) to his best friends, John, Paul, and George.”

While some facts in this information that might set off bells and whistles to educators-  or fans of The Beatles- there is recent research to suggest that many students in our middle school, high school, or college would not question the intrusion of technology into the life of this 15th Century explorer. After all, this website looks like a great source!

Stamford History Education Group (SHEG) report

A report released November 2016 tracked the research skills of students in middle, high school or college using a series of prompts. The study was conducted by the Stamford History Education Group (SHEG)  that “prototyped, field tested, and validated a bank of assessments that tap civic online reasoning.” The report, titled Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning, details the methods SHEG used in order to test civic reasoning as well as:

“…the [students’] ability to judge the credibility of information that floods young people’s smartphones, tablets, and computers.”

The results of SHEG’s study indicated that many students are not prepared to distinguish accurate from inaccurate accounts or decide when a statement is relevant or irrelevant to a given point. SHEG noted:

“Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to fit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”

The report concluded that students at all grade levels were unable to distinguish well-evidenced accounts from those unsupported by reasons and evidence or to tell good reasons from bad. In short, SHEG pronounced pronounced our nation’s students’ ability to research as “bleak”:

“For every challenge facing this nation, there are scores of websites pretending to be something they are not. Ordinary people once relied on publishers, editors, and subject matter experts to vet the information they consumed. But on the unregulated Internet, all bets are off.”

Educators should be concerned about this growth of fake information and how to keep this misinformation from spreading into student research. Even if the Internet gets better at shutting down fake news or inaccurate information, there will always be some bogus websites that will escape being shutdown.

screen-shot-2016-12-01-at-9-07-52-pmBut that  AllAboutExplorers website is one bogus website that should not be shut down.

AllAboutExplorers website for Research Practice:

Yes, there is plenty of misinformation on site. For example, on the Christopher Columbus page:

“Columbus knew he had to make this idea of sailing, using a western route, more popular. So, he produced and appeared on infomercials which aired four times daily. Finally, the King and Queen of Spain called his toll-free number and agreed to help Columbus.

Turns out that the misinformation on AllAboutExplorers is INTENTIONAL and all the misinformation on the site was created to serve an important educational purpose. The Aboutpage on the site states:

“AllAboutExplorers was developed by a group of teachers as a means of teaching students about the Internet. Although the Internet can be a tremendous resource for gathering information about a topic, we found that students often did not have the skills to discern useful information from worthless data.”

The educator authors Gerald Aungst,( Supervisor of Gifted and Elementary Mathematics in the Cheltenham School District in Elkins Park, PA) and Lauren Zucker,(Library Media Specialist in Centennial School District) created the site in 2006. Their collaboration has proven to be a prescient effort given the SHEG findings this month.

They created AllAboutExplorers, “to develop a series of lessons for elementary age students in which we would demonstrate that just because it is out there for the searching does not mean it is worthwhile.”

These educators wanted to make a point about finding useless information on a site that was designed to look believable. They note that “all of the Explorer biographies here are fictional” and that they purposefully mixied facts withinaccuracies, lies, and even downright absurdities.”

Some of the absurdities that have been mixed with facts on famous explorers include pages for:

  • Lewis & Clark Their dream didn’t become reality right away, however. It wasn’t until 1803, when Thomas Jefferson saw an intriguingly brief posting by Napoleon Bonaparte on Craig’s List for a large tract of land;
  • Sir Francis Drake: here he discovered an uncharted island called Java. The local drink, kofie (which we know as “coffee”) was rich and strong, and Drake soon fell in love with it. The locals also baked a cinnamon cake that was often paired with the drink;
  • Ferdinand Magellan: In 1519, at the age of only 27, he was supported by several wealthy businessmen, including Marco Polo, Bill Gates, and Sam Walton, to finance an expedition to the Spice Islands.

The authors have provided cautions not to use this site as a source of reference for research. There is even an “update” on the site that satirically mentions a lawsuit settlement on a claim that the information unfairly caused failing grades for students who used the information via the website. The authors can be followed on Twitter: @aaexplorersTheir website confirms SHEG report’s that states there “are scores of websites pretending to be something they are not.” There are also lesson plans designed to introduce students to the skills and concepts of good Internet researching:

The SHEG report should set off alarms for all educators who ask students to “look something up” in any discipline. The AllAboutExplorers website provides educators, particularly social studies educators, an opportunity to helping students to learn how to negotiate the Internet in research. Teaching students to explore the web appropriately and accurately can be improved by introducing students to the AllAboutExplorers website.

Dear National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE):

The 2016 NCTE Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, just concluded. This year the theme was “Faces of Advocacy”.

I would like to take this opportunity to do a little advocacy of my own.

The #NCTE Atlanta 2016 conference gave the nation’s English teachers an opportunity to exchange “words”….
have a word with…
get a word in edgewise…
hang on some one’s words…
or have the last word.

Every year, the NCTE conference brings together the nations’s (pre-school, primary, secondary, college) English teachers who traffic in words (vocabulary, root words, parts of speech, synonyms, figurative language, suffixes, etc.),

This conference began eleven days after the 2016 presidential election.

In several state, local and national campaigns, there were many words used by candidates on both sides of the aisle that were hurtful, that were fallacious, that were offensive. These words were highly visible on social media platforms and in the media; these words were highly visible to our students.

The multiple challenges to the use of hurtful, fallacious, or offensive words during the election was often met with derision by candidates, by candidate surrogates, or by media pundits on both sides of the aisle. Challengers were often told that candidates were “only joking” or just being “sarcastic.” There were publicized non-apologies :”I’m sorry if…” or “I’m sorry, but…”.

On occasion, words were retracted. “That meaning is not what I meant.”
Such retractions are linguistically precarious;  a challenge to word’s “meaning” does not negate what was expressed.

The “not what I meant” response conflicts with the definition of what a word means as “a unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation, that functions as a principal carrier of meaning.

words

In the 2016 election, many words were separated from their meanings.

Unfortunately, at this conference, NCTE, you did not offer any specific post-election guidance on this separation of word from meaning. At this conference you did not advocate for words and word meaning.

In all fairness, your conference theme (The Many Faces of Advocacy) was set years ago; its was months ago when the presenters were selected for sessions and the rooms assigned. In making these decisions, your organizing committee could not possibly have anticipated the current climate where the real political loser in this election would be words.

How then could NCTE support teachers as they proceed to teach words and their meanings to their students after this election?
How might NCTE prepare teachers in secondary schools to discuss understanding words that are spoken without meaning?
For example, how should NCTE guide teachers to help primary students understand the word meaning of a mean word?

Like the standard in Domain 3 of the Danielson Teacher Evaluation Rubric, NCTE, you could have exercised “Flexibility and Responsiveness” and “made an adjustment to respond to changing conditions.”

There could have been formal or informal opportunities for teachers to discuss their concerns about  hurtful words that were tossed about so publicly.
There could have been formal or informal opportunities for teachers to share strategies to deal with offensive words at multiple grade levels.
Finally, there could have been formal or informal opportunities for teachers to help their students in the future determine when, why, or how words are used to support fallacies.

NCTE, your oversight in not providing these opportunities is particularly ironic given the nation’s push for standards based curricula, where teachers of English are required to place emphasis at every grade level for evidence-based reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Students are expected to produce evidence-based responses that demonstrate precision in word choice (“Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to manage the complexity of the topic.”)  Word choice is explicit; students must comprehend and apply word meaning.

Instead, the campaigns of the 2016 election would have failed on any rubric that used evidence requirements for most state standards-based performance assessments.

In November 2017, when the conference moves to the City of St. Louis, NCTE, you could reaffirm your commitment to the mission statement which states:

“The Council promotes the development of literacy, the use of language to construct personal and public worlds and to achieve full participation in society, through the learning and teaching of English and the related arts and sciences of language.“

The phrase “use of language” in this mission statement refers to the use of words in a structured and conventional way. You should be prepared to defend the use of words in structured and conventional ways.

In summary,dear NCTE, when words are divorced from their meaning, they lose their power to communicate.
In 2017, we need to advocate for words.
Without word meaning, there is no reason to teach English.

Why should students be the only ones who have the opportunity to play games in class?

Game application programs are just as powerful an instructional  tool for teachers as they are for their students because game apps can deliver content to educators in an engaging and challenging way. Instead of sitting in professional development sessions, teachers can be like their students ….out of their seats trying to “beat the buzzer” with their response! 

Teams of teachers can challenge other teams of teachers on everything from best practices to trivia hidden in the student handbook, (just how well does everyone know the school dress code?) to organizing performance based assessments ( Choose: debate or poetry smack-down for Shakespeare?)

There are now multiple game applications that can easily deliver different kinds of content to teachers in grades K-12 and make professional development sessions memorable.

kahoot Kahoot! is just one of the game applications that can motivate teachers to participate. Teachers, like their students, can be highly motivated by the immediate competition these game apps create. Like their students, educators at all grade levels  do respond well to the points/rewards that game apps provide. And like their students, they can enjoy the immediate feedback the apps provided. This free, interactive platform records the results to the presenters, which can be used  to design the next level of professional development.

The Kahoot! website explains that their software allows educators the opportunity to:

“Create a fun learning game in minutes (called ‘kahoots’), made from a series of multiple choice questions.”

Once a game is made, it can be individualized with videos and images. Then, “Players answer on their own devices, while games are displayed on a shared screen.”

Another game application that can be used is Quizizz, another quiz, poll, or survey program that uses game graphics with feedback to promote learning. Like Kahoot!, this game app can be individualized for content with videos and images. The promotional material for Quizizz explains that, “Players answer on their own devices, while games are displayed on a shared screen to unite the lesson encouraging players to look up.”quizziz

I have used both the Kahoot! and Quizizz apps with teachers for professional development sessions.

Before using the game apps there were more than a few teachers who, exhausted from a day of teaching, would unenthusiastically go through the scheduled activity. 

But when they learned they could pull out their phones as a part of the presentation, they immediately became more engaged.  The teachers enrolled by using their phone for the quiz and began entering responses on their cell phones or tablets. In less than 20 minutes, I had covered the material that I wanted teachers to know and they remained highly engaged the entire time. They also learned how effective this tool could be if it was used in class on laptops or mobile devices.

When a quiz or survey or poll is created on the game platform, a PIN code is assigned so that everyone can join the activity. Then, the quiz is projected (LCD, Smartboard, Eno board, etc) at the front of the classroom where it can be seen by the whole class so the audience can play together in real-time. The game applications can be used on laptops or personal devices. Depending on which game application is used, devices can display color and symbol choices; the actual answer is viewed on the classroom screen.

A presenter can control the pace of the activity by setting a time limit for each question, which also allows time for information to process or for discussions to take place. As teachers answer questions, they are awarded points for correct answers and the timeliness of their responses. A scoreboard is displayed on the teacher’s screen. Watching that scoreboard with highly engaged teachers proves that nothing is better to incentivize others than a competition with inconsequential rewards!

Game applications can be used for all levels of ability, and the multiple choice option can be set for more than one correct answer. There are options to create discussion questions (“Which of these texts are best used for close reading ?”) or to create surveys (“What percentage of the midterm should contain objective-type questions?”)

I have used the game apps in particular to begin presentations on literacy by taking information from a research study such as Data from Kids Wireless Use Facts:

  • % of teenagers,13 -17, who “occasionally” access the Internet with tablets & mobile devices? (91%)
  • Over ___ % of parents said schools should make more use of mobile devices for education? (50%)

The data available in research studies can better inform teachers about the growing impact of technology on their students and the academic environment.

Digital apps like Kahoot! and Quizizz game platforms are the kind of technology that David Lassner, President of the University of Hawaii and informational technology expert, meant when he said,

“The real power of interactive technologies is that they let us learn in ways that aren’t otherwise possible or practical.”

The “us” in Lassner’s statement should not limited to the students. Teacher professional development with interactive technologies can be a critical part of a successful education program. It can be engaging. It can be challenging. It is practical, and it is certainly possible.

I will be presenting both of these game apps at the National Council of Teachers of English this coming Saturday, November 19th in Atlanta, Georgia. I will be basing the Kahoot! and Quizziz using information on teenagers and literacy. If you are down at NCTE, stop in at Table 7!screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-10-14-22-pm

 

screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-7-02-54-pm

F Sessions / 8:00–9:15 a.m. TABLE 7: “Get Your Phone App On!”

last-stop“…and what is that award for?” the boy asked pointing to the right corner of the book.

I was showing students in a 2nd grade class the cover of the picture book Last Stop on Market Street, written by American author Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson.

The boy was pointing to a black medallion, pasted under the silver foil award marking the  2016 Caldecott Honor and under the gold foil award marking the 2016 Newbery Medal. He was pointing to the shiny black circle that marked the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor, that lists the qualities of peace, non-violent social change, and brotherhood on its emblem.

“It has so many awards….and it’s only a few months old,” his classmate noted.

This fall, I have been reading Matt de la Peña’s story to students in different elementary grade levels.

The students are hooked from the beginning when the picture book’s hero CJ bursts through the church doors, and into the rain that “smells like freedom.”

They notice the white trunks of the birch trees, drawn to look like they are “drinking through straw.” They like Nana’s sharp retort as she grows irritated with CJ’s questions.

“Boy, what do we need a car for? We got a bus that breathes fire.”

These repeated readings have made me aware that that CJ’s journey is a sophisticated journey. CJ travels through an urban landscape, a setting that is familiar to these students, but combined with same fantastic elements of an archetypal narrative pattern known as The Hero’s Journey. 

The Hero’s Journey or mono-myth was introduced by Joseph Campbell an American mythologist, who wrote in his most famous work The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949):

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

This narrative pattern of myth and legend has been followed by other characters on journeys. In the literary canon there are many examples such as  Odysseus (The Odyssey) and Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit). The same narrative pattern is seen also in film with Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz and Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars trilogy.

Campbell drew parallels between these journeys of legend in literature and mythology with the journeys that everyday heroes make. He suggested that the everyone in life meets complications and obstacles, but it is the individual who goes through each of the stages and completes them successfully who society regards as a hero of any kind.

The Hero’s Journey follows a pattern of adventures that are generally organized in 12 stages. There is evidence that de la Peña’s little hero CJ experiences each stage, even in the short text (32 pages) of this picture book:

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-10-24-53-pm1. Beginning in the Ordinary World

This is where the hero CJ begins his journey, oblivious of the adventures to come. We learn his his shortcomings; he complains  (“How come we don’t got a car?”) and he lacks the imagination of his Nana (“…he never saw a straw.”).

2. Call To Adventure

CJ’s adventure is a call to action, but the action is not clear until the end of the story.

3. Refusal Of The Call

Standing at the bus stop, CJ is uncomfortable.“How come we gotta…?” he complains to his Nana.

4. Meeting The Mentor

CJ’s  mentor figure is his Nana. She gives him whatever he needs: wise advice and self-confidence. She dispels his doubts and fears and gives him the strength and courage to continue his journey.

“Nana gave everyone a great big smile and a ‘good afternoon.’ She made sure CJ did the same.”

5. Crossing The Threshold

Climbing into the bus, CJ crosses the threshold between the world he is familiar with and that fantastic world which he is not. He climbs into the “…bus that breathes fire” and immediately the bus driver performs a magic trick with a coin.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies

As every hero on a journey, CJ  needs to find out who can be trusted and who can not, and these characters on the bus initially seem a little sketchy.

“They sat right up front.
The man across the way was tuning a guitar.
An old woman with curlers was holding butterflies in a jar.”

CJ is out of his comfort zone and is confronted with challenges that help the reader gain a deeper insight into his character. The characters he meets are illustrated: the guitar player, Bobo, and the lady with butterflies, the boys with earphones, the blind man, and the blind man’s dog.

7. Approach To The Inmost Cave

In the mono-myth, the hero must make final preparations before taking that final leap into the great unknown. That comes about when the man with the guitar begins to play, and CJ follows the advice of a blind man:

“To feel the magic of music,” the blind man whispered, “I like to close my eyes.”

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-10-24-24-pm8. Ordeal

By closing his eyes, CJ experiences the mono-myth’s “metaphorical resurrection” that (literally) grants him the hero’s insight:

“And in the darkness, the rhythm lifted CJ out of the bus, out of the busy city.
He saw sunset colors swirling over crashing waves.”

9. Reward 

During this stage, CJ is transformed into a new state, emerging with the prize or elixir. The background illustration by Robinson is not an urban landscape, but a full page spread of CJ’s imaginings. The prize or elixir is magic of music that activates his imagination.

“CJ’s chest grew full and he was lost in the sound and the sound gave him the feeling of magic.”

10. The Road Back

At this stage in this hero’s journey, CJ returns with his reward.  According to the pattern, he may still need one last push back into the Ordinary World. This is the moment before the Hero finally commits to the last stage of his journey,  moment in which he must choose some higher cause. Here, CJ notices the “Crumbling sidewalks and broken-down doors, graffiti-tagged windows and boarded-up stores,” a stark contrast to the beauty that the elixir of music provided.

11. Resurrection

This is the climax of the picture book, the “a-ha” moment. Responding to his disappointment, CJ’s Nana tells him,

“Sometimes, when you’re surrounded by dirt, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”

Her knowledge has far-reaching consequences to his ordinary world.

He wondered how his Nana always found beautiful where he never thought to look.”

12. Return With The Elixir

This is the final stage of the Hero’s Journey, which is now revealed to have been a journey to a soup kitchen. On this journey, CJ has grown as a person; he has learned many things. He is a fresh hope to others, and, like his Nana, can offer a solution to problems.

“I’m glad we came.”

The final reward that he obtains may be literal or metaphoric. Ultimately the hero CJ will return to where he started, but he has a new point of view, one of empathy.

You can see Matt de la Peña reading selections from the book here:

In proposing The Hero’s Journey, mythologist Joseph Campbell suggested that everyone goes through a series of challenges in life, but it is only the hero who successfully meets each challenge at each stage of the journey.  CJ is the literal and archetypal hero of Last Stop on Market Street, reminding all audiences, young 2nd graders and adults, that the hero can be anyone who makes that challenging journey and who returns to bring hope to his or her community.

CJ’s reward is Nana’s approval to his statement, “I’m glad we came.”
She responds, “Me too, CJ. Now come on.”

CJ’s reward as a hero in completing his journey is captured for all audiences in a picture book by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson, in a picture book that is decorated with book awards.

#Why I Write

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It’s not because writing is fun…writing is hard.

It’s not because I have the time to write….(so far the first two sentences in this response have taken over two days to construct so they sound the way I would like them to sound).

It’s not because I like the end product…(I still think the aforementioned two sentences need more work). In fact, I usually think of a better ending several hours after publishing.

It’s not because I take unnecessary risks. I am self-conscious; I self-censor. I do not want to be misinterpreted. Writing on a blog that is public is a bit like performing linguistic acrobatics without a net.

 

So, why do I write?

I write because I cannot provide support in reading and writing for teachers and students if I do not read and write myself. So, I write publicly as a performance task….as an “authentic task”, one that I might assign to students.

I write because I want to remember my own ideas (I am getting forgetful).

I write because the act of completing a sentence, a paragraph, or a blog post in this distracting world demands focus, even if that focus is for a brief amount of time.

I write because writing forces me to research. For example, while I was writing the phrase “linguistic acrobatics” above, I thought of my favorite example of linguistic “acrobatic” writing…an excerpt from a brilliant conversation written by E.B. White for Charlotte’s Web. To get the quote, I had to spend a little time to research the quote from the text (not the film!)

In this exchange, the spider Charlotte plans how to save her friend Wilber, and she listens for suggestions from other farm animals about words she could write in her web:

Goose: “How about TERRIFIC, TERRIFIC, TERRIFIC?”

Charlotte: “Cut that down to one TERRIFIC and it will do nicely. I think TERRIFIC might impress Zuckerman.”

Wilbur: “But Charlotte, I’m not terrific.”

Charlotte: “That doesn’t make a bit of difference. Not a bit. People believe almost anything they see in print. Does anybody know how to spell TERRIFIC?”

Gander: “I think it’s tee double ee double arr double arr double eye double eff double eye double see-see-see-see.”

Charlotte: “What kind of acrobat do you think I am?! I would have to have St. Vitus’s Dance to write a word like that into my web.”

Nevertheless, the spider Charlotte does weave the word terrific into her web. She writes and because she writes, Wilbur is spared.

What better reason to write then the one that E.B. White offers?   Writing saves lives.

 

You probably have encountered the plot mountain diagram:

Exposition. Rising action. Climax. Falling action. Resolution.

plotmountain1

 

 

The plot mountain diagram is taught with short stories in English Language Arts at different grade levels, but I suspect that like most graphic organizers, the plot mountain diagram is over-taught, especially in middle and high school classrooms.

The practice of teaching the plot mountain as a general way to understand that there are patterns to short stories is good in theory, but not so good in practice. Repeated practice of the same plot diagram is worse.

Look at the plot mountain diagram above (courtesy of the Read, Write, Think website).

The falling action of a story is rarely as proportional as the rising action. The climax is not always in the “middle” of the story. This is because, authors do not write their stories according to a plot mountain diagram:
-Authors are unpredictable;
-Plots are unpredictable;
-Most of the short stories taught in middle or high school are selected because they are unpredictable.

Take, for example, Saki’s classic short story The Interlopers. Two men, sworn enemies, are pinned under a tree that crashes in a snowy forest. Trapped together, they come to the conclusion that their longstanding feud is no longer important. Just as they agree to settle their differences, one man sees in the distance how their fate will play out with the single frightening word: “wolves.”

Now, that word (“wolves”) makes up the plot’s “falling action.” There is no real resolution, instead there is imagined horror. Saki designed a story that blew the top off the standard plot mountain diagram.

That same kind of explosion could be said for Guy de Mauppasant’s The Necklace. The character Mathilde spends her youth paying back jewels she was foolish to borrow. The story concludes with the shocking statement:

 “Oh, my poor Mathilde. But mine [jewels]were false. At most they were worth five hundred francs!”

If a student was to create a plot mountain for either of these stories, instead of following the prescribed template above, a student might draw something that looks like this:

screenshot-2016-09-25-14-15-53

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rather than reteaching the same plot mountain model over and over, a teacher should ask students to use their own ideas to diagram a story’s plot. There should not be too much support in the directions.

Take, for example, the instructional suggestion (see screenshot below) to use with Richard Peck’s hilarious short story “Priscilla and the Wimps.”

In this story, Peck sets the tone in describing bullying in a public school setting with his opening lines:

“Listen, there was a time when you couldn’t even go to the rest room in this school without a pass. And I’m not talking about those little pink tickets made out by some teacher. I’m talking about a pass that could cost anywhere up to a buck, sold by Monk Klutter.”

One small student-Melvin-is bullied by a group of students led by Klutter. But Melvin has a protector, Priscilla Roseberry, who is described thusly:

“I’m not talking fat. I’m talking big. Even beautiful, in a bionic way.”

screenshot-2016-10-02-11-51-13

In Peck’s story, the brutish Priscilla efficiently dispatches the school bully, Monk Klutter, into a school locker. The story concludes, “Well, this is where fate, an even bigger force than Priscilla, steps in. It snows all that night, a blizzard. The whole town ices up. And school closes for a week.”

What I most remember about teaching this story with 8th graders is how Peck’s resolution was somewhat unsettling to some readers. More than one student had commented on what could have happened to Klutter if he was stuffed in a school locker during a blizzard.

“Without food and water for a week,” one student pointed out to me, “he’d be dead. Priscilla could be a murderer!”

The directions above do not support such thinking, even if it is slightly misguided. In the directions, although there is some movement away from a “fill-in-the-blank” worksheet by asking students to draw a diagram “like this one” to summarize events, a model is still there for them to follow. The climax (again) is followed by a disproportionately sized resolution.

While directions suggest creating something similar (“like”), many students will simply recreate this diagram, plug in three events, and place Monk’s undoing at the climax.

So what is the purpose for students to use a pre-printed plot mountain diagram?

All they need are the story elements that help them explain a story’s pattern. Teachers could give the terms (perhaps on labels: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution) in order to for students to create the unique diagrams that are proportional to the stories they are reading.

When students are free to demonstrate their understanding of these terms, they can move beyond a prescribed application or a fill-in-the-blank drawing on a worksheet. They can do more of the higher taxonomy activities, such as comparing and contrasting the patterns of different stories. What did Saki do differently than Peck? How does de Mauppasant’s ending compare with either?These more sophisticated educational exercises would not be effective if the same plot mountain template is used over and over (and over!)

Students should be able to identify the elements that make up the unique pattern of each story as well as appreciate an author’s craft in configuring those same elements differently in a story.

In this sense, the plot mountains of stories are a lot like geography…no two mountains are alike.

As it often happens, I was looking for one thing (Google’s expansion into creating maps and navigation tools) when I came upon another. I had clicked my way to a story map of the folk tale hero Paul Bunyan. I had followed a link to the Osher Library Map Cartographic Southern Maine University website and soon was down an Internet rabbit hole, digging around in their map collection.

There I found Paul Bunyan’s Pictorial Map of the United States Depicting Some of His Deeds and Exploits created by Handy, R.D. 

screenshot-2016-09-11-12-13-58A screenshot of lower left corner of Paul Bunyan’s Pictorial Map of the United States Depicting Some of His Deeds and Exploits by Handy, R.D. (1935); 22 cm X 32 cm; Image No: 4000166.0001

As the literature in Grades Two and Three centers on folk tales, I was thrilled to find this map. I thought this combination of pictures and text would be something to share with teachers.

I spent several happy minutes zooming in on the map. There in the lower right corner was the boast of authenticity: “This is to certify that all the facts on this map are without any change or exaggeration,” with several witness listed below. It was just the sort of hyperbole that goes with the stories of Paul Bunyan.

Some of the stories on the map explained:

  • In school Paul used a slab of lime stone for a slate and a big white pine tree for a pencil.
  • The 10,000 lakes in the State of Minnesota fill the footprints of Paul’s gigantic Blue Ox, Babe who measured forty-two ax handles wide between the eyes.
  • The Mississippi River was the result of water leaking from one of Paul’s water storage barrels.
  • Paul’s briny tears filled the Great Salt Lake of Utah.
  • When Paul sat down for a smoke to think about his problems, he set off the Great Smokey Mountains.
  • When Babe when digging after a field mouse, he created famous Mammoth Caves.

My delight, however,  came to an abrupt halt when I got to the upper left hand corner of the story map. There were two small characters in the upper left corner (not pictured) of the map that changed everything.

In this upper left corner was a small illustration of what the text described as “two small colored boys.” They were drawn to show how Paul Bunyan’s cook, Sourdough Sam, made “pancakes  on a griddle so large that you couldn’t see across it.” The drawing of these two boys who “greased the griddle with bacon slabs tied to their feet” highlighted their simian-like features. The illustration on the map looked like an artifact from a Jim Crow exhibit.

Suddenly, my lesson in sharing an American folk tales with elementary school children had turned into a lesson on the history of racism in America.

Up until that moment, my familiarity with Paul Bunyan was with his exaggerated prowess as a lumberjack in Northern Minnesota. Some might argue he was a creation more of “fakelore,” a literary invention passed off as an older folk tale. I had never considered that Paul Bunyan was racially motivated.

Environmentally unfriendly? Yes. But a bigot? No.

Furthermore, research on other sources of the same story of those cooks who greased Paul Bunyan’s griddle yielded accounts that did not mention the race of the cooks.

On this R. D. Handy story map, Paul Bunyan was not funny. I was not going to share this story map with 7-9 year olds.

The use of this R. D. Handy story map would be limited at best a to high school U.S. History class where students could have the opportunity to discuss America’s cultural past and how that past impacts both the present and informs the future.

To be fair, R.D. Handy, author of the map, was no doubt responding to cultural norms of his times. During his tenure as a cartoonist for the News Tribune in Duluth, Minnesota, the Great Depression had hit all Americans very hard. The economy nationwide struggled to improve. The competition between all races for the few jobs available brought added hostility.

According to an entry in Encyclopedia.com titled “Black Americans, 1929-1941, “there was migration of southern rural blacks seeking employment in the industrial centers of the North.” In traveling north, Black Americans could escape the racial violence of the South, and some “400,000 made the journey during the 1930s.” This was the historical context when the map was released to the public.

The R.D. Handy story map illustrates an American paradox. The story map contains the promise of American exceptionalism in a folk tale, combined with the exploitation of a race in building up that hero. The story map captures the charisma of American bravado stained by American bias.

Perhaps the lesson now will be to challenge the second and third grades to give Paul Bunyan’s folk tales another chance.

Paul Bunyan needs a new map.