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Style is that “identifiable quality that varies from author to author.” That seems a simple idea.

The wording in the Common Core Anchor Standard for style seems simple:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.6
Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

Teaching style, however, is not simple. Our high school students who spend hours creating their own style-selecting music stylings, stylizing phone cases, following YouTube fashion stylists-go blank when asked to assess or identify the style of a text.

One stumbling block could be in the selections of texts for examples. Style is often subtle or nuanced, which means that if style is described as the voice of the author, then some authors speak in whispers.

Until September 2016.

That’s when Bruce Springsteen used his authorial voice to tell his life story in his autobiography Born to Run.

His voice is not a whisper…His voice is LOUD!

His…voice…stutters…with…ellipses.

His voice is hyphen-heavy, word-binding; it is a tete-a-tete with the reader.

His voice lists, lists, lists, all of the emotions, locations, events, memories, friends, and objects he has collected over his career.

And he is direct; he knows why he wanted to be a songwriter:

“I wanted to be a voice that reflected experience and the world I lived in. So I knew in 1972 that to do this I would need to write very well and more individually than I had ever written before.”

 He writes well. He writes individually. He writes with style. This is 508 pages of The Boss talking to you, the reader.

While some of his language choices in the autobiography may limit a few examples for classroom use, most selections of this text could be used for analysis. There is also the opportunity to compare and contrast the autobiography with song lyrics. In both genres, Springsteen offers examples for practice to identify and to assess style through his word choice, his tone, and his syntax:

  • word choice: “It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap.” (Born to Run lyrics)
  • tone (sad): “No wedding day smiles no walk down the aisle/No flowers no wedding dress.” (The River lyrics)
  • syntax: “Then . . . if you want to take it all the way out to the end of the night, a furious fire in the hole that just . . . don’t . . . quit . . . burning.” (Born to Run-Autobiography)

The evidence for an identifiable Springsteen style begins on page one of Born to Run, where the prose in the story of his life is mirrored in his earlier song lyrics:

 “I am alienating, alienated and socially homeless . . . I am seven years old” (1).

That line sounds suspiciously like the list in his song lyrics:

“I’m comin’ to liberate you, confiscate you, I want to be your man” (Rosalita).

Conclusion: Springsteen’s lyrics and prose are filled with lists.

In his autobiography, Springsteen’s voice in reflects on his hometown:

 “Here we live in the shadow of the steeple, where the holy rubber meets the road, all crookedly blessed in God’s mercy, in the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, race-riot-creating, oddball-hating, soul-shaking, love-and-fear-making, heartbreaking town of Freehold, New Jersey. Let the service begin”(7).

This hyper-hyphenating in the autobiography is not very different from Springsteen’s lists of the same Jersey locations in the song lyrics for  Born to Run:

“Sprung from cages on Highway 9,
Chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected
And steppin’ out over the line.”

Conclusion:  Springsteen’s lyrics and prose are filled with hyphenated word combinations.
Then, read on a few more pages and you become aware of Springsteen’s extensive use of CAPITAL LETTERS, such this reflection on Elvis Presley’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show:

“Somewhere in between the mundane variety acts on a routine Sunday night in the year of our Lord 1956 . . . THE REVOLUTION HAS BEEN TELEVISED!!” (39)

That same style choice is chosen for other musical force in his life, The Beatles:

The album cover, the greatest album cover of all time (tied with Highway 61 Revisited). All it said was Meet the Beatles. That was exactly what I wanted to do. Those four half-shadowed faces, rock ’n’ roll’s Mount Rushmore, and . . . THE HAIR . . . THE HAIR. What did it mean? It was a surprise, a shock. You couldn’t see them on the radio. It is almost impossible to explain today the effect of . . . THE HAIR” (50).

Conclusion: Springsteen’s prose in the autobiography is filled with CAPITAL LETTERS, a style choice he makes to emphasize the IMPORTANT MOMENTS of REALIZATION. His lyrics probably don’t need to be capitalized; he can sing those LOUD for emphasis.

Finally, in both song lyrics and in prose, Springsteen serves up multiple examples of motifs he uses to communicate ideas. In writing about his upbringing and religion:

“In Catholicism, there existed the poetry, danger and darkness that reflected my imagination and my inner self. I found a land of great and harsh beauty, of fantastic stories, of unimaginable punishment and infinite reward” (17).

A similar idea is expressed in the lyrics to Land of Hope and Dreams.

“Dreams will not be thwarted.
This train…
Faith will be rewarded.”

Of course, if we are talking about faith, here is yet another take on faith that Springsteen placed into a rhyming couplet for the lyrics of  Thunder Road:

Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night;
You ain’t a beauty but hey you’re all right.

That tone…those blunt, coarse, tender words…the casual-just-you-and-me attitude….the style of the voice that sang 508 pages of his life into my head….I hold the lighter up and beg for an encore: BRUUUCCCE!

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.”

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

“$60.00,” one told me.

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

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

I was wrong.

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

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

I was very wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The announcement was met with some critical commentary on Twitter:

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

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

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

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

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

Abridged Dickens

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

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

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

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

The original version/abridged version:

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

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

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

scrooge

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

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

So, why bother?

What is Lost in Abridgment

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

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

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

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

Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abridged Version for the Young Adult

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

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

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

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

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

What came first…the NAEP Chicken or the CCSS Egg?

Screenshot 2016-03-29 10.37.46First, let’s define terms:

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the “largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas.”

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are “a set of goals and expectations for the knowledge and skills students need in English language arts and mathematics at each grade level.”

Back in 1992 and through 2007, the test reading framework for the NAEP centered on three broadly defined genres for assessment content: literary, informational, and document. By 2009, however, the NAEP was revised to offer eight defined genres of assessment content, part of a larger shift to separate reading content into distinct categories.  Of the eight genres in the 2009 reading frameworks, reading content was categorized into more specific forms of nonfiction: literary nonfiction; informational text; exposition; argumentation and persuasive text; and procedural text and documents. There was fiction included on the 2009 test along with selections of poetry, some of which could also be categorized as fiction.

Before 2009, a nonfiction selection might fall into any one of the broadly defined genre categories. After 2009, 5/8 of the NAEP or 63% of the reading frameworks on the NAEP test were in well defined sub-sets of nonfiction.

Now consider, while the NAEP was being revised, in 2009 the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were in development. The CCSS designers for literacy placed an emphasis on complex informational texts (nonfiction) stating:

“Most of the required reading in college and workforce training programs is informational in structure and challenging in content; postsecondary education programs typically provide students with both a higher volume of such reading than is generally required in K-12 schools and comparatively little scaffolding.”

These designers were pushing to expand reading beyond the fiction and literary analysis that traditionally dominated the ELA classes, particularly at the high school level. This was an effort to include reading in other content areas as necessary for the post-secondary experience. As a result, there were standards developed for literacy in grades 6-12 in History/Social Studies, Science, & Technical Subjects

By 2010, 42 states had adopted the Common Core standards  and began revising curriculum to align with  the The Key Shifts of the CCSS and reducing fiction from being 50% of a student’s reading diet in 4th grade to 30% of the reading diet of a graduating senior.

The connection between NAEP and the CCSS was evident, and the recommendations in the literacy standards of the Common Core called attention to this connection:

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 7.51.04 PM

Six Years Later: The Rise of NonFiction

Not surprisingly, six years later, one of the anecdotal findings released from the 2015 NAEP is the increase in nonfiction assigned by teachers in both grades 4 & 8 . This  information came from a voluntary survey where teachers could select the genre they emphasized in class “to a great extent.”

In 2015, fourth grade teachers who had previously created a 25% point gap favoring fiction over nonfiction in 2011, led the reduction of fiction to 15%  in 2013 and to single digit 8% in 2015.

Similarly, in eighth grade, the 34% preference for emphasizing fiction declined to 24% in 2013, and to 16% in 2015.

Screenshot 2016-03-25 17.06.47

The Egg Hatches…and It Looks a Little Different

The truth is, all the emphasis on increasing nonfiction in schools at the expense of fiction has had an positive impact on the genre. An article in the October issue Publisher’s Weekly Moment of Truth: Trends in Nonfiction for Young Readers by Sophie McNeill offered comments from bookstore owners and librarians about the increased interest in factual prose:

Suzanna Hermans of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, New York who says,

“Common Core has raised awareness of kids’ nonfiction. We are seeing parents and teachers talking about it differently in home and at school.”

Sharon Grover, head of youth services at Hedberg Public Library in Janesville, Wisconsin, adds:

“Nonfiction has really improved in recent years. Books are more readable, with more pictures and less straight recitation of facts. Kids really appreciate that, since they have become used to reading websites and apps.”

The article also referred to the 21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference (2014) which advertised its aim “to display the verve and capabilities of nonfiction, and to show that it can be just as creative as fiction.”

Creative?
Verve?

All this added attention to increasing nonfiction appears having an impact on the genre itself, not only in the in quantity produced but also in the characteristics of nonfiction itself. While the nonfiction genre is generally understood to be based on real events, a statement by the Newbery Award winning children’s nonfiction author Russell Freedman seems to blur those clear lines that the NAEP and Common Core have tried to separate as distinct. Freedman has stated:

“A nonfiction writer is a storyteller who has sworn an oath to tell the truth.”

Note the word storyteller?
Can truth be that objective?

Sounds a little like non-fiction is borrowing a little from the fiction genre playbook.

Eggs and Evolution

Whether it began with the the NAEP Chicken or the CCSS egg, the pressure to emphasize nonfiction is like any other evolutionary force in nature. While the Common Core has fallen out of favor with many states, with at least 12 states introducing legislation to repeal the CCSS standards outright, the nonfiction genre is growing and responding and adapting under the current favorable conditions.

The reduction of fiction in favor of more readable nonfiction in grades 4 & 8, as evidenced by the NAEP survey, continues. The evolution of the nonfiction genre may increase readership as well, especially if engaging texts increase interest in reading in the content areas of history, social studies, science and the technical subject areas.

Today’s educators may break a few more fictional eggs, but the end result could be a better omelet.

My life-long admiration for George Washington has been increasing exponentially.GW speech

This past summer, I finished the book The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789  by Joseph Ellis. His narrative centers on the four individuals brought the confederation of states together into a nation during the 1787 Constitutional Convention:  Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison and, most important, George Washington.

In recounting how Hamilton and Madison prepared the groundwork for the Constitutional Convention, Ellis details how they strategized and recruited Washington to preside over the Convention.  Both knew that Washington’s reputation and his relationship with the delegates to the Convention was critical to its success. They knew that of the 55 delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention, at least 29 had served in the Continental forces, most of them in positions of command. In The Quartet, Ellis acknowledges that Washington’s military leadership had been proven during the American Revolution, but he also provides another example of Washington’s deft touch at command off the battlefield.

What I Did Not Know About the Newburgh Conspiracy:

This amazing event Ellis relates deals with an uprising in Newburgh, New York, in March of 1783 led by Continental Army officers, that nearly brought the newly liberated country to a halt. This incident, known as the Newburgh Conspiracy, developed when the unpaid officers circulated an anonymous letter that suggested officers should riot in New York City, a dangerous challenge to the authority of the Confederation Congress. When Washington learned about the letter, he expressed his objections to the “disorderly” and “irregular” nature of the officers’ meeting. He sent word that he would meet with them on 15th.

Once he arrived in Newburgh, Washington delivered a speech  during which he declared his convictions that the entire war had been about a fundamental principle. He asked the officers in attendance about the letter being circulated::

“My God! What can this writer have in view, by recommending such measures? Can he be a friend to the Army? Can he be a friend to this Country? Rather, is he not an insidious Foe? Some Emissary, perhaps from New York, plotting the ruin of both, by sowing the seeds of discord and separation between the Civil and Military powers of the Continent?”

800px-Newburgh_AddressIn his speech, Washington recognized their frustration, but he also expressed his belief that Congress would do the army “complete justice” and eventually pay the soldiers:

“But, like all other large Bodies, where there is a variety of different Interests to reconcile, their deliberations are slow.”

The officers in attendance respected Washington. They had counted on his sympathies, and they were quickly humbled by his unwavering commitment to the nation.

But then came that moment…. That moment when Washington changed the course of events. After reading his own speech, Washington then attempted to tried to read a letter from a Congressman from Virginia that supported the officers’ demands. According to Ellis, Washington fumbled a little in reading the opening words of this letter.

He took out a pair of spectacles.

He wiped those spectacles, and stated:

Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind in the service of my country.”

Ellis notes that at Washington’s  words, many of his officers openly wept, “…they remembered how much Washington had endured alongside them.”

With this simple gesture, the wiping of a pair of spectacles, and his own pledge of dedication to the fledgling nation, Washington ended the Newburgh Conspiracy. In that moment he demonstrated both the strength of a Founding Father, and the psychological wiles of a Founding Mother…guilt included.

In The Quartet, Ellis confirms Washington’s civic virtue, his lack of personal ambition, and his modesty. He portrays Washington as without peer. Four years after the Newburgh incident, Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention. When he was elected president, he received the support of each of the 69 participating electors.

Ellis reminds us that Washington is a true Founding Father…and a parent who know that guilt works, especially with unruly children!

 

Wednesday night, January 13. 82nd Street branch of Barnes and Noble Booksellers, NYC:

After a full morning of delivering professional development to the K-12 grade literacy team combined with an afternoon working with 6th grade teachers, I was getting my literary reward. I was sitting in the second row at an author event, listening to the writer Colum McCann (Thirteen Ways of Looking, Let the Great World Spin) interview the writer Elizabeth Strout (Abide with Me, Amy and Isabelle).

"There are writers that leave porous holes [in their works] with air pockets for the reader," said Colum McCann, introducing Elizabeth Strout, whose novel I am Lucy Barton was recently released. "She whispers, 'trust me I m going to take you somewhere' and when we get there..she has told me secrets."

“There are writers that leave porous holes [in their works] with air pockets for the reader,” said Colum McCann, introducing Elizabeth Strout, whose novel I am Lucy Barton was recently released. “She whispers, ‘trust me I m going to take you somewhere’ and when we get there..she has told me secrets.”

McCann was interviewing Strout about her latest novel I am Lucy Barton and it was obvious that they both were happy to be having this intimate conversation in a room packed with their fan base.

I slid into a seat saved by my loyal friend Catherine-traveling  2 hours and 40 minutes after the aforementioned teacher PD- to hear McCann begin the interview with the question:

“Elizabeth, are you happy?”

“Yes,” replied Strout, and for a brief and worrisome moment it seemed as if the interview would end with that response, but McCann pushed a little more on the relationship writers have with their readers….and proved to be charmingly deft at teasing out ideas:

  • On writing a narrative: (McCann)“There is a agreement that the writer will tell you some thing you sort of knew… you knew that you sort of knew, but now you know it.”

  • On telling secrets:( McCann) “Any good story teller is saying to the reader come with me, and I’ll tell you something….an intimacy.”

  • On writing about a writer: (Strout) “I don’t know how I do what I do, that’s why writers are boring…”

  • On the process of writing: (Strout) “We just don’t know what we are doing…but I know who is charge.”

  • On how we know we are writers: (McCann) “I don’t think what we know what we are going to do…until we do it it’s only when people tell us what we’ve done that we know what we have done.”

As I listened, I thought of how all the effort I had expended that afternoon (from train, to shuttle, to subway, and run) had been worth it. So many of these statements by contemporary authors might seem oddly disconcerting for middle and high school students, and I began to wonder what was the best way to share what they were saying.

Teachers know that many students are convinced that novels spring, “Athena-like”, fully-formed from the mind of the author.
There is little regard for craft. The idea that authors say that they “don’t know,”and are waiting to hear from readers to know what their writing means strains credulity.

Paradoxically, many of these same students also believe that some readers -or at least all English teachers-make too much of what the author meant: too much of the symbols and motifs and themes in literature. They are quick to contend that maybe the author “did not know” and just wrote without a plan. They reject the notion of craft.

The conversation I was hearing suggested that that the relationship between a writer and the student does not need the English Teacher filter…and that teachers need to get out of the way. Whether or not students will find it…author’s craft is there.

But, I digress…and so did they.

Strout spoke of the experience of having her book Olive Kitteridge turned into a film:

McCann: “Directors come and actors come….and they put a language on what you have done…is that odd…? Do you think, Like T.S. Eliot That’s not what I meant at all?”

Strout: “No…they did a wonderful job. When I saw the character Henry, I thought,’I know that Henry…I made that Henry…'”

McCann: “And are there Lucy Barton’s walking about?”

Strout: “Sweetie…She’s fictional.”

Fiction aside, Strout commented on how she intentionally writes about people struggling with an real obstacle…and one real obstacle she includes is class.

“How do people fit into the world?” she asked. “I like to write about class…The poverty that does not let people belong to a community. They exist more now; They are hungry. So much of our literature does not want to talk about poverty.”

Her sentiment, I suspect, is what initially frustrates students when they complain about the steady diet of what they consider “depressing literature.”

Both Strout and Mcann saw the issue of class differently, and spoke about the power of literature in developing empathy.
“We know what it like in a world without it,” Strout responded to an audience member’s question, “Literature can make us understand briefly for a moment what it is like to be another…. than that would be a wonderful wonderful thing.”

The audience murmured their agreement, and Mccann echoed his opening question:

“So, Elizabeth, are you happy?”

“I am,” she responded.

We all were.

The best holiday scenes in novels are sometimes unexpected. While some of these scenes may seem incidental, the Christmas tree scene in Betty Smith’A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) is anything but ancillary. Smith uses the sentimentality of Christmas to highlight the novel’s theme of tenacity.

Smith’s protagonist is the 10-year-old Mary Frances “Francie” Nolan, who is determined to rise above challenging circumstances of poverty, social class, and her father’s alcoholism. Coming of age novels like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are good choices to use with students, but educators may be dissuaded from assigning the novel as a whole class read because of its length (443 pages). The reading level (Lexile), however, is 810, a reading level appropriate for readers grade 5 and up, although some of situations and language are more suited for grades 8 and up.

With all the attention to the practice of “close reading” to improve comprehension, it is possible to have students read a single chapter, such as this Christmas chapter (Ch. 27), independent of the novel. Sharing this chapter can help students appreciate Smith’s storytelling.

For purposes of brevity, the text has been truncated into sequential sections below along with four questions that educators can use.

  1. So what does Smith “say” in the opening of the chapter?

“Christmas was a charmed time in Brooklyn…You have to be a child to know how wonderful is a store window filled with dolls and sleds and other toys. And this wonder came free to Francie. It was nearly as good as actually having the toys to be permitted to look at them through the glass window. Oh, what a thrill there was for Francie when she turned a street corner and saw another store all fixed up for Christmas!…”

Possible responses:

  • The setting is in borough of Brooklyn; city streets
  • Toys (dolls and sleds) for Christmas were in the store windows
  • Francie did not have the money to pay for the toys she saw

2. What interesting or unusual words does Smith use is explaining Francie’s challenge ?

“There was a cruel custom in the neighborhood. It was about the trees still unsold when midnight of Christmas Eve approached. There was a saying that if you waited until then, you wouldn’t have to buy a tree; that “they’d chuck ’em at you.” This was literally true. At midnight on the Eve of our dear Saviour’s birth, the kids gathered where there were unsold trees. The man threw each tree in turn, starting with the biggest….If a boy didn’t fall down under the impact, the tree was his. If he fell, he forfeited his chance at winning a tree.”

Possible responses:

  • “Cruel custom” taking place on the “Eve of our dear Saviour’s birth”
  • “they’d chuck ‘em at you”
  • Forfeit; impact

3. How does the Smith play with language in the following section?

“Francie stepped forward. ‘Me, Mister.’

A spurt of derisive laughter came from the tree man. The kids snickered. A few adults who had gathered to watch the fun, guffawed.

‘Aw g’wan. You’re too little,’ the tree man objected.

‘Me and my brother-we’re not too little together.’ She pulled Neeley forward. The man looked at them a thin girl of ten with starveling hollows in her cheeks but with the chin still baby-round.

‘Two ain’t fair,’ yelped Punky.

‘Shut your lousy trap,’ advised the man who held all power in that hour. ‘These here kids is got nerve.’

The others made a wavering lane… a human funnel with Francie and her brother making the small end of it. The man flexed his great arms to throw the great tree. He noticed how tiny the children looked at the end of the short lane.

Possible responses:

  • “Aw g’wan” captures the dialect of the tree vendor; the man who held all power in that hour
  • “it was a human funnel”-metaphor
  • “a girl with with starveling hollows in her cheeks”-descriptive imagery

4. So, what does Smith want the reader to understand?

For the split part of a moment, the tree thrower went through a kind of Gethsemane. “Oh, Jesus Christ,” his soul agonized, “why don’t I just give ’em the tree, say Merry Christmas and let ’em go? …..”But then,” he rationalized, “if I did that, all the others would expect to get ’em handed to ’em. They’d all wait to get ’em handed to ’em on a silver plate…I ain’t big enough to do a thing like that. I gotta think of myself and my own kids.” He finally came to his conclusion….”Them two kids is gotta live in this world. They got to learn to give and to take punishment….”

At this point in the text, Chapter 27 is not an incidental Christmas event; instead, it stands as representing the novel writ large. Smith choses to use the internal monologue of a man heaving the last of unsold trees at two small children in a perverse act of charity on Christmas Eve to represent all the challenges Francie faces in the novel:

“As he threw the tree with all his strength, his heart wailed out, ‘It’s a God-damned, rotten, lousy world!’

But Francie does not buckle:

“Francie saw the tree leave his hands. There was a split bit of being when time and space had no meaning. The whole world stood still as something dark and monstrous came through the air. The tree came towards her blotting out all memory of her ever having lived. There was nothing-nothing but pungent darkness and something that grew and grew as it rushed at her. She staggered as the tree hit them. Neeley went to his knees but she pulled him up fiercely before he could go down. There was a mighty swishing sound as the tree settled. Everything was dark, green and prickly. Then she felt a sharp pain at the side of her head where the trunk of the tree had hit her. She felt Neeley trembling. When some of the older boys pulled the tree away, they found Francie and her brother standing upright, hand in hand.”

Students cannot help but admire Francie’s tenacity in confronting the physical force of the tree. Her determination is so powerful that she stands for two, “pulling him [Neeley] up fiercely” and standing “hand in hand”.

Film still from the Christmas tree scene from the film "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn"

Film still from the Christmas tree scene from the film “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945)

Francie wins the great tree and as she drags the enormous prize home with Neeley, they are cheered on by well-wishers from the neighborhood.

Smith closes the chapter by reminding the readers that this victory for Francie’s will be short-lived; the challenges of poverty will still be with her:

“There was no money to buy tree decorations or lights. But the great tree standing there was enough. The room was cold. It was a poor year, that one-too poor for them to buy the extra coal for the front room stove. The room smelled cold and clean and aromatic. ….. she sat there and enjoyed the smell and the dark greenness of it.”

True to type, Chapter 27 shares what all Christmas stories share, a miracle…with its element of mystery:

“Oh, the mystery of a great tree, a prisoner in a tin wash bucket in a tenement front room!”

In reading this chapter, students may want to continue to read about Francie, who will, unlike the great tree, not be a prisoner of the tenement…her determination stands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This book sale was one smooth operation.

My finds?

Capturing interest from STAR WARS films

Capturing interest from STAR WARS films

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

IMG_0697

Selection of high interest titles

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

$313.00.

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

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