Archives For Fiction

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.”

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.

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.

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 Southport Pequot Library in Southport, Connecticut, hosts a summer book sale every July under large tents that cover most of the lawn and in the library’s auditorium. Browsing for books under this acreage, one can only imagine “Where did all these books come from?”

The most logical conclusion I can come to is that Southport residents must do nothing all day but read.

They must read a book a day…maybe more.

I tried as hard as I could to lessen the load of titles on the young adult tables, but the six boxes (approximately 250 books) I hauled out from the sale barely made a dent. These books will go into classroom libraries for independent reading (silent sustained reading -SSR), literature circles, book clubs, etc. The premise of bringing these books to the classroom is to make sure that students at all grade levels have access to books at any given moment during the school day.

In under two hours, I filled six boxes with plenty of favorites (grades 5-10) from authors Gary Paulson, Meg Cabot, Ann Brashares, Jerry Spinelli, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Rick Riordan. I also grabbed selections of book series that fall into the “popular culture categories” such Goosebumps (RL Stine) , Captain Underpants (Dav Pilkey), Ranger’s Apprentice (John Flanagan), and Alex Rider (Alex Horowitz).

These are not the books that teachers will “teach” but they are the books students will read; the difference is described in an earlier post.

There was a box of a dozen copies of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. I picked up 10 clean copies of this best seller as a reading choice for students groups who prefer non-fiction. This is the story of a young boy in Malawi (Africa) who developed a contraption that would provide his village with electricity and running water:

With a small pile of once-forgotten science textbooks; some scrap metal, tractor parts, and bicycle halves; and an armory of curiosity and determination, he embarked on a daring plan to forget an unlikely contraption and small miracle that would change the lives around him. (The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind)

There is increased attention to incorporate informational texts such as this book because of the design of the  Common Core State Standards in Literacy which suggest that by 12th grade, 70% of a reader’s diet should be non-fiction. The copies I have are enough for a small group(s) to read in literature circles or book clubs.

I also collected copies of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for the American Literature classes (grade 10). This apocalyptic novel is worth including in a curriculum because of McCarthy’s style and message. In an earlier post I describe how The Road was the first book I collected for use in the classroom; its integration into curriculum was very successful. Copies of the book with its distinctive black cover and bold lettering were easily found among the 10 or 12 tables of donated fiction….as if there had been a massive book club after-party.

Screenshot 2015-07-26 14.16.55There were large crowds attending the Southport Pequot Library’s annual sale on Saturday, and the long lines of patrons waiting patiently to check out at the volunteer cashier tables might cause one to wonder if the sale has become a victim of its own success?

On the other hand, as they slowly snaked past the tables of nature books and cookbooks, patrons continued to browse and added even more purchases to the piles in their arms or bags. No one complained as there was always something to read.

Overflow of books or marketing geniuses??…those long lines on a Saturday afternoon could just be another successful marketing technique by the Friends of the Pequot Library.

One Word Text Complexity

March 23, 2015 — 1 Comment

I recently attended the 2nd Annual Conference for The Teaching Studio at The Learning Community, a public charter school in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Doing double duty as keynote speaker and presenter, author and blogger Vicki Vinton conducted two workshops on text complexity and how students read complex texts.

Vicki Vinton's previous book

Vicki Vinton’s earlier book on reading; Good news, she is writing another!

As an opening exercise, she asked those in attendance in the afternoon session to sum up their attitudes or feelings at that moment using only one word. She explained that while she is in the process of writing a book on the topic of text complexity, she sometimes feels overwhelmed in trying to meet deadlines and keep up with work responsibilities. She said she had chosen a word to sum up her feelings.

On a slide was her word: “Breathe.”

Some of the participants’ words?

Uncertainty
Joy
Time
Try
Action
Happy
Quality
Discover

My word? I combined the words try and action; my word was traction.

This opening activity mimicked how readers approach a complex text. In asking each member of her audience to select a word, Vicki explained that she was using the exercise as an ice breaker. She had established a purpose. Her request to have each person choose only one word to sum up an attitude required that each participant had to tap into his or her background knowledge (schema). As Vicki wrote each single word on the chart paper, the words formed a contextual coherence. Individually, these words were in the abstract, but listed collectively on the page, they provided an emotional portrait of the attendees in the session.

When readers read complex texts, they must perform many of the same steps we performed. Readers must establish a purpose for reading. Readers must tap into their own background knowledge, just as we did when Vicki requested that we select a single word. Our choices illustrated how readers must rely heavily on knowledge of word meanings when reading complex texts.  Finally, a reader needs to recognize a coherence; how words in a text connect to each other. The attendees in Vicki’s session had a chance to recognize the connection of their words to the education profession.

Had we been given the time, we might have explained in more detail why we had chosen our particular words. I would have had the opportunity to explain why I had selected the traction. The dictionary defines traction as:

1: the act of drawing : the state of being drawn
2: the adhesive friction of a body on a surface on which it moves (as of a wheel on a rail)
3: a pulling force applied to a skeletal structure (as a broken bone) by using a special device <a traction splint>; also: a state of tension created by such a pulling force

Of the three possible meanings, my reason for choosing traction is most closely associated with the second definition. One of my educational objectives this year is to help students in my district to make gains in reading and writing. While that means I may encounter some “friction” in meeting this goal, I must be careful about the degree of “tension” that I create as I work to be a “pulling force” in improving literacy.

The complex thinking that began Vicki’s presentation came from her request to choose only one word proving that text complexity has nothing to do with length; text complexity can be found in brevity.

Vicki’s opening exercise was an excellent way to highlight the stages all readers can experience in reading complex texts. Her presentation developed many of these ideas that she promised would be outlined in the book she is currently writing. While the working title Embracing Complexity is, according to her, “subject to change,” the book will offer problem-based approach to the teaching of reading.

I look forward to reading her book when it is published.

In the meantime, I have a new word: anticipation.

The Hollywood Academy released the 2015 nominations this past week, and their choices for best picture, best actor, and best director lit a firestorm on social media about the lack of diversity in their choices.Oscar

Some of the heated discussions called into question the make-up of the Academy, which according to a  2014 Los Angeles Times article is:

  • 93 percent white
  • 76 percent male
  • Average age of 63

The percentages that make up the homogenized Academy bear a striking resemblance to the make-up in the canon of literature traditionally taught in high school English classrooms, a list of works dominated by white male writers. There are numerous reasons as to why the literature is singular in gender and race: politics, economics, culture, and textbooks play a part. The most probable explanation on why the traditional canon endures, however, may be as simple as teachers teaching the books they were taught.

Even the average age of the dead white male writers in the canon is the same as those in the Academy. A sampling of traditionally assigned authors at the time of their deaths (offered in no particular order) is the average age as the members in the Academy=63 years: John Milton (72), Percy Bysshe Shelley (30), F. Scott Fitzgerald (44), Dylan Thomas (39), Arthur Miller (90), William Shakespeare (52), John Keats (27) Ernest Hemingway (62), William Faulkner (65), John Steinbeck (66) William Blake (70), George Orwell (47), and TS Eliot (77).

My observation that older white male literature dominates the curriculum is nothing new, and while there are there are glimmers of diversity, authorship bears little resemblance to readership. Occasionally, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and August Wilson pop up to address racial diversity, while the inclusion of Mary Shelley, Harper Lee, Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters are worthwhile contributions to gender equity.

At the same time, there is a growing body of popular young adult literature from authors representing diversity such as Jacquelyn Woodson, Sharon Draper, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Gary Soto, and Sherman Alexie.  In a manner akin to film audiences, students have been voting for these book choices with their pocketbooks or checking out library books. They are selecting materials (novels, graphic novels, animé, pop culture, biography) that they want to read.

As readers, students look for characters like themselves, who have problems like themselves, even if the settings of the stories are in the ancient past or distant future. If a student never builds empathy with a character because all the assigned reading comes from the canon, then the canon is disconnected from personal experience and useless for that student. If creating life long readers is the goal, curriculum developers must pay attention to student interests and the trends in the popular reading lists. Continuing the disconnect between the traditional canon in school and what students choose does little to build credibility.

That same kind of disconnect is seen in the nominations submitted by the Academy. Their choices show a wide gulf of opinion between critics and audiences, between the selected films and popular films at the box office. National Public Radio (NPR) film critic Bob Mondello noted the low audience numbers for many of the 2015 nominated films:

MONDELLO:  If you total up all of the grosses for all of the best picture nominees this year, you come up to about 200 million, which is roughly what a picture like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” makes all by itself so that you’re talking about very few eyeballs were on those pictures.

Mondello’s noting the difference in box office is striking in comparison to the the top three box office films to three of the nominated films for best picture:

TOP GROSSING:
1 Guardians of the Galaxy – $333,145,154
2 The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 $330,643,639
3 Captain America: The Winter Soldier – $259,766,572

NOMINATED FOR BEST PICTURE:
94 Birdman  $26,725,993
95 The Theory of Everything $26,317,946
100. Boyhood  $24,357,447

Mondello further suggests that Academy has not supported its own self interest in making nominations:

And the idea here is that you’re not going to watch the Oscar telecast unless you have a horse in the race….And I think what they’re hoping is that the next six weeks up until the show, these movies will be seen by a lot more people. If they aren’t – and they only have 38 days to do this – then you’re going to have the lowest rated Oscars telecast in the history of the Oscars.

Encouraging people to attend the films nominated by the Academy will be a challenge, and the success of the Oscars this year will be determined by audience choice. The deaf ear of the Academy this year may make them more open to diversity in future years. In contrast, a deaf ear from curriculum developers who continue to assign literature from the canon because “it has always been taught” may result in student audiences disconnected and less interested in reading anything at all.

Hoping to bridge this disconnect are organizations such as the Children’s Book Council (CBC )Diversity Committee whose mission statement is:

We endeavor to encourage diversity of race, gender, geographical origin, sexual orientation, and class among both the creators of and the topics addressed by kid lit. We strive for a more diverse range of employees working within the industry, of authors and illustrators creating inspiring content, and of characters depicted in children’s and young adult books.

The organization We Need Diverse Books is also committed to expanding diversity in literature and in the video below, the popular YA writer Jon Green (The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska) makes a compelling case for including other, newer voices into the literary canon that is taught in classrooms.

Unlike the choices made by this year’s Academy, the choices in English classroom should represent diversity in authorship, in genre, in character, and in topics because the readership is diverse. NPR’s Bob Mondello’s metaphor about engaging an audience for the Oscar show this year could be a metaphor for creating life long readers. Unless students “have a horse in the race” in what they read, they will not value the choices made for them.