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In a previous post, I questioned a question:

“How did [the character] change? What caused this change?”

This question is part of an assessment in Teacher College Reading Units of Study in Grade 3. But many of the elementary texts that students can read independently at that grade level do not contain a character change at all. Why ask this question as an assessment if the ELA Common Core State Standards do not address character change until grade 6?

By definition, change denotes a making or becoming distinctly different and implies a radical transmutation of character. In literary terms, those characters that do change are called dynamic characters.

A dynamic character undergoes substantial internal changes as a result of one or more plot developments. The dynamic character’s change can be extreme or subtle, as long as his or her development is important to the book’s plot or themes.

Of course, the language in this literary definition of a dynamic character is too high for elementary students K-3. There are also few characters that students encounter in reading grade level texts with “substantial” internal changes, subtle or otherwise.

But what many elementary texts, especially picture books, do show are characters that learn. The novelist Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) has commented on creating characters that “increase in wisdom”:

“There is, in fact, not much point in writing a novel unless you can show the possibility of moral transformation, or an increase in wisdom, operating in your chief character or characters.” 

Readers of his novel A Clockwork Orange would credit Burgess as a master in crafting a character (Alex) who undergoes a moral transformation.  But his suggestion that a character can have “an increase in wisdom” is a good explanation of what younger students should look for in the elementary texts they can read.

For example, there is an increase in wisdom seen in Alexander in Alexander and the TerribleHorrible, No Good, Very Bad Day who concludes that there are just bad days…even in Australia. Many picture books serve as examples where the chief character experiences an increase in wisdom:

In some stories, this increase in wisdom is made obvious by a shift in a character’s feelings or opinion. This may seem to be a matter of semantics, whether a change in feelings or opinion is the same as an increase in wisdom. For example, the character “Sam-I- am” character reverses his deeply held opinion after (finally) tasting Green Eggs and Ham. But is he wiser? One could argue that his change in opinion about a food choice is just a change in opinion, not an internal change in his character.  (Of course, the same could be said for Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. Her character does not change, but her opinion of Mr. Darcy is far more favorable after she visits Pemberley!)

A direct question about what lesson was learned will also prevent students from confusing a physical change in a character with a character change.  For example, when Camilla’s love of lima beans in A Bad Case of Stripes is revealed as the cause of her colorful outward appearance, she (eventually) gains the wisdom to care less about what others think. In another physical change, the donkey Sylvester’s transformation into a rock in  Sylvester and the Magic Pebble could be read as a commentary on fate or chance because, as a rock or not, he remains Sylvester who loves his family. Students should understand that the physical changes that some characters undergo are not character changes.

There are some examples at the elementary level where the moral transformation is inferred, simplified, without “substantial internal” deliberations. The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer, convert from being dangerous highwaymen to generous stepfathers when the little girl Tiffany asks what will they do with their ill-gotten gains. On one page, they are bad, and on the next page, they are good. The radical change in their thinking is inferred, and the evidence of their moral transformation is in their actions, adopting unwanted children.

As students move from picture books, chapter books, and series books, they will encounter other examples of moral transformation of a character with the kind of evidence that shows “substantial internal” deliberation that Burgess referenced. Jerry Spinelli’s Crash and Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy each feature a protagonist who undergoes a moral change in character.

But it also should also be noted that in the literary canon, not every novel features characters who undergo moral transformative change. Which characters really experience this kind of change in To Kill a Mockingbird? Or Catcher in the Rye? 

Ultimately, asking students “How did [the character] change? What caused this change?” in the elementary grades without laying the literary groundwork can muddy their understanding when they tackle more complex texts. Asking students a question about an increase in wisdom or “what the character learns” instead can be a better way to begin to build their understanding of what character change is, or isn’t, in the texts they can read independently not only in Grades K-3 but in Grade 4 and Grade 5 as well.  Students should be encouraged to look for a shift in a character’s feelings or opinion as evidence for an increase in wisdom. They can learn to make inferences about a character’s increase in wisdom, such as what Duncan learns about creativity in The Day the Crayons Quit.

Then, by Grade 6, they will be prepared to respond to an assessment question that is based on the CCSS standard “…describe how a particular story’s or drama’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes as well as how the characters respond or change as the plot moves toward a resolution. (RL.6.3)”

There is, however, a bonus to discussing the shifts in a character’s feelings with K-3 elementary texts that is not always available in the upper grades. Students in elementary grades can use the illustrations in a text as evidence to support information on the differences a character may feel.  And what better evidence is there for showing all the different shifts in a character’s feelings than through the expressive illustrations of Mo Willems’ Pigeon?

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Is there evidence for a change in the Pigeon’s feelings? Certainly. But, an increase in Pigeon’s wisdom? Well, maybe.

One of the first literary elements that students understand as they begin to read is character.  They learn that a character is a person, animal, being, or thing moving the story along a plot line. Many of the characters in books they can read independently have recognizable traits:

  • The Pigeon in Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus is always stubborn and demanding;
  • Horrible Harry of the Horrible Harry Series is always rebellious.
  • Jack Smith of The Magic Treehouse Series is always smart and courageous.
  • Judy Moody of the Judy Moody Series is always determined and…well, moody.

The characters in series books at these elementary grade levels (K-3) are predictable. Students are able to practice reading because they are familiar with characters such as Ramona, Dog Man, Nate the Great, Captain Underpants, Amelia Bedelia, and Frog and Toad.

These characters’ thoughts and feelings may shift when they react to different problems or conflicts. But these characters do not change. They are static; they are not complex characters.

The dominance of static characters in the elementary grades can be an issue when students are faced with an assessment question:

“How did [the character] change? What caused this change?”

This particular question comes from the Teacher’s College Grade 3 Reading Units of Study, but other literacy programs also ask about character change.

It is important to understand that the word “change” is synonymous with a radical, transformative process. The etymology of the word change (c.1300) is “to undergo alteration, become different.” The Collins dictionary defines change as:

1. to put or take (a thing) in place of something else; substitute for, replace with, or transfer to another of a similar kind
2.  to give and receive reciprocally; exchange; switch
3. a. to cause to become different; alter; transform; convert 
    b. to undergo a variation of

The kind of change in character that matches this transformative meaning is difficult to find at the lower reading levels. A well-crafted character who “converts” or “alters” in a low-level text is unusual for any combination of reasons including choices in brevity, vocabulary, and text structure.

For most students who are reading at or below a Grade 3 reading level, there are few complex texts that they can independently read to determine a character change. Instead, the characters in the book series that are favored by students such as  Geronimo StiltonThe Boxcar Children, or Ivy and Bean, are intentionally crafted by authors so the characters remain the same while the plot or the settings change.

There are exceptions, of course. The Grinch in Dr. Seuss’s classic story (not film) The Grinch that Stole Christmas undergoes a transformational character change, but at the Lexile 731/level P,  the book is most often used in the classroom as a read-aloud. There are few mentor texts like the Grinch that can give students the opportunity to practice for an assessment on character change.

The limited number of stories with complex characters at the lower grade levels means that students do not have enough independent practice on their own with this concept. The leap from the predictable characters in a series (Babymouse, Henry& Mudge, Little House on the Prairie) to the kind of complex character change that is found in Maddie in Eleanor Estes The Hundred Dresses or in Jonas in Lois Lowrey’s The Giver can be a high bar for many elementary or even intermediate readers.

So, why ask students at the lower elementary levels about character change at all? The phrase “character change” does not appear in the ELA Common Core State Standards (CCSS) until Grade 6 when students should:

“…describe how a particular story’s or drama’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes as well as how the characters respond or change as the plot moves toward a resolution. (RL.6.3)”

Instead, the CCSS states students in grades 3-5 should be able to:

  • describe characters (traits, motivations, or feelings) and “explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events” (RL.3.3 )
  • describe character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text ( a character’s thoughts, words, or actions (RL.4.3)
  • compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (RL.5.3)

Maybe the intent of asking students at the lower elementary levels about character change is to prepare students for the complex texts they will read in the upper grades. If this is the case, there should be some consideration of what resources could be used to support this kind of character study, especially as most books in elementary reading libraries feature characters that are purposefully crafted to be static. The characters are designed to be familiar to allow students to practice fluency and accuracy. Asking students to find evidence to show a character change when there is no change is an inauthentic exercise.

There is also a danger in assessing a student’s understanding of character change too soon in their literary lives. Teachers also should be careful not to elevate what is a shift in a character’s attitude to be equal to a  change in character. Guiding elementary students to answer “character change” by using evidence that shows how a character may think or feel differently can muddy a later understanding of what character change really means.

Students should not have to answer assessment questions that ask for evidence of character change where there is none. Instead, at the lower grade levels, students should be ready to answer assessment questions that draw attention to the differences in a character’s attitude, thoughts or feelings:

  • “How did the character react to the problem?”
  • “What caused the character’s reaction?”
  • “What are the character’s thoughts and feelings now?”
  • “Does this character have a different attitude?”

Most of the books in elementary school libraries can support these kinds of questions, which are closely aligned to the ELA CCSS for grades K-5. Finding the evidence that shows a difference in a character’s attitude, thoughts, or feelings is a task that elementary students can do in both mentor texts and in their leveled reading.

Identifying a character’s shift in attitude can also help students better understand the theme or message of the book, for example:

“Yes, this is where I want to be! The Circus is the place for me.” –Put Me in the Zoo. 

“Pete, you don’t need magic sunglasses to see things in a new way! Just remember to see the good in everyday!” Pete the Cat and the Magic Sunglasses

“And for all I know he is sitting there still, under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly. He is very happy.”-The Story of Ferdinand

Of course, there are those iconic characters who have been designed to be so static that a question about a difference in attitude, thoughts or feelings is pointless. Just ask Max of Where the Wild Things Are.  He is still in his wolf suit when he returns home “where he found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot.” Continue Reading…

I was talking to the author Penny Kittle for several hours the other night…in my head.

Admittedly, it was a bit one-sided…she and her co-author, Kelly Gallagher were doing most of the talking. I was listening, agreeing with head nods and an occasional audible “yes” as I flipped through the pages of their recently published book 180 Days. Their new book features cross-collaborations in classrooms using book clubs and independent reading. Our conversation was one of a series that I have been having with them individually for years, beginning with Write Beside Them (Kittle), Readicide (Gallagher), through Book Love (Kittle, again), and now with 180 Days.

I have had practice in conversing with authors since I first learned to read. My leisurely discussions with Louisa May Alcott or Madeline L’Engle gave rise to exchanges, arguments, or small talk with other kinds of writers: poets, historians, journalists, biographers, researchers.

I still return to engage in a chat with Mary Shelley or to mutter a sidebar to Shakespeare. But neither of them was exiting the ladies room last Saturday at The Early Literacy Conference ….and Penny Kittle was.

Which explains why I began a conversation in media res.

“I think the daily schedules in the book are very concrete,” I commented to her, ” I know the teachers in my school appreciated seeing them.”

Penny seemed to understand. I am (hopefully? probably?) not the only educator who has greeted her in this fashion…but I didn’t stop there. In the minutes that followed, I blabbed on trying to provide a snapshot of how I was still reading and planned to use her book with other teachers.

I think I commented on teacher interest for independent reading. I remember something like “teacher buy-in.” I know I mentioned a video conference with a student on American Sniper (YouTube: What If I Haven’t Read the Book?) and heard “the movie came out later.”

The rest of the conversation is a blur, except that when it ended, I ran to my car to grab my copy of 180 Days. Finding her again, I thrust my copy for her signature; she obliged.

It is during reading when an author gets to play with your empathy neurons…how she turns a phrase, how he crafts an idea.  So meeting that author in real life is meeting someone who has shared your personal brain space.

The experience can be inspirational…OR substitute any of the following synonyms: affecting, animating, emboldening, exciting, galvanizing, heartening, impressing, motivating, provoking, spurring, stirring, swaying, touching.

AND.. awkward.

Let’s not even get started that during the conference there was an additional interaction with author/educator Bob Probst (Notice and Note, Disruptive Thinking both co-authored with Kylene Beers) who spoke about the power of a text to change a life.

Now, I do know several authors, and I am fortunate when I can spend time speaking with them or listening to them talk about their books or sharing topics outside their work.

But, to be honest, that first face-to-face experience with an author has the unfortunate effect of reducing one to fan-girl status, something generally associated with Beyonce.

The luncheon during the conference also offered time for a teacher-to-teacher tribute. Student teachers-to-be at Central Connecticut State University took time to recognize the real-life teachers who inspired them. Their personal, heartfelt recognitions were then followed by Kittle’s powerful keynote on how matching a kid with the right book can make a reader.

The only conclusion the audience could make in return is:

Educators own a brand of rock-star.

 

I have returned to reading 180 Days. I have picked up on the page where I had left off, and this time, the conversation in my head is one in which I am infinitely more poised and articulate. Penny and Kelly are setting off neurons as they explain their purposeful choices in their cross-country collaboration, and I am nodding (again) in agreement. It’s not awkward at all.

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!

It’s not you.

It’s the text.

It’s moving on…to another grade level.

“I just don’t understand why….” you catch your breath, “it’s been the only book I liked …no, I loved… to teach.”  

You pause, ‘Why does it have to leave?”

After all, you and the book have been together for school years. You have bonded during the pre-teaching stage, the author bio, and the background vocabulary. You were always excited to share the best part of the story with students, and they were engaged by your passion. But, the relationship is coming to an end. The book is leaving for any one of the following reasons:

 

  •  curriculum revisions with different texts
  • a move to a different grade level
  • to make way for new materials
  • replacement copies are not available 

You will have to clean out the banks of questions carefully organized by chapter, or the files stuffed with activities to go with the text. Your long ago plans for the bulletin board will need to change.

You have been told, “It’s about teaching the skills, not the content.”  But that seems a cold appraisal of a text that is more than content to you. Whether the book could be Lois Lowry’s historical novel Number the Stars or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, you have seen (and felt) how these texts have generated powerful connections for you and for the students.

At this low moment, however, you might consider that this break-up could be a good thing.

Frankly, you know too much.  and there is the slight possibility that you have been teaching YOUR version of the text. After all, you have done all the research. You have all the materials. You have all the answers.

Even more reasons as to why it is time to move on.

It’s time to remember how you fell in love with the book. That sense of discovery in learning the characters, rereading their experiences, delighting in the words. And while the thought of starting over can be overwhelming, there can also be a twinge of anticipation….a chance for discovery.

It’s time.

It’s time to start new, and in starting new you can give your students the opportunity to let the students do the research. Let the students find the materials. Let the student provide the answers.

There are new texts just waiting to be discovered: Wolf Hollow, Fish in a Tree, The March Trilogy. Maybe there are other classic characters just waiting to be introduced: Stone Fox, Guy Montag, Ponyboy.

You will be able to guide your students’ inquiry on any text you have not taught because you already know how to develop a relationship with a book. You can guide students as they discover how an author can engage and sustain their interest.  You can offer a chance for discovery to your students, and for yourself as well.

You remember how you fell in love with a book.

Now, use your breakup to show your students how to fall in love with a book on their own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoreau reimagined as a bear, enjoying Nature!

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

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

…and some (American) song lyrics on walking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Call To Adventure

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

3. Refusal Of The Call

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

4. Meeting The Mentor

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

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

5. Crossing The Threshold

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

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies

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

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

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

7. Approach To The Inmost Cave

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

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

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

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

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

9. Reward 

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

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

10. The Road Back

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

11. Resurrection

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

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

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

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

12. Return With The Elixir

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

“I’m glad we came.”

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.