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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.

It’s December, and in keeping with the season,  I had planned on a post celebrating Robert Frost’s poem “Christmas Trees”. Instead, however, I found myself on an inquiry path on a Frost holiday tradition.

I first inquired, what is the story behind Frost’s poem Christmas Trees?

The poem opens:

The city had withdrawn into itself  
And left at last the country to the country;  
When between whirls of snow not come to lie  
And whirls of foliage not yet laid, there drove  
A stranger to our yard, who looked the city,   
Yet did in country fashion in that there  
He sat and waited till he drew us out,  
A-buttoning coats, to ask him who he was.  
He proved to be the city come again  
To look for something it had left behind   
And could not do without and keep its Christmas.

The stranger asks to purchase Frost’s trees:

 He said, “A thousand.”  
  
“A thousand Christmas trees!—at what apiece?”  
  
He felt some need of softening that to me:       
“A thousand trees would come to thirty dollars.”  

Rather than sell them, Frost conclusion is more metaphorical:

A thousand Christmas trees I didn’t know I had!  
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,  
As may be shown by a simple calculation.  
Too bad I couldn’t lay one in a letter.       
I can’t help wishing I could send you one,  
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.

I found (on Poets.org) that beginning in 1929, Frost and the printer Joseph Blumenthal partnered up to produce beautifully illustrated Christmas cards featuring Frost’s poetry.  I was surprised to discover, as reported in the NYTimes, Blumenthal, who ran the Spiral Press of New York, created the first card without Frost’s knowledge:

“…he printed 250 copies—for his wife and a small group of colleagues—of a letterpress chapbook of Frost’s early poem “Christmas Trees.”

When the poet saw the publication, his first response was to contact Blumenthal and request a few copies to send out to his own family members: ‘My sympathies have been enlisted on the side of small presses and hand setting. My heart will be with you in your work’.”

A slideshow of the cards is available on the NYTimes website. This tradition continued for another 30 years, and the Frost-Blumenthal productions were holiday “greetings” in the form of chapbooks.

I then needed to inquire, why a chapbook?

I discovered that a chapbook was historically “a small pamphlet containing tales, ballads, or tracts, sold by peddlers” in contrast to its current contemporary meaning, “a small paperback booklet, typically containing poems or fiction.” These chapbooks are very simple, stapled in the center, with some illustrated covers.

The Blog Poetry and Popular Culture posted their inquiry about the chapbooks as well:

  • What was the annual press run?
  • Did the press have a list of subscribers committed to buying a set every year, and how much money did Blumenthal and Frost eventually make off of the limited editions?

I did find out on the Poets.org site that Blumenthal printed 275 copies of the first greeting, and the last, “The Prophets Really Prophesy as Mystics, the Commentators Merely by Statistics”  had an edition run of 16,555 copies. There was no collective information on the money exchanged, other than the note that the cards can sometimes be found for purchase on E-bay (example).

That led me to inquire, what other poems did Frost place into chapbooks?

Oher poems sent as chapbooks were “Birches,” “A Boy’s Will,” and “The Wood-Pile”. There was an exhibit of the chapbooks in 2012 at the Pequot Library in Southport, CT. The exhibit was titled “Good Wishes from Robert Frost” – a set of 19 chapbooks loaned by Elinor Wilber, granddaughter of the celebrated American poet Robert Frost. Several have a personal inscription from Frost to Elinor and her husband. A video showing these chapbooks is available here:

The video ends with a copy handwritten by Frost of his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.

That led me to seek out a better copy of this manuscript, and my path of inquiry took me to the Library of Congress where there is a photo of the poem in its entirety:

Screenshot 2015-12-18 19.02.41

Robert Frost. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Holograph manuscript, n.d. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (195C)

 

 

 

 

This inquiry led me a different publisher. Frost’s Snow to Snow, was issued by in 1936 by Henry Holt & Company. They published twelve of Frost’s  verses, each one corresponding to a month of the year and ending with December’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.

So how does one find out what the poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” means?

I then decided to chase down the popular story (one that I have often repeated without checking its veracity) that Frost was in the audience of group of people listening to a lecture about the meaning of this poem.

I had heard that “The poem is about death,” the lecturer supposedly reported, and he continued for many minutes pointing out all the images related to death:”darkest evening” and  “sleep”. At the end of the lecture, there was an opportunity for questions and comments from the audience. Now (according to the rumor), Frost patiently waited his turn, and then firmly stated: “I wrote that poem. It is not about death. I was going home in the snow.”

As much fun as that rumored story is….I could not find anything to confirm it happening. I am chagrined that I have kept the rumor going.

However, I was relieved to find some form of confirmation in quotes from a book: Robert Frost an introduction: poems, reviews, criticism with quotes from Reginald Cook regarding this poem:

  •  “it’s all very nice but I must be getting along, getting home.”…
  •  “I always thought,” he explains, “it was the product of autointoxication coming from tiredness.”
  • When a friendly critic asked if the last two lines in “Stopping by Woods” referred to going to Heaven, and, by implication, death, the poet replied, “No, all that means is to get the hell out of there.”

On this path of inquiry, I also discovered a video of Frost reading this poem. The introduction is by the radio host Garrison Keillor:


Susan Jeffers on Frost

My final thought on Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was of the picture book illustrated by Susan Jeffers that I read to my boys as part of our holiday preparation. The man in her rendition bears a striking resemblance to Santa Claus and the little harness bells look very festive. I know Jeffers makes the poem more child-friendly than alternative interpretations!

Finally, to sum up Frost’s attitude towards analysis, in a letter to Louis Untermeyer (1964) in Robert Frost: A Backward Look, Frost writes:

You’ve often heard me say – perhaps too often – that poetry is what is lost in translation. It is also what is lost in interpretation. That little poem means just what it says and it says what it means, nothing less but nothing more.

Or, here is a more unceremonious statement in his own voice:

“….What are the promises?….If I wanted you to know, I would have told you in the poem.”

Therefore, on this post I offer no translations…and no interpretations. Here are discoveries-and at least one correction- on my inquiry journey of the winter poems of the aptly named Frost.

Happy Holidays!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Possible responses:

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

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

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

Possible responses:

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

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

“Francie stepped forward. ‘Me, Mister.’

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

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

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

‘Two ain’t fair,’ yelped Punky.

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

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

Possible responses:

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

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

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

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

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

But Francie does not buckle:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This book sale was one smooth operation.

My finds?

Capturing interest from STAR WARS films

Capturing interest from STAR WARS films

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

IMG_0697

Selection of high interest titles

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

$313.00.

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

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

 

“…but first, I give them a quiz,” the 2nd grade teacher was telling me.
“A quiz?” I was surprised, “Why?”
“Well, how will I know they read their homework?” she responded.
“But…they are only in 2nd grade…so……” I trailed off; she blinked expectantly.

I didn’t finish my sentence.

“So… this is how the madness starts,” is what I wanted to say.

Quid Pro Quo Assignments

Homework has always been a bit of an educational  “quid pro quo (Latin). The “give something, get something” in schools where a quantitative grade marks the successful exchange of educational services, the teacher, to the student in a paper-or digital-transfer.

Quid pro quo homework follows a cycle: the homework worksheet is distributed; the homework worksheet is completed; the homework grade is entered OR the homework is assigned, and the student is quizzed to check compliance.Non-compliance can sometimes bring a punitive action.

This cycle does not facilitate trust between teacher and student.

The quid pro quo cycle of homework has been customary practice in the upper grades, but recent studies are raising concerns about the increasing amounts of homework in the elementary grades.

Increase in Homework for Elementary

The focus on back-to-school issues in the media such as the article Kids Receive 3 Times the Recommended Homework Load in the 8/12/15 issue of TIME magazine  is bringing attention on the tripling of homework at the elementary level. The amount of homework raises concerns in policy and research:

From the National Education Association Research Spotlight on Homework

“In the last 20 years, homework has increased only in the lower grade levels, and this increase is associated with neutral (and sometimes negative) effects on student achievement.”

From Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? A Synthesis of Research, 1987–2003 (Cooper, Robinson, Pattall REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH )

“No strong evidence was found for an association between the homework–achievement link and the outcome measure (grades as opposed to standardized tests) or the subject matter (reading as opposed to math).”

From The American Journal of Family Therapy Homework and Family Stress: With Consideration of Parents’ Self Confidence, Educational Level, and Cultural Background

Family stress, measured by self-report, increased as homework load increased and as parent’s perception of their capacity to assist decreased.

One conclusion is that the increase in homework at the elementary level is not only academically ineffective, but also stressful, particularly for families with limited educational resources.

Long Term Consequences of Too Much Homework

A consequence of assigning homework as high stakes, rigorous, or graded practice in the lower grades sets up a disturbing paradigm that becomes ingrained in the upper grades. Homework becomes less about good practice in a discipline and more about student responsibility. In the upper grades, where homework does show academic value, the homework grade is often an average of the two.

Another consequence is how quickly younger students can be trained into a exhausting pattern of expecting a grade for each assignment. Once that pattern is set, students may require a grade for anything they turn in. They may not be able to discriminate between a grade for a long-term assignment or for busy work, and in the course of 13 years of education there will be a great deal of homework that is simply busy work.

Once that habit of quid pro quo homework has been established in the younger grades, it can become an addictive monster at every other grade level. For example, the 2nd grade student who will be met with a quiz for reading homework will be conditioned to associate reading with quizzing.

Constant quizzing could mean the student may never understand how to read for pleasure or grow to love reading. Ironically, reading for pleasure has been proven to be the one academic skill that will make that student successful way beyond that second grade classroom.

from jarofquotes.com

from jarofquotes.com

Of course, homework should receive feedback, an equally critical part of the educational process, but one that serves a different purpose than grading. Feedback on homework could be a positive experience for a student. It can be unexpected, encouraging, comforting, instructional, corrective, supportive-as opposed to a graded assignment….especially for a student in an elementary grade.

If the homework given in a 2nd grade class is to read, a quiz should not be the method to check to see if students did the reading; a  sidebar conference or quick discussion about what was read might be a better assessment.

Not everything needs a grade.
When selecting homework assessments, teachers should consider the question “Is this homework simply busy work?”  as well as other questions:

  • Is a quiz necessary to see that a student has read a homework assignment?
  • Is correcting this homework the best use of time?
  • What does this homework assignment accurately measure ?
  • How many times have I had students do this same homework assignment?

Homework is Practice

Teachers can measure a student’s performance through other forms of assessment. While a teacher, at any grade level, has little control over the conditions and support for homework once a student leaves the building, there are multiple opportunities for the teacher to monitor student progress while students are in the classroom.

Furthermore, homework’s design is to provide students the opportunity to practice, which raises the question: should student practice homework be assessed at all?

This school year, it’s time to halt the increase in elementary homework and the potential madness of its quid pro quo value.

Instead, educators should heed the research that shows students in elementary grades need less homework, and when they do have homework, the emphasis should be on practice.

Students -all students-need the practice more than they need the grade.

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.

While they are not wrapped in shiny paper with frills and bows, the piles of donated used books on the tables of the local area library book sales this summer are presents.

It does not matter that these presents are “re-purposed” or “re-gifted”…these books will be presents to students to encourage reading. It’s Christmas in July for filling the classroom libraries!

red boxFor this special kind of “Christmas shopping”, I have been to three Connecticut library books sales: the New Milford Public Library, the C.H. Booth Library in Newtown, and the Westport Public Library. These large book sales have the titles that students want to read, because the books have been donated by students who have already read them. These gently used donated books have already been field-tested.

Choosing books that student want to read is different than selecting books that students should read. Educators believe that students should read selections from the literary canon, for example, those written by Shakespeare, Steinbeck, and the Brontë sisters. Students should read titles such as The Crucible, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Odyssey. These selections from the literary canon are often assigned in middle or high school classes.

But many students do not want to read these pieces of classic literature for pleasure. They want to read a title from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid or The Hunger Games series. The key difference between reading for pleasure and assigned reading is recognizing that students have similar guilty pleasures as adults in reading popular culture,

Students want to read titles such as the Dork Diaries;  Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging; I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You; Hatchet; or The Perks of Being a Wallflower. These are the titles they look for in their independent reading choices. So, I looked for these titles at the three book sales, and I found copies of all of them.

The titles students want to read can build vocabulary and fluency for the classic literature they are assigned in school. Reading books by John Green (Looking for Alaska, The Fault in our Stars), Anthony Horowitz (Point Blank, Scorpio) or Sarah Dessen (Dreamland, This Lullaby, The Truth About Forever) gives students the chance to practice reading for pleasure. I looked for these titles, and I found copies of all of them as well.

Reading for pleasure for today’s teen reader means wandering in some very dark worlds as students are particularly drawn bleak futures as depicted in the Divergent series (dystopian world) or Delirium series (dystopian world) or the Chaos Walking series (finding yourself in a dystopian world).  Again, I found copies of all of these titles.

Student readers of fantasy, a genre sadly overlooked in most school offerings, cannot get enough of Rick Riordan’s retelling of Greek Mythology (The Lightning Thief, The Last Olympian) or his newer Egyptian series (The Red Pyramid). I found multiple copies from both series.

When students are offered the titles they want to read, they can practice reading the way marathoners train for races or musicians rehearse for performances. Practicing reading in school with Silent Sustained Reading (SSR) or for homework improves their reading pace, their reading accuracy, and helps students develop a reading routine.

It does not matter if reading practice for pleasure includes some titles from the often maligned series from Captain Underpants (intermediate grades) or Twilight (high school grade). The elements of story (protagonist, antagonist, conflict, rising action, and resolution) are in each. Not to mention Stephanie Meyer’s borrowing passages from Wuthering Heights to accessorize her vampire-filled trilogy.

There is good reading practice in the R.L. Stine collections from Goosebumps to Fear Street, and there is good reading practice in Fruit Baskets (Manga) or Calvin and Hobbs comic books or in the  Darwin Awards series. And, yes, I purchased many copies of each.

Titles with movie tie-in such as the Star Wars series, World War Z, or the original Jurassic Park are always popular, and students check to see how accurately the film matches the text. YA Chick lit from Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries) orAnn Brashares (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) appeal to a particular female demographic while novels written by Nicholas Evans and Jodi Picoult can take that same group well into adulthood. I found copies of all of these.

What I did not find were those popular Minecraft books, but those will come in book sales next summer as more and more students engage in the game platform. Note: In 2016 expect a Minecraft wave near you!

All together, shopping at the three book sales yielded book as “presents” that will be spread out over 50 classroom libraries. These popular books will encourage students to practice reading in and out of school  to build up their reading stamina, for school and for life.

The Friends of the Library website lists all the book sales in Connecticut, and there are plenty of opportunities year-round to increase libraries that are geared for reading pleasure. Our students will be life-long readers if they develop the solid reading habits.green box

So far, this has been A Very Merry Book Sale season! Happy Holidays!

During the 88th Saturday Reunion Weekend at Teacher’s College in NYC (3/28/15), author and educator Kylene Beers delivered three professional development sessions based on Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading, a book she co-authored with Bob Probst. Each session was overflowing with standing room only crowds.Screenshot 2015-03-28 22.29.02

During the afternoon keynote in the Nave of Riverside Church, she delivered her beliefs, and every one of the 2,100 seats was filled.

Screenshot 2015-03-28 20.51.18She opened her address with a historical connection between literacy and power by referring first to the notion that years ago a signature was all that was necessary to prove a person literate. Exploiting this belief were those in power who prepared and wrote contracts, becoming wealthy at the expense of those who could only sign their names with an “X”.

“Literacy in this country has always been tied to wealth.” Beers explained adding, “With literacy comes power, and with power comes great privilege.”

This was the theme of her keynote, that in this age of communication and messaging, literacy equals power and privilege.

Moving to the present and the communication and messaging skills necessary for the 21st Century, Beers justified improving  literacy skills to operate on digital platforms as one way to empower students, but she called into question the practice of prevention by some school districts.

“When schools say they do not want to have students develop a digital footprint,” she cautioned, “they limit their students access to that kind of power.”

Continuing to argue for the empowered students, Beers directed the audience’s attention to making learning relevant for students remarking,  “There is a problem if everything is assigned by me!” By letting students choose what they want to read, she suggested that teachers can make learning relevant for the student. Employing choice to encourage more reading, however, contrasts to the recommendations of the Common Core State Standards that students read fewer texts in order to read “closer.”

“Why fewer?” she asked the crowd of educators, “when the single best predictor is of success is volume of reading. One book for six weeks will never be as helpful as six books in six weeks.”

Teachers must let the students choose what they want to read, Beers argued, raising her voice:

“Damn the Lexiles ! The best book is the one the kid chooses to read… [a student’s] ‘want-ability’ is more important than readability.”

And what should students read? Beers asked the crowd.

“Literature.”

“In the 21st Century, the most important role that literature plays is in developing student values such as compassion and empathy,” she contended. “Brain research shows we get to that compassion best through the teaching of literature.”

Beers called attention to recent disturbing headline events that had students marginalize others: racist chants made by a fraternity, and a teenager’s suicide due to bullying.

It is the role of literature, she explained, to give the reader the experience being the outsider, the marginalized. Reading and learning from literature gives students an understanding of others and an opportunity to lead “literate lives measured by decency, civility, respect, compassion, and, at the very least, ethical behavior.”

Coming to the end of the keynote, Beers saved her scorn for the answer-driven test preparation and testing that dominates schools today:

“A curriculum built on test prep might raise scores, but it will fail to raise curiosity, creativity, and compassion.”

Beers castigated the limits of “bubbled” answers by pointing out that deep thinking never begins with an answer. In connecting back to the role of literature in education she added, “Ethics and compassion are not so easily bubbled.”

As a final invocation Beers reiterated her belief in teachers, those who have met the challenges in order to encourage all students and who never needed a mandate to leave no child behind:

“Success is not found in a test; great teachers are our best hope for a better tomorrow!”

The crowd erupted into applause paying tribute to Kylene Beers, an leader in education whose strong voice reverberated in the cathedral and whose equally strong beliefs reverberated with their own.