Archives For Reading

My school district recently purchased a class set of the March Trilogy, the graphic novel memoir that recounts the experiences of Congressman John Lewis (5th District, Georgia) in America’s struggle for civil rights including the marches from Selma to Montgomery. The comic book-style illustrations are engaging and some may mistake the memoir as something for children. Lewis’s experiences in the 1950-60s, however, were marked by violence, so the memoir is recommended for more mature audiences (grades 8-12).

The publisher, Top Shelf Productions, prepares audiences about the violence and language in the memoir by stating:

“…in its accurate depiction of racism in the 1950s and 1960s, March contains several instances of racist language and other potentially offensive epithets. As with any text used in schools that may contain sensitivities, Top Shelf urges you to preview the text carefully and, as needed, to alert parents and guardians in advance as to the type of language as well as the authentic learning objectives that it supports.”

The March Trilogy is the collaboration between Congressman Lewis, his Congressional staffer Andrew Aydin, and the comic book artist, Nate Powell. Their collaboration project began in 2008 after Congressman Lewis described the powerful impact a 1957 comic book titled Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story had on people like himself who were engaged in the Civil Rights Movement. The comic book has been reissued by the original publisher, Fellowship of Reconciliation with a new editorIsrael Escamilla.

Cover of the comic book that inspired John Lewis’s “March”

The 1957 comic book is also available as a PDF by clicking on a link available on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans (CRMV) website. The About page on this site has the following purpose statement in bold:

 This website is created by Veterans of the Southern Freedom Movement (1951-1968). It is where we tell it like it was, the way we lived it, the way we saw it, the way we still see it.

Under this explanation is the blunt statement: “We ain’t neutral.”

The decision to publish the Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story as a comic book in the late 1950s is a bit surprising.  At that time the genre of comic books in America had come under scrutiny. A psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham, made public his criticisms that comic books promoted deviant behavior. That claim in 1954 led to the creation of a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency along with the Comics Code Authority (CCA). That Authority drafted the self-censorship Comics Code that year, which required all comic books to go through a process of approval.

In 1958, the Friends of Reconciliation published the 16-page comic book as a challenge to CCA restrictions. An artist from the Al Capp Studios, creators of Li’l Abner, donated time to illustrate the book. Benton Resnick, a blacklisted writer, wrote the text. He concluded with a promotion for the “thousands of members throughout the world [who] attempt to practice the things that Jesus taught about overcoming evil with good.” The Friends of Reconciliation’s religious message passed the scrutiny of Senate Subcommittee.

The comic book also received Dr. King’s approval who called it “an excellent piece of work” that did a “marvelous job of grasping the underlying truth and philosophy of the movement.”

Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was distributed through churches, universities, social justice organizations and labor unions during the Civil Rights Movement. Now in reproduction, the comic book has been widely circulated to support international struggles for civil rights, including Egypt’s Tahrir’s Square.

Teachers can use this primary source comic book as a way to explain how nonviolent protests held throughout the South contributed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One of the first frames in the book holds a proclamation:

“In Montgomery, Alabama, 50,000 Negroes found a new way to work for freedom, without violence and without hating.”

Several frames later, there are illustrations showing Rosa Parks’s arrest when she refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. These events are narrated by a fictional character named “Jones”. His role is to introduce the reader to the 29-year-old Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr, a preacher from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Dr. King will become the charismatic leader who planned the bus boycotts in Montgomery.

In the comic book, several frames show how protesters rehearsed for confrontations during protests. King wanted protesters to practice the tenets of non-violence the same way that Mahatma Gandhi had used non-violence in liberating India from the British Empire.

The “Montgomery Method” that Dr. King promotes in the strip is based on religion; God is referenced as the motivating force.  An explanation of the different steps to follow the method of non-violence begins with the statement that God “says you are important. He needs you to change things.”

In the concluding pages, the comic book also has suggestions for activists that were used to guide those who worked for civil rights in the 1950s -1960s. Some of these suggestions are remarkably timely, and they could be used in class discussions:

Be sure you know the facts about the situation. Don’t act on the basis of rumors, or half-truths, find out;

Where you can, talk to the people concerned and try to explain how you feel and why you feel as you do. Don’t argue; just tell them your side and listen to others. Sometimes you may be surprised to find friends among those you thought were enemies.

This comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story can be used to prepare students for the graphic novel memoir by Congressman Lewis, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement. While he is not directly named in the 1957 comic book, he participated in many of the events and his memoir March provides another point of view to major events.

In Lewis’s recounting, March: Book I is set up as a flashback in which he remembers the brutality of the police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the 1965 Selma-Montgomery March.  The second book, March: Book 2 (2015) highlights the Freedom Bus Rides and Governor George Wallace’s “Segregation Forever” speech.  The final book, March: Book 3 (2016) includes the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bombing; the Freedom Summer murders; the 1964 Democratic National Convention; and the Selma to Montgomery marchesMarch: Book 3 received multiple awards including 2016 National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature, the 2017 Printz Award Winner, and the 2017 Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner.

In receiving these awards, Lewis restated his purpose that his memoir was directed toward young people, saying:

“It is for all people, but especially young people, to understand the essence of the civil rights movement, to walk through the pages of history to learn about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence, to be inspired to stand up to speak out and to find a way to get in the way when they see something that is not right, not fair, not just.”

He could just as well have been speaking about Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. They may belong to the genre of comic books, but they also are serious records of our history.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The most recent iteration of Wonder Woman (2017) on the big screen has received much attention because of its woman director Patty Jenkins and its attractive and agile star at her most womanliness. Actress Gal Gadot admitted she was 3-5 months pregnant for the role of Diana during much of the filming. The film also offers a similar message to the one that reverberates from the young adult novel, A Wrinkle in Time by one of my favorite woman authors, Madeleine L’Engle

Sitting in the dark, above the explosive noise in an action packed sequence, I heard the argument posed by the villain of the film, Ares, the god of War. At the climax of the film (and I do not believe the following is much of a spoiler), Ares admits to seeding treachery into the souls of mankind and bellows for Diana to destroy mankind, to give into her rage saying:

Ares: “They do not deserve your protection.”

But, remembering the sacrifice of others, Diana makes a different choice:

Diana: “It’s not about what you deserve, it’s about what you believe, and I believe in love.”

That same argument Ares makes is the argument made in the climax of A Wrinkle in Time. Teen-aged Meg, the awkward nerdish heroine, confronts IT, a grotesque villainous mass that has taken a sinister control over the mind of her beloved younger brother Charles Wallace:

Mrs. Whatsit hates you,” Charles Wallace said.
And that was where IT made ITs fatal mistake, for as Meg said, automatically, “Mrs. Whatsit loves me; that’s what she told me, that she loves me,” suddenly she knew.
She knew!
Love.
That was what she had that IT did not have. (12.135-140)

Of course, Wonder Woman has supernatural powers that help her defeat her foe. She is also not above using violence to achieve an end….she is an Amazon after all.

Meg in contrast is bookish and insecure; without sword, shield, or lasso. Meg realizes that she is incapable of directly defeating IT:

 But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it. (12.141-143)

Meg must use her wits rather than physical strength, and she cleverly defeats IT in a confrontation with lines so deeply etched in my literary memory files that I can still recite them, as I did watching the film:

But she could love Charles Wallace.
She could stand there and she could love Charles Wallace. (12.144-145)

Perhaps it is not surprising that in both stories, and against impossible odds, Diana and Meg find the same elixir on their hero’s journey to be the power of love. Their stories follow that archetypal journey: the call to adventure, leaving the known world, meeting the mentor(s), the test, the sacrifice, the ordeal, and the return with the elixir.

Please understand that although I enjoyed the film, I am not elevating the screenplay, production, or even the performances in Wonder Woman to the high regard for which I hold A Wrinkle in Time.  Although they are both fiction, the D.C. Comic heroine does not hold the same place in my literary heart as does Meg.

My 9-year-old self identified with Meg, and I longed for a Mrs. Which to blow into my life with an adventure. My own copy of the novel, a mottled blue hardcover signed by L’Engle, is a treasured possession.(see story here) In my current role as an educator, I continue to encourage others to read the book. L’Engle tells a wonderful story.

I do not think, however, that L’Engle would be unhappy with my comparison. The similarities in comparing the message of Meg’s story to Diana’s story in the film is what Madeleine L’Engle meant when she said:

“Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.”

If music be the food of love,” as Shakespeare suggests, then the food for the mind is vocabulary.

The term vocabulary is defined as “a list or collection of words or of words and phrases usually alphabetically arranged and explained or defined.” There are a number of reasons to think about these lists of words and phrases as things that are consumable. Consider how often references to words or phrases are framed in metaphors of food:

  • Food for thought;
  • Digesting what was said;
  • Chew on it for a while;
  • Difficult to swallow.

These metaphors continue in today’s digital age, where words and phrases are encoded over “feeds” or electronic transmission of news, as from a broadcaster or an Internet newsgroup. screen-shot-2017-02-05-at-9-06-49-pm

 

All these food metaphors signal how important vocabulary is to a student’s developing academic life. Just as food is metabolized and turned into the building blocks and fuel that the body needs, educators should see vocabulary to be part of the building blocks of critical thinking. Just as any student must internalize food for energy, research shows that for vocabulary to be effective, students must internalize words to use them correctly in both receptive and verbal language. And just as food is necessary every day for physical growth and stamina, vocabulary is necessary every day,  in all subject areas, for a student’s academic growth and stamina.

These food metaphors also support the idea that vocabulary should not be an isolated activity, but a daily requirement that teachers need to incorporate in all lessons. The teaching of vocabulary is too important to be left to workbooks or worksheets; teaching words and word meanings must be part of speaking, listening, reading and writing in every day’s lesson.

While the first step in a successful vocabulary program is explicit instruction, the steps of continued exposure and direct practice are also important. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in teaching vocabulary educators should:

Use repeated exposure to new words in multiple oral and written contexts and allow sufficient practice sessions.”

In their article posted on Adlit.org, Explicit Vocabulary Instruction, researchers have found that “Words are usually learned only after they appear several times.” Words that appear infrequently may not be the words that should be targeted for explicit instruction.

This research is supported by Robert Marzano who outlined a six step process for educators in Education Leadership Magazine, “The Art and Science of Teaching / Six Steps to Better Vocabulary Instruction” (September 2009). These six steps outline how repeated exposure might be accomplished:

  1. Provide a description, explanation, or example of the new term.
  2. Ask students to restate the description, explanation, or example in their own words.
  3. Ask students to construct a picture, pictograph, or symbolic representation of the term.
  4. Engage students periodically in activities that help them add to their knowledge of the terms in their vocabulary notebooks.
  5. Periodically ask students to discuss the terms with one another.
  6. Involve students periodically in games that enable them to play with terms.

There are many ways that students at every ability level can be independently engaged on digital platforms that support vocabulary activities. There are multiple software programs with “feeds” that can help student practice vocabulary with games or flashcards on different devices. Examples of these platforms include:

Research suggests that it is the repeated exposure to words that is most effective, especially if they appear over an extended period of time. Researchers estimate that it could take as many as 17 exposures for a student to learn a new word.

This kind of repeated exposure echoes the practice of the Pulitzer Prizewinning Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, who is featured in the (2015) documentary City of Gold. In the film, Gold explains that before writing a review on its food, he will visit a restaurant sometimes a dozen or more times, often tasting the same dish several times “to make sure I get it right.” Gold’s multiple visits to a restaurant “to be sure to get it right” can serve as an example of how educators need to recognize the need for repeated exposure in vocabulary so that students can “get it right” as they ingest and digest vocabulary words.

Students must regularly read their vocabulary words the same way they eat three meals a day, and a possible snack before bed. They must write their vocabulary words, listen to their vocabulary words, and speak their vocabulary words.  In offering an academic diet that is rich in vocabulary, educators should know “students are what they eat.”

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.

Screenshot 2016-03-29 10.37.46In a previous post, I discussed how the “Chicken or Egg?” conundrum is a way to view which agency-  National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) or the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) – is responsible for the recommendations for fiction vs. non-fiction in a student’s reading diet.

In 2015, the NAEP the “largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas” provided a voluntary survey on which teachers could select the literary genre they emphasized in class “to a great extent.” NAEP noted that over the past six years, there has been a steady increase in nonfiction in grade 4 and 8, a phenomena that coincides with the adoption of the CCSS and the revisions to the NAEP reading content. As the primary reason or as a result, the CCSS has promoted expectations that a student’s reading diet reflect a ratio  30% fiction and 70% nonfiction across the content areas by the time he or she graduates from high school.

Creative

The Evolution of Creative Nonfiction

Complicating the question of which came first, the CCSS recommendations or the NAEP, another genre has been evolving and gaining popularity with students at all grade levels, the genre of creative nonfiction. Creative non-fiction or the narrative non-fiction genre features the same techniques that fiction writers, playwrights, and poets use in order to present real people and events as stories while still using factually accurate prose. The goal of the creative non-fiction writer is to make nonfiction stories as exhilarating, arresting, vivid, or dramatic as anything in the fictional story.

In meeting that goal, consider how the Newbery Award winning children’s nonfiction author Russell Freedman (author of Children of the Wild WestLincoln: A PhotobiographyWashington at Valley Forge) has dipped into the fiction trademark, the story, by saying:

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

That desire to imitate a storyteller has been generated by a primitive need to communicate and to remember. The story, as author and consultant Lisa Cron explains in her book Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, allows humans to be human. She writes:

“Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to. Story is what enabled us to imagine what might happen in the future, and so prepare for it—a feat no other species can lay claim to, opposable thumbs or not. Story is what makes us human, not just metaphorically but literally.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 9.46.08 PMSimilarly, Thomas Newkirk, a faculty member of the University of New Hampshire, has argued that that we are hard-wired for the story format in his brilliant book Minds Made for StoriesHow We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts. He writes that, “…as humans, as time-bound mortals, we must tell stories” as though the need to tell stories is instinctive as embedded in all humans as is our DNA. Newkirk explains:

“We rely on stories not merely for entertainment, but for explanation, meaning, self-understanding. We instinctively make connections of cause and effect, and always have. To deny the centrality of narrative is to deny our own nature” (146).

Examples of Creative Nonfiction by Grade Level

Consider the following examples of great openings that use the poetry, humor, or suspense, associated with fiction in different kinds of non-fiction.

The first is the short opening of the picture book Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate:

“In leafy calm, in gentle arms, a gorilla’s life begins.”

The poetic combination of “leafy calm” and “gentle arms” sets a peaceful tone that is soon disrupted when the infant gorilla is kidnapped from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and brought to Tacoma, Washington, to live his real life in a mall.

Or read the opening from the Ludwig Von Beethoven chapter, one of 19 truncated biographies collected for How they Croaked:The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg. Bragg knows her teen audience and keeps the pace moving quickly and informally:

“Beethoven’s dad forced him to practice the piano, like dads have done since the dawn of music. We don’t know what tunes Beethoven practiced, but today, kids are forced to play Fur Elise and Moonlight Sonata, melodies that Beethoven wrote. Practice paid off for Beethoven and he became a musical genius. He played his first gig when he was eight years old. He performed for kings, he did concert tours, and he had a lot of fans. And he had long hair just like a rock star. It turns out Beethoven’s hair helped uncover how he died.”

Yes, this does follow a standard biographical timeline, starting in Beethoven’s youth, and, yes, there is the gratuitous connection to rock stars and “gigs”. This entry-and all of the others in the book- capitalize on a multitude gory details in describing how famous real people in history “croaked.”

The last example is from the  opening of the 2013 multi-media Pulitzer Prize winning article in the NY Times  Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek by John Branch. This digital form of storytelling is an excellent piece for secondary students. It begins in medias res (middle of action):

“The snow burst through the trees with no warning but a last-second whoosh of sound, a two-story wall of white and Chris Rudolph’s piercing cry: ‘Avalanche! Elyse!’

The very thing the 16 skiers and snowboarders had sought — fresh, soft snow — instantly became the enemy. Somewhere above, a pristine meadow cracked in the shape of a lightning bolt, slicing a slab nearly 200 feet across and 3 feet deep. Gravity did the rest.”

Accompanying the text are snowfall loops of digital GIFs embedded with video, audio interviews, graphics, and other interactive features. I have written before that the text of “Snowfall” marks a new step in storytelling, a mentor text that models how to create a story where all forms of media support an author’s purpose. Real stories are breaking the 3rd wall in storytelling.

Preference for Narrative Nonfiction

In their books, both Lisa Cron and Thomas Newkirck have identified how our brains have preference for reading and writing the narrative. That preference is advancing genre adaptations that may render recommendations for reading diet ratios unnecessary, whether they come from the NAEP, the CCSS, or some other agency.

Because we are human, and because our brains want stories, the evolving genre of creative non-fiction is rapidly becoming another egg in the reader’s basket.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Elizabeth, are you happy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, I digress…and so did they.

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

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

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

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

Strout: “Sweetie…She’s fictional.”

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

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

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

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

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

“So, Elizabeth, are you happy?”

“I am,” she responded.

We all were.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Possible responses:

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

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

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

Possible responses:

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

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

“Francie stepped forward. ‘Me, Mister.’

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

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

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

‘Two ain’t fair,’ yelped Punky.

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

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

Possible responses:

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

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

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

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

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

But Francie does not buckle:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This book sale was one smooth operation.

My finds?

Capturing interest from STAR WARS films

Capturing interest from STAR WARS films

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

IMG_0697

Selection of high interest titles

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

$313.00.

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

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