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In a previous post, I questioned a question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which explains why I began a conversation in media res.

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

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

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

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

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

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

AND.. awkward.

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

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

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

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

The only conclusion the audience could make in return is:

Educators own a brand of rock-star.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until September 2016.

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

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

His…voice…stutters…with…ellipses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not you.

It’s the text.

It’s moving on…to another grade level.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s time.

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

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

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

You remember how you fell in love with a book.

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

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.