Archives For Units of Study

Of all the national holidays, Labor Day is the most passive. It floats as the first Monday in September; it lacks a symbol, a song or ritual. Maybe that is not so strange for a holiday that has come to be a collective celebration of rest.

Labor Day is also set aside to recognize the importance of labor or work in our lives.

The importance of work is at the heart of a speech recorded by Retired Lt. General Russel L. Honoré for This I Believe, Inc. This I Believe is an “independent, not-for-profit organization that engages youth and adults from all walks of life in writing, sharing, and discussing brief essays about the core values that guide their daily lives.”

Honoré is best known for coordinating military relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina-affected areas across the Gulf Coast and as the 2nd Infantry Division’s commander while stationed in South Korea. Honoré, also known as “The Ragin’ Cajun”, offered an audio essay that was shared on NPR’s Weekend Edition, March 1, 2009.

Work is a Blessing

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russel_L._Honor%C3%A9

Honoré’s essay was titled To Work is a Blessing and in it he describes how his father influenced him to see labor differently. His own work experience began in his youth when he had to milk 65 cows twice daily:

“I remember complaining to my father and grandfather about having to go milk those cows. My father said, ‘Ya know, boy, to work is a blessing.'”

Honore described how he I looked at those two men, and “had a feeling I had been told something really important, but it took many years before it had sunk in.” As a young man, he joined ROTC to pay for college, and that obligation led to his 37 year career in the Army.

In the essay, he explains a visit to Bangladesh in the 80s and how he watched a woman breaking bricks with a hammer with a baby strapped to her back. When he asked if a machine would be more efficient than this form of human labor, an official explained that a machine would put that lady out of work. Honoré then understood:

“Breaking those bricks meant she’d earn enough money to feed herself and her baby that day. And as bad as that woman’s job was, it was enough to keep a small family alive. It reminded me of my father’s words: to work is a blessing.”

His position in the Army took him to multiple countries, where he grew to recognize that people, regardless of where they lived, who lived without jobs were not free. They become “victims  of crime, the ideology of terrorism, poor health, depression, and social unrest.” Instead, he argued that

“People who have jobs can have a home, send their kids to school, develop a sense of pride, contribute to the good of the community, and even help others. When we can work, we’re free. We’re blessed.”

Honoré’s essay is  (561 words); his audio recording of the speech is 4:02 minutes long. The readability level/Grade Level of the essay is 6.7 according to a Flesch–Kincaid readability calculator. Both the essay and the audio recording are available on the This I Believe website. In the audio recording, Honoré’s thick Louisiana accent personalizes his message, a form of a quick read-aloud while student can follow in the text.

Educators who might want to use this speech with students in grades 6-12 could align their questions to several Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for reading informational texts. Reading informational texts such as this speech help students build a foundation of knowledge in multiple fields. In addition to English Language Arts, this essay can be part of any social studies program from middle school geography to AP Human Geography. The background knowledge the essay provides helps them to be better readers in all content areas.

Below are four anchor standards from the CCSS and questions stems for each strand that could be used with this essay:

RI.9-10.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text of this speech says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

  • What textual evidence supports your analysis of the Honoré’s speech?
  • What inferences can you draw from specific textual evidence?

RI.9-10.2 Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of Honoré’s speech, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

  • What is the central idea of the speech?
  • How is the central idea developed?
  • What supporting ideas are included in the text?

RI.9-10.3 Analyze how Honoré’s unfolds a series of ideas or events, including the order in which the points are made, how they are introduced and developed, and the connections that are drawn between them.

  • What connections can you make among and between the individuals, ideas, or events in Honoré’s speech?
  • What distinctions can you make between the speech’s individuals, ideas, or events?
  • Analyze how Honoré connects the ideas and events of the text?

RI.9-10. 4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in Honoré’s speech, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone.

  • What does the word/phrase _______ mean in this selection?
  • How does the Honoré’s  use of repetition of ___________ impact the tone of his speech?
  • Identify and analyze which words or phrases specifically impact the meaning or tone?

Labor Day may be a passive holiday, but this day is important to recognize the importance of work in every life, and we should share that message with our students.

Honoré concludes his short speech by saying he has no plans to stop working, restating his belief in his father’s words:

“I believe in the blessing of work.”

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

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

They must read a book a day…maybe more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are a number of people who are fundamental to our judicial system: Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence; John Jay, first Supreme Court Justice; William of Wilton, canon and scribe at Salisbury Cathedral…..wait, William of Wilton?

Yes, William of Wilton has recently been identified as one the scribes who is responsible for one of four original copies of the Magna Carta. As a scribe, William of Wilton would have been educated in the arts of writing and copying manuscripts, an important job to have before the invention of printing. He may not have understood the significance of the document, but perhaps his employer, the English bishop of Salisbury Cathedral, Herbert Poer, did. New research indicates that it was the Church that was largely responsible for circulating copies of the Magna Carta shortly after it was signed by King John of England.

Copy of the Magna Carta on display at the British Library: Chttp://www.bl.uk/collection-items/magna-carta-1215

Copy of the Magna Carta on display at the British Library: Chttp://www.bl.uk/collection-items/magna-carta-1215

The Magna Carta, the “great charter”, was a peace treaty agreement made when  King John was forced to give into a large rebellion led by barons. They were in revolt because of heavy taxation that came as a result of unsuccessful foreign policies.

According to History.com on June 15, 1215, “John met the barons at Runnymede on the Thames and set his seal to the Articles of the Barons, which after minor revision was formally issued as the Magna Carta.” Months later, King John, supported by the Church, nullified the agreement. Despite negation, the document and its provisions survived.

There is a great deal of attention being paid to the Magna Carta as it celebrates its 800th birthday, and The British Library is currently displaying two original copies of the Magna Carta. Their website lists a number of interesting facts about the Magna Carta including:

  • the documents are written on sheepskin parchment;
  • One of the British Library’s 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts was damaged in a fire in the 18th century, the other was found in a London tailor’s shop in the 17th century; 
  • Magna Carta was annulled by the Pope just 10 weeks after it had been issued, being described as “shameful, demeaning, illegal and unjust” and declared “null and void of all validity for ever”.

As part of the publicity for this celebration, The British newpaper The Independent featured interviews with Professor Nicholas Vincent of the University of East Anglia and Professor David Carpenter of King’s College London who are making the claim that the Church, not the royal government, was largely responsible for seeing that copies of the charter were circulated.

According to the article, Magna Carta: New Research Sheds Light on the Church’s Role in Publishing World-famous Charter,(6/14/15) a careful comparison of different handwriting led to the discovery of William of Wilton using royal documents still surviving in English and French archives and ecclesiastical documents surviving in English cathedrals and in the National Archives.

They are confident that it was William of Wilton’s pen that copied the document, including the sentence that became the foundation of our judicial system:

“No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned save by the lawful judgment of their equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.”

There were many other scribes who also copied the manuscript in 1215, but is the copy that contains the DNA of William of Wilton that survived. It is his handiwork that is is enshrined in a place of honor in the British Library today.

So what is history?

The definition of history is a continuous, systematic narrative of past events as relating to particular people, country, period, person, etc., usually written as chronological account. 

We do not know much about William of Wilton, but we can share this story of the Magna Carta with our students to show them how one man’s story makes history real. Here is the story of a man who reproduced documents for a living. He is responsible for the copy of a document that is the foundation of our legal system.

His story is a part of our history as well.

 Anne Frank: The Diary of  Young Girl transcends the labels of genre. anne Frank book

Yes, as the title suggests, it is a diary, but it is also a memoir, a narrative, an argument, an expository journal, an informational text, and much more.

Yet, these genres listed are treated as separate and distinct in the reading and writing standards of the Common Core (CCSS). The standards emphasize the differences between the literary and informational genres. The standards also prescribe what percentages much students should read (by grade 12 30% literary texts/ 70% informational texts), what genres of writing they should practice (narrative, informative/explanatory, argumentative) and the percentages students should expect to communicate  in these genres by grade level.

Distribution of Communicative Purposes by Grade supported by the Common Core

Distribution of Communicative Purposes by Grade supported by the Common Core

In the real world, however, the differences between genres is not as clear and distinct as neatly outlined in the standards. The real world of Nazi occupied Holland was the setting that produced the defiant Diary of Anne Frank.

On June 12, 1942,  Anne Frank received a red and white check autograph book as a birthday gift. This small volume was soon filled by Anne as a diary, the first of three separate volumes, as she her family and friends hid in the secret annex.

A diary is a daily record, usually private, especially of the writer’s own experiences, observations, feelings, attitudes.

Anne’s narrative in these diaries provides a sequence of events and experiences during the two years she spent hiding with others behind the bookcase in the attic where her father had been employed.

A narrative is a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious.

In June of 1947 Anne’s father Otto Frank published The Diary of Anne Frank, and it has become one of the world’s best-known memoirs of the Holocaust.

A memoir is a written account in which an individual describes  his or her experiences.

In one entry Anne explains she is aware of what was being done with Jews throughout Europe and those who resisted the Nazis. She refers to radio reports from England, official statements, and announcements in the local papers. There are expository style entries throughout the diary that help the reader understand how much she and others knew about the Holocaust:

“Our many Jewish friends and acquaintances are being taken away in droves. The Gestapo is treating them very roughly and transporting them in cattle cars to Westerbork, the big camp in Drenthe to which they’re sending all the Jews….If it’s that bad in Holland, what must it be like in those faraway and uncivilized places where the Germans are sending them? We assume that most of them are being murdered. The English radio says they’re being gassed.” October 9, 1942

“All college students are being asked to sign an official statement to the effect that they ‘sympathize with the Germans and approve of the New Order.” Eighty percent have decided to obey the dictates of their conscience, but the penalty will be severe. Any student refusing to sign will be sent to a German labor camp.”- May 18, 1943

Expository writing’s purpose is to explain, inform, or even describe.

Finally, there are excerpts taken from the diary where Anne makes a persuasive argument for the goodness of people, even in the most awful of circumstances:

“Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness. People are just people, and all people have faults and shortcomings, but all of us are born with a basic goodness.  If we were to start by adding to that goodness instead of stifling it, by giving poor people the feeling that they too are human beings, we wouldn’t necessarily have to give money or material things, since not everyone has them to give.” March 26, 1944

A persuasive argument is a writer’s attempt to convince readers of the validity of a particular opinion on a controversial issue.

Anne’s opinion about the goodness of people during the horrors of the Holocaust is a remarkable argument.

The Diary of Anne Frank gave rise to other genres. Anne’s diaries served as the source material for a play produced in 1955 and then as a film in 1959.

The genre of The Diary of Anne Frank, however, should not be the focus, or the reason for its selection into a curriculum or unit of study. Instead, it is the quality of the writing from a young girl that makes the diary a significant contribution to the literature of the 20th Century.Screenshot 2015-06-11 18.50.33

Novelist and former president of the PEN American Center, Francine Prose revisited the diary and was “struck by how beautiful and brilliant it is.” Prose’s research on Anne Frank as a writer culminated with her own retelling, Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, in which she makes a strong case for the literary quality of Anne’s writing:

“And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how rarely people have really recognized what a conscious, incredible work of literature it is.”

In an interview on the PBS website, Prose was asked, “Do you think there is something about Anne Frank’s voice that continues to resonate with young people today?” Her response,

“I do. Because the diary was written by a kid, it is almost uniquely suited to be read by a kid. Salinger and Mark Twain certainly got certain things right about being a kid; but they weren’t kids when they wrote their books. The diary works on so many different levels.”

When selections from The Diary of Anne Frank were first published in the “Het Parool” on April 3, 1946, the historian Jan Romein also recognized how Anne’s young literary voice rose above the inhumanity that caused in her death at 15 years in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In his review, he writes:

“… this apparently inconsequential diary by a child… stammered out in a child’s voice, embodies all the hideousness of fascism, more so than all the evidence at Nuremberg put together.”

Romein’s review elevates the “apparently inconsequential diary” as testimony in making a legal case against the Nazi regime. It is that power in Anne’s voice that makes her diary a powerful text to offer students, whether it fits the percentages in a CCSS aligned unit of study for an informational text or not.

Her entry on July 15, 1944, written 20 days before she and her family are betrayed to the Nazis reveals yet another genre:

 “I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”

For there is poetry in that entry as well.

That letter “O” morphing on your search engine for Mother’s Day?
That spinning Globe for Earth Day?
Those jigging leprechauns for St. Patrick’s Day?
These are all the Google Doodles from 2015 to celebrate holidays.

There are also Google doodle tributes to individuals. Emmy Noether (physicist), Laura Ingalls Wilder (author), and Anna Atkins (botonist), have been featured in doodles this year (2015) as individuals whose work was celebrated as having made an impact in our lives today. Each of the doodles represents the individual artistically using elements that best represent their work.

Some of the Google doodles are interactive. The Google doodle for Martha Graham is a 15 second celebration of dance. The Google doodle for Robert Moog provides a miniature electronic analog Moog Synthesizer (keyboard) that the viewer can play. The tribute to journalist Nellie Bly features a Youtube video scored with an original song (Music: “Nellie” by Karen O).

There are also international tributes not seen here in the United States with Google doodles for surrealist artist Leonora Carrington (Latin America/Australia); the oldest primary grade student at 84 years old, Kimani Maruge (Kenya); and womens’ rights activist, Henrietta Edwards (Canada).

The first Google Doodle celebrating a vacation at the Burning Man Festival

The first Google doodle celebrated a vacation by Google founders Larry and Sergey at the Burning Man Festival

The first Google Doodle (right) was a comical message that the Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were out of the office attending the Burning Man Festival. The Google Doodle Archive houses the entire collection (1998-present). A scroll through the graphics shows how Google’s primary colored logo is changed in a way that is often surprising or magical. Clicking on the Google doodle takes the reader to a page with information about the event or person, and information about the graphic design and artist for the page.

There are hundreds of doodles, and information on the archive states:

Creating doodles is now the responsibility of a team of talented illlustrators (we call them doodlers) and engineers. For them, creating doodles has become a group effort to enliven the Google homepage and bring smiles to the faces of Google users around the world.

Now, consider that a key shift of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is to build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction. The explanation on the CCSS website is:

Students must be immersed in information about the world around them if they are to develop the strong general knowledge and vocabulary they need to become successful readers and be prepared for college, career, and life. Informational texts play an important part in building students’ content knowledge. Further, it is vital for students to have extensive opportunities to build knowledge through texts so they can learn independently.

Students at all grade levels can independently develop an interpretation of the Google doodle graphic. After studying the logo created by Google illustrators (doodlers), teachers can determine if the link that takes students information on the holiday, the anniversary, or the biography is appropriate for age or grade level reading. Each link contains general information that aligns to the CCSS shift to “build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction.” There is information on these links that might lead students to investigate the person or topic on the doodle even further.

Should a student have an idea for a Google doodle, “The doodle team is always excited to hear ideas from users – they can email proposals@google.com with ideas for the next Google doodle.” There are hundreds of suggestions daily, but the information of the website assures students that, “…rest assured that we’re reading them :)”

Another opportunity for students to submit ideas for a Google doodle (Doodle 4 Google) will be available in September 2015. The details for the 8th annual US competition will be announced then, and examples of student entry winners in 2014 are available for viewing on the website as well.

A quick click on the Google doodle can be an engaging mini-lesson for students in building background knowledge….especially when the information is offered in a logo that is dancing, leaping, morphing, twisting, falling, jumping, running, exploding, singing, growing….

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, a Civil War veteran and a future Supreme Court Justice, delivered a Memorial Day Speech on May 30, 1884, at Keene, New Hampshire, as a tribute to fallen soldiers from the War Between the States. Educators can take an opportunity to use this speech, a primary source document, with their students to study both the historical events that Holmes references as well as his rhetorical style.

First page of Holmes's speech published in book format

First page of Holmes’s speech published in book format

In the first part of the speech, Holmes lays out his belief that twenty years after the Civil War, reunification of the States was possible because of the respect each side had for the other’s convictions:

We believed that it was most desirable that the North should win; we believed in the principle that the Union is indissoluable; we, or many of us at least, also believed that the conflict was inevitable, and that slavery had lasted long enough. But we equally believed that those who stood against us held just as sacred conviction that were the opposite of ours, and we respected them as every men with a heart must respect those who give all for their belief.

Knowing that many in the audience where from the John Sedgwick Post No. 4, Grand Army of the Republic and they had also served in the war, Holmes connected his battlefield memories to theirs, “But you all have known such; you, too, remember!

Holmes poetically recalled his fallen comrades who were killed on the battlefield: a 19-year-old 2nd lieutenant, a fair-haired lad, a surgeon, a captain:

I see them now, more than I can number, as once I saw them on this earth. They are the same bright figures, or their counterparts, that come also before your eyes; and when I speak of those who were my brothers, the same words describe yours.

Holmes then paid tribute to those women who suffered the loss of their husbands, fathers, and brothers; those “…whose sex forbade them to offer their lives, but who gave instead their happiness.” His rhetorical question about the women left behind because of the consequences of war is timeless:

Which of us has not been lifted above himself by the sight of one of those lovely, lonely women, around whom the wand of sorrow has traced its excluding circle–set apart, even when surrounded by loving friends who would fain bring back joy to their lives?

In concluding the speech, Holmes recalls the passion of those young men who entered the Civil War when their “hearts were touched with fire” only to learn that life is “a profound and passionate thing.”

For Social Studies teachers, the speech references different locations where battles took place: Petersburg, Antietam, Port Hudson, and the White Oak Swamp. Holmes also mentions the men killed at those battles: Col. Paul Revere, Jr.; Lt. James. J. Lowell; William L. Putnam; and the suicidal charge of the 20th Massachusetts Regiment. Each location, each name provides students an opportunity for research.

For English Language Arts teachers, the speech is filled with rhetorical devices that students can identify, and then evaluate each devices’s effectiveness in supporting Holmes’s message:

  • Comrades, some of the associations of this day are not only triumphant, but joyful. (direct address)
  • Such hearts–ah me, how many!–were stilled twenty years ago. (caesura-any interruption or break.)
  • Not all of those with whom we once stood shoulder to shoulder–not all of those whom we once loved and revered–are gone.(Anaphora – repeats a word or phrase in successive phrases)
  • Who does not remember the leader of the assault of the mine at Petersburg? (rhetorical question)

In the final lines of the speech, Holmes leans heavily on a literary conceit (elaborate metaphor) of life as music:

Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death–of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. As I listen , the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will.

Of the 3600 words in Holmes’s speech, the most frequently used words are man, life, and day. By repeating these words, his tribute on Memorial Day in 1884 calls attention to the sacrifices of fallen soldiers in his century, and in ours.

During a pop-in visit with the 8th grade social studies teachers last week, the discussion turned to the growing number of interruptions to the school calendar because of the snow cancellations and delays we are experiencing here in Connecticut this winter. The teachers were grumbling, frustrated that they were not able to cover the content in the curriculum units.

“There are some advantages to ice and snow this winter,” I suggested.
They looked at me skeptically.
“Our students are feeling the same conditions that the Continental Army felt that winter at Valley Forge,” they paused.
I continued, “I can’t imagine how teachers in San Diego get students to understand what it was like to be a soldier in that winter in 1778.”

Of course, imagine is the key word here. Students taking classes in sunny 75 degree weather would have to imagine the conditions penned by George Washington to then New York Governor George Clinton from his headquarters in a chilly farmhouse at Valley Forge. Our first Commander-in-Chief’s desperation to keep his troops fed and clothed in frigid conditions is clearly evident in this letter, written while the well-stocked British troops camped comfortably nearby in Philadelphia. During that encampment at Valley Forge beginning on December 19, 1777, nearly 2,500 American soldiers, a quarter of the Continental Army, succumbed to disease and exposure by the end of February 1778. A modified version of Washington’s letter for students (Created through the TAH Making History Grant)  appears below:

To Governor George Clinton

Head Quarters, Valley Forge, February 16, 1778

Dear Sir:

It is with great reluctance, I trouble you … For some days…, there has been…a famine in camp. A part of the army has been a week, without any kind of flesh, and the rest for three or four days. Naked and starving as they are, we cannot enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiery, that they have not been [led]…by their sufferings, to a general mutiny…

…I am, on my part, putting every engine to work, that I can possibly think of, to prevent…fatal consequences…. I am calling upon all those, whose stations and influence enable them to contribute their aid upon so important an occasion; … I expect every thing within the compass of your power, and that the abilities and resources of the state over which you preside, will admit….

Valley Forge was not Washington’s first test of endurance in harsh winter conditions. Two years previous to this encampment, Washington had successfully crossed the Delaware River in a surprise attack against the Hessian forces in Trenton, New Jersey. Taking advantage of the Hessian’s late night holiday celebration, Washington crossed the icy waters on December 25, and attacked on the following morning.

Washington’s trip across the icy waters was immortalized in the painting Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, (Metropolitan Museum of Art-NYC, 1851).

Washington_Crossing_the_Delaware_by_Emanuel_Leutze,_MMA-NYC,_1851

Washington Crossing the Delaware is also the name and subject of a sonnet by David Shulman (1936).  This sonnet is entirely composed of anagrams, or verses of word play, where the letters of a word or phrase are used (once) to produce a new words or in Shulman’s case, verses:

A hard, howling, tossing water scene.
Strong tide was washing hero clean.
“How cold!” Weather stings as in anger.
O Silent night shows war ace danger!

The cold waters swashing on in rage.
Redcoats warn slow his hint engage.
When star general’s action wish’d “Go!”
He saw his ragged continentals row.

Ah, he stands – sailor crew went going.
And so this general watches rowing.
He hastens – winter again grows cold.
A wet crew gain Hessian stronghold.

George can’t lose war with’s hands in;
He’s astern – so go alight, crew, and win!

The nation’s tribute to George Washington, combined his birthday (2/22) with Lincoln’s birthday (2/12) to make President’s Day, a National Holiday celebrated from the frigid shores of the Delaware River, across those same fields of Valley Forge, and all the way to the warm sunny beaches of the San Diego coastline.

The combination of Washington’s letter to George Clinton, the famous painting by Emanuel Leutze, and the sonnet by David Shulman can help students everywhere in the United States to imagine the severe weather conditions of these most famous exploits of Washington, but the students here in the Mid-Atlantic and in New England have the historical advantage to experience that same weather first-hand every year.

Here in Connecticut, in the winter of 2015, our students’ empathy lies with George.

snow giff 2The blizzard raging outside recalls the looping GIF of drifting snow that opens the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times feature story, Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.

As a model text, this example of digital writing is the kind of writing that we should be preparing our students to do.

This story of 16 expert skiers and snowboarders and their fatal decision to ski outside the Stevens Pass ski area in the Washington Cascades was written by journalist John Branch and published digitally on Dec. 20, 2012. His recount of the group’s excursion into the “unmonitored play area of reliably deep snow, a ‘powder stash,’ known as Tunnel Creek” is complemented with embedded video, photos, and other graphics, the result of his extensive research and first person interviews. The print version was published in a 14-page special section on 12/ 23/12, and according to the Times editors, generated more than 1,100 comments online.

Branch’s prose is gripping from the start:

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.

12 journalistically short paragraphs into the feature is the first video clip, an interview with professional skier, Elyse Saugstad, Her interview is juxtaposed next to the text that describes how the avalanche “vomited” her into position:

Saugstad was mummified. She was on her back, her head pointed downhill. Her goggles were off. Her nose ring had been ripped away. She felt the crushing weight of snow on her chest. She could not move her legs. One boot still had a ski attached to it. She could not lift her head because it was locked into the ice.

A graphic map of Cowboy Mountain and the Tunnel Creek area splits the text that follows her interview. Below that graphic are two photos of another avalanche in 1910, that was responsible for the death of 96 people. Each of the six sections of Snowfall is laid out with similar interactive features, the result of a collaboration between Branch and a team of graphic editors and researchers (see end of post)*

The popularity of this kind of digital story is borne out by the Times editor’s testimony:

“Snow Fall” online accounted for more than a million unique visits; a significant percentage of the people who found the story online were first-time visitors to nytimes.com; huge numbers of those readers came to the story through social media; the average time of reader engagement was off the charts.

Snowfall‘s arrival on digital platforms will no doubt give rise to a wave of stories with similar features. As authentic practice, students should have the chance to experiment with their own narratives, fiction or non-fiction, using digital platforms (Google, wikis, blogs, etc.) that allow for embedding video, audio, graphics, and other interactive features. Several of my classes have annotated passages from texts they read in class (ex: The Annotated Prologue: Romeo & Juliet ) with digital links as part of close reading exercises. The text “Snowfall” is the next step, a mentor text that models how to create a story where all forms of media support an author’s purpose.

The blend of genre is seamless in Branch’s narrative; each of the 16 personal stories is fleshed out in detail, along with those other lives who were so effected by the tragedy. There is the expository information devoted to Tunnel Creek’s tragic history interwoven with the informational sections that capture the science of an avalanche. Finally, there is the persuasive argument of how easily “how so many smart, experienced people could make the types of decisions that turned complex, rich, enviable lives into a growing stack of statistics.” Snowfall is proof that good writing is not compartmentalized into separate genres, as the Common Core outline would lead teachers to believe.

Here is evidence that students should move between genres, adding rich expository or informational media to a piece in order to engage readers. Here also, is evidence that good writers should follow their own inquiry, as Branch did as he:

….interviewed every survivor of the avalanche, and the families of its three victims; he researched the world of backcountry skiing, the fastest-growing corner of a handsome, but dangerous sport; he traveled to Alaska to speak with snow scientists and to enlist their help in recreating in words and graphics the physics of the avalanche on Cowboy Mountain; he hiked the terrain, clawed through the avalanche’s path, and established a precise chronology of the disaster; he read formal accident reports, pieced together ski patrol and police photographs, reviewed dozens of 911 calls, and unearthed the formal avalanche warnings that all but predicted trouble the night before the accident.

While our students may not have the opportunity to complete this exhaustive marathon of research that Branch did in order to write Snowfall, they should recognize in this model the link between a writer’s own curiosity, painstaking research, and good prose. They should see that compelling storytelling, engaging literary non-fiction, is generated through participatory experience. They should move away from the desk in order to experiment and to find the answers to their questions.

Branch’s Snowfall contribution to journalism has already been awarded by the Pulitzer Prize Committee who rightfully saw it as an historic achievement; Snowfall’s contribution to student learning as a mentor text is only beginning. Continue Reading…

My seven-year-old nephew hosts his Lego creations on shelves all over his room as though he is curating a museum show. Look, but do not touch.  My three year-old great niece sings the refrain, “Everything is Awesome” from The Lego Movie (NOTE: the tune is a maddening “songworm”)

My two sons were adamant that I should not give away their Legos when they went to college.

Those tiny, multi-colored plastic building bits have a dedicated, even obsessive, fan base. Such fanaticism is the  reason why I thought the following story I recently heard on National Public Radio (NPR) would make for a great informational text that blends visual, print, and audio with social media for a wide range of readers.

The story was titled,  Lost At Sea, Legos Reunite On Beaches And Facebook and the audio was broadcast on 7/26/2014.

The text for audio link reads:

Nearly two decades ago, a massive wave struck the Tokio Express, a container ship that had nearly 5 million Legos onboard. The colorful toy building blocks poured into the ocean. Today, they are still washing up on shores in England.

The NPR page contains a link to the Facebook site (https://www.facebook.com/LegoLostAtSea) where beachcombers have been uploading photos of their findings:

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Each photo on Facebook is accompanied by a few words by the person who posted the photo- a little story to share.

What makes this story of the missing Legos so wonderful is that there are a multitude of stories in other media. Each has a different take on the lost cargo of Legos which were swept off the container ship 17 years ago.

South Florida’s Sun Sentinel ran the article Sea Hunt a year after the loss. The story by Margo Harakas (May 26, 1998) featured interviews with oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer and beachcomber Cathie Katz. Ebbesmeyer provided his estimate that in excess of 1,000 containers a year slip their moorings saying, “That’s not much considering the 40 million or more containers transported across the oceans annually.”  Katz and Ebbesmeyer  both found a delicious irony in the kind of Lego toys that was lost at sea…that particular Lego container contained aquatic-themed toys.

The Atlantic offered specifics on the kinds of aquatic-themed toys in the story Why Are All These Legos Washing Up on the Beach? in an article by Megan Garber that ran 7/26/2014:

 There were toy kits that included plastic aquanauts. And spear guns (13,000 of them). And life preservers (26,600). And scuba tanks (97,500). And octopi (4,200).

For the older students, there is an article by Joseph Gallivan (8/9/2014) in The Independent, Life’s a Beach to Comb, that discusses the technical details of the Lego spill:

A container ship, the Tokio Express, en route from Rotterdam to New York on 13 February 1997, was hit by a rogue wave about 20 miles off Land’s End. She tilted 60 degrees one way, then 40 degrees back, and lost 62 HGV-sized containers overboard.

The article goes on to discuss the contents of other famous cargo spills including one that released chocolate: Hershey’s Kisses, Tootsie Rolls, Reisen dark German chocolates, and Werther’s hard butterscotch candies. Another spill involved 500,000 cans of beer, and yet another spilled out a container of yellow ducks. There is even a mention of a few dead bodies found floating in the ocean’s currents…all lost at sea.

The variety of these informational texts about these lost Legos can serve as a springboard for other research students can do on topics ranging from ocean currents to degrading plastics to the cultural fascination with the Legos themselves.

For those fortunate to live near a beach, there is even an invitation to share their beachcombing findings. The oceanographer Ebbesmeyer has provided his address with directions on how to share:

…findings can be shared with Curtis C Ebbesmeyer, 6306 21st Ave NE, Seattle, Washington 98115, USA. Please include photos of yourself and drifters, written accounts, locations and dates. Factual descriptions, concerning the drift of the water body fronting your shore, are welcome.

So, I guess it is true. When it comes to tracking Legos, “everyone is cool when you’re part of a team.”

Teachers are looking to include informational text in their English Language Arts classrooms, but what about informational space?

The hard copy of the NYTimes Saturday Sports section on Saturday, July 12, 2014, was an opportunity to teach how space can be information.

full page_edited-2-1

My photo; photo also featured in Deadspin blog

The photo above shows the front page of Sports Saturday. Students can note the banner is in the same location, floating at the top of the page with teaser photos for the content inside. Under the banner and centered on the page is  a feature that is usually on the inside of the sports section, a column of player trades and transactions in the different sports leagues for the day. The column is actual size, straddling the paper’s fold and surrounded by white space. Below the fold, one transaction in the column is highlighted in bright yellow. The rest of the page is blank.LeBraun trade(22)

 

Why the single highlighted line? What was the reason for all the white space? 

The Cleveland Cavaliers signed LeBron James.
Yes, during the same week when the semi-finals and finals for the 2014 World Cup riveted millions, the only news that mattered to sports fans was a short declarative sentence, “Cleveland Cavaliers signed F James LeBron.”

That was the purpose of the white space….to provide emphasis.

The other transactions listed from Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League, however significant in the future, were not as significant at this moment.

That was the purpose of the yellow highlighted line, “Cleveland Cavaliers signed F James LeBron.”

In determining an author’s purpose, which in this case was the layout editor’s purpose, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) offers a methodology to have student review the craft and structure of a text. Teachers use these these standards to frame questions about the text:

English Language Arts Craft and Structure Anchor Standards

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.4
Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.5
Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.6
Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

The front page of this Sports Saturday provides multiple opportunities to discuss the difference between denotation (what is on the page) and connotation (what is implied). In helping students to consider the craft and structure of this particular layout, a teacher could use questions based on Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK) that might be:

• How would you summarize what you read in the written text? (denotation)
• How would you summarize what you see in the white space in contrast to the written text? (denotation)
• What do you notice about where the highlighted information is placed? (denotation)
• What conclusions can you draw about the layout editor’s choice to highlight only one player transaction? (connotation)
• What is your interpretation of the use of the white space ? (connotation)
• Can you formulate a theory for the layout ? (connotation)
• Can you elaborate on a reason the editor used the small font in the player transaction column for this news? (connotation)

Of course, the story of the LeBron signing was also inside the Saturday Sports section. Michael Powell wrote the feature article  Star Reconnects With a Special Place in His Heart where the news of LeBron’s return was celebrated:

“The man knows his region, and his audience, and his life. Even as the news broke on television, you could hear out your window Cleveland residents loosening more or less random whoops. Car horns beeped. Strangers exchanged bro-hugs and palm slaps” (Powell-NYTimes)

Students could read Powell’s article to extend their thinking about the impact of this one player’s return to a team he left several years ago. Then, there is LeBron’s own essay, co-authored by Lee Jenkins, in Sports Illustrated. In this essay, LeBron explains the reasons for his return:

“But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get”  (LeBron/Jenkins Sports Illustrated).

In this essay, LeBron anticipates (and connotes) the level of commitment that will be necessary for continued success:

In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have” (LeBron/Jenkins Sports Illustrated).

These other two informational texts could also provide opportunities to have students practice denotation and connotation:

  • How would you summarize what you read in these written texts? (denotation)
  • What conclusion can be drawn after reading these three texts? (connotation)
  • What is your interpretation after reading these texts? Support your rationale. (denotation/connotation)

A final exercise? Have students research the cost of a full page spread in the NYTimes ($70,000 non-profit; up to $200,000 for profit). Have students discuss or make arguments on the use of white space in this layout once they know the expense of the layout editor’s choice.

The best part of these exercises is that the reader does not need to know basketball to appreciate how this information is communicated: through layout, through a feature story, and through a personal essay.  I do not follow basketball, and I am only peripherally aware of LeBron’s role in the NBA. I was intrigued, however, about the use of white space to convey information. I also considered the different size of spaces related to the text. The size of a basketball court in the NBA is  94′ by 50′ or 4700 square feet. In another measurement, LeBron has a rumored vertical leap the size of 40 inches or so (the average NBA player can jump 28 inches). Finally, the size of the NYTimes page  is 24″ x 36″ or 864 square inches.

In each case, size matters. In this context, space matters as well.