Archives For Young Adult YA literature

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.”

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were released in 2009. They are now seven years old.

I will admit that I was not initially enthusiastic about the English Language Arts literacy standards. (see post)

I felt they were heavy in non-fiction…(no, wait.. heavy in “informational texts”).

The CCSS suggested a typical student should have a reading diet filled with informational texts because of the authentic kinds of reading they would do once they graduated, in the real world. The CCSS recommended that a ratio of 50:50 of fiction and informational texts in elementary school should shift to a 30:70 ratio of fiction to non-fiction by grade 12th. These ratios made me concerned that fiction would disappear.

I should not have worried.

The year 2016 has proven that the genre of fiction, a genre of invented or imagined stories, is thriving in the real world. Sometimes certain fictions are posing as informational text.

The year 2016 has been marked by the rise of fake news, hoaxes, propaganda, and disinformation that has circulated on news and social media platforms, fictions that have been developed intentionally or spread unintentionally.facts-not-fiction

The growth of this kind of fiction may explain the decision of dictionary editors to award the word  post-truth as the 2016 word of the year. According to the Oxford Dictionary, post-truth is is defined as

“an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.”

The decision by the editors of the Oxford Dictionary to chose the word post-truth is a decision that also highlights a phenomena studied by by Troy Campbell and Justin Friesen. Their experiments tested the relationship between facts, bias, and untestable beliefs.

The March 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published their paper titled The Psychological Advantage of Unfalsifiability: The appeal of untestable religious and political ideologies. This research examined the circumspect methods people use to get away from fact(s) that contradict a deeply held belief.

Participants in the Campbell/Freisen’s experiments used facts to support or dispute a position. The experiments revealed that when the facts opposed a deeply held belief, the participants argued that facts did not matter but moral opinion did. But, when the facts were on their side, they more often stated that their opinions were fact-based and much less about morals.

“In other words,”Campbell/Freisen’s noted, “we observed something beyond the denial of particular facts: We observed a denial of the relevance of facts.” They concluded,

“…when people’s beliefs are threatened, they often take flight to a land where facts do not matter.”

One example of a land “where facts do not matter”, was the radio booth for the Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio (NPR) on November 30th, 2016. Guest Scottie Nell Hughespolitical editor of RightAlerts.com and contributor to CNN appeared midway during the Diane Rehm’s show. Hughes was discussing the effective use of social media in bypassing more traditional media outlets to direct message. At 10:20, she made the claim that looking at facts is  “kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true.” Then she stated:

“There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.”

Her statement was greeted with immediate derision by other journalists on the show. James Fallows of The Atlantic magazine shot back, “First I’ve got to pick my jaw up off the floor here. There are no objective facts? I mean, that is — that is an absolutely outrageous assertion.”

Hughes statement was hardly original; she may have been channeling her inner Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche who had also claimed (1887), “There are no facts, only interpretations.” But Fallows dismissed such philosophies on air, concluding:

“I believe that the job for the media and civil society now is essentially to say there are such things as facts.”

In contrast to Hughes, the use of facts as supporting evidence is essential to the CCSS. The CCSS recognized that 21st Century students would need to deal with an exponential growth in information, a future where rote memorization of facts cannot keep pace with knowledge that is doubling every year. As a result, the CCSS at each grade level outlines the skills students need to identify and to incorporate relevant facts they will use to write argumentative or explanatory responses.

For example, CCSS writing standards require students to:

“Develop the topic with well-chosen, relevant, and sufficient facts, extended definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples appropriate to the audience’s knowledge of the topic.” CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.2.B

In addition, the Common Core promotes the use of text-based evidence , gathered when  students “read closely” (aka: “close reading”):

“The Common Core emphasizes using evidence from texts to present careful analyses, well-defended claims, and clear information. Rather than asking students questions they can answer solely from their prior knowledge and experience, the standards call for students to answer questions that depend on their having read the texts with care.”

Prior knowledge or experience are no substitute for evidence. For the past seven years a common teachers’ refrain has been, “Can you show me where that evidence is in the text?”

All this hunting for text-based evidence may be the best training our students could have received as preparation for this post-truth world where pundits dismiss facts as unnecessary and media platforms promote factual inaccuracies through fake news.

Seven years ago, I could not imagine that I would be pleased about the Common Core, but the push for text-based evidence may be exactly what our students will need if educators are ever going to fulfill all those mission statements in student handbooks that outline how to make students into productive citizens and life-long learners.

You probably have encountered the plot mountain diagram:

Exposition. Rising action. Climax. Falling action. Resolution.

plotmountain1

 

 

The plot mountain diagram is taught with short stories in English Language Arts at different grade levels, but I suspect that like most graphic organizers, the plot mountain diagram is over-taught, especially in middle and high school classrooms.

The practice of teaching the plot mountain as a general way to understand that there are patterns to short stories is good in theory, but not so good in practice. Repeated practice of the same plot diagram is worse.

Look at the plot mountain diagram above (courtesy of the Read, Write, Think website).

The falling action of a story is rarely as proportional as the rising action. The climax is not always in the “middle” of the story. This is because, authors do not write their stories according to a plot mountain diagram:
-Authors are unpredictable;
-Plots are unpredictable;
-Most of the short stories taught in middle or high school are selected because they are unpredictable.

Take, for example, Saki’s classic short story The Interlopers. Two men, sworn enemies, are pinned under a tree that crashes in a snowy forest. Trapped together, they come to the conclusion that their longstanding feud is no longer important. Just as they agree to settle their differences, one man sees in the distance how their fate will play out with the single frightening word: “wolves.”

Now, that word (“wolves”) makes up the plot’s “falling action.” There is no real resolution, instead there is imagined horror. Saki designed a story that blew the top off the standard plot mountain diagram.

That same kind of explosion could be said for Guy de Mauppasant’s The Necklace. The character Mathilde spends her youth paying back jewels she was foolish to borrow. The story concludes with the shocking statement:

 “Oh, my poor Mathilde. But mine [jewels]were false. At most they were worth five hundred francs!”

If a student was to create a plot mountain for either of these stories, instead of following the prescribed template above, a student might draw something that looks like this:

screenshot-2016-09-25-14-15-53

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rather than reteaching the same plot mountain model over and over, a teacher should ask students to use their own ideas to diagram a story’s plot. There should not be too much support in the directions.

Take, for example, the instructional suggestion (see screenshot below) to use with Richard Peck’s hilarious short story “Priscilla and the Wimps.”

In this story, Peck sets the tone in describing bullying in a public school setting with his opening lines:

“Listen, there was a time when you couldn’t even go to the rest room in this school without a pass. And I’m not talking about those little pink tickets made out by some teacher. I’m talking about a pass that could cost anywhere up to a buck, sold by Monk Klutter.”

One small student-Melvin-is bullied by a group of students led by Klutter. But Melvin has a protector, Priscilla Roseberry, who is described thusly:

“I’m not talking fat. I’m talking big. Even beautiful, in a bionic way.”

screenshot-2016-10-02-11-51-13

In Peck’s story, the brutish Priscilla efficiently dispatches the school bully, Monk Klutter, into a school locker. The story concludes, “Well, this is where fate, an even bigger force than Priscilla, steps in. It snows all that night, a blizzard. The whole town ices up. And school closes for a week.”

What I most remember about teaching this story with 8th graders is how Peck’s resolution was somewhat unsettling to some readers. More than one student had commented on what could have happened to Klutter if he was stuffed in a school locker during a blizzard.

“Without food and water for a week,” one student pointed out to me, “he’d be dead. Priscilla could be a murderer!”

The directions above do not support such thinking, even if it is slightly misguided. In the directions, although there is some movement away from a “fill-in-the-blank” worksheet by asking students to draw a diagram “like this one” to summarize events, a model is still there for them to follow. The climax (again) is followed by a disproportionately sized resolution.

While directions suggest creating something similar (“like”), many students will simply recreate this diagram, plug in three events, and place Monk’s undoing at the climax.

So what is the purpose for students to use a pre-printed plot mountain diagram?

All they need are the story elements that help them explain a story’s pattern. Teachers could give the terms (perhaps on labels: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution) in order to for students to create the unique diagrams that are proportional to the stories they are reading.

When students are free to demonstrate their understanding of these terms, they can move beyond a prescribed application or a fill-in-the-blank drawing on a worksheet. They can do more of the higher taxonomy activities, such as comparing and contrasting the patterns of different stories. What did Saki do differently than Peck? How does de Mauppasant’s ending compare with either?These more sophisticated educational exercises would not be effective if the same plot mountain template is used over and over (and over!)

Students should be able to identify the elements that make up the unique pattern of each story as well as appreciate an author’s craft in configuring those same elements differently in a story.

In this sense, the plot mountains of stories are a lot like geography…no two mountains are alike.

Dan Brown has announced plans to release a young adult version of The Da Vinci Code.

The announcement was met with some critical commentary on Twitter:

How can people expect teenagers to read and write essays on Dickens but think that Dan Brown is too challenging?

Interesting that the tweet above compares Dan Brown with Charles Dickens. In the category of abridged novels, the author Brown has the edge…he has the opportunity to abridge his own work. The author Dickens has not.

While some may dispute an attempt to compare their literary work, it is true that both Brown and Dickens have been deemed successful authors.

Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (2003) has sold 82 million copies worldwide; two of his novels, Angels & Demons (2000), The Da Vinci Code (2003),have been adapted into films; Inferno (2013) is in film production.

Charles Dickens had three best-sellers to his name at age 27; he completed dozen major novels, short stories, plays, and several non-fiction books; his performance tour in the United States approximately $95,000.

Abridged Dickens

An abridgment is a condensing or reduction of a book or other creative work into a shorter form while maintaining the unity of the source
-Wikipedia

The abridging author selects what may or may not be important in original work in an attempt to recapture the tone and  message while making things easier for the reader.

There are multiple abridgments of Dickens’s novels and short stories. Like most 19th C writers, he is wordy. His style features multiple subordinate clauses or lists of descriptive elements that strung out sentence length. He also was offered financial incentives for increasing story length.

The following passage is from Stave One of a Christmas Carol. The words in blue are those that make up the abridged version on the LovingtoLearn (for grades 2-3) website:

The original version/abridged version:

“Oh!  But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind- stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.  A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin.  He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dogdays; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

“External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often came down handsomely, and Scrooge never did.

Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, `’My dear Scrooge, how are you. When will you come to see me.’ No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blindmen’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, ‘No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master! ”’

scrooge

Both passages were run through readability measures: Flesch-Kincaid,  Coleman-Liau Index SMOG IndexGunning-Fog ScoreAutomated Readability Index.
  • Dickens’s original version has 307 words/ 18 sentences/16.5 words per sentence. The passage is written at an 7.8 average grade level.
  • The abridged version or “children’s version” has 64 words/5 sentences/12.8 words per sentence. The passage is written at a  7.2  average grade level.

NOTE: There is no statistically significant difference between the original and abridged versions (grade levels 7.8-7.2 ) in readability; the only difference is in the length of the passage.

So, why bother?

What is Lost in Abridgment

Students who are given this “abridged version” of A Christmas Carol will still get Dickens’s message and plot. They will still learn about Scrooge’s redemption after the visits by three spirits. But in this single example they will miss experiencing some of the novella’s best figurative language:

  • Hard and sharp as flint (simile)
  • no steel had ever struck out generous fire (metaphor);
  • secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster (simile);
  • The cold within him (conceit or extended metaphor);
  • spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice (personification):
  • Foul weather didn’t know where to have him (personification).

Moreover, they would have missed a critical detail, that it was the blindmen’s dogs, seeking to protect their vulnerable masters from Scrooge, that would tug their masters into the doorways. Dickens himself, who had abridged this particular passage for public readings in the USA, included that small critical detail for a reason.

Ironically, when the Common Core State Standards for Reading Literature want to focus attention on author’s style and craft, the students offered an abridged version would have missed how well Dickens crafted his description of Scrooge.

Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code:

Dan Brown will have the opportunity to abridge his work, although the same readability measure used above confirms that his writing is already at the young adult 7.6 average grade reading level.  Take a  passage from Brown’s novel  from the opening chapter:

DaVinciCode cover“Almost immediately, a heavy fist pounded on Langdon’s door.

Uncertain, Langdon slid off the bed, feeling his toes sink deep into the savonniere carpet. He donned the hotel bathrobe and moved toward the door. ‘Who is it?’

‘Mr. Langdon? I need to speak with you.’The man’s English was accented—a sharp, authoritative bark. ‘My name is Lieutenant Jerome Collet. Direction Centrale Police Judiciaire.'”

The Da Vinci Code. Copyright 2003 by Dan Brown. Random House Publishers.

The passage above has 64 words/10 sentences/6.4 words per sentence. The average grade reading level falls into the range of Dickens; the difference between Brown and Dickens is the number of words in each sentence. The  difference again is that student needs to have stamina to read the complexity of Dickens extended sentences.

This means that tweets -like the one above criticizing Brown’s writing- are misleading. In the examples above, both authors are writing at roughly the same readability grade level average.

Abridged Version for the Young Adult

Ultimately, Dan Brown will have every opportunity to exercise his authorial voice in choosing what will be modified and what will remain in his abridged version. Given the maturity of some of his subject matter (description of Monsieur Saunière’s corpse; the murders by the monk/assassin Silas), there may be a toning down of the violence for younger audience. Young adult readers, however, have made publishers very aware that their tastes for blood (The Hunger Games, Twilight ) and conspiracy (Divergent) should be appreciated, and Brown may agree.

Regardless of what choices Brown makes, the excitement that surrounded the original The Da Vinci Code will not be duplicated. Brown may make his word choices more simple. His abridged book, as with the abridged versions of Dickens’s novels, will be shorter.  But, the YA version will not surpass the excitement of the original book The Da Vinci Code.
In competing with himself, Brown’s best chance is that his abridged version could be a tie with his original.

That is the best any abridged version-Brown or Dickens- could hope to be, a tie.

And a tie is, as the Michigan State football coach Duffy Daughtry once said, “like kissing your sister.”

It’s not a loss, but it’s not a win.
It’s a kiss…but it’s your sister.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Possible responses:

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

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

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

Possible responses:

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

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

“Francie stepped forward. ‘Me, Mister.’

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

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

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

‘Two ain’t fair,’ yelped Punky.

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

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

Possible responses:

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

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

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

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

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

But Francie does not buckle:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, Minnesota:

Warn those comma splicers….Alert those passive voice abusers….Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 9.48.19 PMThis third weekend in November is the traditional weekend for the annual National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Conference, and thousands of red-pen toting grammarians are descending on the city of Minneapolis!

My first time attending the NCTE Conference was in 2003 in New York City. I came back with new lesson suggestions, helpful tips on grading papers, and the names of fellow educators that have since grown into my own network of professional educators.

I came back inspired.

Since then, I have been fortunate to attend several other NCTE conferences as it moved annually to different cities across the country.  I even got the opportunity to present at conferences in 2010, 2011, and 2014.

This year I will be attending the NCTE conference with a young teacher from my district. Back in January, I submitted an engaging lesson that was created by English Language Arts teacher Caitlin Pinto, a 7th grade teacher from West Haven’s Harry Bailey Middle School.  That lesson was accepted as part of a session titled “Digital Pedagogies and Approaches to Media.”

In her session, Caitlin will be demonstrating how she has has been using social media templates in a literature circles to discuss historical fiction. In our middle school, the designed mashup of Facebook social networking with the format of the literature circle promotes literacy for students as social beings making connections. The inclusion of social media platforms in literature circles allows Caitlin’s students the chance to explore literature through multiple lenses as diverse as the platforms themselves. In addition, in giving her students the choice of different social media as tools to reimagine and evaluate literature shows that Caitlin values the ways that her students communicate.

In Caitlin’s lesson, the social media platforms that are familiar to students are incorporated as the traditional roles in literature circles: the Summarizer is reinvented when a student uses a Twitter template; the Connector is reconfigured when a student uses a Facebook template, the Researcher is expanded when the Pinterest template is followed, and the Illustrator is reimagined with the Instagram template

She will be bringing examples of how this approach has increased the amount that students write about the texts they read.
She will also be demonstrating how she works with students to improve the writing skills and processes that go into creating text.

Her students are excited that their “Ms. Pinto” will be a presenter at this conference. Her fellow teachers are cheering her accomplishment. Her administration is supportive, and her vice-principal even helped arrange for her conference expenses to be covered by the local Rotary Club.

I hope she will return with new ideas for lesson plans, perhaps with new tips on grading papers, and maybe even with her own list of fellow educators as she builds her own professional network.

I have experienced firsthand the power of the NCTE conference.

I know that Caitlin Pinto will come back to West Haven Bailey Middle School inspired.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This book sale was one smooth operation.

My finds?

Capturing interest from STAR WARS films

Capturing interest from STAR WARS films

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

IMG_0697

Selection of high interest titles

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

$313.00.

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

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

 

The conditions for the Perseids shower were excellent this week, a meteorological event unusual for Connecticut’s usually overcast conditions. The moon was in its new phase leaving a darkened sky for viewing. Clear skies for over 48 hours, defied Mark Twain’s sentiment, “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.”

Watching the trails of light trailing the metereroids as they bounced against Earth’s atmosphere, the meteorologic conditions in New England were perfect for …well, watching meteors!

The name Perseids derives in part from the word Perseides (Περσείδες), a direct reference to the Greek mythological hero Perseus who was responsible for slaying the Gorgon Medusa.

The meteoroids (their correct name while still in space) that bear his name appear to originate from the constellation Perseus, a directional aid to viewers in determining which shower they are viewing on a given night.

The meteoroids in the Perseids are fast with speeds around 37 miles per second or 133,000 miles per hour, and  according to NASA, there can be as many as 100 per hour. The largest size of the meteroids are about the size of a pea or marble, with most the size of sand grains. It is only when it hits the ground that a meteoroid is called a meteor.

The Perseids meteoroids are composed from dust and ice from the Swift-Tuttle comet that crosses the Earth’s orbital path every August. Swift-Tuttle’s orbit has been traced back nearly 2,000 years and is now thought to be the same comet that was observed in 188 AD and possibly even as early as 69 BC.

Video from ukmeteorwatch

Stories and Star Mapping

All that technical information was not yet known to those storytellers who provided an explanation to our ancient forebears of what was happening in the night sky every August.  The retelling of the story of Perseus and his rescue of the beautiful princess Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus would be prompted by the viewing of their constellations Perseus and Andromeda which overlap and share a bright star, Alpha Andromedae.

Claudius Ptolemy  the Greek/Egyptian writer  (AD 90 –c. 168) of Alexandria, was also a mathematician, astronomer, geographer, and astrologer, who promoted 48 constellations in his 2nd-century Almagest,

He also listed the constellation of Cassiopeia, a star pattern aligned with Andromeda and Perseus, an ultimate hovering bad mother-in-law. Cassiopeia’s constellation would remind storytellers of how Andromeda was set in chains because of this troublesome queen’s vanity.

While the association of these stories with the fixed objects of the sky helped early navigators travel the world, they now help navigators find their way virtually through the universe. Naming the objects in the sky and sharing these names through stories began with imagination, but now aids in the science of mapping.

Some of the constellations may not look like their namesakes: Hydra, Ursa Major, Orion, etc, however, their stories have been shared millions of times for thousands of years. The retelling of these stories connects us to others across the globe who viewed the same night sky to see the Perseids this week as well as to those who saw the Perseids in 69 BCE.

Ancient Western Civilizations explained the Perseids in various ways:

  • Greeks saw them as a commemoration of the god Zeus’s visitation on Danae, the mother of Perseus, in a shower of gold;
  • Romans believed that the meteor shower was the god Inuo-Priapus fertilizing the fields.
  • Eventually, the The Catholic religion coopted the Perseids as the “tears of Saint Lawrence“, since 10 August is the date of that saint’s martyrdom.

Contemporary References

While the Perseids themselves did not make an appearance in the PBS drama Downtown Abbey, their backstory did. In an exchange in episode two of the first season, the characters Matthew Crowley and Lady Mary exchange their interpretation of the Perseus/Andromeda love story, foreshadowing their own tumultuous courtship:

Lady Mary:  I’ve been studying the story of Andromeda. Do you know it?
Matthew Crawley:  Why?
Lady Mary:  Her father was King Cepheus whose country was being ravaged by storms. And in the end he decided the only way to appease the gods was to sacrifice his eldest daughter to a hideous sea monster. So they chained her, naked, to a rock…
Violet, Dowager Countess:  Really, Mary, we’ll all need our smelling salts in a minute.
Matthew Crawley:  But the sea monster didn’t get her, did he.
Lady Mary:  No. Just when it seemed he was the only solution to her father’s problems, she was rescued.
Matthew Crawley:  By Perseus.
Lady Mary:  That’s right, Perseus. Son of a god. Rather more fitting, wouldn’t you say?
Matthew Crawley:  That depends. I’d have to know more about the princess and the sea monster in question.

So, even the stars of post-Edwardians of Downton Abbey knew those famous stories connected to the fixed stars in the heavens.

Such stories from the night sky remind us of how connected we are here to both the present and the past simultaneously. Science may be able to explain and measure the distances between these objects, their size, and their exact location, but the association with story is what makes these objects in the sky so memorable.

Just as memorable as standing out in a field watching the Perseid Shower zipping across the pre-dawn sky on a clear night in Connecticut….and that was an unexpected and amazing story.