The Memorial Day Parade in my town of Bridgewater, Connecticut takes 11 minutes.

Newcomers to town are told to “get there early, or you’ll miss it….and you had better get there early, because it begins at 8:15 A.M.”

Every year, there is a ceremony that follows the parade. The boy scouts lead the pledge, and students recite The Gettysburg Address. Small American flags are clutched in the hands of children, volunteer fireman in uniform stand at attention, and there is always a small puppy in the crowd.

The reason we gather together, however, is always for a more somber tribute. The names of those recently deceased residents who served in the military in defense of the country are read aloud. Then, there is a guest speaker.

Memorial Day

Bridgewater resident John Kracen telling his real war story

This year, resident John Kracen told a real war story.

He began his war story with the date: July 29, 1967, a “date that would change forever the lives of 5,000 men.”

He described the location: Gulf of Tonkin, during the Vietnam War.

He named the ship: the USS Forrestal.

As Kracen began his real war story, he described the ship, a Forrestal-class aircraft carrier: 990 ft at waterline, steam turbines, 33 knots. He then described the aircraft on board, and included the F-4B Phantom II that accidentally fired a Zuni rocket on the flight deck that July morning. He described how that misfired rocket hit another aircraft’s external fuel tanks leaking jet fuel, spreading a fire across the flight deck.

Kracen described how one of the Composition B bombs detonated minutes after the start of the fire, tearing a hole into the ship’s hull. He described how the shrapnel from that explosion pierced the water hoses of the fire crew and that the burning jet fuel drained into a lower bay of the ship.

Near me, a small boy sitting on the curb of the Green listening to Kracen turned to his mother. “What is happening, Mom?” he asked quietly.

“It’s a story,” she whispered back.

The boy turned his attention back to Kracen to listen.

Kracen continued telling the story of his friend, Stephen L. Hock, who had gone to help put out the fires that continued throughout the night. He described Hock’s kindness and his camaraderie.  He then told us that his friend Stephen Hock was one of the 134 men killed on the USS Forrestal because of the fire.

For a small town, 1,727 residents, Bridgewater has significant connections to history. During the morning’s Memorial Day Roll Call, there was “survivor of Iwo Jima” from World War II who had his name read aloud.  Now, his neighbors stood in the soft rain listening to a survivor from another historical event tell his story from a different war.

A war story has power when it is a first-hand account. The poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892) was a first-hand witness to events of the Civil War and his auto-biographical accounts of the Civil War were collected in several volumes. He spent time in the hospitals that were filled with the casualties from both sides, and the carnage led him to conclude,

“I now doubt whether one can get a fair idea of what this war practically is, or what genuine America is, and her character, without some such experience as this I am having. “

Whitman wrote of his difficulty to produce an “authentic” portrait of the war and in the essay titled “The Real War Will Never Get in the Books” (1875)  in Specimen Days, he wrote

Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors…

….Think how much, and of importance, will be—how much, civic and military, has already been—buried in the grave, in eternal darkness.

John Kracen shared his own story with a crowd on Memorial Day to commemorate the sacrifice his friend Stephen Hock made, a sacrifice like so many other American soldiers who now lay buried in the grave, in eternal darkness. Kracen’s emotional account of the disastrous fire on the USS Forrestal was compelling because it was his first hand, his authentic account, his own story.

Research proves that our brains are hard-wired for such stories. We tell our children stories to explain how the world works; our children learn the quality of empathy through story.

This past Memorial Day in Bridgewater, the small boy sitting on the curb, the students in the school’s marching band, and the parents in the crowd heard Kracen tell his story of his experience during the fire on the USS Forrestal. They heard a powerful real war story, one that may never, as Whitman said, get in the books.

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

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! ”’


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.

This past week, I listened to a friend describe a SKYPE session with a children’s author that was particularly challenging; audio and video feeds were not running simultaneously. She described how she worked with others to solve the audio issue by stringing up a microphone to a different soundboard to boost sound. I was impressed, and I noted that how their experience with technology glitch in a carefully planned lesson is now a familiar experience for teachers at every grade level. Follow these steps:

STEP ONE: You, the teacher, plan that tomorrow’s lesson will use (NOTEmore than one answer may apply):
a. the SMARTBoard,
b. the Promethean Board,
c. the ENO board,
d. white board with projector,
e. TV Screen display.
STEP TWO: You, the teacher, plan and prepare the lesson using the software or digital platform on your (NOTEmore than one answer may apply):
a.  iPad or Kindle;
b. school or personal laptop;
c. school networked desktop;
d. your mobile phone.
STEP THREE: You, the teacher, get to class early to set up the (NOTE: more than one answer may apply):
a. projector;
b. speaker(s), microphone, and/or sound system;
c. classroom response system “clickers”;
d. computer cart with student laptops;


Once the students are in the room, one or more of the following scenarios occurs: (Circle ALL that apply):
a. Internet access slows down as all students are logging on at the same time;
b. computers on the cart are not charged because the cart was left unplugged overnight;
c. Internet access slows because this is the date for the new IOS system download and everyone is upgrading!;
d. the “dongle” for the projector is missing (again!);
e. the program requires Adobe Flash or Java -neither of which is installed on one or more devices;
f. Internet access is not available to a handful of students who have forgotten their access passwords (again!!);
g. Audio cable or coaxial cable or HDMI cable is missing (again!);
h. Internet access is newly blocked to one or more of the websites you provided to students;
i. the speakers crackle and the soundtrack is inaudible;
j. video projection is too dark because of the fading (flickering) projection lamp (too expensive to replace at this time of year).

So….What does a teacher do when a technology glitch prevents delivery of the designed lesson?


NOTE: Waiting for the software to load can be an annoying technology glitch in class!

Rather than despair when the lesson you have so carefully planned to deliver does not work because of a technology glitch, you may want to consider what new opportunity has been created. Instead of throwing up your hands, getting frustrated, or giving up, you should think of how to use this opportunity to teach students the lesson of how you deal with a technology glitch.

Model Behavior: Persevere and Problem Solve

Not only is this technology glitch an opportunity to model how to cope with failure an authentic life lesson, this is also an opportunity that is aligned to the Common Core State Standards for any grade level by way of the Mathematical Practice Standard #1 (MPS#1). The MPS#1 requires students to persevere and problem solve. By rewording some of the criteria of this mathematical practice to fit the problem of a technology glitch, a teacher can follow the standard’s objective:

When challenged by technology, teachers can look “for entry points to [a] solution” and also “analyze givens, constraints, relationships, and goals.”   Teachers can use “a different method(s)” and “ask themselves, ‘Does this make sense?'” (MPS#1)

Moreover, teachers who follow MPS#1 are employing a “teachable moment” that is so highly prized in evaluation systems. Students at every grade level are keenly aware of the behaviors that teachers are modeling in class, and researchers, such as Albert Bandura (1977), have documented the importance of modeling as an instructional tool. They refer to social learning theory which notes that behavior is strengthened, weakened, or maintained in social learning by modeling of behavior of others:

“When a person imitates the behavior of another, modeling has taken place. It is a kind of vicarious learning by which direct instruction does not necessarily occur (although it may be a part of the process).”

Watching a teacher model perseverance in order to problem solve a technology glitch can be a positive lesson. Watching a teacher model how to collaborate with others to solve a technology glitch is equally positive, and including students in a collaboration to solve technology problems, particularly at the upper grade levels, is a desired 21st Century skill.

Learning from Failure

Finally, the educational organization The Partnership of 21st Century Learning anticipated problems with technology in the classroom in the following standard:

View failure as an opportunity to learn; understand that creativity and innovation is a long-term, cyclical process of small successes and frequent mistakes.

Technology that malfunctions or fails in the classroom is one such a learning opportunity. So, the next time, teachers, that the projection bulb blows out, the Internet becomes unavailable, or the software is taking too long to load, take a deep breath and use this opportunity to model problem solving. Model the lesson of perseverance as a life lesson….and, just to be safe, remember to have a back-up plan.

What was the back-up plan for the SKYPE session? A read-aloud….decidedly low-tech and still popular.


There is always talk about preparing students for college and career readiness (CCR), but the recent simultaneous and collaborative news release of the Panama Papers by newspapers around the globe is an example of how preparing students using technology in the classroom can be taught as an authentic application.

The Panama Papers Collaboration panama-papers-820

Under the headline OFFSHORE LINKS OF MORE THAN 140 POLITICIANS AND OFFICIALS EXPOSED, the The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and more than 100 other news organizations around the globe, “revealed the offshore links of some of the world’s most prominent people.”

“In terms of size, the Panama Papers is likely the biggest leak of inside information in history – more than 11.5 million documents – and it is equally likely to be one of the most explosive in the nature of its revelations.”

 The article in the NYTimesWorld|Here’s What We Know About the ‘Panama Papers’ explained the significance of the documents that were part of a cooperative global pact of reporting:

“The papers — millions of leaked confidential documents from the Mossack Fonseca law firm in Panama — identify international politicians, business leaders and celebrities involved in webs of suspicious financial transactions. The revelations have raised questions about secrecy and corruption in the global financial system.”

How did the ICIJ accomplish this simultaneous and collaborative news scoop? They used collaborative writing platforms.

Collaboration is the Key

In an interview with National Public Radio’s (NPR) Ari Shaprio, titled Panama Papers Leak Is The Result Of Unprecedented Media Collaboration the director of ICIJ, Gerard Ryle explained how the 100 media organizations around the world to were able to read and analyze the 11.5 million files from the Panama Papers leak. Ryle explained,

“We would never be able to do this kind of collaboration even five, six years ago. But technology has advanced so much that we can make all of these documents available over the Internet and pipe them right into all the newsrooms so that, I mean, we can have 10 reporters working in one newsroom. We can have 20 in another. We can have five in another. And they can all see the same documents, and we basically host all of the documents on servers and pipe them down over the Internet.”

The ICIJ was able to use digital platforms where documents could be shared in asynchronous collaborations, where news organizations could partner to connect, to share and to respond across time zones.

These same digital platforms are available in many classrooms today, where students can work in class synchronously or asynchronous with classmates as well.

A key difference between journalists’ practices and students, is that students are trained to be more cooperative and collaborative. Ryle describes how unusual the sharing of information is in the journalism profession:

” I had to unlearn everything I had learned as a journalist to do this kind of work. I mean, most of our careers, we basically don’t even tell our editors what we’re working on.”

In contrast, students today who understand the power of collaboration will not have to “unlearn” to be effective journalists.

Common Core Connections

Educators, especially those at the middle and high school grade levels, have been using these digital platforms to meet the key shifts in College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRS) as part of the Common Core:

“These standards require students to gather, comprehend, evaluate, synthesize, and report on information and ideas, to conduct original research in order to answer questions or solve problems, and to analyze and create a high volume and extensive range of print and non-print texts in media forms old and new. The need to conduct research and to produce and consume media is embedded into every aspect of today’s curriculum.”

Screenshot 2016-04-10 08.56.23

Word sift of common words in College and Career Readiness Standards

Within the Frameworks of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) there is also a specific anchor standard for writing for all students:

Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

Today’s technology allows students to mirror the same approach using same skills-as seen in word sift-(reading, writing, evidence, informational texts, answers ) that the international journalists in the ICIJ did in breaking this important news story. Students who use digital platforms are refining the same skills used by ICIJ -“The World’s Best Cross-Border Investigative Team.”

Multiple Platforms Available

Perhaps the best known platforms used in schools for teacher to student or student to student collaborations are on the sites such as Edmodo, WikispacesWordPress (and its companion Edublogs). A quick search on the Internet, however, will produce a multitude of additional options. For example, posts like 102Free (or Free to Try) Online Collaborative Learning Tools for Teachers (updated 2/2016) list the myriad of choices that educators can use to increase collaborations in the classroom. There are so many that, for example, the behemoth Google Drive is listed at #51:

Once known as Google Docs, Google Drive offers a comprehensive suite of collaborative, online tools: word documents, spreadsheets, presentations, forms or drawing files.

Celebrating Global Collaboration in Education

Moreover, just like the journalists who broke the Panama Papers stories, educators are experimenting with virtual collaborative experiences on a global level. There is a Global Collaboration Day (GCD) (celebrated the 2nd week in September) where the focus is on cooperation and collaboration to enhance global understanding so that students will have practice in both solving problems across borders when they enter the workforce and an appreciation for bringing global ideas to their own local experiences.

The GCD website describes how students can participate in authentic collaborations that are either short-term or long-term using blogs, wikis, or social media tools such as Twitter and Skype.

Next Generation

The next generation of journalists is being groomed in classrooms today, but for now, students and educators are increasing their proficiency with the same methods as the professionals in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

The final project known as the Panama Papers has met the Common Core State Standards for College and Career Readiness…they might even get an A+.

There is a comedian whose improvisation routine includes asking “What if?” questions using Google search engine. Audience members call out a letter, the comedian enters “What if+ letter” in the search bar, he reads the first topic(s) that pop up, and then he jokes about that topic.

In honor of Shakespeare’s 400th, here is a try at the same routine (without the jokes) taken on (4/9/16)

Top 5 Google Search Results:

“What if Shakespeare…?”

#1. Shakespearean What-Ifs — Good Tickle Brain

 This first entry to pop-up features the mini-comics of  Mya, artist and librarian who was introduced to Shakespeare at  eight or nine years old, and has been addicted ever since. She drew the first Shakespearean What-If in five hours for Mini-Comics Day at the University of Michigan Art, Architecture and Engineering Library.Screenshot 2016-04-09 08.47.35

Her “What ifs…” feature alternate Shakespearean timelines that “…hinge on a single moment when Tragedies could so easily become comedies, and comedies could so easily end in tears.”
Here’s a look at some alternate Shakespearean timelines that she offers for print:

If you are so inclined, feel free to download the Hamlet PDF and print them out full size (no scaling to fit page, thank you) Also Julius Caesar and Macbeth.

#2. Quote by Gayle Forman: “But what if Shakespeare― 

 “But what if Shakespeare― and Hamlet― were asking the wrong question? What if the real question is not whether to be, but how to be?” (1).Just one day

The second pop-up was a quote by Gayle Forman who is also writer, a writer that does not have to be assigned to read in high school. Young adults made her novel If I Stay a best-seller. She also wrote the novel Just One Day, in which the protagonist Allyson Healey’s post-graduation trip to Europe changes her life, She makes an uncharacteristically unpredictable decision to stay with Willem, a Shakespearean actor. The quote above opens the novel.

Forman’s bio on her website lists 13 interesting facts; here are three:
  • When I was little I wanted to grow up to be the sun. I was devastated to learn this was not a career option.
  • I bombed my SATs. I still did okay in life.
  • As a teen, I was so obsessed with Molly Ringwald that I started biting my lip like she did and now I have a permanent scar. And this is why I am a YA author.


#3. If Shakespeare Had a Sister

To be honest, Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay, one that centered on how Shakespeare’s gender allowed him to become the great dramatist, occupied both #3 and #4 positions in the “What if Shakespeare?” search.
Woolf ‘s essay suggests that if Shakespeare had a sister, one who also was brilliant playwright, she would not have had the same opportunities to write and to stage plays,. Furthermore, she would be driven mad and would have died in obscurity. Woolf imagines this sister-Judith- who as a child,
“…picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers.”
Rather than marry, young Judith would run away from home, seeking drama,like her brother William, to express her genius:
“She had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother’s, for the tune of words. Like him, she had a taste for theatre. She stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face.”
Judith would meet a far different fate than her brother. Woolf suggests,
“that any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at.”

In her essay Woolf’s mourns not only the fictional Judith, but also the unheard voices of real women writers throughout history who suffered similar fates.


#4. What if… we didn’t have Shakespeare – Prospect Magazine

The subtitle of this article by Justina Crabtree Could Christopher Marlowe have equalled Shakespeare’s achievement? is a commentary on the budding genius of playwright Marlowe before his untimely end in a knife fight in a bar. Crabtree poses the question as to whether Marlowe might have had the same impact on language as Shakespeare did:

“Without [Shakespeare] him, nobody would “melt into thin air” (The Tempest), nor would there be “method in our madness” (Hamlet). We’d never be “in a pickle” (The Tempest), nor would we ever be a “laughing stock” (The Merry Wives of Windsor). Things would never go “full circle” (King Lear), or be achieved in “one fell swoop” (Macbeth).”

Furthermore, Crabtree ponders if Marlowe had the potential to match Shakespeare’s characters, those “truly rich, three-dimensional characters” which were a “progression away from the Medieval morality tradition.”


anonymousThis   or response –not a review- by Stephen Marche on Roland Emmerich’s film, Anonymous (2011) laments how the central question in the film, “Was Shakespeare a fraud?” was so poorly presented. As a professor who had taught Shakespeare in the past, Marche admitted that he is no film critic, but he is a critic of the flawed position that credited Edward de Vere as the real author of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, etc:
“And if you take “Anonymous” as just a movie, it may not even be that bad. I couldn’t possibly judge, because I was apoplectically stuttering about the inconsistencies…”
Marche is convinced that Emmerich’s film will drive students to challenge Shakespeare’s authenticity and sympathizes with the Shakespeare scholars who will be driven crazy with ridiculous speculations. As for Marche? He has no doubt about Shakespeare:
“So, enough. It is impossible that Edward de Vere wrote Shakespeare. Notice that I am not saying improbable; it is impossible.”

While I had thought five entries would be enough, the #6 entry is too good not to share

#6. What if Shakespeare wrote Star Wars? “Alas, poor … 

 What if William Shakespeare took a crack at Star Wars? Just imagine the classic Wookie and R2-D2 chess scene re-written as a Greek chorus.
Well, you do not have to imagine, because there is stirring in the Force, a new series of the Star Wars trilogies by Ian Doescher. An example?

Star Wars HamletLUKE Alas, poor stormtrooper, I knew ye not,
Yet have I ta’en both uniform and life
From thee. What manner of a man wert thou?
A man of inf’nite jest or cruelty?
A man with helpmate and with children too? 5
A man who hath his Empire serv’d with pride?
A man, perhaps, who wish’d for perfect peace?
Whate’er thou wert, good man, thy pardon grant
Unto the one who took thy place: e’en me.

The tagline? Zounds! This is the book you’re looking for.

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

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


The Evolution of Creative Nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Examples of Creative Nonfiction by Grade Level

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preference for Narrative Nonfiction

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

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


What came first…the NAEP Chicken or the CCSS Egg?

Screenshot 2016-03-29 10.37.46First, let’s define terms:

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the “largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas.”

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are “a set of goals and expectations for the knowledge and skills students need in English language arts and mathematics at each grade level.”

Back in 1992 and through 2007, the test reading framework for the NAEP centered on three broadly defined genres for assessment content: literary, informational, and document. By 2009, however, the NAEP was revised to offer eight defined genres of assessment content, part of a larger shift to separate reading content into distinct categories.  Of the eight genres in the 2009 reading frameworks, reading content was categorized into more specific forms of nonfiction: literary nonfiction; informational text; exposition; argumentation and persuasive text; and procedural text and documents. There was fiction included on the 2009 test along with selections of poetry, some of which could also be categorized as fiction.

Before 2009, a nonfiction selection might fall into any one of the broadly defined genre categories. After 2009, 5/8 of the NAEP or 63% of the reading frameworks on the NAEP test were in well defined sub-sets of nonfiction.

Now consider, while the NAEP was being revised, in 2009 the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were in development. The CCSS designers for literacy placed an emphasis on complex informational texts (nonfiction) stating:

“Most of the required reading in college and workforce training programs is informational in structure and challenging in content; postsecondary education programs typically provide students with both a higher volume of such reading than is generally required in K-12 schools and comparatively little scaffolding.”

These designers were pushing to expand reading beyond the fiction and literary analysis that traditionally dominated the ELA classes, particularly at the high school level. This was an effort to include reading in other content areas as necessary for the post-secondary experience. As a result, there were standards developed for literacy in grades 6-12 in History/Social Studies, Science, & Technical Subjects

By 2010, 42 states had adopted the Common Core standards  and began revising curriculum to align with  the The Key Shifts of the CCSS and reducing fiction from being 50% of a student’s reading diet in 4th grade to 30% of the reading diet of a graduating senior.

The connection between NAEP and the CCSS was evident, and the recommendations in the literacy standards of the Common Core called attention to this connection:

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 7.51.04 PM

Six Years Later: The Rise of NonFiction

Not surprisingly, six years later, one of the anecdotal findings released from the 2015 NAEP is the increase in nonfiction assigned by teachers in both grades 4 & 8 . This  information came from a voluntary survey where teachers could select the genre they emphasized in class “to a great extent.”

In 2015, fourth grade teachers who had previously created a 25% point gap favoring fiction over nonfiction in 2011, led the reduction of fiction to 15%  in 2013 and to single digit 8% in 2015.

Similarly, in eighth grade, the 34% preference for emphasizing fiction declined to 24% in 2013, and to 16% in 2015.

Screenshot 2016-03-25 17.06.47

The Egg Hatches…and It Looks a Little Different

The truth is, all the emphasis on increasing nonfiction in schools at the expense of fiction has had an positive impact on the genre. An article in the October issue Publisher’s Weekly Moment of Truth: Trends in Nonfiction for Young Readers by Sophie McNeill offered comments from bookstore owners and librarians about the increased interest in factual prose:

Suzanna Hermans of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, New York who says,

“Common Core has raised awareness of kids’ nonfiction. We are seeing parents and teachers talking about it differently in home and at school.”

Sharon Grover, head of youth services at Hedberg Public Library in Janesville, Wisconsin, adds:

“Nonfiction has really improved in recent years. Books are more readable, with more pictures and less straight recitation of facts. Kids really appreciate that, since they have become used to reading websites and apps.”

The article also referred to the 21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference (2014) which advertised its aim “to display the verve and capabilities of nonfiction, and to show that it can be just as creative as fiction.”


All this added attention to increasing nonfiction appears having an impact on the genre itself, not only in the in quantity produced but also in the characteristics of nonfiction itself. While the nonfiction genre is generally understood to be based on real events, a statement by the Newbery Award winning children’s nonfiction author Russell Freedman seems to blur those clear lines that the NAEP and Common Core have tried to separate as distinct. Freedman has stated:

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

Note the word storyteller?
Can truth be that objective?

Sounds a little like non-fiction is borrowing a little from the fiction genre playbook.

Eggs and Evolution

Whether it began with the the NAEP Chicken or the CCSS egg, the pressure to emphasize nonfiction is like any other evolutionary force in nature. While the Common Core has fallen out of favor with many states, with at least 12 states introducing legislation to repeal the CCSS standards outright, the nonfiction genre is growing and responding and adapting under the current favorable conditions.

The reduction of fiction in favor of more readable nonfiction in grades 4 & 8, as evidenced by the NAEP survey, continues. The evolution of the nonfiction genre may increase readership as well, especially if engaging texts increase interest in reading in the content areas of history, social studies, science and the technical subject areas.

Today’s educators may break a few more fictional eggs, but the end result could be a better omelet.

This Sunday’s end paper for the New York Times Magazine on 2/28/16 presented the latest in the millennial generation’s dream jobs list. The results were aggregated from a 2015 survey organized by the National Society of High School Scholars (NSHSS).

The article, The New Dream Jobs was organized by  by Jenna Wortham and subtitled “What a survey of millennials might tell us about the workplaces of the future.” The survey results were described as a “scattershot” that “offer a glimpse into the ambitions of the millennial generation.”

The 18,000 participants (high school students, college students, and young professionals) ages 15-29, parsed through a list of more than 200 companies before selecting Google as their top choice. The Walt Disney Company (with an appropriate song lyric, “a dream is a wish your heart makes”) came in second, and St Jude’s Hospital that pioneers research and treatments for kids with cancer and other life-threatening diseases came in third.

NYTimes graphic on Dream Jobs

NYTimes graphic on Dream Jobs; Illustration by JAMES GRAHAM

The factors that were important to students included employee welfare, flexible scheduling, and a sense of purpose. 89% of the respondents indicated that their dream jobs could be an opportunity to gain job skills. They also expressed their highest interest in medicine and health related and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) focused fields (40%), technology/engineering (21%), science (28%), and arts/entertainment/media (20%).

The exceptionally high level of interest in the sciences may be in part due to efforts over the past several years to engage female students in STEM related activities, noting that there was a disproportionate number (75%) of the respondents were female students. The was, however, a greater diversity in respondent ethnicity: Caucasian 38%, Latino 18%, African-American 21%, Asian 12%.

While there were 200 companies offered in the survey for selection, there were also some (traditional) hometown favorites. Respondents selected Local Hospital at #6, Local Police Department at #53, and Local Fire Department at #90.

What about Education as a Choice?

What is surprising is that the field of education did not have a Local Public School as an option for respondents. Respondents could choose to be a doctor, fireman, police officer….but not a teacher? Instead, what was offered for the education option was the organization Teach for America.  While many public school systems require educational degrees, the Teach for America promotion on its website states:

“A degree in education isn’t a prerequisite for you to apply to the corps. However, nearly all corps members must receive a state-issued teaching credential, certificate, license, or permit to be hired by a school and must be considered “highly qualified” under federal law.”

What do students who have attended or plan to attend a four year college for education, understand about Teach for America as a career choice? “Highly qualified” for Teach for America can be the “rigorous summer training program and extensive coaching”, a very different training than college coursework (undergraduate or graduate) in instruction.  When the NSHSS  offers Teach for America on a list of 200 companies, they communicate that an education is associated with a “company” rather than a profession. Based on the data, it should be noted that Teach for America  fallen in popularity from #26 on the Dream Job list in 2014 to #34 this year.

Irony in Dream Job List

The irony is, that without the choice of education as a Dream Job, many of the dream jobs on the list would be unattainable. If education as a profession is not a choice represented on this list (as police, firemen careers are represented) a problem is created for all future lists.

For example, without recruiting best and brightest of scientists to the Dream Job of science teachers, students will not be ready for the medicine and health related careers that they want as Dream Jobs. Similarly, learning to communicate effectively in media jobs comes from attracting excellent English Language Arts teachers, while artistic talents are honed by bringing the finest in fine arts teachers (music, art, drama, etc) to classrooms K-12. In short, this year’s interest in STEM comes from teachers who have communicated a passion for these subject so much, that their students want to continue in that particular field as a Dream Job.

Finally, if one of the qualities that millennials are looking for in a career is the ability to work on a team (40%), then a choice for education is a choice for a Dream Job. Educators know how to work collaboratively as a team: in a district, in a school, in a class. And, of course, educators are the ones who train students to work as a team as well.

On the NSHSS 2015 survey on Dream Jobs, a choice of the F.B.I. (#5)  beat out the choice of the National Security Administration (#19). According to the survey, students would rather build up the military by selecting the Army (#42) as a career over Building a Bear (#50)…but note, without educators, building the skills for a Dream Job would be only a dream.

My life-long admiration for George Washington has been increasing exponentially.GW speech

This past summer, I finished the book The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789  by Joseph Ellis. His narrative centers on the four individuals brought the confederation of states together into a nation during the 1787 Constitutional Convention:  Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison and, most important, George Washington.

In recounting how Hamilton and Madison prepared the groundwork for the Constitutional Convention, Ellis details how they strategized and recruited Washington to preside over the Convention.  Both knew that Washington’s reputation and his relationship with the delegates to the Convention was critical to its success. They knew that of the 55 delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention, at least 29 had served in the Continental forces, most of them in positions of command. In The Quartet, Ellis acknowledges that Washington’s military leadership had been proven during the American Revolution, but he also provides another example of Washington’s deft touch at command off the battlefield.

What I Did Not Know About the Newburgh Conspiracy:

This amazing event Ellis relates deals with an uprising in Newburgh, New York, in March of 1783 led by Continental Army officers, that nearly brought the newly liberated country to a halt. This incident, known as the Newburgh Conspiracy, developed when the unpaid officers circulated an anonymous letter that suggested officers should riot in New York City, a dangerous challenge to the authority of the Confederation Congress. When Washington learned about the letter, he expressed his objections to the “disorderly” and “irregular” nature of the officers’ meeting. He sent word that he would meet with them on 15th.

Once he arrived in Newburgh, Washington delivered a speech  during which he declared his convictions that the entire war had been about a fundamental principle. He asked the officers in attendance about the letter being circulated::

“My God! What can this writer have in view, by recommending such measures? Can he be a friend to the Army? Can he be a friend to this Country? Rather, is he not an insidious Foe? Some Emissary, perhaps from New York, plotting the ruin of both, by sowing the seeds of discord and separation between the Civil and Military powers of the Continent?”

800px-Newburgh_AddressIn his speech, Washington recognized their frustration, but he also expressed his belief that Congress would do the army “complete justice” and eventually pay the soldiers:

“But, like all other large Bodies, where there is a variety of different Interests to reconcile, their deliberations are slow.”

The officers in attendance respected Washington. They had counted on his sympathies, and they were quickly humbled by his unwavering commitment to the nation.

But then came that moment…. That moment when Washington changed the course of events. After reading his own speech, Washington then attempted to tried to read a letter from a Congressman from Virginia that supported the officers’ demands. According to Ellis, Washington fumbled a little in reading the opening words of this letter.

He took out a pair of spectacles.

He wiped those spectacles, and stated:

Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind in the service of my country.”

Ellis notes that at Washington’s  words, many of his officers openly wept, “…they remembered how much Washington had endured alongside them.”

With this simple gesture, the wiping of a pair of spectacles, and his own pledge of dedication to the fledgling nation, Washington ended the Newburgh Conspiracy. In that moment he demonstrated both the strength of a Founding Father, and the psychological wiles of a Founding Mother…guilt included.

In The Quartet, Ellis confirms Washington’s civic virtue, his lack of personal ambition, and his modesty. He portrays Washington as without peer. Four years after the Newburgh incident, Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention. When he was elected president, he received the support of each of the 69 participating electors.

Ellis reminds us that Washington is a true Founding Father…and a parent who know that guilt works, especially with unruly children!