Tuesday, December 22, 2009
In the meantime, the I.N.K. blog will be taking a little holiday break. See you back on January 4, 2010 with brand new posts.
Monday, December 21, 2009
This sorry state of affairs is not limited to the United States. I am just back from speaking at primary (elementary) schools in Australia. I had a few opportunities to interact with children on the playground and I was pleased to notice the great variety of types of play, and how there seemed to be a niche for everyone. Some activities engaged solitary children, others occupied pairs or small groups, and a few involved large numbers. Yet when I shared my approving observations with teachers, I learned that, as in the U.S., recess is an endangered species.
Studies consistently prove its value. In one set of experiments from the mid-1990s, researchers found that school children became less and less attentive the longer recess was delayed. Another experimental study found that “fourth-graders were more on-task and less fidgety in the classroom on days when they had had recess, with hyperactive children among those who benefited the most.” An article in the New York Times in February, 2009, cited a study of 11,000 third graders showing that recess mitigates children’s behavioral problems. (Consider the common punishment for misbehaving children: “No recess!”) And a meta-analysis of over 200 studies suggest that physical activity during the school day results in more, and better, mental activity.
For all their lip-service to the necessity of drawing on research-based teaching strategies, education authorities in the U.S. and Australia (and probably many other countries) don’t seem to care much about research on play. It is interesting that, by contrast, China launched a nationwide “Sunlight Sport” campaign in 2007, requesting that every school offer one hour of sports and games daily to every student.
I read about Chinese children’s play and the Sunshine Sport campaign in a fascinating Australian journal called Play and Folklore, co-edited by Dr. June Factor of the University of Melbourne, an author and folklorist who writes playful and play-filled books for both children and adults. I met June at a reading conference in California about 15 years ago, and I had the good fortune of visiting her in Australia during my recent trip.
The most wonderful thing about many of June’s books for children is that they are actually by children: she is merely the compiler, and what she has compiled is straight from the mouths of kids, whom she and her university students have observed, recorded and interviewed in school playgrounds. The researchers collected children’s games, rhymes, sayings, chants, riddles, jokes and secret languages in abundance. In 2000, she published an entertaining and enlightening lexicon, Kidspeak: A Dictionary of Australian Children’s Words, Games and Sayings. The two children depicted on the cover have harsh words for each other: “Nicky woop” says one in a speech bubble, to which the other retorts, “Drongo!” (Translation: “Go away!” and “Jerk!”)
June’s collections for young readers have been loved since 1983 when Far Out, Brussels Sprout came out. It has since been joined by Real Keen, Baked Bean…Unreal, Banana Peel…Okey Dokey, Karaoke, and others in the Far Out! series. All offer a rich sampling of the linguistic range and complexity of Australian children's vernacular language. “It’s children’s own literature,” says June, “handed down across many generations, sometimes across centuries. It’s a bridge across generations, common to childhood, not just contemporary childhood.” From Far Out, Brussels Sprout:
Quickly, quickly, I feel sickly.
Hasten, hasten, get the basin.
Get the mop!
Mary had a little lamb
She kept it in a closet.
And every time she let it out
It left a small deposit.
They’re not always the most proper ditties in the world. As a result, a decade ago June learned that she was the second-most censored author in Australian school libraries, after Judy Blume. She told me this with more than a hint of irony, considering that the censors were trying to save innocent children from their own words. “It tells you much about the power of adult prudery and unease about the human body and its functions — but, I hasten to add, not nearly as much as in the United States!”
Often, these censorship cases have been dismissed when the schools discovered how many families already owned the challenged books. But what disturbs June more than censors in the libraries is timekeepers on the playgrounds. “Increasingly, playtime is being restricted,” says Australia’s leading observer of playtime. “It’s happening in America and it’s happening here.” In the U.S., where we once feared a “red menace” from Asia, there now seems to be fear that Asian countries including China will overtake us not militarily but intellectually and economically. If it comes to pass, browbeating analysts should consider how our schools rejected the demonstrable benefits of playtime. American education authorities could have the demise of recess to blame for our fall from intellectual eminence. Some might call them drongos!
Friday, December 18, 2009
Dear Jan Greenberg, I loved your book The Pig-out Blues so much I wanted to eat it.
Dear Jan Greenberg, I am a big fan of yours and I tell all my friends to read your books. Can you send me five copies of all of them FedEx?
Dear Jan, After I read The Iceberg and Its Shadow, I wrote this poem for you. Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, If I were looking for an author, I’d come straight to you. Love, Sally PS Sorry this is so short, but I have to go to bed now.
Dear Jan, Our teacher read Bye Bye Miss American Pie to us. I didn’t like it that much. I hope I can read more of your wonderful books.
Dear Jan Greenberg, I love your books, especially the titles. I’ll be coming to St. Louis soon and I plan to stop by and stay with you. My mother says it’s fine if it’s OK with you.
That was a hard one to respond to!!! Finally from an eighth grade boy after I visited his class in Warrensburg, MO.
Personally I hate to read, but your books are fairly interesting, even though most of them are about girls. I honestly have to admit I expected you to be totally different. I was waiting for an old lady who could hardly walk to hobble in. But wow, then you showed up. In case you’re wondering, I was the dude in the back row wearing a letter jacket. Your Pal, Chris Nelson. PS Usually I fall asleep during that period right after lunch, but you were pretty entertaining.
Now why didn’t I get letters like that when I was IN the eighth grade? Ok. The letter is about fifteen years old!!! In the days when I wrote novels, I received many letters from kids. Since I’ve been writing non-fiction, the letters have dwindled. I wonder if those of you who write fiction and non-fiction have experienced that. And these days I get e mails from young people asking me to help write a term paper on POP Art or Jackson Pollock or to send back a three page autobiography for their “Write a profile on an author” assignment. On occasion I suspect that the person e mailing me has never read one of my books. Life was so much simpler before call notes, e mails, and Blackberries. Happy Holidays and a Healthy New Year! My New Year’s resolution is to meet some of you in 2010!!! PS My next blog will be on research. I loved Deborah’s remarks.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
I tried to stay calm, and just read. I told myself I could always come back and write down the facts that I will need. (And I know I won't forget that her father's hair was red.) So that's what I did. I made a cup of tea, took the book to the couch in my office, and read. I had my notebook with me just in case I couldn't resist writing something down. And then a few pages in something I read hit me in the solar plexus and I said, aloud, "OH WOW!" And then I remembered : I have a system. I do! I have a system! Thank goodness.
Seriously, I knew I had system. It's just been a little while. I've developed this system over the years, and it works very well for me. It's very simple: Every time I say "oh wow" I take a note. And I call these notes, yes, my "Oh Wow Notes." Here's an example of a page from notes I was taking while researching Celebrate Halloween.
I, of course, don't end up putting all of my "oh wows" into a book, especially not those from the beginning of my research. But as I take notes, I know more what I'm looking for and so the "oh wows" come less frequently. But I know that if something makes me say "Oh wow," it is most likely to end up in a book. And it is definitely worth writing down.
When I talk in schools, I tell teachers and children this system. It seems to work for them, too. I modify it a little by saying that you should write down the facts you know you'll need: birth and death dates for people, when important things happened, what those things were, etc. But that the details that will make your research paper (or your book) really sing are the ones you first reacted to that made you say "Oh wow!"
I'm sure everyone who writes for I.N.K., and many of you who read I.N.K. have little tricks that make note-taking easier (and even fun). Please share those here so we can all learn from each other.
Now this is not my whole system of taking notes. This is just a crucial part of it. In my next few posts on I.N.K. I will share more of my system. As soon as I remember it.
Monday, December 14, 2009
Incredible reading experiences, Susan Goodman? Ahhh now, well, as the overarching subject of this blog is nonfiction, I shall not be writing here of the works of Laurie R. King or J.R.R. Tolkein or Jack Finney, but I'm happy to share with whomever reads this the great satisfaction I took in reading The President's House by William Seale, published in 1986 by the White House Historical Association. You wouldn't think that a two-volume doorstop would be so wonderfully readable. I came across it when I was researching my Ghosts of the White House (Simon & Schuster, 1998), in which the departed Presidents are spooking about the place all at once, talking to a young visitor (modeled on my niece, Sara, who accompanied on my research trip to the W. H.) about their administrations. I continue to be knocked out by the notion of all of these very different individuals and their families all living - often under terrific strain - within those same stone walls. And too, each of those gents represents a different chapter in the story of the Republic.
Mr. Seale's book is a lively history of the building itself, including, its inhabitants, of course. I adore finding out that a certain "Hugh Densley" spent the early spring of 1799 covering the walls of the President's House with plaster made up of "large quantities of plater of Paris, fine washed sand, lime, olive oil, beeswax, and 400 bushels of hog and horse hair, all of which Hoban [James Hoban, the architect' had bargained for in Baltimore."
"Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write." Amen.
Friday, December 11, 2009
It’s that time of year when a person’s mind drifts to…presents. In these strange, hard times—economic and otherwise—how about giving a gift to yourself, one that keeps on giving? Take a moment to remember a book that blew you away.
Since I’m a nonfiction writer and this is a blog about nonfiction, I figured I should/would come up with a nonfiction example. But The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s great book about soldiers’ experiences in Vietnam and war in general, popped into my mind even though the story is a weird mix of fiction and nonfiction.
I haven’t read The Things They Carried since it came out about 20 years ago. I couldn’t tell you many specific events that happened in it, but I’ll never forget two things. Every second of reading that book made you feel intensely alive. And, even when O’Brien made something up, it had the ring of truth. Actually this was one of his major points—that facts and truth aren’t always one and the same.
As a nonfiction writer, am I getting myself into trouble here? Am I advocating Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness?” Or unconsciously trying to convince myself that I can bend the facts in the book I’m writing to create a better effect, a deeper truth? Nah.
The Things They Carried was a profound book, I recommend it to all. In terms of nonfiction, it helped me realize that you can’t rely merely on facts to tell the Truth, but when you have both of them in one place, that’s a place you want to visit.
Okay, that’s one of my incredible reading experiences. What’s one of yours?
Thursday, December 10, 2009
I was not a happy camper.
The highlight of the summer was supposed to be the overnight stay, where we’d get to sleep in tents without our parents and have lots of fun.
I quietly confessed to the bus driver—a guy in his thirties who seemed to be having as lousy a time as I was, but at least he was getting paid—that I didn’t want to go.
Why, he asked.
I didn’t like bugs, I explained.
At which point, in front of the whole bus full of kids, he whipped out a can of bug spray, said something snarky, and all the kids laughed.
And so, I did the overnight stay. I don’t remember the ‘lots of fun’ part, but do vividly remember the tick check we all had to submit to the next morning.
That may have been the worst kind of camp, but I’ve just returned from the best kind—a retreat, really, where I felt pampered and cared for, met great people, and spent days engaged in activities so interesting it made me wish the days were longer. Plus, there were no bugs!
I joined my buddy Kim T. Griswell, an editor for Highlights, Inc. and Boyds Mills Press, to teach a four-day workshop on narrative nonfiction. The workshop was held in a beautiful old farmhouse near Honesdale, PA (home of the Highlights editorial offices.) The participants stayed in cute private cabins with lovely wood floors and cozy quilts on the beds. The food was wonderful—fresh and healthy and delicious.
Best of all, everyone there was really into nonfiction. We had participants from Alaska to Texas to New York and all spots in between. We tackled issues big (theme, voice, character) and small (at one point, I shared a sentence from my current project and moaned about the stupid pronoun that refuses to work, no matter how hard I revise.)
There was time for discussion, time for work, and time for hanging out with a glass of wine or a warm cup of tea. We even had guest authors and editors who came for dinner and shared their thoughts on writing. I loved meeting so many people who are as passionate about writing nonfiction as I am, and I left Honesdale already looking forward to going to ‘camp’ again.
Kim and I won’t be teaching our class again until 2011, but there are plenty of other workshops offered next year, including two on writing nonfiction. Check ‘em out. Best. Camp. Ever.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
I’ve written picture book biographies and chapter book biographies for middle grades and young adults, and the research required is virtually identical. For my middle grade biography Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer, I read biographies, histories, scholarly articles, and primary sources. That book weighed in at over 21,000 words.
For a forthcoming picture book biography, I did the same amount of reading. I visited my subject’s hometown and the town where she lived most of her married life. I ordered microfilms of her papers from her state historical society and had them delivered to a nearby public library where I squinted and printed decades of her handwriting. My first draft of the book came in at 7100 words. Draft #2 was 2400 words. Draft #6, the one I sold, had slimmed down to 1232 words. Just like losing those last five pounds, the last draft was hardest to write.
What happened between 7100 words and 1232 words?
• I figured out what my story was about.
• I decided which parts of her life illustrated what I wanted to say about her.
• I ruthlessly expunged all kinds of wonderful details that didn’t enhance that story.
• I did all that again and again, in each draft.
The advantages of writing longer is, of course, that I could include more of those wonderful details. I could bring in a larger cast of characters. I could quote more of a vitriolic tirade between my subject and a longtime friend. I could talk about her brilliant brother and how he went mad. I could discuss and quote more of her writings. I could talk more about her children and their tragedies and her grief. I could discuss her friendships with women and what that showed about her era.
What did I gain by choosing to write a shorter picture book? I could use a livelier voice and more colloquial language. This works better in a short form than it would in a more detailed and documented treatment of her life. And of course, I’ll have pictures to help me tell the story, describe the setting, and create an atmosphere.
Writing long, writing short – each has its charms and challenges.
Monday, December 7, 2009
Here are some recommendations for other excellent children's nonfiction. Tis the season to buy nonfiction!
From Marfe Ferguson Delano:
Fabulous Fishes, written and illustrated by Susan Stockdale. (2008, Peachtree Press, $15.95 hardcover) This charming picture book features simple rhyming text ("Shiny fish / spiny fish/ fish that hitch a ride") and bold, colorful pictures that introduce kids to all sorts of fishes. A spread at the back of the book gives more information about the fish included in the book.
Listen to the Wind: The Story of Dr. Greg & Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and Susan L. Roth, illustrated by Susan L. Roth. (2009, Dial Books for Young Readers, $16.99) I enjoyed Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea, but I love the way Susan Roth retells this true story through the eyes of the Pakistani children. Her stunning paper-and-fabric collages take my breath away.
From Gretchen Woelfle:
Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal sports the longest title and the most stunning cover I’ve seen this season. Gregory Christie’s monochromatic close-up headshot of Reeves is riveting. Christie continues with atmospheric endpapers and many full-page paintings which fit this monumental subject. Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s colloquial text is also a perfect fit for a man who lived a most dramatic life. Slave, runaway slave, sharpshooter, and wily master of disguise, he became the first African American U.S. Deputy Marshal and served for thirty-two years. Nelson recounts several wily nonviolent captures by Reeves who brought more than 3000 outlaws, including his own son, to justice. The only quibble I have with this exciting story is the opening scene. Though Reeves killed only fourteen men out of 3000, Nelson opens with a thrilling but deadly confrontation with one of the fourteen victims. As an old peacenik, I would have preferred to see him outsmart rather than outshoot his man in the opening pages.
From Rosalyn Schanzer:
I first began my extensive collection of children’s books when I was a young illustrator and well before I began to write books on my own, so I used to select each book based solely upon the quality of the illustrations. One of my favorite early choices was the nonfiction book Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions. This Caldecott Award Winner was first published in 1975, and the artwork looks every bit as good today as it did way back then. Written by Margaret Musgrove and stunningly illustrated by the indefatigable husband-and-wife duo, Leo and Diane Dillon, it’s a classic alphabet book that intrigues its readers by introducing them to 26 exotic African tribes. The Dillon’s elegant layouts and their gorgeous, richly colored, and well researched portrayals of the African people taught me how pivotal the illustrations in a book can be. As it turns out, the writing is charming too.
My second nonfiction choice is Tibet: Through the Red Box by Peter Sis. In this 1998 Caldecott Honor Book, Sis finds a mysterious red box, and upon opening the lid with a rusty little key, he discovers the diary his filmmaker father had written when he was lost in Tibet years before. Once again, it’s the magically symbolic artwork that draws readers into this exotic tale, sweeping readers back an forth in time on each otherworldly spread. The pictures I’ve included here are a pale shadow of the glorious ones in the book, so I invite you to have a real-world look for yourself.
David Elliott's poetry reduces familiar animals to their essence and makes us think in On the Farm, illustrated beautifully by Holly Meade's woodcuts.
Barry Denenberg's Lincoln Shot: A President's Life Remembered--what a great idea. I wish I had it!
From Anna Lewis:
Fantastic NF books to inspire creativity this holiday season:Touch the Art: Catch Picasso's Rooster (Board book)By Julie Appel (Author), Amy Guglielmo (Author)Sterling November 2009Best book yet in the series. Includes my fav, Franz Marc!365 Things to Draw and Paint (Art Ideas)By Fiona WattUsborne Publishing Ltd October 2009.
This book would have kept me busy the entire Winter Break. Full of ideas to inspire hours of drawing fun because kids always moan, "But, I don't knowwhat to draw."What's the Big Idea?: Inventions that Changed Life on Earth ForeverMaple Tree Press November 2009Helaine Becker (Author), Steve Attoe (Illustrator)New, fun book that shows kids that their ideas can change the world.
Fun NF books to combine with building sets:LINCOLN LOGS Building Manual: Graphic Instructions for 37 World-FamousDesigns Sterling December 2007TINKERTOY Building Manual: Graphic Instructions for 37 World-Famous DesignsSterling December 2007Dylan Dawson (Author) Robert Steimle (Illustrator)
Friday, December 4, 2009
My dad will be 90 years old on December 8. To celebrate, we’re having a big party this Sunday, commemorating the milestone with excellent food, good cheer, and even a surprise or two. My brother, a one-time stand-up comedian, will be master of ceremonies at the festivities. Not surprisingly, my contribution will be providing the historical context.
A few years ago, for my parents’ 50th anniversary, I created mini-magazines with pictures, short articles, and even a few puzzles about their life together—no doubt a reflection of my many years as an editor of Scholastic’s classroom magazines. This time, having just completed the back matter for an upcoming book, I decided to apply one of the go-to standards of nonfiction back matter to my dad’s life—the timeline.
Since I wanted this timeline to make a visual statement as well as an emotional one, I started by searching for software that would enable me both to organize events and import pictures. I found a few different programs, designed for business presentation purposes but adaptable for personal use. I took the plunge and bought one, then started working on the content. It turns out that despite knowing my dad for 55 years, I could not pinpoint as many defining moments and turning points as I thought. So I doggedly pursued the details of his life as I had those of Annie Oakley and Nellie Bly before him, poring over scrapbooks and photo albums and turning every visit to my parents’ home into an oral history session.
I learned volumes. For instance, my dad, who helped found one of the biggest accounting firms in New Jersey, got his start in business at age seven, when his older brother “forced” him to sell copies of Collier’s magazine for five cents door-to-door. He turned 13 in the midst of the Great Depression, so he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah with a party at home; he said his best gift was a $2½ gold piece. (Who even knew there was such a thing?) In the 1950s, both of my parents campaigned for Adlai Stevenson; they’ve got a letter signed by Stevenson thanking them for their support and a souvenir ticket to one of his rallies. Later in the decade, my dad continued his commitment to civic affairs by serving on the Citizens Advisory Zoning Committee in our town and the Citizens Planning Association for the area.
When I write biographies, I start with a subject who had an impact on society and use every available resource to try and learn more about who that person was. Working on my dad’s timeline, I went in the opposite direction. For most of my life, I’ve seen my dad from the context of our family, from my particular perspective as his older child, his only daughter. But looking at his accomplishments all mapped out on a colorful timeline helped me get a clear sense of his place in the world beyond our front door. What a great learning experience. What a great man.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
I'm a special education teacher for grades 3-5. I primarily work with 4th and 5th graders, teaching reading, writing and math in "core replacement" groups. Explanation: all of our 4th graders have reading at the same time, so the group I have is getting "core replacement" in my room at the same time their peers are being taught reading in the general education classroom. Same with math, writing and 5th grade reading. My school also has a literacy teacher (for students who are doing a bit better than mine academically) and a Title 1 reading teacher.
What kind of reading assignments do you give kids? In class, we all read the same story/book together. Sometimes, I'll let the kids read silently to themselves or in pairs, but this is usually not very effective because of their lack of reading skills.
How important do you feel it is for every kid in your class to read the same assignment on a topic? For my kiddos, this is very important. This way, I can be assured they are reading correctly, and we have wonderful discussions to ensure comprehension of the material. Most of my kids are way better verbally!
Do you feel you MUST teach from the textbook? Unfortunately, yes. If so, why? District requirement. But, I supplement a lot in my classroom by reading non-fiction books at the beginning of each reading class (the kids love books by Cheryl Harness!) and also by pulling in additional non-fiction books to support stories we're reading. (ie: 5th graders are reading a story about cowboys that mention Nat Love, an African American cowboy. He wrote a book about his experiences and I found it online. I copied it and shared selections of it with the kids - they loved it!)
Have you ever gone to the library and looked for books on the content you have to teach? Honestly - I usually hit half.com or ebay first. I like to purchase books with my own money, then I'll have them for the next years! I have quite a collection of books in my classroom and like to have them "at my fingertips" to pull for kids!
Have you ever used a trade (library) book on a subject covered by your textbook instead? Yes. If so, why? Usually because the story provided in the book I'm required to use doesn't go "in depth" enough about the subject. Also, I like to show my students that each and every book about a subject can offer different/additional information! For instance - my students are stunned to know that I personally own more than 50 books about Lewis and Clark.
How closely do you coordinate what you are teaching with your school librarian? Honestly, not much. Our school library is pretty limited, although our new librarian this year has consulted with me to order more non-fiction books at a reading level my kids could handle! Yay!Does she pull books for you? I know she would if I asked.
Does she come to you or do you go to her? We've done a bit of both this year.
Do you find ways to have kids read different books on a topic and share their experiences in class projects and discussions? Yes. If so, what are your strategies? My students are given a "book bag" each week with a small book in it to read at home. I try to coordinate these books with what we are reading in class. It's fun to watch them make the connection!
How proficient do you feel in your knowledge of children's nonfiction literature in the subjects you have to teach? Pretty good. But, I must admit, my association with Cheryl Harness has really provided me with so much more knowledge about good non-fiction for students! She's kind of "adopted" my students during the past few years, and is always willing to answer their questions (they love that a real author writes to them!) and mine as well. She's pointed me to many books, websites, etc., to help expand my kids' knowledge.
Would you find professional development by authors in this area useful? I think that would be great! I love to learn new things, especially when I can pass information along to my students and make learning more fun for them! In my position as a special education teacher - I don't think it's enough to just teach a child to read. My students may always struggle with reading, so I feel it's important to instill a LOVE of reading in them! If they're interested, engaged and excited about reading - then they will read! I've learned that non-fiction is the best way to get my students excited - more so than talking animals and fantasy.
Thank you, Susan! If you would like to respond to my questionnaire, you can find it here. Email it to me as Word attachment and I’ll post results next month.
By the way, Ink Think Tank, LLC, our new company that has come out of the blog, is getting ready to offer exactly this kind of professional development to teachers via videoconferencing. Stay tuned.
Monday, November 30, 2009
I’ve heard stories about our colorful family history all my life, but I’ve also read more amazing tales than you can shake a stick at because they’re written down in the Mischbucha Mirror. So what’s that (and how do you pronounce it anyway)? It’s a wonderful annual family newsletter that was first started by an 11 year old boy in 1981. Since everyone gets to send in his or her own contributions, it has gotten bigger and fancier and glossier and more colorful ever since. It’s handed out at each reunion in all its glory, and in its pages are a thousand tales. Here’s a tiny sampling. As the blogger, I get to start with my own part of the family:
One story told how my grandfather and a lot of other young men were abducted by the Cossack army during WW I, and they had to march on foot all the way from Poland to Manchuria eating only dry bread and sausages. My grandfather soon became a legend because he could ride on horseback at full speed while standing on his hands. The men had to ford all the rivers naked with their clothes and rifles on top of their heads and everyone got frostbite on their feet and their toenails fell off.
drawing and a note from my Polish grandmother
In a story about Ellis Island, a relative with a long unpronounceable name wanted to get a short new American name, but hadn’t decided what it was to be. So he wrote “to be” on the list, and that’s how his last name became “Tobe.”
A Holocaust survivor wrote a riveting description of her years in Auschwitz as a young teenager. She told how she considered the number on her arm to be not a mark of shame, but a badge of honor when she was one of the few prisoners to make it through the war alive.
One highly memorable cousin showed us photos of his ornate tattoos and explained how he was jailed as a teenager for painting graffiti on New York subway trains. He is now a glowing superstar/ fine artist whose one-man shows of graffiti art appear in the finest galleries in Europe.
There are pages and pages of lavishly illustrated stories from small children, one 6-page cartoon series from a college student, photographs galore dating back to the 1800's, and plenty of poetry pages illustrated in crayon with Polish folk art by my own ancient grandmother. A renowned violin maker cousin told us the difference between an early and a late Stradivarius. Another wonderful story was laid out by a former WW II navigator who safely guided his pilots from Africa to a tiny airport in Brazil by flying across the Atlantic Ocean through three thunderstorms without a radio. They landed with only 6 minutes of fuel left. I've even compiled a number of very adventurous stories about my father’s own family. I used them to help write a book called Escaping to America: A True Story, which among other things explains how the family was almost captured by soldiers when they escaped from war-torn Poland in a hay wagon in 1921.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because every family on the planet has stories just like ours, including you. Happy or sad, devastating or embarrassing, bizarre or hilarious or mundane, they’re the best stories you can ever imagine because they relate to you personally. (And please note that they are all nonfiction!) So I hereby propose on this week-after-Thanksgiving that each of you readers of every age take a firm grip on your next golden opportunity whilst you still can and write your family’s best stories down one at a time. Interview your older and younger relatives too by making them tell you everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask. Raid ancient letters, funny emails, old photos, older drawings made by little kids, and even tacky souvenirs from some vacation spot and include them along with the rest. Be sure to add the dates! And remember that even stories from this week will work just as well. Have a blast and please let us know what you find.
Friday, November 27, 2009
Play is a hot topic these days. Some fantastic books on the subject are:
Einstein Never Used Flashcards How our children really learn and why they need to play more and memorize less
by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek Ph.D., Roberta Michnick Golinkoff Ph.D.
Rodale/St. Martin's Press 2003
Play How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul
by Stuart Brown M.D.
Penguin Group 2009
In Defense of Childhood Protecting Kids' Inner Wildness
by Chris Mercoliano
Beacon Press 2007
The Case for Make Believe Saving Play in a Commercialized World
by Susan Linn
The New Press 2008
The easy route in talking about play would have been to stand in front of the group and read several passages from these books, but I did have an outline:
- History of Toys (Blocks, Dolls, Wright brothers, etc)
- Toys in American History (Pioneer toys, Native American toys, Immigration, etc)
- Toys in Other Cultures (Balls, Jacks, Marbles, Bilboquet, Tangrams, String, Hopscotch, etc)
- Toys in Math (Dominoes, Dice, Building, Tangrams, Qubits, Zillio, Wrap-up, Games, etc)
- Other Areas for Play & Toys (Recycling, Art Projects, Puppets, Bingo, etc)
- Hands-On Activities
The Hands-On Portion included donated product from:
- Play-doh: included lesson plan ideas I created
- Qubits: Educators loved playing and building with shapes
- Jukem Football Card Game: Game developed by a dad to help his sons with Math
A few of the books that I referenced were:
Kids Around the World Play
by Arlette N. Braman
John Wiley and Sons 2002
Children at Play: An American History
by Howard P. Chudacoff
New York University Press 2007
My nine-year-old's fourth grade class is doing a nonfiction book unit. After checking out his school library and the local public library, he came home empty-handed from his search for a nonfiction book. Mind you, this child is the opposite of a reluctant reader so I was very surprised. After checking out my collection, he picked one of my favorite books.
Toys! Amazing Stories Behind Some Great Inventions
by Don L. Wulffson
Henry Holt and Co. 2000
We've had a great time talking about the history behind some of the classic toys. In fact, I bought him some Silly Putty and that's the only toy he's played with for the last two weeks.
Remember that this Black Friday, during the toy buying scramble --- Silly Putty = $1.99 and hours, days, weeks of fun!
And, remember Toys and Games for the Classroom, too!
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Last weekend I spoke at the 2009 California School Library Association Conference, with its theme of Embrace the Serendipity of Learning. I love librarians. One of them, speaking to a group of writers, said that we are their heroes. Well, the feeling is mutual. Especially these days.
The conference exhibit hall was about as densely populated as our Mojave Desert, with vast walls of curtains trying to disguise the fact. Folks strolling the floor were likewise of a desert town density. Presentations were scheduled simultaneously and I held my breath to see if I would attract more than the one person who introduced me. I spoke on – what else for an INK blogger? – The Serendipity of Reading and Writing Nonfiction, and when I got a crowd of about twelve, I felt grateful indeed. The session I attended after mine had only four in the audience, but the speaker was just as enthusiastic and engaging as if he were addressing four hundred.
Seriously though, the state of school libraries in California is abysmal and getting worse. As you probably know, the Golden State is no more. Now there’s only budget deficits and criminal cuts in services in them thar hills. So what does that mean for school libraries? California, once an innovative leader in public education, now stands 51st in the nation for school librarian ratios. That’s quite an achievement in a country with 50 states. Two years ago our ratio was 1 school librarian for 5,124 students. Yes, that’s 1:5174. Today it’s much much worse.
At the conference I, of course, only met those librarians who still have jobs and the wherewithal to attend a conference. One librarian I met works at ten different elementary schools – half a day per week in each one. Three hours per school per week. Another works only three days a week and covers six schools. Her district won’t pay her mileage, so she spends a whole day at each school – twice a month. Acquisitions budgets have evaporated. Yet all were eeager to see my flyer on the INK Think Tank database.
Some downsized librarians are classroom teachers now. One described her Catch-22. If she, as a teacher, provides the enrichment that she offered as a librarian, it will justify her district’s argument that they don’t need a school librarian after all. The San Diego Unified School District, one of the largest in the country, is considering closing all school libraries and using them as storage rooms.
As we authors and librarians met in southern California, students at the ten campuses of the University of California around the state were out in force protesting a 32% increase in tuition next year. As a veteran of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, I say “Right on!”
I also say, “HOW DARE WE?!”
How dare we shortchange our children and their education like this -- impoverishing the programs at the elementary and secondary levels and ensuring that cash-strapped college students are left out of the top tier of our state university system? All in the service of no new taxes.
Back at the conference it was heartening, as always, to surround oneself with people who love books, and understand that children’s authors do important work. And what is more fun than standing in front of the friendliest of audiences and talking about yourself and your books for an hour? But still, I couldn’t help but sense a ghostly presence in the nearly-empty exhibit hall and meeting rooms – the ghosts of all those librarians that should have been there.
Camila Alire, President of the American Library Association, addressed us one evening and implored us to lobby for change. Not just by emailing our lawmakers, but by talking to our friends, our relatives, our neighbors, parents in the schools – to tell them what’s wrong and try to get them to care.
In the end, we all know the nature of life is impermanence, that nothing stays the same, that things get worse and then they get better and then they get worse and then…. We’ve all enjoyed the kiss of serendipity. (I turned to writing children’s books when I was laid off from my dream job.)
Just let that kiss come soon.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Much to my surprise, there was no textbook in sight in the sixth grade social studies classroom. Mr. G. used videos, websites, handouts, and graphic organizers for his unit study on the Bill of Rights. The students got into small groups and each discussed a Supreme Court case which focused on a specific issue protected by the 4th or 5th amendment. Later in the week, students compared how their rights were different in school and out in the real world. Introduction of concept, comparisons, discussion—just as it should be. No one was asking for a textbook.
Even though I was never a boy scout, I always like to feel prepared. So I thought about the best way to bone up on my rights. Luckily I remembered Kathleen Krull’s book, A Kid’s Guide to America’s Bill of Rights. Curfews, Censorship and the 100-pound Giant. I had read it before but I reread it again over dinner during the first week. Concise, funny, and packed full of information, it was exactly what I needed.
So I couldn’t resist. I had to share. I brought the book in to show Mr. G and suggested it would be a great read for some of his students who wanted to know more. It turns out Mr. G. himself wanted to know more. He was enthusiastic and asked to borrow it; he said he’d read it during his free period. He taught the same class six times a day. I was skeptical that he’d really give up his free period to read more about the same topic. Indeed he did and he said he found some great stuff to incorporate into his lessons.
My lesson turned out to be on the basic setup of a courtroom. Easy peasy for this law school graduate. No review required. But, still, if anyone knows a good book on the subject, I’d like to read it. Because once you try to explain something to someone else, you naturally want to learn more yourself. And then to pass it on.
Monday, November 23, 2009
G’day from Down Under! I’m in Australia for a week’s worth of school visits starting tomorrow, and some extra time devoted exploring and research. I just saw my first kangaroo in the wild!
Aside from marsupials, the Sydney Opera House, meat pies, didgeridoos and other pleasures of Oz, I’m thinking about the metric system, or Système Internationale (SI), as it is properly known. In my presentations at schools, I refer to measurements many times. Last week while presenting at the wonderful Springfield Ball Charter School in Springfield, IL, I asked my host to make a note every time I said something like, “Light travels 186,000 miles per second” or “I’m about 6 feet tall” or “If you ate ice cream at a rate of one ounce per minute…” I wanted to know all the times I use measuring units in the American way.
Armed with his notes, I can now use conversion factors and change those archaic American measurements to sensible metric ones for my Aussie audiences. But do I want to? Does it make sense to convert a measurement to its equivalent in another system? As far as I can tell, the answer is, “Sometimes.”
I believe it makes perfect sense to say that the speed of light is 300,000 km per second and that the earth is 150,000 million kilometers from the Sun. (It’s pronounce KILO-meters, by the way — not kill-O-meters.) But should I convert when I am talking about my book on proportion, If You Hopped Like a Frog, and I say that I’m about six feet tall, and if I my tongue were as long proportionally as a chameleon’s (half as long as its body), my tongue would be three feet long? In other words, should I tell the Australian children that I am 183 cm tall, so my chameleon tongue would be about 91.5 cm? Or… to use the title example, in the States I tell my audience that a 4’6” child able to hop like a frog (meaning 20 times his or her length/height) would be able to jump 90 feet. Here in Australia, should I say that a 137 cm child able to perform a frog’s feat would thus hop 27.4 meters?
Of course not. Exact conversion often makes for complicated, daunting mathematics.
Yet I see this sort of thing in books all the time. “He walked about 25 miles (32.18 km) a day”. . . “Add two cups (473 ml) of flour” . . . “A St. Bernard can tip the scales at 200 lbs (91 kg).” If you didn’t know better, you’d think all American measurements are nice round numbers while metric measurements are ugly and unwieldy. But the fact is that whoever provided the original numbers approximated to nice, round ones. Calculate a conversion and it gets ugly. (Of course if we wrote it in the reciprocal it would be just as ugly. For instance, we could say, “A St. Bernard can tip the scales at 90 kg (198.42 lbs.)” and readers would blanche at the thought of weighing the dog in pounds!)
The best thing, I think, is not to convert, but to think metric from the start. Tomorrow, I won’t say I’m 183 cm tall. I’ll say I’m about 180 cm tall so my tongue (if I had one that was as long, proportionally, as a chameleon’s) would be 90 cm long. And so on.
The practice of converting units has kept the U.S. from switching to the metric system and joining the world. There is no question that it is the better system because, like our number system, it is based on 10. Once you get a basic familiarity with the units, which would take about three hours if you actually used them instead of converting them into more familiar units, you’d see how much easier they are to use. (Need proof? Quick: What’s 5’8” plus 7’ 9”? What’s the weight of 8 books if each weighs 3 lbs. 9 ounces? How much water should you use if you triple a recipe calling for 1¾ cups? In the metric system these would be simple problems. What’s 173 cm plus 236 centimeters? 409 centimeters. What’s 8 times 1.7 kg? 13.6 kg. What’s 3 X 0.4 liters? 1.2 liters. Easy.)
So the problem is not the metric system itself. The problem is how it’s taught — or, more precisely, how we are taught to convert units instead of thinking metric. I view it as language acquisition. Does anyone learn a foreign language by translating every word and sentence? No, foreign languages are learned by immersion. Measuring systems are way easier to learn than languages. Just dive in. On your trip to Paris or Tokyo or Nairobi or Guadalajara or just anywhere else outside the USA, don’t convert. In Millions to Measure, my book on measuring, I wrote, “Find out how tall you are in centimeters, how much you weigh (your mass, actually) in kilograms, how much milk your family drinks in liters, the distance to your school in kilometers, the temperature every day in degrees Celsius, and so on. Once you start measuring and thinking this way, you’ll soon learn the metric system. You’ll be measuring like a word citizen.”