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Sharon Draper’s STELLA BY STARLIGHT and the “Gift” of Reading

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This is Sharon Draper. You may know her from her long list of popular young adult titles. Perhaps you have read her New York Times Bestseller (it’s spent a year on this list), OUT OF MY MIND. Perhaps, like me, you were first introduced to Sharon Draper’s work in a middle grade or young adult literature survey course and you read TEARS OF A TIGER and the companion books after you were hooked by this one. In this picture, Sharon is trying to pull me a little lower, “You’re so tall,” she says.

A month or two ago, Sharon contacted me to let me know that she had a number of young adult titles that she had been reading during her appointment to the National Book Award committee. She was wondering how we might get those books to my Room 407 Readers. We batted it back and forth in Facebook messages eventually moving to the more personal email to make this connection happen. We finally came upon Sharon’s upcoming visit to the Kentucky Reading Association, a perfect opportunity to meet as I am only a twelve minute, door-to-door commute from Hankins Ranch to the historic Galt House in Louisville.

As the day approached, we traded emails once again to coordinate our meeting time. My stomach was all a-flutter. Here’s the thing. I have seen Sharon Draper a number of times in passing at national conferences. Either passing in the hallway or catching a glimpse of her in a signing booth thinking, “THAT’S Sharon Draper.” But, now, I would be meeting her face-to-face. No conference as catalyst. I’m going to meet Sharon Draper. We’ve all had these moments, haven’t we?

When I arrived at the Galt House, Sharon came down to meet me, but if you’ve never been to the Galt House with its two towers separated by the end of the very busy 4th Street, meeting anyone in one spot can be tricky indeed, especially when the Riverboat Festival is in full-float. I couldn’t stay parked on the street, so Sharon jumped into my Expedition (Noah and Maddie are aware that the family vehicle has been transport to super authors and educators like Donalyn Miller, Barry Lane, Penny Kittle, Jeff Anderson, Terry Thompson, and super educators like Teresa Bunner, Kelly Vorhis, and Jillian Heise). Sharon Draper is riding in my vehicle. I hadn’t vacuumed. And Sharon was gracious to not have noted this.

Now, we are on the first level of the Galt House parking garage. This is like something out of the opening scenes of a Police Academy movie. We are the only ones parked together as we make the exchange of over a hundred young adult titles published in 2014. After I have loaded the nine boxes into the Expedition, I ask Sharon what she is working on at the moment. And this is when Sharon reached into her traveling case to pull out what looks to be an advanced reader copy of something. Sharon doubled over and laughed, clutching her book to her chest as she recognized my primal reaction to anything new and bookish. I literally went to grab the book out of Sharon’s hands.

Don’t judge me. You would have. You would have probably used the maze-like structure of the parking garage to make your get-away.

Before handing the book to me, Sharon had something to say about this new book. I’m holding it in my hands at this point and I can feel the newness of it all. The pages. The story. The book. Sharon has granted her permission for me to talk about STELLA BY STARLIGHT.

And I am going to talk about STELLA BY STARLIGHT from a first person point of view. This is a unique and trusted position into which Sharon has placed me as one of the first persons to have read the galley of the galley.

Sharon tells me that the book is a “gift.” And she says it in a way that I get her multiple meanings. The book is a gift some thirty years in the making. Back in 1983, Sharon was given the one remaining journal that belonged to her grandmother, Estella Mills. If you follow Sharon at Facebook, you will note her full name Sharon Mills Draper. On the covers of her books, you see this as Sharon M. Draper. ESTELLA BY STARLIGHT is a means of brining to light that “silent M” that has appeared on a number of treasured titles.

Sharon has carried that journal like a treasure. As she is handing me this new book, I sense that I am now carrying a part of that journal. I am holding something special. This is not just an ARC I’ve picked up in the booth. This is something that has been passed over a span of thirty years. . .eighty years. In one moment, we have shared a history. A gift. A charge.

Sharon tells me that she respects my opinion in regard to young adult literature. And I am glad of the atmosphere in which we are standing. She cannot see me blush in the half-light provided by the dome lights of the parking garage. I tell her that I will probably read the book later that day, and she repeats the word “gift.” The gift of my reading her book. The gift of my sharing her book.

And I read STELLA BY STARLIGHT. Starting at about five o’clock and staying with Stella until eight o’clock. I’ve been down by the river. I’ve been to the store. I’ve been to the polling place. I’ve been at the dinner table. I’ve been at the bedside. I have been to all of the places of this “gift” peeling back a corner here, a corner there, untying the threaded ribbon of a storyline through this “gift.”

Let’s do what I often do with new books and draw some notable comparisons of STELLA BY STARLIGHT to other well-known works. By doing this, I hope to draw you to STELLA BY STARLIGHT by way of what I connected to as I read. As much as the book has been inspired by Sharon’s grandmother, the new book is a fictional account drawn from that journal. There are vignettes of community members gathering about on a porch to share examples of what we might call “the dozens,” playful one-liners designed to bring the reader into a sense of community with the characters.  This is very much like Zora Neale Hurston’s THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD as we catch glimpses of the human interactions that make the characters feel like persons with whom we might trade barbs. As Stella reads the newspaper clippings, and we get a glimpse into the interests expressed and collected by this main character, we are getting a history lesson in 1932. Reading “ladders” and connections abound here. And, I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but an anecdote shared by the teacher, Mrs. Grayson, will have lead learners grabbing–or at least looking for–Virginia Hamilton’s 1985  Corretta Scott King Award-Winning, THE PEOPLE COULD FLY.

Sharon’s new title explores a difficult subject in balancing the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan and the internal drive of the black man to want to cast his vote in a presidential election. The tension between the domestic and democratic is at play in  STELLA BY STARLIGHT and Sharon creates a wonderful bridge across this tension with a main character who appreciates the cadence of The Pledge of Allegiance and can recite the beginnings of the Declaration of Independence (a rote skill learned in a one-room school house under the guidance of a lead learner who will make teachers stand up and cheer for the representation provided by Mrs. Grayson).

Anyone who knows my work will know I am given to follow a hero’s journey type of schema as I read. STELLA BY STARLIGHT hits all of the markers in a manner by which we will all be talking about “dragons” real and imagined. Stella Mills is a plucky hero with fallible guides and a quest we can all share, readers, writers, teachers, and students alike. And you won’t want to miss a cameo character in “the Spoon Man” who appears to peddle his wares, but leaves the reader with the first story that demonstrates the deep love between Stella and her mother.

Readers will see Stella struggle with the writing process throughout the book and this will make an excellent talking point during and after reading the work. Mr. Hankins suggests that STELLA BY STARLIGHT be read aloud to students to capture the pace and prosody of the narrative and Stella’s attempts at rendering elements of narrative into her own prose. But the encouragement that Stella receives from her teacher, her family, and her special friend, Tony can serve as a model for the kind of encouragement our own young writers might enjoy.

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Yes. STELLA BY STARLIGHT is indeed a gift. And it will be a gift that keeps on giving by way of exploration, by way of exposition, and by way of explaining through the importance of recognizing and carrying forth a charge.

“You’re so tall. . .” she says.

Sharon. . .we all stand a little taller when we are affirmed by the authors we read and the authors we love. In real life–when you are not sharing your work with me before the rest of the reading world–we are actually the same height. But, we stand upon the memories, the experiences. . .the reading we have done and the writing we have attempted and the charges that come to us to continue to doing both.

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“A ‘Spiritual’ Look at Levels”: Part III

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This is the third installment in what began as a reflection piece after reading Oliver Sacks’s book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Sacks’s seminal work in neurology, this book revisits, by way of case study, some of Sacks’s more memorable patients during his practice. One of these patients is Mr. McGregor from the chapter, “On the Level.”

If you are just joining this three-part series, Mr. McGregor comes to Dr. Sacks with a report of a “tilting” as he walks. A tilting that has been shared with him by his family and friends, but one he cannot detect himself. Through consultation and conferring, Dr. Sacks is able to verify the tilting with Mr. McGregor and the two of them come together on a most innovative and therapeutic solution.

But it is in this chapter that Sacks describes the triple control system that governs balance and we have explored these in Part II. What I would like to look at in the third and final installment of this reflection is how we are able to bring readers into the safety, assurance, and ease with which Dr. Sacks finds most patients with balance problems do find themselves–while not with a perfect gait–walking.

Dr. Sacks discusses the triple control system as the labyrinthine, the proprioception, and the visual.

The labyrinthine is the pathway. The very first thing I say to our Room 407 Readers is something that Penny Kittle said during a workshop at Indiana University Southeast a few years ago. Penny said, “The difference between a reader and a non-reader is the reader has a plan.” We have 36 weeks in order to enact upon our plan. The very first thing we do is handout a 40 Book Challenge as found in Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer.

In that first class meeting, the challenge is often met with disbelief. These are students who do not believe that reading 40 books in a year is possible. Though I have little doubt that the idea of genre has been presented to them at some point before the eleventh grade, they do not recognize genres when they come into Room 407. Many of them ask how the project will be graded which I have come to learn is the vocalized idea that a project is something that can be failed vs. a project that could be met with a measure of success. To be open and fair, these students will have been asked to have read up to twelve books a year–three per marking period–within a reading management program. Friends. . .these students have not been reading these twelve books. They excel in the ability to determine how many books they must read to pass the course when the idea of reading three books–one every three weeks–is too much. Each year, these readers tell me the ways and means by which they have met–or not met–the challenge of the reading management program that was marketed as a motivational program for readers.

“The difference between the reader and the non-reader is that the reader has a plan.” If you began the stem of this sentence in Room 407 with our English 11 students, you would be able to see right away that it is more than a platitude; it’s an attitude. It’s more than a mandate; it’s a mantra. And more than lip service; it is the labyrinth in which we will walk all year long.

We’ve modified Donalyn’s 40 Book Challenge to reflect the kind of reading 11th graders might be doing during the course of his or her junior year. We’ve done this after actual consultations with Donalyn to be sure that we are doing this right. And Donalyn, ever encouraging, has said, “You know your room. You know your students.” We add the category of American Classics and American History-Based Titles because the junior year in Indiana sees our students enrolled within a U.S. History course. Many of our students are not aware that the reading that they do in coursework other than their English class is also reading. And I invite them to include their U. S. History Titles on their 40 Book Challenge.

The plan is all around us from the first day of class. Many students find it incredible that I have read almost 90% of my classroom library (I have not read 100% as there is a section of the library for books that I am reviewing and they come in with such regularity that I need to time to read and to process before putting some books into rotation. . .for others, I depend upon the good opinion of those in my extended learning community). There are books on ever shelf of every type. We have picture books in Room 407 and we share them often. As Room 407 Readers begin to walk with safety. . .assured. . .and at ease with the idea of reading, they will often want to take books home to share with his or her sibling(s). We have poetry, graphic novels, non-fiction, periodicals, illustrated texts. I have an example text for every genre listed on the 40 Book Challenge. We invite our Room 407 Readers to frequent the school library, the public library, and book stores to find the titles we want to read, but I would not challenge them to read more than they have ever read while outsourcing their ability to find books wholesale. If this is our plan, then this is our place.

The very first book we share together in Room 407 is Silas House’s Eli the Good. I have selected this text for its big ideas that we will continue to revisit all year long, but I also choose it to put our Room 407 Readers into a place of choosing where they will list the book after we have finished. Yes. We read this book aloud. Together. Yes. We invite our readers to list this book when we are finished. It is a “big idea” book for the year. Kelly Gallagher recently tweeted, if a big idea is not revisited later in the year, it is not a big idea. Students can choose now whether they want to place this title in American History, Memoir (a stretch, but we can defend this), Choice, or Multi-Cultural or Diversity. I encourage students to look at “diversity” in that a main character from the book suffers from PTSD. There are four places that this book can be listed after reading and not all students make the same choice as they strategically begin to look at their own plan for reading and what categories might need the boost of our having shared this book together.

Do you hear it from Part II of this series? Reading through this text together was our “clicker” that modeled rhythm and pace as we begin walking and reading together. And we cannot revisit “big ideas” presented in this book if we have a percentage of students who did not read the book. By reading aloud, I am attempting to communicate to the room that I am in the balance here with the students. We read. . .we walk. . .we share. . .we talk. Together. We model pacing. We model the stamina needed to finish a book (by demonstrating we cannot expect to do it “the night before”).

There is a safety here. Every person in the room knows that we have finished a book. We had some fun with it along the way. We have built in the allusions as we have listened to the music of the era, we have handled model cars referenced within the text, we have built in “teasers” for parts of the book that I knew would be tough or tender for the readers. We have navigated a book, cover-to-cover together. When asked what book they read during their junior year, these students have one they can list without qualification or a need for qualification. Our room read this book. Safely, assured, and at ease.

As the 40 Book Challenge is their “plan” for the year, we refer to it frequently. However, as our Room 407 Readers begin to pick up steam, they often overlook maintaining their 40 Book Challenge. The times that we stop to look at our challenge sheets is a time to look together at titles from different genres that students in the room are reading. We can have conversations around the room regarding for what category this book might be a good fit. This seeming “neglect” of the sheet is a good problem to have–it is predictable and it provides an opportunity to revisit this “big idea” element of the class–but we want this running record (not a reading log) to reflect the reading that they are doing and how they are working toward a challenge that will see them reading more books–independently and by choice–titles than their freshman and sophomore year put together.

1466 words? Good grief. I apologize. . .

Look for Part IV of “A ‘Spiritual’ Look at Levels” tomorrow.

 

 

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“A ‘Spiritual’ Look at Levels”: Part II

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In yesterday’s post, we talked about the term, “proprioception,” and how this term might apply to reading outside of its traditional treatment along the physical or kinesthetic applications. If we are talking about movement at all in this two-post series, it is about movement of the spirit level of the reader who has somehow become tilted against titles–avoiding them–or titled by titles assigned to them.

To review, Oliver Sacks presents the case of a Mr. McGregor who comes into the office titled to one side. Mr. McGregor is not aware of his own tilting and by video taping his walk and conferring with his patient, Dr. Sacks is able to bring his patient to an understanding of his Parkinson’s Disease and how it has affected what Mr. McGregor refers to as his “spirit level.”

What we find from this case study is that the balancing system of the person is based upon a “triple control system.” These include the labyrinthine, the proprioception, and the visual. In yesterday’s post, we equated these with the path, the person, and the perception. Today, I’d like to extend that third “p” to the idea of the plausible. . .the possible.

In Oliver Sacks’s findings based upon this case study presented in the book, THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT, we are privy to the idea that–while a triple control system–any one of the controls can compensate for the lacking of another. In Mr. McGregor’s example we see that his visual has been thrown off, and if you you want to see truly innovative thinking in regard to patient care, read the chapter, “On the Level” to see how “spirit spectacles” helped Mr. McGregor and countless others to find a new sense of balance.

In the case of many who have lost–either from congenital defect or surgical intervention–the sense of the labyrinthine (see inner ear) then the proprioceptive entities come into play in helping the patient to find balance. And this is often done without much intervention by an outside party. The body will walk if the body will walk. And before we judge this manner of walking which might appear titled, remember that all of our walking is a series of swings and drops, a pendulum-like action that should cause all of us to stumble and fall (see toddlers) but our compensatory systems come into play to keep us moving forward, backward, side to side.

When it looks like we should be falling, we are actually walking.

And with an appreciation of how the control systems and how they work together–and an application of what we know of the systems–we can see how it looks like should be failing but they are actually awakening to the idea of reading.

Here is what Oliver Sacks says about one of the largest propriocepter elements in the human body:

“. . .the vast latismuss dorsi muscles of the back–the greatest, most mobile muscular expanse in the body–as an accessory and novel balance organ, a pair of vast, wing-like proprioceptors. As patients become practiced, as this becomes second-nature, they are able to stand and to walk–not perfectly, but with safety, assurance, and ease” (74).

Those who read this blog or know me and my work would begin to sense that I would unpack this passage for all it is worth to the learning and reading community. And I am. I see words like, “practiced,” “second-nature,” “safety,” “assurance,” and “ease” and I think of the readers who come into, read within, and exit Room 407 each year.

Oh, and the reference to a “novel balance organ” was not lost on me either.

But it is what Oliver Sacks writes about physicians who have used innovative–read “novel”–interventions that I want to explore today. The use of lines painted in the hall to assist gait sounds very much to me like guided reading, read-alouds, and Notice & Note strategies explored by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. The use of counterweights on belts to aide in balance sounds very much like the “reading ladders” described by Teri Lesesne and the 40 Book Challenge which invites readers to read across genres to find balance as presented by Donalyn Miller. And the loudly ticking pacemakers to set the cadence for walking sounds very much like Jim Trelease’s Read-Aloud Handbook.

But it is when Oliver Sacks lends the credit of this work to Purdon Martin that I take notice. Here, Sacks writes, “He was a deeply human pioneer, and in his medicine understanding and collaborating were central: patient and physician  were coequals, on the same level, each learning from and helping the other between them arriving at new insights and treatment” (75).

And doesn’t this sound like the wonderful work of Penny Kittle in Book Love? Aren’t these kinds of collaborations and understandings found within people-sourced platforms like #engchat, #TitleTalk, and other education-based, on-line chats. Isn’t this what The Nerdy Book Club does each day in exploring new voices, new strategies and approaches, new insights into the reading life that is poised. . .and balanced?

Sacks says that the one thing that Martin did not produce in his work was any kind of prosthetic that would aid in balance. This is where Sacks and McGregor work together to create a pair of spectacles wherein McGregor can see a visual in front of him that helps him to judge his sense of level against the true sense of level offered by way of feedback from his environment.

Friends. . .we don’t have to outfit our students with this kind of apparatus as the book. . .any book our students may be reading with our guidance and our support becomes a sort of visual. See it? The reader holding the book up in front of his or her eyes begins to see the world in new–and novel–ways.

McGregor exclaims, “Doc. I got it! I don’t need a mirror–I just need a level. I cannot use the spirit levels inside my head, but why couldn’t I use levels outside of my head–levels I could see, I could use with my eyes?”

The quick answer to McGregor is that he can. We can. They can.

The latissmus dorsi of reading–and I sense that many would agree with me here are the balance that comes of conferring and choice.

Or–if you will–lattismus dorsi equals literature and discussion. Do we really begin to take the first step–ourselves–as lead learners when we understand that the offerings of literature to young adult readers is VAST. It spans across levels, lives, and loves. If we are proprioceptive in regard to what we know we know and that we don’t know what we don’t know, we can sit up from our chair, take notice of what is truly at stake, and take the first step toward offering an environment wherein readers can feel. . .

. . .a sense of safety.

. . .a sense of assurance.

. . .a sense of ease.

Perhaps this needs to go to a Part III, something I had not envisioned when first beginning to write about Dr. Sacks and Mr. McGregor. I feel like I still have more to say. And tomorrow is another day, isn’t it? Look for Part III tomorrow as we explore how those first steps look in Room 407 and how our visual system has changed for many of our students in the course of nine weeks.

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“A ‘Spiritual’ Look at Level”: Part I

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While reading Oliver Sacks’s THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT (I’ve been reading a section or two each day this week) this morning, I came to “On the Level.” In this chapter, a Mr. McGregor comes to the doctor with a concern. His friends all tell him that he is walking with a lean. That he has become like “The Leaning Tower of Pisa.” His friends exclaim, “One more tilt, and you’ll topple right over.” Mr. McGregor does not see this tilting and he comes to the doctor to seek out a professional opinion.

And it is immediately apparent to Dr. Sacks that the tilt IS there. But instead of marveling at the tilt, the reader sees the doctor celebrating the positive aspects of Mr. McGregor’s age, agility, and affect. This reads like a “holistic approach” coupled with “unconditional positive regard” and I am hooked by the story within two or three paragraphs.

And I like Sacks’s approach as he invites Mr. McGregor to video tape his walking to the other side of the room. Dr. Sacks says, “I want to see for myself, and I want you to see it too.” Doesn’t this sound like formative assessment with feedback? Both the practitioner and the patient are investigating together and will confer regarding the results to see what both see after the “test.”

Finished with the performance portion of the test, it is time to “go to the balcony” to assess the performance. Mr. McGregor, who we will later find has Parkinson’s Disease says, “See, no problems. I walked as straight as a die.” How many times have we handed back a test or an assessment piece that had a mark upon it that was not expected by the student based upon his or her own assessment of how they had performed. This could be called “perception,” couldn’t it?

Watching the video tape together, we see Mr. McGregor coming to terms with what he sees now outside of himself. He does not challenge what he “sees” on the screen. It is him. He is tilting. And he recognizes that what he senses and what he sees is the heart of the problem (Mr. McGregor’s actual words from the account). This is called “agency,” isn’t it? A sense of ownership now of the problem that has not be judged but presented for the purpose of correcting the posture or the position. There is no data wall upon which Mr. McGregor’s name is listed with the word “Tilted” in the next column.

Oliver Sacks introduces a term within this account. “Proprioception” comes from the Latin, proprious, meaning “one’s own”, “individual” and perception, is the sense of the relative position of neighboring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement. With my G2, I am furiously underscoring the word and what it means. I’m dog-earring the page for later reference. We have known–as a medical community–the sense of proprioception only since the 1890′s. According to the early research I have done in regard to this term, we still have much to learn about how this sense keeps us upright and moving forward with purpose.

I’m all in because I think this term speaks to something we are trying to do in Room 407. I think this proprioception will figure in–somehow–into the idea of These 4 Corners. There is something about the inner sense of the reader that would be that comes of an appreciation of how the elements of proprioception come together. Questions I am asking this afternoon include: Could our corners be tilted in the manner in which we see them? Or how we construct them? Further, is there something to the three elements of proprioception that become as important as the beams we use to construct these corners?

But these are questions for another afternoon.

Early research into the terms in regard to literacy turn up a number of references to what we might expect to find–explorations of how purposeful physical action lends to the literacy experience. And herein, we could talk about movement and the need for movement in the classroom, but I want to stay with the internal here because I am fascinated by it today.

But it is Mr. McGregor’s ability to call back his own sense of “level.” When he recounts how he worked as a carpenter and that he used “spirit levels” to assess whether a surface was level or not.

“Spirit level?”

I know that my friends who work with wood and/or carpentry are probably laughing at me (again). I had to do a Google search of “spirit levels.”

Aside: If you were counting the words here, “spirit levels” came in right at 666. Something for another afternoon, but I thought to share it with you. 

There, in the Google Image Search were a number of pictures of. . .levels. Levels. “Spirit levels” are simply the levels that we see at Home Depot or Lowes or Menard’s.

And Mr. McGregor wants to know is there is a “spirit level” in the brain to which Dr. Sacks responds, “Yes.” Together, they talk about how Parkinson’s Disease can “knock out” that “spirit level.”

And here is where I am hooked.

Dr. Sacks goes on to explain that there are three secret senses that guide our sense of “level.” These include, the labyrinthine, the proprioceptive, and the visual. If you are following me to this point, you have just sensed a light bulb turning on. Right here. Right now.

The labyrinthine. . .the path

The proprioception. . .the pupil. . .the person.

The visual. . .the perception.

All three of these work together to bring into the room the “leveled” reader. What is the path this reader has been on prior to coming into the room? Has it been smooth sailing or has it been a sea of sirens that have kept this particular reader either dashed upon the rocks or avoiding stepping into the boat altogether?

And wouldn’t this say something to the inside of the reader who has just come into our classroom? How do we apply a “spirit level” to the surface of the student who has just wandered into our reading and writing workshop?

Because this is where perception will come into play. Many of those who have come into contact will have probably told this particular student that they are not a “good reader.” That one more “failure” would mean not graduating.” They have probably read all of this on a data wall in the past couple of years depending upon what time in the formative learning experience you have met them.

A pebble-pocked path can trip up the reader, especially one who has not begun to leave breadcrumbs behind. And when the walking becomes wearisome. . .the pupil will park.

When  it feels like you are the only reader in the room who doesn’t “get it”. . .you will park. . .in the desk. For another year.

And the perception of “park” means that you have at least found a place.

And that place is “park.”

No movement.

And as this blog post is going long, we will continue with this idea tomorrow as we share what Dr. Sacks says about patients like Mr. McGregor and how they DO move. With strategies that include the psychological, the physical, and the perceptional.

I cannot wait to share this with you.

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“What I Would Say To Him. . .”

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Don’t you wonder sometimes what you might say, if you were able to slip through some portal back to yourself. . .your younger self? Full of some journey-fed wisdom filling a number of black marble composition books–or maybe those blue books they gave you at university.

That’s it–bring to your younger self the compendium of your experiences in black and blue ink bound in black and blue binders. And you could stuff them into a sea bag and leave them at your own bedside.

Maybe you would marvel at how a mobile home and an aircraft carrier are kin. . .you just have to know the difference between port and starboard. And appreciate stern. And be cognizant of the bow.

That’s it.

You’ve learned too much.

You’ll be of little assistance here with your lines and your verses. And hold your chapters, there are words enough in the day of the child without those you have brought from your adulthood.

 

But. . .if you could go. . .back to the property where all the trees are banded with poison to keep the army worms from colonizing. If you could go back to the place where the tool shed with all of its mysteries and dark propositions stands. If you could go back to the place where the summer took and the winters froze and left you springing into the truest sense of fall. . .

Would you steal a peak at the pile of books by the bedside, selfishly, in an effort to remember. . .and then forget what it was that you had to say? It would be better that way to be sure.

It’s all very novel, isn’t it? This idea that you would have anything to say to a younger you. The younger you would not be able to process the fullness of time and the richness of experience you have had beyond the years that the younger you has lived. This is the problem of time. It moves even as it might seem it is standing still. You could hold the hands at an hour, but you would never have another hour in which to hold your hand.

It’s a time-continuum issue. It’s built into the master plan that we respectfully leave our younger selves alone while we have a constant opportunity to revisit our past experiences, peering out from behind a Star Wars poster undetected.

I don’t pretend to understand it.

But I have been there. . .I have climbed three metal steps balanced against the side of the trailer and I have found the door to be unlocked. And I have stopped at the kitchen sink to drink a glass of country water out of a glass with Mayor McCheese painted on it. I have walked burgundy carpet past a cast-iron, pot-bellied stove and I have seen his silhouette drawn at the local middle school carnival earlier that fall. I know the shape and the contour of that face. And I know that many times that this face has been lost to a darkness that needs a little more light shown upon it.

And I have opened the first door on the left to see him sleeping there. His sleep is restless and I know why. The weight of a world that is quickly coming to an end will be his to inherit. But not before heaven and hell grapple for every soul. And I know that tonight he dreams of Babylon the Great.

And he is restless because he feels badly that he enjoys so many things that she holds in her hands:

Pop Rocks. Star Wars cards. Dynamite magazine. Disco music. C.H.I.P.S. . Muppets.

All gone in trade for a paradise earth.

I’ve sat at the bedside and I have watched him worry himself over his teachers who send him to the hall during parties. And the touching that happens at the hands of monsters all-to-real. And never telling because monsters can disguise themselves as loved ones and neighbors. . .you wouldn’t believe how convincing they can be in the face of confrontation.

And I have have told him. . .and I will tell him again.

Read. . .you reader you. . .read.

You keep reading until you find the truth that will truly set you free. And if you have not found it, you keep turning pages until it becomes so clear that the words that come after will make no more sense than the revelation you’ve been given to accept without condition.

Love. . .you lover you. . .love. . .

You love this world with all that your heart has left because as little as you might have there will be one who needs just enough to see the light of another day.  Love them all. . .big. . .small. . . And it is okay to touch with your hands. It is a temporal affection. The tingle subsides quickly. It is okay to love with your your heart. It is a complete kind of love and the absence that comes of it will may never pass but it is a fair exchange for those times that your heart will soar for all of the love that it draws in and gives out.

And love with your words. For as egotistical as it might sound, others will need them. When they struggle to find their own, perhaps they might find what they wanted to say in something you have shared.

Be. . .be. . .be. . .

Be here. Be eight. Be brave. It’s the best thing for you to be right now.  It’s really all you can do right now.

Oh. . .don’t ever lose those Star Wars cards. You’ll want them later on.

I would have brought them with me, but it seems that you never listen. Even now in the past you are thinking about unwrapping them to chew the gum that comes with the cards.

The problem of the time continuum is that our wisdom gets lost in the transmutation. You can never grow back again. All you can ever see if how the cards stack together to build the ramshackle houses in which you’ll take up residence.

But the living. . .oh. . .the living. . .is so good. And the loving. . .is so good. And the reading. . .gets better and better as you grow nearer and nearer to the truth:

That eight was as good as eight could be. And you’re going to be okay.

I’m here.

Aren’t I?

Category:  Uncategorized     

“When I Spoke to You of Souls and Skin”: For My Friend, Teri Lesesne

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“When I Spoke to You of Souls and Skin”

 

When I spoke to you of souls and skin,

I think both of us had to stop to catch our breath,

for such a thing to have been said on a clear day

when we both could have seen for miles and miles.

 

You, in a larger state than the one in which I live now

and I, at the crossroads, sit looking over your shoulder

through some window neither of us would have known

had we not come to a place with four corners for our faces.

 

But I think I meant that these stories are like a breath,

and we can measure and count them by seconds multiplying

until we arrive at how we were both breathing in the air

filled with some story that was filling my lung at the time.

 

So, I said that stuff about stories and souls and skins,

but I really meant that I was just trying to breathe

and how breathing in can feel like “once upon a time”

and an exhalation can often feel like “the end.”

 

And the space between breathing in and breathing out

is a line that gets drawn into the place where stories

float in chambers and begin to swell until a moment

wherein they can grow and swell and be and be breathed.

 

And maybe a poem is like a thin whisper through pursed lips

or a shout through the wide open mouth of a scream.

And maybe a the panel of a comic srip or a graphic novel

is akin to how we breathe upon glass to see our air upon the pane.

 

And maybe that piece of non-fiction, that moment of truth

is a chance to put the bellow to the breast to hear the friction

of how our lungs are filled with a sense of reality realized,

a need to listen to the inner workings of a wondrous world.

 

And doesn’t the body revel in the sense of a story made up

on the spot like the passing of a scent in  field far away?

How one can almost choke upon the smoke and ashes,

breath from a beast in a lair in some other land we now know?

 

Maybe this is what I meant all along when I spoke too quickly

about souls and skins how the essence of a story could be embodied

when what I really meant is that I had found myself breathless for a time

until I discovered that the opening of a book is like a new breath.

 

And that the sharing together of these stories as we are wont do

is a sacred chance to breathe in the same air of a story born of air,

and if we do, as is our vocation, pass a book into the hand of another,

it’s our desperate way of asking, “Take this while I catch my breath.”

 

 

 

Category:  Uncategorized     

What We Prescribe for the Hearts We Encounter. . .

apothecary

 

“Apothecary” courtesy of MorgueFile.com

My friend, Teri Lesesne, posted a picture of the books that have come into her office recently. Of the titles she will take home right away is another in the Joey Pigza series. This excites me. It means that Jack. . .that Jack Gantos is still practicing. You see, we lose track of one another now and then as we move in our own worlds.

On our own wards. Within our different practices, I mean. You must know. . .Jack and I work on hearts. We are both skilled practitioners. And while we have not discussed our different approaches in some time, it was at one national conference wherein we first made the discovery that we were–in fact–both in the heart business.

And the interaction began as these always do. I am walking out of the ALAN Reception where I just had my picture taken with Judy Blume and Nancy Garden. I’m getting ready to walk out to go have dinner with Jack Gantos when I stopped in the hallway by Jon Sciezka.

John says to me, “Hey. . .you getting ready to have dinner with Jack Gantos?”

“Yeah yeah,” I reply, “I’m pretty excited about it.”

“Sure” replies John, “But, here’s what you’re going to do. I want you to talk to Jack and try to figure out what he is all about. Will you do that?”

“Yeah, Jon. I can do that,” I reply thinking that I have just had my Slugsworth moment on the way to dinner. But there is no way I am going to get close to Jack Gantos. It’s not going to happen no matter how intimate these publisher dinners try to be. I’ll be at some table across the way looking at the Newbery Award Winner. Our interaction will be limited to a handshake and a gush (not particularly in that order and not specified who is doing which and when).

But somehow it turns out that I am sitting not only at the table with Jack Gantos, but I am sitting RIGHT NEXT to Jack Gantos. I look across the table and I see my friend, Teri Lesesne. Does she know about this? Has she made this happen? Is she somehow in conspiracy with this Sciezka fellow? What might I learn of Jack Gantos that might be of interest–or service to either of them? And when I find this out. . .will I share out?

And I have not shared out. Until now. And I am only sharing out now because I see that Jack Gantos is still practicing. And this is something to me as I don’t practice as regularly as I should. Sometimes I let my credentials slip a little. So when I am reminded of the work we do, I get out the charts again and I begin to look at the daily round sheet.

You see. . .in the midst of that dinner, Jack and I began talking about hearts. It began as I told him the story of a young man who had had his heart broken earlier in the school year and how this young man held his bandaged heart close to his chest and walked into the school for the first day of school. Every one in his class new that he had recently been party to an arrest. And that it broke his heart. But he came in anyway. He could have flat lined, but instead, he became much more aware of the manner in which his heart was still beating and he took on that first day. He took on the stares and the questioning eyes. He walked past those ready to grab the paddle should he go down.

I told Jack about how this young man had found some very powerful remedy in reading early on in the year. This young man who came into Room 407 having read no more than four books in two years found something in story to which he could tether his aching heart and allow these stories to help set a pace for his daily activity. A graphic novel here. A poetry collection there. All of the Chris Crutcher books I had on the shelf as he grew into the rehabilitation that story can offer. Then, he found HOLE IN MY LIFE. He had found his heart’s book. It was a most successful transplant of text and when I think of this young man today, I think HOLE IN MY HEART fit in the place where a hole had been left where his heart had one laid. And beat shakily.

By way of simple conversation, I told Jack that my wife was a Nurse Practitioner who worked in cardiology when Jack told me that he had recently accompanied a cardiologist friend to an open heart surgery. I could picture Jack somehow all masked up like Buddy Holly meets Johnny Depp meets Quincy, with a black sports coat over surgical scrubs and thin booties to protect his Doc Martin shoes. Because this is how I picture Jack Gantos each day as he demands a story to “clear” at his writing desk on its way to the readers it will aid.

Jack described how he watched his friend actually put hands on that heart on the table. Jack described to me–the way only a writer can–how the friend gently massaged that heart until it pinked up and began beating again. Jack marveled at how his friend knew just what to do with his hands. He described the essential blend of confidence and care. He talked about how his friend had seemingly employed everything he knew about hearts in the moment wherein that expertise would be most needed. When it really mattered.

At this point, I stole a quick moment to look around our table and about the room of the very nice restaurant in which we were sitting together. Had time stopped while we–a classroom teacher and the Newbery Award winning author–sat together talking about hearts? Is this what I had been commissioned by the former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature to find out? Should I be writing any of this down?

I then told Jack, “Here’s the thing, Jack. In the room. . .on the table. . .with all of the machines. . .we know that the heart is broken and we have algorithms we can employ to make it right or to not make it right again. It all pivots on what we know of heart breakage.

It’s this situation. It’s this sequence. It’s this step.

Even my wife has a chart. Printed reports and lab values often precede the bedside visit. But wouldn’t it be just as helpful. . .if we could have know what broke the heart in the first place? This is the piece we don’t always know. It’s a part of the person’s course, but it’s not on the chart.

And maybe. . .in the absence of being able to put our hands upon their hearts for the purpose of massage, we must work to reach the heart through a message. Story seems to be a language so familiar to the heart that it will actually pause its own rhythm in anticipation of a new one entering into its system. Perhaps this is why our heart ‘skips a beat’ when we encounter a new story.”

Then, Jack picked up his name card from the table and begin to doodle around the margins. “Great. . .” I thought. “I’ve gone all analogy with a Newbery Award winning author.” Then Jack leaned in and whispered, “Okay. . .now. . .what should we say to your boy?”

And I saw Jack draft a message to my student on that name card. Not only writing down the words that were from my heart but from his as well. For just a moment, I thought of William Carlos Williams grabbing up an available prescription pad to draft a new piece.

But this wasn’t merely a draft.

This was a graft.

Together, Jack and I would be able to deliver to this reader a message. This was not just an inscription. After I would return from Boston I would deliver a prescription for a reading life. Jack had done it. He used his combined confidence and care to render the one aid that we know to be most beneficial to the reader’s heart. . .a new story.

He had messaged my reader’s heart. And he let me carry that message in my hands until I could deliver it safely into my reader’s.

Now, Jack and I were hugging at the table full of new friends who probably had no idea–until now–that this interaction had taken place. Maybe Jack has conversations like this all of the time. Maybe Jack knows that the very idea of prescription is the notion that much of our story has been written before our own heart begins to beat.

But our story is only a flat line when we chose to read it as such.

Perhaps Jack knows that our past is not our pace.

Perhaps Jack knows that the heart’s rhythm rendered out in story format ends in a pattern like this:

“. . .”

This is what I found out about Jack Gantos. When we sat together for dinner–by chance–and learned from a skilled practitioner another way into the reader’s heart. Confidence. . .care. . .concern. And story.

It’s always the story. That leads us to the heart. And we can read them. And we can remedy them.

Books are the key.

Story is the stint.

Jon. . .is this what you wanted?

I sure hope so, because I have been carrying this in my heart for a year now.

Category:  Uncategorized     

Okay. . .We’re Going to Say It Again.

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This is Josh. He is reading a book called GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE by Andrew Smith.

This title, released earlier this year, is the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award 2014 Fiction Award Winner.

It’s reading level according to the Junior Library Guild and Renaissance Learning (parent company of Accelerated Reader)  is 6.2. The points Josh would earn from Accelerated Reader would be 16. The book is recommended for Mature Young Adults ( this is a JLG designation).

Before I say more about Josh and GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE, let’s take a look at what Accelerated Reader has to say about the book:

Austin Szerba narrates the end of humanity as he and his best friend accidentally unleash an army of unstoppable bugs and uncover the secrets of a decades-old experiment gone terribly wrong. The text contains profanity, violence, and sexual stituations.

Fair enough.

But, I wanted to see what Accelerated Reader had to say about the other Andrew Smith titles my readers have read and enjoyed in the past couple of years in Room 407. The title that comes to mind first is Smith’s STICK. The first thing I see is that the reading level drops with this particular title, but there is still an RP quiz available. I wanted to look up RP. Here is the description of an RP Quiz as offered by Accelerated Reader in its information provided to parents (a PDF document I am sure few parents have ever been offered to read and to consider):

Reading Practice Quizzes are the most common type of assessment in AR. The purpose of these quizzes is to
determine whether your child has read a book, to measure literal comprehension of the book, and to provide immediate feedback. Each Reading Practice Quiz consists of 3, 5, 10, or 20 multiple-choice questions depending on book level and length. They are available in English, Spanish, and Recorded Voice formats.

Friends, in my experience with Acclerated Reader, these Reading Practice Quizzes are the ONLY type of assessment. For the author. For the book. For the reader.

For the cause.

But it is the description of STICK that causes me to stop again for a moment:

Stick’s older brother, Bosten, has always defended him, but when Bosten comes out as gay and leaves home and their abusive parents, Stick sets out to find him. The plot contains profanity, sexual situations, child abuse, and other violence.

My readers LOVE Andrew Smith. We offered GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE as Books and Bagels title last year which culminated in Andrew Smith’s interacting with my students in Room 407 via SKYPE. It was a robust conversation about the book, about writing, and about being teachers and students in the room who share books together.

Not because of a level, but because of our love for books.

So, I had to go back to Accelerated Reader just one more time to look at one more Smith title.

Because I was becoming concerned. I read on the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award Committee. This award has a three-part criteria: literary merit, teen appeal, and a positive, life-affirming feel. This year, one of our finalists was Andrew Smith’s WINGER. Here is what Accelerated Reader had to say about WINGER:

Two years younger than his classmates at a boarding school,14-year-old Ryan grapples with living in the dorm for troublemakers, falling for his best female friend, and playing wing on the varsity rugby team. The plot contains pervasive profanity.

Despite Accelerated Reader’s treatment of Andrew Smith’s titles, the ratings offered by readers do not drop below the highest marks available by those polled after having taken the quiz. Accelerated Reader’s treatment of plot, however, does cause some concern as I understand plot to be a description of a character(s) conflict and a sense of resolution. If the plot, itself, contained “pervasive profanity,” Renaissance Learning would not print that plot out of prudence, would they?

Andrew Smith’s titles, despite their average page count of 375-400 stay at a 14-15 point mark for Accelerated Reader “points” a student might earn for having read the book and having passed the quiz after the reading.

For fun, I went through some other popular titles (based upon the books my Room 407 Readers have enjoyed over the past couple of years) to see what Acclerated Reader was offering by way of page count and points awarded.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

This book was our Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award Winner for 2014. Accelerated Reader offers a 3.8 Reading Level and 11 points.

But here is what Acclerated Reader does not offer by way of including Rainbow Rowell’s title within its catalog of quizzes:

A 2014 Michael L. Printz Honor Book for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.

Winner of the 2013 Boston Globe Horn Book Award for Best Fiction Book. 

The Pull of Gravity by Gae Polisner

Here, Accelerated Reader offers a book of Middle Grade interest with a level of 4.1 and 6 points for having read the book and having passed the quiz after reading. Of course, this is an instance wherein Accelerated Reader misses recommending a title to middle grade audiences that–according to its description of the book–has a plot [that] contains profanity and sexual references.

The Pull of Gravity earned the Nerdy Book Club Award Best YA Fiction 2011 distinction.

Pennsylvania School Library Association’s List of Best YA Fiction 2011

YALSA Readers Choice Nominee 2011

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate:

The Newbery Medal winning title earns a 3.6 reading level and 4 points for having read the book and having passed the quiz after reading.

Did we mention that this book won the Newbery Medal?

The Book of Broken Hearts by Sarah Ockler

Reading Level 5. Points for having read the book and having passed the quiz. . .12.

Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos

Reading Level 5.7. Points awarded for having read the book and having passed the quiz. . .7.

But ask my student, Tyler, what it meant to have read this book last year in Room 407 and to have received a signed copy with a personal message from Jack Gantos. Further, ask Tyler what it felt like to have read over 100 books last year coming out of a year wherein, according to Tyler’s accounting, he read fewer than three books in two years. Tyler clearly did not like reading.

Here is what Acclerated Reader has to offer to parents who wonder about a child who might not like reading:

Using Accelerated Reader, your child will choose the books he wants to read. The teacher or librarian will make certain the book is at the right level so that after completing the book, your child should do well on the AR Reading Practice Quiz. Success on the quiz will encourage your child to read more. With guidance from the teacher or librarian, and success, even students who say they don’t like reading will develop a love of reading.

Do you see what I see?

The teacher and the librarian will make certain the book is at the right level. Seemingly, the student reader and the family have no input here.

Success on the quiz awards points within a point system. In many cases, the ability to pass an Accelerated Reader quiz (or inability) will be reflected within a student’s grade for the class. Friends, what point value do you think we might have to assign to a reading program that will assure self-motivated readers will not take the quiz with the knowledge that it will not affect their grade to have not complied with the program’s requirements? Think about this. The number of points awarded would have to be of value to the student. Do you see what is being created here?

With guidance from the teacher or librarian. . .guidance is not merely pointing someone in the direction you want them to go. A first-day employee at Wal-mart gets this kind of training in customer service.

And guidance from the teacher or librarian is a part of his or her job description. We–as stakeholders–would pay extra beyond the contracted salary to an outside party to assure our students love for reading?

This post is going long. And I sense that there is so much more to say about the subject of reading management programs that we are not saying here. To talk for a moment to those who might ask, “Yes, but what about titles from the canon? What about the classics?”

Here are some classics–canon and neo-classic style that we offered to the students who participated in Books & Bagels last year in Room 407.

A Lesson Before Dying by Earnest Gaines

Reading Level: 4.4 AR Points: 11 Description: Two black men–one a teacher, the other a death-row inmate–struggle to live and die with dignity. The plot contains sexual situations and violence.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Reading Level: 6.7. AR Points: 13. Remarkable here is the description offered by Accelerated Reader: This sensitive autobiography tells of a Black woman’s childhood journey to retain her personal “human dignity.”

Not to disparage the memory of a treasured American poet, but why does Gantos not get the same treatment as Angelou in regard to coming through adversity to come to a pace of “personal human dignity?” Further, this treatment is not offered to Stick, Ryan Dean. . .Nick and Jaycee.

Night Shift by Stephen King

This title, requested by the students to coincide with the month of October earns a 5.2 by way of reading level and the most points of any title referenced in this post at 18.

Check the description: “This is a collection of unsettling short pieces, bizarre tales of dark doings and unthinkable acts.”

I was surprised that poet Kahlil Gibran (THE PROPHET)and modern-age creativity proponent Sir Ken Robinson (OUT OF OUR MINDS) are not even noted within the available Accelerated Reader quizzes despite the fact that AR markets itself as a service that reaches readers up to the 12.9 reading level. Yet, both of these books stretched our readers within our groups this year to think about creativity. To think through poetry. To share books within a community. These are now our books.

This goes on and on and on.

I want to come back to Josh. I want you to look at that face. It’s almost as though Josh knows that he has stumbled upon a book that he cannot believe he is reading. That no one is keeping him from reading it.

He also knows that he does not have to take a quiz on this book. To my knowledge–at the date of this published post–there is no quiz for this book that a student can take.

To determine whether he has read the book.

His friends will know when he sees them again after he finishes. Any reader who finishes this book needs to talk to someone soon after.

To measure his literal comprehension of the book.

His friends won’t care about his literal comprehension. They’ll want his take on the ending of the book (something we noted during our conversation with Andrew at the end of the year).

To provide Josh with immediate feedback.

His friends will take care of this. Josh has become a part of a small cell group (including his lead reader) who has read a book that has flown under the radar since its release in February.

And why shouldn’t it be his reading friends who do–for free–what Accelerated Reader has a set subscription fee?

After all, it wasn’t his lead reader who recommended this book to him.

It wasn’t a reading management program.

It was his friends.

His friends who read. They are of inestimable value. Their love for books exceeds a need for leveling. They point other readers to books they will read, love, and share.

It makes one’s heart skip a beat. . .

as if. . .accelerated somehow.

 

 

Category:  Uncategorized     

New Ways of Seeing. . .New Eye-deas.

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Image Courtesy of DailyMail.co.uk

If you haven’t seen the video with Sina and Soni in the past couple of days, take a moment to view their X-Factor Australia Audition here: http://youtu.be/u-SJ7oxRKzw It’s about 9 minutes long, but it will be so worth the view (we’ve been sharing this one in Room 407 as a pre-cursor to planning and drafting our personal narratives). This video might also work well as an introduction to titles like R. J. Palacio’s WONDER.

And, now that you’ve seen it. . .do you see what I see? As a lead learner at the beginning of a new year? Getting ready for the first time to draft our personal narratives? To share our stories together?

It’s the father.

The father gets me the whole time.

He is a stakeholder. Not much unlike the stakeholders that we will work with over the course of the next school year.

They love.

They send.

They watch.

They wait.

If you watched the video, watch it again (perhaps with students this time–I had to turn my back for a moment, but you may be okay). Watch the father closely.

Do you see it?

He is bracing himself against a lifetime of memories and hoping that the arms holding him up will help him to stand tall against the coming moment.

He loves his children. You can see it. He is watching attentively the whole time–from the introductions to the performance to the final evaluation. There are only a couple of moments that we see the father break from this stoic presentation to give himself over to a little bit of emotion that cannot be held back.

Love and levees. . .they have a certain strength. But they also have vulnerability.

The flood tides of emotion are not easily contained.

Do you see it?

There is a certain pride in those eyes. They are looking directly ahead and they will not avert their gaze until this moment has come to fruition.

These are our stakeholders.

They love their children and they send them to our learning communities to watch over them while they wait to hear how their child’s day has gone.

Into a world that has the power of respect and reject. . .include and exclude. . .of elation and evaluation. . .of joy. . . and judgment.

Of affirmation and assessment.

Do you see it?

The father never breaks that faraway stare until the final judge says “Yes” to his children. And it’s a beautiful moment when his children return from their moment to receive his and her father’s affirmation.

This is why we call them stakeholders.

They hold their children dear. And there is a lot at stake.

They have seen the “true colors” within their children. And they are beautiful. . .like a rainbow.

And this is why, taking inspiration from the Leo Buscaglia work that I am reading this week, we will take some time to evaluate the down-drafts of our personal narratives leaving only affirming comments. And we will recognize that red is not the only color that can be used as an evaluation tool.

No, instead we will look for the beauty that comes of sharing a story in earnest. Our final evaluation of the down draft will consist of words like “beautiful,”"fantastic,” and “wonderful.”

I want the first paper that goes home to read something like, “Take a look at this. This young person is a writer. This story is going places.”

There’s so much at stake.

There’s beauty to behold.

There’s memories to make.

There’s tales to be told.

Have a great week at school.  And for my friends who are just returning to the classroom for the new school year, may you be richly-blessed within your learning communities.

Category:  Uncategorized     

Moving Out of “Passive Opt-Out” and into “Urgent Optimism”

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Room 407 Bookcases on an Organized, Waiting-for-Readers Kind of Day (probably taken before 8AM)

In their 2013 title, CREATIVE CONFIDENCE, authors Tom and David Kelley include the voice of author, futurist, and game designer Jane McGonigal. The Kelleys offer that in the video game world, “the level of challenge and reward rises proportionately with a gamer’s skills” (47). Further, the next level of the game is “never completely out of reach” (47).

McGonigal calls this desire to progress through the game “urgent optimism” and defines this condition as  the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, motivated by the belief that [one has] a reasonable hope of success (47).

Isn’t this the condition we want for our readers? Perhaps we just hadn’t put a name to it yet. “Urgent Optimism.” Here is a term we’d probably like to see on a report that preceded any student who entered into our room for the new school year. It might read like this, “Pete has strategies, goals, and interventions in place for his Urgent Optimism. Chief among these goals is for the host teacher to be sure that book talking is part of the daily language. We find that Pete does best with the T.A.R.G.E.T. interventions as  coined by Dr. Teri Lesense.

Trust Pete. Allow him to make informed decisions and choices regarding reading selections.

Pete needs Access. To books. Lots and lots of books. Urgent Optimism in reading is fueled by them.

Respond to Pete when he talks about books with you or requests a new book from you. Talk to him.

Guide Pete toward increasing levels of complexity and challenge when he and/or the both of you sense that he is ready for a new challenge.

Be Enthusiastic about books and reading as Pete seems to thrive in this kind of atmosphere.

Be sure that Pete has plenty of titles that have authentic Teen Appeal; Pete is a teen.

With these strategies in place, we feel confident that Pete will be able to retain this condition of urgent optimism. Our concern is his dual diagnosis of Passive Opt-Out.”

We’re not going to get a report like this at the beginning of the year, are we? But many of us will immediately recognize the shadow of urgent optimism. It’s passive opt-out. At the beginning of each year, we have conversations about reading on the very first day. It’s the day that students are just getting to know his or her new teacher. They are openly-guarded to the new experience.

And they will tell you anything if you would only ask them. They will tell you about how they “survive” reading management programs (and they will tell you his or her strategies for this survival). They will tell you with a sense of ironically-detached achievement how many books they have read since their 8th grade year.

Ladies and gentleman, when you are inviting students to read 40 Books within a school year, and 75% of your classroom has come to having read fewer than five or six books–independently–within the past two years, you will want to be able to name that sense that you are tapping into. . .urgent optimism. You’ll rebelliously abandon the  the reading management program that has helped in creating this passive opting-out. You’ll begin putting books into the hands of readers on the very first day of class.

And you’ll remember. You have a school year to get these kids to want to read because you know that the resistance is a kind of quiet dare. You’ve seen the symptoms of passive opt-out before. The leaning back in the desk. The arms crossed over the chest. The way the head kind of falls back from its midline and take a angled position left or right.

You invite, “Read with me.”

They respond, “Try and make me.”

Eighty-nine class meetings is what we have left now. Eighty-nine opportunities to come into the room together to talk about books. To share books. To be book people. I cannot make them read. But I can lead them to begin to discover that they do–in fact–want to read.

Because I have learned in ten years I don’t make kids read. I make kids readers. It’s systemic. From the language I use to the dogged and daily persistence that says, “It’s our room, but it’s my practice. I’m going to talk about books. And we will do this read-aloud today. . .page one. . .’I've lost my hat.’”

I’m urgently optimistic that the students I met on Thursday and Friday will return on Monday and Tuesday. Our work has begun.

And I have a reasonable hope.

And a T.A.R.G.E.T.

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