Sunday, August 30, 2009

what's in a book?

Today my friend Dan and I had a bit of a debate about education. It all started with this New York Times article that seems to have every one's pencils in knots. The article is about the reading workshop and the idea of children choosing their own books to read and independently study. Contrary to how The Times portrays things, this is hardly a new idea. Reading workshops have been around in some form or another since the 70's. Why then is it at the forefront of the education debate now? Standardization seems to be on the tongue. How do we figure out what works in education, implement it, and yet still have room for the fundamental reality that we are dealing with individuals here? My friend Dan works at a consulting firm in Washington DC and has his ear constantly to the political ground. Whenever there is something I don't understand in the news, Dan is my go-to.

I read the article and told Dan I agree with the general sentiment. I am wary of standardization, I think all too frequently we run the risk of education becoming just simply a requirement, something to get through with the least amount of pain. I know I don't have to get into how incredibly dangerous that kind of thinking is. But, I also see the other side. It worries me that children might make it through high school never having read The Catcher in The Rye or Wuthering Heights. I believe giving children the power of their own education is a remarkable thing but I also want to discern exactly what that means. In education there must be a balance between stability and innovation.

But how then do we set the standard? The trend towards standardization seems to be based solely on long-term goals. Testing ability which translates into better SAT scores which translates into a better college application which translates into a better college which translates into a better you see where I'm going with this? That is the primary problem I have with standardization: it is not focused on education but rather on the outcomes of education.

Don't get me wrong, the outcomes are important. I want children to go to good schools, I want them to have the best life can possibly offer them, but not at the expense of understanding what education is really all about. If we teach solely from a standardized perspective we ignore the real reality that education is about individuals. It is about a teacher and the students in a classroom. It is about small moments and triumphs. It is about improvising.

Dan, however, had a very good point: how are we supposed to know what works without some level of standardization? I completely agree. Perhaps there does need to be a model but it doesn't mean that it will never fail us. More important than to stay true to a curriculum is to stay true to the benefits of that curriculum, to ask "what is my goal in this lesson here? And how best might I get there with THIS particular group of students." Of course there are goals in education, to deny that would be foolish. For instance, I want the children who enter my program to leave with their own stories. There are many steps we have to take to assure that happens and I am always keeping in mind what our end goal is. But, the journey doesn't look the same every time, far from it.

No matter what consensus we come up with education will always require that it be tweaked. To deny that is to deny the truth that classrooms are made up of individuals and not every child is going to have the same needs. I think the point of The Times article is not to raise the question of whether or not children should have the power to choose their own curriculum but to simply state that when it comes to education, every child is different and perhaps celebrating those differences leads us to the goal we are really after: a sustained love of learning.

The Story Pirates

This weekend I went to see The Story Pirates with my friend Stephen Barbara, agent extraordinaire. For those of you who haven't heard of them The Story Pirates are a group of actors, musicians and teachers who go around to schools, lead creative writing seminars and then preform the children's work as skits. It's brilliant and oh so funny. I went to the adult version (8pm show, no children there) but I am itching to go to their younger performance. The show was sensational on every level. It was funny, heartwarming (especially a skit by a first grader called "I Like To Go A Lot to School"), not to mention just spot-on. The talent in this group is extraordinary and what they are doing for these children is simply remarkable. It made me smile when a child came on the screen during their video montage and said The Story Pirates made him feel like a really famous author. Is there anything better than that?

There were so many moments that stood out from the performance but the real meat was, of course, the constant knowledge that these skits and stories had actually been written by children. It never ceases to surprise me how unbelievably imaginative, perceptive and creative children are. We may laugh as a child writes "I like to go a lot to school" but the earnestness and heart behind those words is simply stunning. There was a story about a vampire, one about wetting the bed, another about what it means to be a best friend and one about a child who grows money out of his head. I can only imagine the pride these children must feel seeing their stories come to life like that. I'm sure it is akin to what a "really famous writer" feels when they sit down in a theater to see their adapted novel on screen. How cool that The Story Pirates are giving children the opportunity to feel the same.

I cannot say enough good things about this group and I look forward to letting you all know how the younger performance is. In the meantime, happy weekend!

Monday, August 24, 2009

We're Bringing The Fun

Yesterday I went over some materials for my program with a friend of mine who is a Kindergarten teacher. I often bounce ideas off of her when I feel a bit stuck over a concept or I’m not sure if a specific technique is going to work. We were discussing picture-walking, a practice in which children build a story based on a series of pictures. I have been thinking of employing this technique for the 3-4 year olds of Nurturing Narratives but yesterday I turned to her and said, “yea, I like picture-walking but I want this to be fun! That’s the whole purpose of my program, fun!” She laughed. “It IS fun,” she said, “everything is at that age. It’s all about fun.”

I considered this for a moment. Walk into any kindergarten classroom in this day and age and you are bound to be met with a great deal of noise. Chatter, make-believe, the sounds of read-aloud. You think it’s friendly chaos, I certainly did the first time I went to visit. The truth is, though, it’s fun, and incredibly intentioned. It’s creative. It’s expressive. It’s a place to encourage dialogue and exploration. It's a place for adventure.

I forget sometimes that the things I deem “fun” or, conversely, “required and dull” sometimes only fall into those categories because I put them there to begin with. If no one had told me cleaning was a chore, would I consider it to be one? At some point we decide that reading and writing are “required” and therefore, we no longer want to do them. Which is exactly what literacy programs are trying to avoid today. The switch from reading and writing being fun and explorative to mundane and required.

It’s all in the way we approach it. If I think picture- walking isn’t fun enough for a birthday party, it won’t be. One thing I think we can all agree on is that children learn by example. They model our behavior and pick up on our tone, the way we react to things and to what we give meaning. If I come in thinking, “well, this is educational but by gee wiz is it dull,” chances are they are going to think the same. But, if I come in thinking, “this is the coolest activity and I cannot wait to share it with these children,” I set our time together up to be fun.

The definition of success in the early years, for me, is joy. Period. Do these children love what they are doing? Sometimes we don’t build a story sequentially or the drawings might be mismatched or we might get off course but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we are sparking something inside these children. Igniting some fire for literature that we can nurture and fuel for years to come.

That, to me, is fun.

Some Literacy Tips, take one

I mentioned in last week’s post that I am a big fan of early literacy. It’s nothing unique. With programs like the Reading and Writing Project by the renowned Lucy Calkins and numerous studies on the benefits of at-home literacy I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an expert who doesn’t think literacy begins early. Even so, I’ve complied some tips for parents of young children to get you started on that journey to the classroom. Before we begin I’d like to make it clear that I am a firm believer in holistic education. What does that mean? I'm about exploration, not forced academia. I didn’t learn to read myself until the third grade. Luckily I attended a Waldorf school where that was perfectly acceptable, the philosophy being that I would come to the page when I was good and ready. For me, it worked, and today writing is not only my career but also one of my deepest passions.

I believe in children coming to the written word on their own terms. What then is early literacy in my book? Early literacy is making the written word as accessible as possible. It is having books on display and constant dialogue. It is talking and sharing and reading. It is making writing a part of every single day.

I have been compiling a list of tips over the past few months and wanted to share a few of my top hitters here with you today. I imagine it’s a topic I will return to time and time again on this blog but for now, here’s our starting place.

Some tips for early, at-home literacy:

1) Make writing as visually apparent as possible. I can’t stress this one enough. The goal is to make books a part of a child’s everyday visual realm so that they become the norm. Stack books on your coffee table, make your bookcase in arm’s reach with the storybooks they love on the bottom shelves. It is important for books to be seen as accessible--- that anyone, anytime, can go and get one to read. Consider books to be the apples of your refrigerator: always available, always healthy, always a yes.

2) Lead by example. If you are on the couch at the end of the day, pick up a novel or flip through a magazine. Share with your child how excited you are to read what you are reading. Offer to read some out loud so they might be a part of the experience.

3) Create writing journals together. Refer to my previous post for some ideas. Let your child see you writing in your writing journal. If something happens at home, like a telephone call from Grandma or a batch of cookies, tell your child that you must stop what you’re doing and go write in your journal. You simply cannot go on unless you write down what just happened. Explain to your child that writing is a way to document special things that happen in your life. Set aside a time for “writing journal sharing” where you and your child can go over what you have written down in your journal.

4) Praise praise praise. No matter what your child puts down in his or her writing journal, it is writing. Children have their own evolution with words that must be respected and encouraged. If you don’t immediately understand what you see in their writing journal, ask them to explain it to you. Chances are they have total ownership of what they put down.

5) Talk. Studies show that the level of verbal communication in a household has a direct impact on a child’s literacy level. The practice of extension in conversation is a great place to start. If your child says, “store,” in reference to a grocery store trip you are about to take, consider answering, “yes, we are going to the store in town. The one with the big, red roof.” Even if your child is not yet able to form sentences hearing you extend what they can verbalize helps them to create memory patterns with words.

6) Make writing a part of your everyday life. Put word magnets on your refrigerator, label things in your kitchen, narrate what you are doing while you make dinner. Writing is dynamic. Show your child that it is an integral part of your existence.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Summer Reading: a review

As promised, I’m giving you my top five summer children’s lit reads. Given my propensity for emotional additives and lengthy back-story it’s a bit of a blended post. Some of these books are brand new and one is an old favorite but they are all now on my permanent list. I hope they might make their way onto yours, too.

1) How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz.

This book is already all over this blog. I mentioned it in my last post, added it to my book list on my profile, and am deeming it the first title to discuss. It won the Caldecott Medal and is based on Schulevitz’s own experience as a young boy. Yes, there was an actual war. Yes, there was an actual map. And, yes, the young boy did grow up to explore the whole, big, great world.

How I Learned Geography is about a young boy living in a war-town country. One day his father goes to the bazaar to buy bread but instead of returning with dinner he comes home with a map. The boy is furious and believes he will never forgive his father but the map goes up on the wall, a brilliant blast of color, and the boy (like the reader) is inevitably drawn in. He begins to explore the map and likewise the world, as if by lying down next to its massive canvas he is in fact inhabiting the countries he is looking up at. He is led away by the map to far-off, exotic lands. He runs his toes in dazzling, golden sand at the edge of oceans, reclines peacefully under fruit trees and gazes up at impossibly lofty sky-scrapers. In the end, he forgives his father.

Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about this book. In my opinion it does what every good children’s book should do: makes the most complicated concept simple and beautiful without ever stating the fact. There is a lesson, of course, but the real magic is in the exploration itself. We don’t need to hear that a sense of possibility is more important than a full stomach, we intuit it. The book’s power comes from it’s example--- the magnificent gift of an accessible world passed from father to son.

2) There by Marie Louise Fitzpatrick.

Consider this book the Waiting for Godot for the young. The book is about “There,” you know, that magical place that once inhabited renders all of life complete. The zone in which we are constantly referring to with our jobs, relationships, finances and figures. There.

Our young hero is wary of the “there.” He is not sure what he will find once he goes. Will there be dragons? Will there be signs pointing the way? How will he know what is looks like? Does everyone have to go there? As I was reading I couldn’t help asking the same questions. This book is not only a great one to read aloud with children but it’s also, I think, a great reminder for adults as well. We all know that “there” does not exist, that it is a fictional state characterized primarily by the fact that it is absolutely, without fail, completely unattainable. Why then do we pursue it with such gusto? Forgive me for the momentary Gilbert-lingo, but: why are we so concerned with constantly being somewhere we’re not?
I closed the book thinking what the young hero does, “I’m busy today, I’ll go there tomorrow.”

3) Eloise in Paris by Kay Thompson with drawings by Hilary Knight.

This one requires a bit of back-story...

I first fell in love with Eloise because my best friend in the second grade, Bethany Berman Brady was in love with Eloise and Bethany could read. In time on this blog I will share with you my own journey to the written word and how I didn’t learn to read until almost the third grade (it turned out OK in the end) but for now let’s just say Bethany was my hero. And likewise, so was Eloise.

I remember long afternoons spent under the jacardanda tree in her (Bethany’s) backyard, lying on a hammock listening to her read. Bethany did a great impression of Eloise (brisk tone, snobbish but lovable) and an even better one of Nanny and when I read the books today I still imagine her little voice, holding my fingers with one hand and turning the pages with the other.

About two years ago I had the privledge of spending two months in Paris. It came at the tail end of a year in Europe (mostly in Edinburgh, Scotland). I was doing a lot of writing at the time (trying to, anyway) and consequently spent many days loitering around Shakespeare and Company, the infamous English-speaking bookstore in Paris. The store is exactly what one would want out of a bookstore: the appearance of friendly clutter while being systematically organized with oodles of character and a splash of dusty-attic charm. The store has a little loft that serves as a third floor and is only accessible by a small ladder. It’s one of my favorite places in all of Paris. It always struck me as a bit strange, however, that the loft was where the children’s section is. I know many a mother who would have very little interest in seeing her child climb a tall, rickety ladder (and many a shop-owner who would feel the same) but I suppose they are all American. Ah, French sensibility.

Anyway my last day in Paris I ended up in the loft to spend a few quiet moments writing when I saw a copy of Eloise in Paris discarded on a table. I picked it up at once and I have to say, it is my favorite Eloise of them all. Eloise’s Paris is the Paris we all know and adore. It is the Paris of the movies, the wonderful, impossibly romantic, never-changing, iconic, epic city of lights. I bought the copy on the spot (had them stamp a Shakespeare and Company tattoo inside) and consider it to be, hands down, one of my most favorite books on my shelf. I treasure it and if you or your youngster haven’t yet been introduced to Eloise, by all means, let me now make introductions.

4) Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen, illustrations by Kevin Hawk.

I love this book. I really do. It’s simple and straightforward and boy does it have heart. The book is about a lion that one day wanders into the library and makes noise. He is told by Miss Merriweather, the librarian, that the library is a quiet place and if he wants to remain he must not roar. The lion obeys until one day Miss Merriweather falls and the lion must go get help and therefore, must make noise. The book has a kind of no-nonsense sensibility that springs from Miss Merriweather’s unaplolgetic persona and had me laughing. It is also deliciously rebellious in it’s lesson: sometimes, the best thing to possibly do is break all the rules.


5) The Curious Garden by Peter Brown.

My last pick won me over for a variety of reasons. First of all, the artwork is superb. Subtle and poignant and thematically excellent it presents the overgrowth of nature in the most tidy way. Truly a grand feat. Secondly, I read this review by the venerable Betsy Bird and it swayed me in the friendly direction, to put it mildly. And thirdly, well, I’m a sucker for what this book has to say.

Liam, our protagonist, is a young boy living in an overly grey, industrial city. One day he comes across a small and dying garden above some railway tracks and decides to tend to the greenery. As Liam grows as a gardener, the garden itself grows and begins to take over the city. There are wonderful, full-page illustrations of the garden and its personified plants reaching into all kinds of far-off nooks and crannies and lovely images of all the city dwellers in their sunhats and gardening gear getting to work as well. My favorite picture is of Liam in full disguise, dropping off some garden somewhere it doesn’t belong. It’s a smart, sharp book with a soft message and I think one you all will really enjoy.

Well there you have it, my top five summer reads. Now, off to fall!

*Head on over to Mrs. P's corner of the web and check out her storybook contest for young writers. The entry dates are September 1st- October 15th so get writing!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Writing Journals

I am a big proponent of making writing accessible to children. The more books visible, the better. Writing is everywhere: subway signs, cereal boxes, t-shirts, etc. Writing is a seamless part of life and the more we can point this out the more we can make the word a permanent fixture in a child's growing vocabulary. For this reason, I believe in the concept of a writing journal. Not a diary, a writing journal. Writing can and in some cases should be private but in the early years dialogue is the most important thing and by that I mean a great bounty of words: exchanged, spoken and written-down.

This particular journal is the one I use. I have about seven of them. I bought my first one in Edinburgh and the second in Prague. Yes, I was feeling pretty hoity-toity for awhile. Oh, you know, my special European journal. That can only be purchased in terribly far-away places. Like Romania, and Guam. Last summer, however, I walked into Barnes and Noble in Union Square and low and behold there was my special European journal sandwiched between the wall of greeting cards and the escalator. About as unique as Starbucks.

But, I highly recommend Paper Blanks. Not only are they hands-down the most beautiful journals I have ever come across but they are also incredibly functional. They have a magnetic strip that holds the pages in place that is certainly key for folks like me who might keep less than tidy bags. I have had many a journal ruined because the covers splayed out and the pages all became bent. Not so with Paper Blanks.

Another fun thing to do is to make your own journal. This is an activity children especially love and I find is symbolically very cool: the idea that they are making their very own book. The primary goal of my program has always been to empower children to feel like authors because, in fact, they are. It is a remarkable thing for a child to see the writing process through regardless of whether they can actually put words on a page yet. If you have young children I suggest creating journals together. Go to the store and pick out paper. Talk about all the things you can’t wait to write down in your own journal and ask them what they’d like to put in theirs. Pick out crayons. Get staples or tape or ribbon for binding. Have fun! Remember, writing is a process. Enjoy each and every step.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

What's it about?

Yesterday a friend of mine mentioned to me that she was reading Roberto Bolano's By Night in Chile and I rolled my eyes. I ROLLED MY EYES AT BOLANO. Terrible, I know. She was explaining to me about the poetry of his words and the rhythmic nature of his rolling sentences and how the absence of chapters seemed to signify the absence of time and all I could think was this: what the heck happened to all the plot?

It's a question I have been mulling over a lot lately, given that I spend quite a bit of time in the children's lit world where plot and character are sacred things. It isn't enough to have poetic language or a sound metaphoric structure. No, stuff has to HAPPEN.

I dig that.

While I was getting my MFA plot seemed to be the farthest thing from anyone's mind. My fellow students would mull over language and tone and style and perhaps even setting, but plot? How terribly trite. Ask someone what their story was ABOUT and they'd get antsy. "It's a representation," they'd say, irritably. And then, "duh."

I am constantly jostled between two camps, the first that believes when you sit down to write you must write for you alone otherwise the result will inevitably be inauthentic and the camp that believes that writing, at its best, is a dialogue between author and reader. I admit lately that I seem to be identifying much more with the later.

I'd like to return just momentarily to the question that serves as the title of this post: "what's it about?" Wander through any bookstore and listen in on conversations around the shelves and this is one you're bound to hear over and over again. It is the first question readers want to know: If I'm going to invest my time, money and energy into this, well, what's the story?

Rarely do you hear someone ask "is the language up to snuff?" or "is it written in a minimalist style?" Now I'm not suggesting that there isn't great worth in experimental writing. Pushing the limits on form is part of what defines art and should always, always be a priority. What I'm suggesting is that there are those of us out there (many of us) who want to sink our teeth into a good tale. One that is well written, absolutely, but also one that will capture our attention. That will delight.

This is part of the reason I became so enamored with children's books so many years ago and while I still read them today. And it's not just the Harry Potter's and Ramona's that I'm talking about. It's the picture books, too. How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz was a favorite summer read of mine as was Amelia Bedilia and Eloise, both old friends I returned to this month.

I have often said that I think more adults should read children's literature. Not because they impart great lessons or because reading these books helps parents to understand and better educate their own children (although both are true) but because it is important every once in awhile to return to what made us love literature to begin with, to remind ourselves of a darn good story and to remember that reading doesn't always have to be so serious to be worthwhile.

If we are to teach children to love and appreciate narrative we must also show them stories that can and will spark that love (stay tuned for next week's post in which I review my top five summer children's lit reads). We must give them books that challenge and provoke but also excite and inspire. I'm not suggesting Bolano does not inspire. There are oodles of poems in my document's folder that probably would not have been written without his influence (and might I suggest that could have been a good thing), what I am saying is that as adults we shouldn't be afraid of wanting plot, of wanting juice, of wanting to devour a book as we would a chocolate milkshake.

So the next time you see someone in an aisle at Barnes and Noble asking the age-old question, "what's it about?" perhaps consider pointing them in the direction of the children's section. True, it may not be what they are looking for but it may be just what they need.