Monday, December 22, 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming

One of my Christmas gifts to myself was to read Brown Girl Dreaming from cover to cover. I read about a quarter of it when it first arrived in the library, but I wanted to wait until the winter break and after my Longwood classes were finished. I wanted a clear space in my head to fill with Woodson's poetry. I wanted to binge on everything I love about the South.

I am taking a break on page 191 to write this.

Page 191 opens with, "My grandmother's kitchen is the same/ big and yellow and smelling of the pound cake/ she's made to welcome us back."

Those three lines got me good, so I had to stop. And blow my nose. And pet my cat. And blow my nose again.

I miss my grandparents every day. Every single day. There's a special kind of longing when Christmas is around the corner. I bet you know just what I'm talking about. I know I'm not alone.

My grandmother's kitchen was the same throughout my memory. It was also yellow and often smelling of cake and full of welcome. It was the first room you came to as you stepped in from the porch. Desserts were often tailored to celebrate a holiday or family member. The happy yellow of that kitchen, the tall glasses filled with half-moons of ice waiting for the tea to pour, the perpetually operating oven, the bleach-clean white of the sink with the dish rag laid just so in between meals, the asparagus left forgotten in the microwave until the table was cleared, the breadbox with Mr. Goodbars inside. We all have those slivers of tiny images in our mind's eye that add up to something wonderful.

The magic of the kitchen. There's nothing like it. When their house was sold, the kitchen was still the same. It was a comfort and has become a place I often dream about, when I am not dreaming about their summer garden. I wish I had nicked a chip of the yellow wall, but I did my best to commit the small room to memory.

There's a strange satisfaction knowing that such a beloved place will become the backdrop for another family's memories. I loved driving past the house after it sold and imagining new folks eating in the kitchen, watching t.v. in the den and gazing at the traffic whizzing by just outside of the huge living room window.  Even if it wasn't the same, I could pretend that the kitchen hadn't changed.

The land where my grandparents' home stood.
When the house was demolished to build a Dollar General, I couldn't fantasize anymore. Even so, there's something comforting about being able to step back into their yard and choose an ice cream sandwich from the freezer. 

The Dollar General on Jefferson Ave.

But when I read those three lines tonight, I just wanted to pretend that tonight the dishes are all done. Tins of chocolate chip cookies, spiced pecans, divinity and other treats sit cooling on the porch. My grandparents are in the den watching the news. The light above the kitchen sink is glowing above the asphalt driveway. The Christmas tree in the living room is dressed and blinking. My grandparents are thinking about having a dish of ice cream, Breyer's vanilla in particular. And the sound of car tires cutting through water at 55 mph is on a continuous loop.

What a treat it is to have such lovely memories, to have a family that is so present and to have that nosey eye of a writer as a child. There are so many tiny details of everyday living that I have stored away. Now and then I polish a memory up a bit before sending it back to the archives.

Those "me too" moments are part of what keeps us reading, and I'm so thankful to Ms. Woodson for that bit of comfort tonight.
My grandparents' azalea is still thriving on the edge of the Dollar General parking lot.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Zen and the Art of Shopping for Books at Ollie's

Zen and the Art of Buying Picture Books 
for Older Children and Teens for the School Library:

1. Familiarize yourself with respected authors and artists.

2. Think about all of the classes offered at your school 
and the curriculum needs.

3. Keep an eye out on the web and in trade journals 
for what's new in picture books.

4. Win the lottery.

5. Buy all the books.

Okay...Let's say you didn't do #4. Here's the more realistic version:

4. Sign up to be in Ollie's Army. You have to neither keep nor bear arms.

5. Wait for your coupon in the mail.

6. See which stores are near you.

7. Put on pants.

8. Bring your Smart Phone, if you have one. 
You can use this to access book reviews 
as well as your school's current collection.

9. Make good choices using your school's selection guidelines.

If you are like me, you are too cheap for a Smart Phone. So...

8. Scan the shelves to get a feel for the way Ollie's arranges its picture books.

9. Do a quick pass of all the shelves to pull the books you recognize 
from good reviews you've come across by chance. 
Pull all of the authors that you know as awesome while you are at it.

10. Make a pile in your shopping basket.

11. Make another pass and pull books that look intriguing. 
Examine each book before placing it in your basket.

Check the font for accessibility and the quality of the art as it supports the text.
Is the book one that would support the curriculum?

This is why you are wearing pants. You may need to sit on the floor 
in order to see the bottom shelf of books. Yep. 
You may want to bring a friend, 
if you will need help getting back up.

Sunya Osborn lists these look-fors in her article, 
  • Mature themes
  • More complex illustrations than those that would be easily appreciated or understood by younger readers
  • More text or difficult text than would be appropriate for the short attention spans of younger readers
  • Subtle meanings beyond the understanding of younger readers
  • Two levels of meaning - one for younger readers and one for older readers
  • Fiction or non-fiction
12. Evaluate the quality of the writing.

13. Imagine the readers who may check this book out of the library.

14. Place books in your cart that fit your selection criteria.

15. Look through your first pile of likely "sure bets." 
Return any "lemons" to the shelves.

16. Now, think about your budget, look at the prices and make final cuts 
before getting in the check-out line.

17. Give the cashier the coupon before purchasing. Save your receipt.

18. You may want to set some books aside before processing, 
if you are still uncertain of the content of some titles. 
It's easy to return items to Ollie's.

Why Ollies? Here's the sad truth about picture books. By the time you read a well-researched article about them, sometimes the titles are out of print! Sometimes the price of the picture books will eat away at your budget in big gulps. Are picture books worth every penny? Yes. But we are being realistic here. Shopping at Ollie's requires the same Zen approach as Magnetic Poetry. 
You have to just be open to what is there. 
Also, the Ollie's in my town often plays soul music over the store's sound system. 
This helps when I have to get on up...and get down.

Every now and then you will see a CRAZY deal on a book that you know is amazing. A few years ago, John's Secret Dreams was on Amazon for $3.99. I did what every sane person would do. I bought about 15 copies and hoarded them for a while before sharing them with friends. When I opened my order, three of the copies were signed by the author.

This is more of an exception than a rule.

If there are specific titles that you want to use in class, checking the online catalogs of local public libraries is a good way to try out a title before 
investing in hunting down a copy.

"Selling" the idea of picture books to middle and high school students and teachers may take a little effort, but it's worth it. There is so much to be gained from the richness of story that comes from the visual arts.

Friday, December 5, 2014

"If you are overwhelmed by the size of a problem, break it down into many bite-sized pieces."

Chuck Close said that.

CBS This Morning has a series, Note to Self
that featured the amazing Mr. Close in 2012.

Take note that his "disability" is the lens through which he sees the world. 
And this lens is directly reflected in his art.
And his art is mind-blowing.

If you have the pleasure of seeing his immense portraits in a gallery...
Get as close as you can without setting off an alarm.
Walk backwards (without toppling priceless art).
Walk forwards.
Walk backwards.


After watching this segment, I would like to add that trade school
 is a great place to learn, 
and going to college does not somehow make you 
a "superior" human being. 
Both schooling experiences do not have to exclude the other either. 
I think that Mr. Close is trying to communicate his frustration that he was misunderstood and under appreciated as a child. 
And the adults in his life had chosen a path for him.

As for me, I am going to focus on 
breaking problems down into bite-sized pieces this week.

I first typed that as bite-sized "people." 

I think it's time for a break!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Comfort and Encouragement

I have some good news to go with all the bad news. It's not enough, but it's something.

We talked about Irene Morgan, Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin this week. Our main focus was on 15 year-old Claudette. Months before Mrs. Parks made headlines, Claudette made a similar decision on a public bus. She was pulled off of the bus, insulted and humiliated before being put in a jail cell.

Phillip Hoose's book, Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice, often uses direct transcripts of his interviews with Ms. Colvin. She's endearing, quick and honest in recalling her teen years. You cannot read this book without admiring her courage and her drive. And when she's frightened and thrown in jail, you just wish you could go back in time to 1955 and tell her that help is on the way.

Students identified cause and effect relationships in the second half of chapter three and all of chapter four. Then they wrote a letter to 15 year-old Claudette to comfort and encourage her. The assignment was to imagine that their letters would be in the jail cell for her to find. This was to practice connecting word choice to tone as well as to show their understanding of what they read. was to practice empathy.

What a week it has been and continues to be. It's made me reflect on what goes on in my classroom. There are skills that I am required to teach, and there are others that are just a good idea to include. I am at a loss sometimes for understanding the widening divide in the world outside our classroom window. It's easy to feel powerless in today's climate of fear, but I need to be positive about the time I spend with kids and how I can enrich their lives while we are together.

No matter what, developing empathy is always time well spent.

During the summer that separated Claudette's and Mrs. Parks' acts of disobedience a lot transpired, but Emmett Till's murder and the head-spinning speedy trial of the two men who were very likely the ringleaders of his death took place. (I only say "very likely" because they were found innocent, but I'm confident that enough of the truth will out in the future to indicate their guilt.) I have written at length in previous posts about Till's death at 14 years-old. It's unsettling in every way imaginable.

But is it? There are people who still see humankind in a very divided way. There are people who still consider some people as "other." I'm talking about grown people, not the children in my classroom. We expect that children may need time to grow their perceptions of humanity, but we hope that adults are opening their hearts and minds more each day. Right? Some days are downright disheartening. I wonder what the national reaction would be if Till were murdered in 2014. I used to think I knew.

It's been a tonic to read these letters to young Claudette in the midst of all of the ugliness of the week. Today, a student asked if he could write Ms. I had let the children know that she is still alive. Sure. Sure you can write Ms. Colvin. If you choose to take that option, I said. I am mailing your letters. The first boy wrote something quickly and handed it in.

But I want to talk to you about the second boy.

A second boy thought about this possibility. "Do you have a Bible?" he asked. I didn't, but I said that he could use the computer to pull up what he needed. He was having trouble finding it, and I asked him what he was searching for. "The 23 Psalm," he said. "Claudette said that she was saying that to herself over and over." I pulled it up, printed it out and handed it over.

He cut it out carefully to fit at the bottom of his letter. I wanted to cry at the huge spaces in this child's heart that he keeps open for people. This kid, I know, has a heart with an expanse to stretch between two goalposts. I guarantee that's exactly what it looks like in there....never-ending game time and yards of vibrant green grass.

Teen boys often frighten people for the simple fact that they are teen boys. I wish those people could see all of these glimmers of love and goodness that flicker inside. And teen boys grow into men who still have that capacity for tenderness.

When I see these boys later in the halls of the high school, I wonder if strangers will recognize these same vulnerabilities their teachers and families see in them when they are out in the world.

Will the world welcome them as we have?

I don't think I'm the only person with that question on my mind tonight.

And I don't think I'm the only person drawing lines between causes and effects.

Teachers can model empathy as well as all of the other qualities that make a successful reader, writer, mathematician, scientist, historian, athlete, musician...the list goes on and on.

Developing empathy means that we are always a work in progress, and it's okay to share that truth with children too. Learning and growing should only stop with our last breath.

And let's hope there are many more days until that day arrives.

Let's hope that for everyone.