Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year's Eve!

After spending most of the day driving, we're back in North Carolina for New Year's Eve.  However, we're not spending the evening having a big night on the town.  In fact, as soon as we got home, my son raced in and put on his pajamas.

However, as always, I look at these events as a learning or growing experience.  And I tend to associate New Year's Eve with an Italian culture.  This is based on two things:
1.  The research I've done indicates that it was the Romans who changed our calendar so that the "new year" started on January 1 rather than the spring equinox.  They named the first month after Janus, the Roman god with two faces that look forward and backwards, the god of doorways, gates, and beginnings and ending.  And so it is that on New Year's we look back over the past year and forward to the new one.
2.  I had an Italian boyfriend (OK, he was from Queens, NY, but from a very Italian family), who said the Italian tradition was that whatever you did on New Year's Eve, you would be doing for the rest of the year.

So what is our family doing this New Year's Eve?  A few years ago, Cool Papa and Miss Nancy (the self-selected names my father and his second wife chose for us to call them when my son was born) gave us a pizza stone, wooden paddle, and pizza wheel for making our own pizzas.  A year or so after that, Grandaddy (the name we used for my husband's father) gave us a bread machine.  And so, Voila!  A blending of the families resulted in a quasi-tradition of making personal pizzas for New Years.  So that is what we are having tonight--dough created in the bread machine, then personal pizzas baked on the pizza stone in the oven.

And as far as the Italian tradition goes.....well, besides posting my blog and cooking, tonight I will be working on a lesson plan, reading an educational policy book, and then reading some fiction.  My son will write on his blog, play on his Wii, and read some books.  My husband (who studies with a Blackfoot traditional Native American teacher) will participate in a sweatlodge (a traditional American Indian spiritual ceremony).

So if that is how we end up spending the new year, well, we'll be doing pretty well, I think.

PS--There is one other thing I did tonight... but I'll share about that tomorrow.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Geckos, Music, and Photos, Oh My!

Today we went to the National Geographic Museum, which had four terrific exhibits in one location.
  • The main thing we went to see was the Gecko exhibit, where they have around 20 different varieties of live geckos on display.  Not only was it fun to see so many different types of geckos (which I didn't realize lived in so many different countries and environments), it was fascinating what scientists are learning about geckos, particularly about the unique way they attach themselves to trees or vertical surfaces.
  • They were also showing an exhibit called "Wild Music," which explores sounds in natural and different human cultural envrionments and how they influence, contribute to, inspire, or can even be considered music.  It was a wonderful blend of nature and high technology about an artisitic subject (one of the panels discussed the wide difference in opinion about what even should be considered music).  This exhibit had actually already been displayed at our local science museum, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (one of the developers of the exhibit was the Music Research department of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro), but it was several years ago.  We enjoyed it a lot then, but enjoyed revisiting it today, especially since my son is now several years older and could appreciate things he didn't back then.
  • Of course, National Geographic is famous for its fabulous photographs, and they had another display of wonderful photographs taken all over the world that ended up not getting into the article for which they were shot.  So we got to see photos of a water park in China, brightly painted boys undergoing an initiation ritual in Ethiopia, turquoise-clad women in Afganistan, and much more.
  • Finally, they had one other photographic display, this time of American presidents.  They had a lovely collection of capturing presidents in candid poses that revealed a lot of their personality.  It 1was also a good review for my son's recollection of the last ten presidents.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Museum Mania in Washington DC

One of the things that I love about visiting my family in Washington DC is that there are always excellent new museum exhibits (not to mention the old ones).  Some of the ones that we appreciated today:
  • The Museum of Natural History here has a new hall on Human Origins since the last time we visited.  It's a wonderful visual timeline of how we evolved from other life forms, what distinguishes humans from other primates, how long ago various human activities in communication and tool making first showed up, and similar information.  There are fossils and ancient tools and artifacts and videos, and even a computer that takes a picture of your face and shows what you would have looked like as an early human!
  • The Freer Gallery of Asian Art is a great resource to be able to wonder from room to room and compare the differentiation between distinct regions--Islamic versus Indian versus Japanese versus Korean versus Chinese ceramics, for example.  They have a special exhibit right now showing the influence that Asian Art had on what most of us think of as a traditional American artist, James Whistler.  In fact, it was Whistler that convinced Freer to start collecting the Asian art that eventually led to this whole art gallery.
  • The Arthur Sacker is showing an exhibit of Ancient Bronzes from Cambodia.  That's not an area that I know as much about as I should, and so discovered some interesting distinctions between their art and other Asian sculptures of the time.
  • The International Gallery has an exhibit of Contemporary Argentine Art, which was, again, fascinating.  It explored both political and environmental issues of that Southern land.
  • The Ripley Gallery had a display of pictures by children from Haiti that were done to help the healing after the major Earthquake.
That is only a small slice of all that is on here in DC, but at least it's a start, and all great topics for middle schoolers.  The museums of the Smithsonian really are a national treasure.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Lapbook Curriculum Give-Away: Only Four More Days to Enter

I'm heading up to Washington DC today to see my father and other members of the Cross family, so I don't have time for a long post.  But I did want to remind people that the last day to enter the drawing for a FREE lapbook curriculum package from In the Hands of a Child is Friday, December 31.  To enter, read my earlier blog post announcing the give-away.  To see the MANY different subjects that HOAC has prepared lapbook or notebook curricular packages on, visit their website.

Finally, if you aren't familiar with lapbooks, Squidoo has a wonderfully visual resource on lapbooking.  A homeschooling mom who goes by the name of Jamin also has a good list of links about lapbooks.  (Actually, if you are homeschooling, she has a lot of good links on a bunch of topics, including an America Girl Club, a Boys Reading Club, and Mad Science, so I recommend you check her blog out.)

Monday, December 27, 2010

Snowflake Photography

Now that we're done with both Christmas and Boxing Day, the big excitement around here is the SNOW.  My sister-in-law up North reports that the snow in Raleigh even made the front page of The New York Times.  We've just gotten in from driving around looking at pretty snow scenes, sledding, and having the obligatory snow ball fight.

I'm sure that the many of you all who are blessed with similar winter wonderlands have been out taking pictures of the snow.  But for something different, how about taking pictures of the snowflakes themselves?    Here is an article talking about how to take shots using a popular point-and-click camera, and here is another one with more specialized camera equipment.  Apparently the hardest parts are finding an individual snowflake, or else separating one from a clump without destroying it, and getting enough light without melting the snowflake.   If you are using things like tweezers (to capture a snowflake) or some kind of dark background to contrast with the snowflake, make sure to pre-cool them.

Of course, if all that is too much for you, Snow is a fantastic resource on snowflakes.  Not only do they have a photo gallery of wonderful pictures of snowflakes, they have information on photographing snowflakes (for dedicated photographers only), the science behind snow and ice crystals, snowflake classification, and even how to make your own snowflakes.

So there you go!  Your art and science activities for the day are all set now.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The History of Boxing Day

For those who are still seeking some educational aspects to sneak into the holidays...

Here is a short quiz on the English tradition of Boxing Day, which began in the Middle Ages.  After answering all the questions, there is a little bit of material on the history of this day, which is an official holiday in England and some of the British territories.

It fits in well for us, because we had a British-inspired Christmas dinner last night of Prime Rib, Yorkshire Pudding, Baked Potatoes, and Roasted Vegetables (but without the Christmas Pudding, which no one here really likes).  And just like the British upper crust had to fend for themselves as their servants took off Boxing Day to have their own family celebrations, my family is going to have to get along without my cooking services for the day.

Here in Raleigh, we actually had our first White Christmas (during the night, at least) since 1966 (according to WRAL weather).  All the more reason for taking the day off and enjoying the beauty and serenity of the snow after all the build-up to Christmas.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Blog 2010: Digital Nativity

We have had a lovely holiday, and hope that you all have as well.

Here is a video I plan to use in Sunday School tomorrow (if we don't get snowed out).  My theme is that different cultures have told the Nativity story in their own way, regardless of what the "truth" is about the actual event.  But this video tells the story for our YouTube/Twitter/Google (etc.) generation.

Again, best wishes to all, and I hope you enjoy this new take on an ancient story.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Blog 2010: Where in the World is Santa?

Google has a couple of neat things to combine geography with the countdown to Christmas.  First, if you go to the Google homepage, it has an international Christmas Doodle that looks like this:

On the actual site, as you scroll over each picture, it enlarges to show you more of an international scene.  Some are actual cities, while others refer to a specific country or region.  There are 16 international pictures (in addition to one undefined Santa by the chimney graphic);  how many can you identify?  List your ideas below, and I'll give the answers in a future blog post.

Then, the US and Canadian air security agency, NORAD, is sponsoring its annual tracking Santa project, where they report where Santa is on his journey delivering presents around the world.  This year, however, it is shown on Google Earth, so you can actually see where he has been and where he is heading.  They also have some short videos of Santa flying over some famous sites across the world, such as Johannesburg, South Africa, Mount Everest, or the Great Wall of China, along with a fact or two about that locale.

So, once again, a chance to squeeze in a little learning in the midst of the Christmas celebration.  That can be important for those of us who homeschool--now, in addition to checking off math (having my son double the cookie dough recipe, which ended up being a refresher in multiplying fractions) and chemistry (for actually baking the cookies), we get to add geography.

Merry Christmas to all my readers around the world--or just generic good wishes if you don't celebrate this holiday.  

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas 2010 Blog: The Santa Launch Game

Since it's now two days before Christmas, I'm sure you're all sitting around with nothing to do.  So here is a fun little game by Smilebox to help you waste your time.  Of course, since it involves figuring projectiles, I'm having my son do it and putting it down as "Physics" on our homeschool daily log!


Click to play this Smilebox greeting
Create your own greeting - Powered by Smilebox
Customize your own free digital ecard

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas 2010 Blog: The Story of Rudolph

Last night my son and I watched the 1964 animated Christmas special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  Rudolph is kind of a stickler between my husband and me, because he thinks it is rediculous that after, what?, like 40 years of watching the show, it still brings me to tears every year.  And I'm not just talking moist eyes; every year, after Rudolph's triumph and the scene on the island of misfit toys where they think they've been forgotten once again, I have tears streaming down my cheeks.  But what can I say--especially when that little doll says something like "I don't have any dreams left."  For me--killer.

But the actual story behind Rudolph is fairly uplifting.  Robert L. May wrote the story for the Montgomery Ward store, to be made into a booklet that could be given to the children who were waiting to see Santa.  May tapped into a major middle schooler theme--my (fill in the blank) makes me different from everyone else (a major topic in many of the big contenders for the Newbery Award for this year).  May claimed he got inspiration from the classic tale of the outsider from his own life, where he was teased for being "shy, small, and slight."  He was paid a nominal fee by Montgomery Ward, but he was glad to get it, since his wife had been diagnosed with terminal cancer at the time.  She died, living May with not only a four-year-old daughter to care for, but with multiple medical bills for dealing with his wife's cancer.

Once Montgomery Ward had printed 6 million copies of the booklet, they were contacted by a major publisher about printing the story in a book.  Now comes the best part of the story....since Montgomery Ward had paid May for the work, the rights belonged to the company.  But Montgomery Ward generously decided to give the copyright back to May.  The success of the book enabled  Ray to settle his debts, take care of his child, remarry, and establish a more stable life.

His lifestyle was enhanced, though, when it turned out that a brother-in-law,  Johnny Marks, turned the story into a song that was eventually sung by Gene Autry.  It became a best-selling song, and also inspired one of America's favorite television specials.

So it turns out to be an inspirational story of overcoming one's personal issues and problems from the past and of corporate generosity rather than greed.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas 2010 Blog: Make Your Own Sugarplums

My earlier blog post today that mentioned s'mores made me think of another Christmas confection--sugarplums.  A couple of weeks ago, we had our traditional Christmas visit by our homeschool group to an assisted living facility where the children read Christmas stories to the elderly, and my son helped read the classic "The Night Before Christmas" by Clement Moore.  But on the way home, my son asked, "What IS a sugarplum?"

Thank goodness there is a Google--how did parents survive before it?  Anyway, Wikipedia (another parental blessing) says that in olden days, "plums" referred to any dried fruit, not just plums (of course, we know dried plums as prunes).  So sugarplums were candied fruit, sometimes finely minced and combined with nuts or seeds, and molded into a round or oval shape.  However, apparently the traditional approach to do that produced a very sweet and intensely-flavored candy.  And, of course, until the last century or so, sugar was so expensive that making such a confection would have been limited to the wealthy and/or as a VERY special treat.

If you are interested in making your own sugarplums, here is a traditional recipe.  Or if you are looking for a more contemporary approach, here is one by Alton Brown.

Liberal = Carrot Sticks, Conservatives = S'Mores?

I had to take a break from my Christmas blogging to post this funny article on the Washington Post entitled "Let us eat s'mores! Sarah Palin, Michelle Obama, and desserts."  It's a great illustration of the conservative/liberal divide I discussed on my post Do We Need to Be More Conservative in Our Teaching?

OK, back to our our holiday merriment...

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas 2010 Blog: Win a Free Curriculum Package!

While, of course, I always try to emphasize the spiritual qualities of Hanukkah and Christmas, I have to admit that I like the presents as well.  And now I have the opportunity to pass on a present to one lucky reader to this blog, thanks to a blogging giveaway program being offered by In the Hands of a Child, a renowned lapbook curriculum developer.  HOAC will give a free bundle pack* (which includes a printed project pack, kit pack, and answer key if available, and is valued at $40) to a randomly-selected person who enters their HOAC wish list below.

In the Hands of a Child is a partnership between a few homeschooling families who have turned unit studies they developed for their own children or homeschooling communities into complete lapbook curriculum packages.  If you are not familiar with lapbooks, they are a hands-on way to record information on any topic.  Students complete "mini-books" on various aspects of that topic and paste them all into a framework made by pasting two or more file folders together.  It usually depicts information in a visual way, with space for students to write relevant information, in small chunks on papers that fold or flap or open up or are enclosed in a small envelope, etc.  This makes it a great tool for visual and/or kinesthetic learners, as well as for students who get overwhelmed by a large topic and prefer working on manageable bits within the larger subject matter.

I have used a number of their packages, and can attest to their high quality.  To be honest, we usually don't do the entire lapbook, but I often use some of their mini-books for a hands-on activity to accompany a topic we are studying.  So while they are designed to be stand-alone studies, they can also be useful for supplemental materials to accompany another curriculum you might be using.  And, particularly for older students, they also offer much of their curriculum in a notebooking (that is, doing a lot of guided writing on designated notebook pages for specific items within the topic) format as well as for creating a lapbook.  Finally, their prices are reasonable, their customer service is good, and they are generous to the educational community.  They are often giving things away (like this promotion), and always have at least one unit on their site available for free download (right now it is "Study Any Great Painter") at:  Finally, their materials cover the gamut of disciplines and age ranges.  While they have hundreds of units at the elementary level, they have 250 items that are suitable for middle schoolers, 128 for early high school, and 80 for upper high school.

So for a chance to win a free printed lapbook/notebook package* (NOT just a downloadable ebook, which is what I usually get), what you have to do is to visit the website of In the Hands of a Child and/or to download their 2010 catalog at  .  

Then chose five HOAC units for your wishlist and enter them using the link below by December 31, 2010.  I will randomly select one name and forward it to HOAC, who will mail that person their bundle pack* the first week of January.

HOAC is having this giveway in honor of the fast-approaching release of their 400th curriculum package in early 2011.   There will be even more prizes during that event, so you might want to get on their email list to catch all the buzz at that time.

Enter your wishlist and contact information below by December 31, 2010, and good luck to all contestants!

*Fine print--Due to the high postage costs, if my randomly-selected winner lives outside the United States, HOAC will instead give them a free download of one of their ebook packages (which is still a good deal, because that is what I usually buy).  But I love my many international readers, so please enter as well, and I'm sure you will enjoy the ebook if you win.

Also, entering your contact information is only for the purpose of contacting the winner.  I will not be giving the other email addresses to HOAC, nor will I be using them.  So entering the contest will not get you on any email list or anything else that will be generating even more spam for you to deal with.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas 2010 Blog: Angels

So even with my belief about lighting up the darkness...It's now Christmas week, so maybe it is time to do some seasonal blog posts.  So today's topic is Angels.

When I was working on a lesson plan this past week for our World Religions class, I did some research on the topic of Angels.  I was amazed to find that numerous polls by different organizations (news, university research, and religious organizations) over the past two decades reported that the majority of Americans believe in angels, particularly guardian angels.  The data shows that this majority (generally ranging from 55% to 72%) is consistent within different Christian or Jewish religions or political persuasions.  Actually, studies among adult Americans in the past few years say that more people believe in angels (55%) than believe in evolution (39%), human-created global warming (36%), or either ghosts of UFOs (each had 34% believing in them).

The believe in angels among adolescents is even stronger.  It has grown steadily from 1978, when only 64% of the 13-17 year olds polled said they believed in angels, to 76% angelic believers in 1994.  Belief in angles outstrips those among teenagers who reported believing in other supernatural people or activities, beating belief in astrology, ESP, mind reading, witchcraft, ghosts, Bigfoot, or vampires.

So it seems that for the majority among us, no longer do we need to sing only about "Angels We Have Heard on High."  Most of us, particularly among perhaps not middle schoolers, but certainly high schoolers, believe that angels play a role in our personal lives, protecting us from harm or conveying important spiritual messages to us.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Curriculum Resource: They Called Themselves the K.K.K.

If you are looking for a terrific resource on a difficult subject--racism, Reconstruction, and the history of American hate groups--I wholeheartedly recommend Susan Campbell Bartoletti's new book, They Called Themselves the K.K.K: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group.  Bartoletti is no stranger to substantive non-fiction books for adolescents; she won a Newbery Honor for her 2005 publication of Hitler Youth:  Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow.  But she has done such a great job on this book,  it is no wonder that it is also on many people's short list for another potential Newbery Award.

According to the author, the inspiration for the book came when she saw a statue of the renowned Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was also supposedly the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and wondered to herself, "Where are the memorials for the victims of KKK violence?"  After finding out from the Southern Poverty Law Center that there were no such memorials, Bertoletti knew that she had to write this book.

However, what is great about this book is that Bertoletti tries to understand the complex history of  this paramilitary white suprematist group from both sides.  Her book explores how common, ordinary, usually decent people could get involved in such a violent group, and even believe that they were doing God's work.  It also demonstrates the strength and courage of common, ordinary people, both black and white, who stood up against the Klan.  Her work contains much more information about the politics behind Reconstruction than is usually available for middle school or high school history.  And the work is all the more effective by the even-handed way she approaches the topic, allowing young people to draw their own conclusions rather than preaching to them.

One way Bertoletti achieves this is by relying heavily on first-hand accounts and primary source materials.  She uses quotes from both proponents and victims of the Klan in a masterful way.  And while she doesn't gloss over the violence and death of this terrible time in our history, she also doesn't focus on it so much that it becomes too intense for a middle school audience.

Bertoletti's book is a much-needed addition to the middle school or high school history curriculum about the aftermath of the Civil War.  But it is also a valuable resource for talking about current events.  I love that she identifies the KKK as "an American terrorist group"--a great wake-up call for our post 9/11 youth who think all terrorists come from outside our borders.  The book also contains a Civil Rights Timeline and a comprehensive Bibliography and Notes section that is also useful in extending the dialogue.

So this may not seem like the kind of book you want to be reading during our holly, jolly holidays.  But the author, who besides writing about the Klan and Hitler's youth has also tackled such difficult topics as famine, youth labor rights, and working in a coal mine, says that the only way she knows to deal with the dark is to try to shine a light on it.  As we approach the winter solstice, it's great to know that we have this outstanding reference to help shine some light on some of our nation's darkest hours.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Public Education in California: The Good, the Bad, and the Intriguing

As we debate what to do about the public school, either here in North Carolina or where ever it may be that you live, it can be instructive to keep an eye on what is going on in California.  Not only is that the most populated US state, but it has a history of innovation and experimentation that has swung between the left/liberal and right/conservative perspectives from not quite year to year, but certainly decade to decade.

Let's start with the Bad (I always like to get that out of the way):  California, strapped for revenue due to the  bust in the real estate market and the infamous Proposition 13 that limits their ability to tax, needs to cut $25 BILLION from its state budget.  So Governor-elect Jerry Brown warned the schools that they should expect a reduction of 20-25% in next year's funds.  This year, California spent $49.6 billion on K-12 schools and community colleges, so that could mean a cut of over $12 billion--and that is on top of the $7 billion less they spent this year compared to three years ago.

Problems of that scale help us keep our $3 billion deficit in North Carolina, and warnings of a 5-10% cut in education funds, in perspective.  California's reductions in education spending could amount to more money then North Carolina spent in FY 2009-2010 on NC public K-12 schools, community colleges, and the state university system combined.

So that is a major amount of money to have to cut from the education budget.

But now for the Good:  the incoming Governor, Jerry Brown (yes, the same one who served as Governor in 1975-1983, when he dated Linda Ronstadt and opposed the passage of Proposition 13), seems to have a good head on his shoulders when it comes to education (translation:  it looks like he agrees with me!).  In general, he seems to impose the national trend towards standardization, an emphasis on test scores, and the liberal bias I discussed in yesterday's post towards systematic solutions that derive from data instead of human flexibility, creativity, and differentiation.  Let me quote just a bit from comments he sent to US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan:

What we have at stake are the impressionable minds of the children of America. You are not collecting data or devising standards for operating machines or establishing a credit score. You are funding teaching interventions or changes to the learning environment that promise to make public education better, i.e. greater mastery of what it takes to become an effective citizen and a productive member of society. In the draft you have circulated, I sense a pervasive technocratic bias and an uncritical faith in the power of social science.

I read his comments, and just thought, "You go, Jerry!"  To see his complete statement, read this blog post from Teacher Magazine.

And finally, the Intriguing:  one of the things that outgoing California Governor Arnold Schwarzeneggar touts as a major achievement in improving public education is the passage of the so-called "parent trigger" law, which allows a majority of parents in the district of a "failing school" (once again, as determined by test scores) to demand changes in that school.  The parental options include firing the principal and top administrators, converting to a charter school, or even shutting the school down.

On December 7, 2010, the first group of parents activated this new law.  Petitions signed by 62% of parents requested that McKinley Elementary School be converted to a charter school that will be run by Celerity Educational Group, a private company that is running three other schools in California. As can be expected, there is a lot of controversy about this event. The state is investigating charges of harassment and misrepresentation on the part of the petition organizers, the state educators are protesting uninformed intrusion into their long-range plans, and liberals see this as another conservative ploy to turn public schools over to private management. But Schwarzeneggar and other proponents argue that legislation like this is the only way to address the problems of "drop out factories" and a lack of educational alternatives for the urban poor as demonstrated in documentaries such as "Waiting for Superman" (see my blog post for a review of that movie, or read this blog post from The Huffington Post for more info on the parent trigger law).

I have mixed feeling about this law. I think I need to see how it plays out before I can decide if I think it is a good idea or not. But I do believe it is something worth keeping our eyes on as our national debates about what to do with public education continue to dominate much of our civic discussions.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Do We Need to Be More Conservative in Our Teaching?

I'm always on the look-out for ideas about how we can improve teaching (rather than test scores).  A new idea has popped up for me about incorporating more conservative techniques in teaching, sparked by an intriguing new book by David M. Ricci, a professor of politics and American studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  However, before this becomes a political debate, let me say I'm not talking about incorporating more conservative beliefs in teaching; I'm talking about including more of the conservative reliance on selling ideas through great stories.

Ricci's book is entitled Why Conservatives Tell Stories and Liberals Don't:  Rhetoric, Faith, and Vision on the American Right.  This book answers the puzzle posed by New York Times colonist and author of The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman, who stated just before the recent elections "The thing that baffles me about Mr. Obama is how a politician who speaks so well, and is trying to do so many worthy things, can't come up with a clear, simple, repeatable narrative to explain his politics."  It also explains why conservative leaders whom those with left-wing leanings find to be, at best, simple, and at worse, let's call it "intellectually challenged," keep winning elections.  These Conservatives may not have the Ivy League degree or the facts and figures at their fingertips.  But they tell a great tale about America's glorious possibilities, and sometimes those stories triumph--even if they turn out to be fantasies, or even worse, lies.

Ricci argues that it is in the very nature of liberalism to eschew storytelling over data.   He traces the liberal movement from the Enlightenment, and shows how they have consistently relied on science, theories, and facts to convince the population to abandon long-held policies or behaviors.  Conservatives, on the other hand, promote traditional values, conveyed through uplifting stories about such qualities as courage, decency, authenticity, and the democratic virtues of freedom and justice.  So you have President Obama trying to teach people about his national health care legislation, which was more than 2,300 pages long, while Sarah Palin talks about her mama grizzlies and tea parties.  And we all saw which approach tended to be most convincing to voters in the 2010 elections.

But leaving politics aside--I think this is a valuable insight for us to consider in education.  How many of us are liberal thinkers, and so think the most important thing is to teach our students the facts and figures of what ever subject we are teaching?  If we are, how powerful would it be NOT to abandon facts, but to combine it with the more conservative bent towards storytelling?  Because when I think back to the best teachers I've ever had, they weren't the ones who necessarily fed me the most theories and data.  The best ones, for me at least, were those who brought the subject alive through their passion for and, yes, stories about their subject matter.

Of course, it may seem that storytelling lends itself more to some disciplines than others.  Literature, of course, is all about stories, and history can easily be taught (although, unfortunately, too often is not) as a series of narratives about historical dates, facts, and figures--tales of the who and why that enliven the when and what.  But how about math?  For many of us, that is one of the most fixed, inflexible, and uninteresting (and, unfortunately, for some incomprehensible) subjects.  However, you only need to meet a master math teacher like my friend, Maria Droujkova of Natural Math, to learn otherwise.   No matter what topic she is teaching, Maria is always conveying a story of math as a fun, creative, flexible, beautiful, and personal medium through which each student can express him- or herself and make life better.  Maria changes people's stories about math, and that can make all the difference in their ability to learn math.

Or how about science?  There has been an intense discussion lately on the Natural Math e-loop on how science differs from math in regards to storytelling (which, unfortunately, has gone over my head, or at least over my ability to devote the time and attention to comprehend all the posts and links that have been exchanged by people with much more specialized knowledge in those fields).  But I still believe that there is a place for storytelling in science and that science, too, in the end tells different stories about the world.  If you have read Thomas Kuhn's classic work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, major shifts in the fundamental theories in science, like moving from the Ptolemy to the Copernican astronomy or from mechanical to quantum physics, also change our story of who we are and how our worlds operate.

Once again, I haven't actually read the book, so I'm not sure that I completely buy Ricci's argument.  But I think he raises a fascinating point to consider, and shines a light on something that may be a bit of a blind spot for some of us.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Film Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

My husband and I did finally get to go see the latest Harry Potter film recently.  I hadn't read any of the reviews, so I had no expectations.  My take:  I thought it was terrific.  Depressing, but terrific.   I'm going to discuss some of my favorite bits of the movie, so if you haven't seen it and don't want to read any spoilers, you might want to go read another article here and come back once you have seen it.  But before I spill the beans, I will say this:  I don't advise seeing this film unless you've read the books and/or seen the previous movies.  This movie is drawing characters from the previous six films with little or no explanation, and I'm not sure you would know what was going on if you aren't familiar with who these people are and what their backgrounds in the previous stories are.  Oh, and one other thing I will say for those who haven't seen the film yet--if you have a younger and/or more sensitive middle schooler, it may be too intense for them.  Our son didn't go see it with us, and after just the first few minutes, I was so glad he hadn't.  The film is very dark and can be quite scary, even for those who have read the books and know what is coming.  I don't think our son, who has read all the books multiple times, will be ready to see this film for quite a while.

I started getting teary from the very beginning, where Hermione was protecting her parents by changing their memories and removing her presence from their lives in a wonderfully visual way.  It was a small thing, but that is what I love about they can take something that is mentioned in a fantastic book, but demonstrate it in a way I never imagined (and wasn't explained in the book) and make it so much more powerful than I ever thought when I was reading the book.  I love those kinds of moments in movies!

Another example like that was some scene where the heroes are wondering around and listening to the rebel radio, which says that the good news is that the list of deaths is so short today...and proceeds to read off name after name after name.  Again, that was not taken directly from the book, but made for a really emotional realization of the toll of this war between Voldemort and the wizard world.

One other scene that the film makers invented that I really liked was another early sequence where Harry is trying to sneak off to start his quest on his own, but he is discovered by Ron.  When questioned, Harry says he has to do this by himself because he doesn't want anyone else dying for him.  But Ron responds by informing Harry that if people die, they aren't dying for Harry--they are dying for something much, much bigger than him.   Then he tells Harry if he leaves alone, he won't last a day without Hermione's help and he might just as well surrender himself to Voldemort to be killed.  I thought that was a great scene--a wake up call for Harry, who does have a tendency to be the Savior/Martyr, and a wonderful moment for Ron to be something besides the always-encouraging sidekick (well, most of the time, anyways).

Another part that worked SO WELL on film was Hermione's reading of  "The Tale of the Three Brothers," which was depicted in a graphic cartoon as you hear Hermione's narration.  It was a very stark, stylized visual rendering of the story, and I thought it was very well done.

On the whole, though, the movie sticks very close to the book.  And it has to, because even in splitting it into two films, there is so much material packed into the final book that there is no time to linger over most of it.  So events zoom by, and are presented with minimal explanation and streamlined action, as the writer and director try to convey all the essentials into a family-friendly movie length time.

On the whole, I think they did a great job.  There are wonderful sections of the book that I hate to see left out, but I think they hit upon most of the crucial ones.  The main thing that is missing so far is the whole backstory about Dumbledore's history and life choices, which were crucial elements of the book, but may be hard to work into a movie format.  We'll see...

To be clear, I still prefer the books.  They just have so much more than the films can ever present.  But this movie, I think, is very true to the novel.  And it teaches valuable lessons about friendship, and perseverance, and courage, and doing the right thing, rather than the easy or convenient thing.   It deals with a number of middle school level themes, and so is a great resource for early adolescents who aren't too upset over some intense visual sequences.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Book Review: The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan

While it's not like I don't have enough things to keep me busy this time of year, I just finished reading The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan.  But I had requested it from the library, and after how ever many weeks? months? of waiting, it arrived and I only had a week to read it.  So if I never get around to doing Christmas cards, I'm blaming it on Rick Riordan.

However, I have to say that I'm glad I got to read it.  The truth is, we're not big Percy Jackson fans here.  My son read The Lightning Thief, and he liked it OK, but never read any of the other books in the series, nor did my husband.  I read all five books, and while I really liked the premise and love the way the books hook children into Greek mythology, I never was in love with the series like I have been with some other young adult series.

So, while I don't know that this would be true for middle school readers, I think I actually like The Lost Hero better than the previous series.  My main reason is that, to me, this book is more like a real mystery book, where you can figure out from the clues what may be coming up.  One of my biggest problems with the Percy Jackson series is that while you quickly learned that every chapter or so, the protagonists would be facing some horrible monster or vengeful god from Greek mythology, it always seemed arbitrary to me as to who was showing up when.  It felt to me like when Riordan was writing, he would say to himself "Whoops, it's been three chapters now since Percy Jackson was on the brink of being killed.  Let's see, who haven't I used yet to try to destroy him?" and then just throw in some new Greek horror.  But from my perspective, this one seems more cohesive, and Greek figures who either help or oppose the demigod heroes make more sense to me, based on their traditional stories and what is going on in the book.  This time around, I could take the clues and figure out somethings about the heroes and about the forces of evil that they must overcome (I don't want to be more specific and give things away, but come on--that's what Riordan's mythology series are always about).  I felt like I used my brain a bit more in this book, and that's something I appreciate in a book.

Another thing that I really like about this series is that it is blending the Greek and the Roman mythologies.  It is only touched on in this book, but the groundwork is laid for the fact that while the Romans borrowed their gods from the Greeks, their versions were slightly different in some significant ways.  I don't know where Riordan is going with this, but this is a fascinating new element to weave into his updated mythological tales.

This series maintains the same madcap pace...can't any of these "end of life as we know" scenarios give the protagonists at least a week of warning?...but has less of the comic/bravado/sarcastic patter that Percy Jackson tends to keep up during his battles.  Again, that is probably undesirable from the point of view of young adolescents, but a parent (or, at least, I) doesn't miss it.  Also, the story is told in third person among the three demigods who are the main characters in the book, which I like because I like spreading the wealth and getting to know more characters, rather that being so focused on just Percy Jackson.  The gods are also a bit nicer to their kids (so far, at least), and as a parent, I approve of that as well.

So I enjoyed the book, and recommend it to others.  It's not really something that I think of as being a Newbery contender.  But it is fun, fast-paced, and builds on a successful series that did build an interesting world that brings ancient mythology into the 21st century.  I think Riordan's idea of looking at both the Greek and Roman faces of these stories has a lot of potential, and I hope he takes advantage of that in the books to come.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Educational Resource: Napoleonic Wars

First, I'll admit it--I hate to be writing about wars.  But if you are teaching your middle schoolers about history, it's a topic that has to be addressed.  And if you are teaching about 19th century wars, a book that I just have to recommend is Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars by Donald Sommerville.

At least here in America, there are not lots of great resources about the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era.  But personally, I think it is really important to study, especially for Americans.  One thing that I try to convey in teaching about the American Revolution is what a radical idea it was that people were equal and that the common (white) man (unfortunately, sexism was still rampant then and women were not seen as equals...nor were ethnic groups such as Negroes) was capable of ruling himself--or, at least, of choosing the men (again, sexist and racist, but that's how it was) who would set the rules.

So, although it wasn't perfect, the ideas of democracy and equality that drove the American Revolution were a remarkable divergence from how governments had been run since Western Civilization.  And the -- again, pretty much exclusive white men -- who argued about those ideals and tried to formulate them into a working government were also, in my opinion, fairly remarkable.

One way to demonstrate this is to study the French Revolution.  Just as the French philosophers had influenced the American revolutionaries, so the American example inspired similar rebellions on the part of the people of France.  But after their war, the government that was established was either unstable or totalitarian.  The French were able to overthrow the aristocracy, but the government for many years after that was brutal to its perceived enemies, both within and around the country.

I think the greatest lesson for Americans in French history, especially regarding the Napoleonic era, is that EVEN with revolution, democracy was not a foregone conclusion.  First France, then the many nations of South America, declared their independence from European royalty.   But none of these countries were able to establish a lasting democratic government.  However, with the establishment of the US Constitution, the US government has prevailed through conflicts over its territory (the War of 1812, the Mexican war, the wars with the Native Americans), with World Wars and other military action outside its borders, and even the Civil War that set state against state.

So this is a big deal for me.   But if you are interested in your middle schooler learning about these events--American Revolution, French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, American expansionism, and the War against Mexico--I haven't found a better resource than this book.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

'Tis the Season to be Grateful that We Don't Live in Juarez

In 2007, when Bill Gates (Harvard's most famous drop-out) was receiving an honorary degree from his could-have-been alma mater and giving the graduation speech, the beginning of his talk addressed his failure to graduate with the stereotypical break-up line:  It's not you, it's me.   But then he segued into an issue with his Harvard education, although he still presented it as a personal failing.  His great admission was:

But taking a serious look back...I do have one big regret.
I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world - the appalling disparities of health, and wealth, and opportunity that condemn millions of people to lives of despair.

I think that problem is true for most of us who were born in the United States.  Even the most progressive among us can't imagine how good we've really got it unless we've spent some time in some of the other countries that are less privileged.

This was brought home to me again today with an article in today's local newspaper about the school systems in Juarez, Mexico.  It seems that gangsters are now targeting school teachers for extortion, because the teachers get a Christmas bonus of up to a month's salary (which, down there, apparently average about $650--and this is for the month).  The mobsters are not only threatening the safety of the teachers; they are also threatening violence towards the children they teach.  And their threats have not been all talk.  Last week, they torched a preschool, which, while it seems injuries were avoided, left the administration offices in ruin.

I know I can be rough on my local school system (although I try not to be rough on the teachers, most of whom I think are doing a hero's job under difficult and demanding circumstances).  But I know that, every now and then, I need a wake-up call about how good we've got things.  I may not like the emphasis on testing, I may not like school board policies, I may not agree with curriculum approaches.  But thank goodness that we can send our children to school without thinking they might be targets for criminals who want to shake down teachers, of all people, for their Christmas bonuses.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Is Studying a Foreign Language Still Important?

Every year, we are advised about all the additional stuff we need to be teaching our middle schoolers and high schoolers.  We are told they need more science and math, more computers and technology, more business and finance work, more arts and music, more writing, more more more.  But how can we fit it all in?  If we are adding in additional years in traditional subjects, or including new subjects like information technology, what do we let fall by the wayside in a school day that only has so many hours?

One area I haven't heard as much about lately is foreign languages.  On one hand, with all the emphasis on the globalization of our modern world, it seems it would be important to communicate to at least some section of the planet that doesn't speak English.  On the other hand, are we just assuming that everyone else will continue to learn English, so there is no need for us to learn one of their languages?

However, at least on the college level, it seems that foreign language instruction has been growing steadily for at least the last decade.  The Modern Language Association has just released the results of its 2009 comprehensive survey of enrollments in languages other than English among 2,514 US undergraduate and graduate institutions.  It shows that foreign language enrollments in 2009 were at an all-time high of 1,682,627 students, having grown by 6.6% between 2006-2009 and by nearly 13% from 2002-2006.

The most popular language by far (it enrolls more students than all other foreign languages combined) is Spanish, which has long held the #1 position in foreign language studies with 864,986 students.  The second most popular language is French, with 216,419 students, and followed by German with 96,349 enrolled.  These languages, along with what has traditionally been the fourth-ranked language, Italian, continue to grow, but by relatively small percentages (from 2-5%).

The great leaps in enrollments, however, have come from what the MLA calls "less commonly taught languages" or LCTLs, which grew by 31.2% from 2002-2006, then by an additional 20.8% from 2005-2009.  The biggest percentage gains were registered among the Arabic languages, where enrollments raised by 126.5% from 2002-2006, then by another 46.3% in 2006-2009.  Any guesses about what the most popular LCTL is?  Actually, it is American Sign Language (ASL), which was up by 16.4% to a total of 91,763 students and supplanting Italian as the fourth most popular language.  Japanese, with 73,434 enrollments, was the most popular Asian language and was the 6th most popular language overall, followed by Chinese in 7th place with 60,976 students.  The top ten list was rounded out with Arabic in 8th place (35,083 students), Latin in 9th (32,606), and Russian in 10th (26,883).  The only languages among the top 15 that reported losing students were Ancient Greek (although some of that was explained by some schools that have reclassified their Greek classes) and Hebrew, both Modern and Biblical.

The good news, according to experts, is that language studies seem to be more stable now then they were in the 1980s and 1990s.  So if your children are interested in pursuing a LCTL, there's a good chance they can find a college that will enable them to continue their studies at the postsecondary level.  Overall, US colleges and universities reported offering a total of 217 LCTLs, which is 35 more languages than were available in 2006.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Gates Teacher Effectiveness Study Links Good Teaching with Gains in Test Scores

Some preliminary results were published today from the $45 million Measures of Effective Teaching study being conducted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  The goal of this research, which is examining 3,000 teachers from seven urban school districts, including the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system here in North Carolina, is to develop a fair and comprehensive way to assess a teacher's overall role on student achievement beyond simply how their students do in high-stakes testing (which is called "value-added"measurement).

The headline among most of the educational journals about these results is that individual teachers' "value-added" histories (how much their students have raised their test scores in the past) strongly predict how they will do in the future, even if they have changed schools or classes.  So, those teachers whose students have increased their scores significantly in previous years usually continue to teach classes with strong test score increases at the end of the year.  These factors were linked regardless of subject matter or grade level.

Less highlighted in the study reviews, however, is the fact that the teachers who did a good job in raising student scores also were consistently rated high by their students on good teaching practices, such as giving clear explanations, explaining the same thing in several different ways, and showing care and concern for their students.  The teachers with the biggest gains were also highly and consistently rated by students from all their different classes for their classroom management skills as well as for their tendency to present challenging academic content.  So, basically, what this study says to me is that good teaching lead to good test scores.

This is, perhaps, not a revolutionary concept.  But what I think it does indicate is that the teachers who are most effective in raising student scores due so NOT by focusing on the ends--the tests--but by the means--the process of instruction.  The researchers emphasize that these are preliminary results of a multi-year project, so we aren't supposed to be drawing hard and fast conclusions yet.  However, I think it supports the notion that "teaching to the test" doesn't work to raise test scores; good teaching does.  And I think any research that helps lead us away from focusing on the test so much and concentrating on identifying, sharing, and rewarding good teaching IN AND OF ITSELF is a good thing.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

I hope people enjoyed my eight nights of book reviews for Hanukkah.  It was kind of fun to focus on one things for a while, as well as finally writing reviews of all these great books we've been reading.  I really recommend the Mock Newbery Book Club program--it encourages your middle schooler (and probably you as well, at least if you are like our family) to catch up with some wonderful new books, and has us all reaching for different types of book than we typically read.

But now, back to other educational issues.  However, I'm still in a holiday mood, so I don't want to go on a rant against educational policies I disagree with right now.  So I thought tonight maybe I would give parents a gift--the gift of reducing our guilt about all the ways we are messing up our children.

This gift comes via one of my favorite educational writers, Alfie Kohn (oft mentioned in this blog).  He posted a new article on his website recently pointing out that all the woes of today's educational critics--high school graduates who can't read, employers who find high school graduates incapable of performing even entry-level jobs, grade inflation, falling standards, yada yada yada--have been railed about for years.  That is, critics were saying the same things about the problems with the education system during Eisenhower's time (and in some cases, even earlier) as they are saying now.  So while it is obviously unacceptable to have high school graduates who can't read, at least it is not just a recent phenomenon that our generation has created.

While this article is good, an even better one was something in the same vein he wrote this summer.  In that article he addresses the often-heard criticism that today's parents are too permissive and indulgent, and that today's students are entitled, smug, out of touch with reality, and out-and-out spoiled rotten.  Well, Kohn traces the exact same complaints about overindulgent parents and what he calls "undisciplined narcissists" even farther back, to over a century ago.  It seems that educational experts have been blaming parents for ruining their children's work ethic for nearly as long as we've had mandatory universal public education.

Kohn points out a couple of holes in this line of criticism.  First, there is no data--in fact, there has never been any attempt to collective information on parenting styles in a systematic way that could be used to rate a parent as "permissive" versus a "disciplinarian" in all these many long years that critics have been decrying the failures of successive generations of parents.  What little research has been done in this area hardly suggests that parents are awash in overindulgence; Kohn cites a 1995 study of parents of preschoolers in which 94% admitted that they spank or hit their children.

For this complaint, however, Kohn does have an explanation.  He discusses a 2010 article in the journal Perspectives in Psychological Science by Brent Roberts, Grant Edmonds, and Emily Grijalva of the University of Illinois.  These researchers argue that such critics are confusing developmental differences with generational differences.  That is, young people, on the whole, are more self-centered and self-concerned, laxidasical, and unfocused than older professionals (such as these professional critics) because of age-related developmental differences; most only become less self-involved and more focused as they get older.  So, yes, there is a difference between the younger generation and the older one--but it is function of age, rather than a result of differences in parenting styles (or anything to do with their parents, really).  But as the young generation matures and eventually is replaced by a new young generation, they, too, will start shaking their heads and making pronouncements like "these young kids these days DON'T.... or SHOULD....  well, you get the picture.

So, parents, you are off the hook for that one.  If your tweens or teens or even college students or recent graduates are driving you crazy with their lack of responsibility and their inability to get over themselves, don't beat yourself up for being a bad parent.  Most likely, they are just being kids--which is what they are, no matter how early our society starts the whole "get good grades to get into a good college to get a good job" pressure on them.  Apparently we did the same things to our parents (that's not how we remember it, of course, but we probably did), just like they did to our grandparents, who did the same thing to our great-grandparents...and on and on.

So, Alfie Kohn, thank you once again for helping us keep things in perspective.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hanukkah Book Review: Two Books About the 1960's

Tonight is the last night of Hanukkah, so I thought I would end this series with a big shebang and review TWO books that deal with the same time period--the 1960's--but from very different perspectives.

The first book is Countdown by Deborah Wiles.  On one hand, this is a VERY middle school book, with the characters worrying about how they are viewed by their peers, how they get along with their siblings, who is their friend and who is not, whether or not they are interested in the opposite sex--and whether or not the opposite sex is interested back, all those sorts of things.  However, Wiles takes it to another level by setting all the action during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.  The protagonist, Franny Chapman, thinks she has enough to worry about, what with her father being an Air Force Pilot stationed outside Washington, DC, her perfectionist mother, her uncle who is still reliving his World War II combat days, and her goody two-shoes brother who never tells a lie and wants to be an astronaut (not to mention a best friend who isn't acting too friendly and an intriguing boy who may or may not be a romantic interest).  But then nuclear warheads are discovered in Cuba, and Franny and her peers live in fear of atomic attack--on TOP of the usual early adolescent angst.

I think Wiles does an excellent job of conveying what it was like living through those scary and confusing times, especially as a child (where they were drilled in hiding under desks in case of nuclear that would make a difference!).  She also inserts all sorts of graphics from the days in questions--pictures, posters, song lyrics, protest signs, newspaper articles, and other similar items--to try to capture the essence of that unique time in American history.  The story line also touches on the civil rights movement and other political issues going on at that time.  Maybe one of the reasons she portrays the feelings of those times so well is that she herself lived through them as a daughter of a pilot stationed at Andrews Air Force base in Maryland during the early '60s.  In fact, she calls  Countdown a "documentary novel," and says it is the first of a trilogy she calls the Sixties Project, in which she tries to depict that decade in way that adolescents can really experience what it felt like to live through those times.

I was really impressed with this book.  I thought she was really successful in capturing the feel of the era in a way that today's young people could understand.  I can't wait to read the other books in this series, which are supposed to be set in 1966 and 1968.

Another potential Newbery book set during this decade is One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. This book takes place during the summer of 1968, and focuses much more on the civil rights issues of the times.  The story is told by Delphine, one of three self-proclaimed "colored" sisters who have been sent from Brooklyn, NY to Oakland, CA to meet their mother, who abandoned the family when the youngest girl was an infant.   But when their mother refuses to deal with them, even when they come to her place in California, the girls spend the day in a Black Panther summer camp for raising revolutionaries--a far cry from their live in Brooklyn, where their father and grandmother coach them in how to be "good Negroes" and adapt as a minority in the majority white culture.   The sisters learn a lot about themselves, the politics of the times, the secret dynamics of their family, and even a bit about their mother during this summer that changes their lives.

Once again, I can't praise the author enough for how well she puts the reader in the shoes of a character that is facing issues that today's youth probably can't imagine.  She is also the only one of all the books I've review that deals with things from the perspective of an ethnic minority--a valuable input, especially for families like mine that are about as WASPy as you can get.  The protagonist is so honest, down-to-earth, responsible, non-victimy, and ultimately kind (if sometimes mis-informed) that I can't imagine people NOT falling in love with her.  And I really appreciate any book that reminds me what it is like to be a minority without making me feel guilty about it.

Both of these books are GREAT books for a middle school reader, and EXCELLENT resources when you are learning about the 1960's.  I recommend them not only for our children, but for ourselves as well.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Hanukkah Book Review: The Cardturner by Louis Sachar

The end of Hanukkah is fast approaching, so I wanted to get in a review of what was the first book that I read since my son started his mock Newbery book club that I thought could be a contender for the 2011 Newbery award.  That book is The Cardturner by Louis Sachar, who won the Newbery award in 1999 for Holes (although his previous win might make him a less likely candidate, since only five authors have ever won the award twice.)

This book, which is geared to a slightly older reader than the last two books, is about a teenager (rather than a middle schooler) who is roped by his family into serving as the eyes and "cardturner" for his blind, ailing, bridge game-loving great uncle--who also happens to be extremely rich.  Having just lost his sight from diabetes, which prohibits Lester Trapp from playing bridge,  his lifelong passion, the old man is forced to rely on his clearly-inadequate nephew,  Alton Richards, who has no knowledge and no interest in the game.  However, as time passes, Alton learns more and more from his uncle--both about bridge and about life.  It is a wonderful story of intergenerational dynamics, family secrets, relative rivalry, second chances, and grabbing the gusto out of life, no matter how long or how short you expect it to last.

This book also stand out, however, because it is Sachar's attempt to tempt a new generation away from their video games and into learning an "old fashioned" game like bridge.  He intersperses the story with pages explaining concepts in the game, or otherwise conveying his love for it.  Understanding bridge isn't essential to understanding the plot, but it helps to at least read his explanation pages to get some of the nuance of the action during the bridge games (of which there are many).  Sachar does a great job of capturing the mystique of bridge--almost as a symbol of a more elegant, more sophisticated era--in a way that intrigues, rather than repels, the Millennial Generation of today's tweens and teens (which I think is quite a feat, regardless of the story).

In fact, my son learned some bridge this year and has quite enjoyed it.  So maybe Sachar's goal of regenerating interest in a fading card game is not as quixotic at it might seem when you just hear about it.  Try the book--you might get hooked too.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Hanukkah Book Review: The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) by Barbara Kerley

Now, for a change of pace, I thought I would write not about a humorous book, but about a book on a humorist.  The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) is an unusual twist on a biography; it is a description of the great 19th century American writer, Mark Twain, as told by his 13 year old daughter, Susy.  The author, Barbara Kerley, is a renowned writer of biographies and other nonfiction books for children.  She had considered writing about Mark Twain for years, then stumbled upon a reference to a biography that Twain's adolescent daughter had written about him.   So Kerley tells the story of Mark Twain, but intersperses the pages with little cut-out pages from Susy's biography, where she reflects on this famous man from a personal perspective.

At first glance, this is a pretty simple book; the reading level is more for the elementary school level than for middle schoolers.  But like another of the picture books I reviewed earlier, my beloved Blockhead:  The Life of Fibonacci by Joseph D'Agnese (another point of light in 2010), I think it can also be appropriate for early adolescents.  For one thing, Susy is herself 13, so middle schoolers can relate to that.  I personally think a first reading of Tom Sawyer, or particularly of Huckleberry Finn, is more appropriate during middle school, so this could go nicely with reading some of Twain's most important books.  It contains a page with tips for writing biographies, and demonstrates more middle school-level biography techniques, like using a particular anecdote to illustrate a larger truth about the subject, rather than a mere recitation of facts that is more common to elementary school.  But more importantly, read carefully, this book explores some of the issues that tweens wrestle with in middle school, like the difference between how others see us and how our family sees us, our public and our personal personas, and accepting our weaknesses along with our strengths.

The illustrations by Edwin Fotheringham are also quite lovely, and are not too juvenile for middle schoolers.

My son picked it up and read it on his own, and he enjoyed it.  But I plan to read some Twain later in the year, and expect to return to this book again then.

And while we are on the subject of biographies about humorists...
Last week, my son read the book Sir Charlie:  Chaplin, the Funniest Man on Earth by Sid Fleischman, and declared that it was one of the best books he had ever read.  I haven't read it myself, so I can't vouch for it personally.  But Fleischman won the 1987 Newbery award for his book, The Whipping Boy, so chances are that this book is pretty well written.  And Sir Charlie is definitely for a middle school level or higher.  Or if you want to continue the Mark Twain theme, Fleischman also wrote a biography on Twain entitled The Trouble Begins at 8:  A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West.  It's definitely on my list to read when we roll around to that point in our history and literature studies.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Hanukkah Book Review: A Whole Nother Story by Dr. Cuthbert Soup

After all those uplifting books, I thought I would go for one that is just plain fun--A Whole Nother Story by Dr. Cuthbert Soup.  The name alone probably tips you off to the fact that this is going to be a pretty silly book.  Once you read the following bio about the author, you'll be sure of it:  Dr. Cuthbert Soup was born in Vienna, Austria, at the height of the Great Sausage Famine. At twenty-three he dropped out of high school and moved to New York City, where he landed a gig playing elevator music. He was soon fired, however, as his trombone kept smacking other people in the elevator. He is currently the founder and president of the National Center for Unsolicited Advice, where he has served as an unofficial advisor to CEOs and heads of state, and has given countless inspirational lectures to unsuspecting crowds. In his spare time he enjoys cajoling, sneering, and practicing the trombone in crowded areas. Dr. Soup currently resides in a semi-secret location somewhere in the United States. This is his first book.

 The story is kind of wacky, and involves such items that kids really enjoy as a time machine, a traveling circus, international spies, cowboys and pirates...and much, much more.  It sort of reminds me of a silly, tween-oriented comedic version of the old Mission Impossible television shows, where they would have all these scenes that didn't seem to relate to each other, and the characters kept taking on new personalities, but it would all come together at the end, just in time to keep the bad guys from doing whatever they were trying to do.  In the same way, there are so many characters that you lose track of them, but they all end up having a role in the book's conclusion.

There are some good themes in the book, such as the importance of family and, once again, the importance of accepting people who are different, but it is mostly a light and humorous read.  But the humor is mostly from wacky or unexpected events or characters, not the more various-unpleasant-bodily-functions jokes of many juvenile comedies.  The humor was perfect for my highly-right-brained son;  I read it first, and after I read just a couple of chapters, I knew he would love it--and he did!  It is an easy read for middle schoolers, and is probably appropriate for most upper elementary students as well.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Hanukkah Book Review: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

So now I come to the last in a troika of books that are related in at least my mind:  Mockingbird, Out of My Mind, and now The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger.  Origami Yoda is another testament to not judging a book by its cover, particularly in the context of middle schoolers and the tweens who is "different" from their peers.  However, Origami Yoda presents a much more common situation, and handles the entire question with humor as well as insight.  Origami Yoda is sort of the YA equivalent to watching "A Charlie Brown Christmas," while reading the other two are much more (good) tear-jerkers, like a high-quality "Hallmark Hall of Fame" Christmas special.

The square peg in this book is Dwight, the weird kid that the other sixth graders all consider to be a "loser."  Dwight is such a dweeb that one day he shows up at school with a paper puppet on his finger--an Origami version of Yoda from Star Wars--and starts spouting unsolicited advice.  What a loser, right?  Except the funny thing is....Origami Yoda's pronouncements have a way of coming true.  So what is going on?  Could the force really be with a folded up piece of paper?  Or is it Dwight?  Does he have hidden talents that no one could have ever expected?

One thing that I really liked about this book (besides the message, of course) is that it is written as a series of diary entries.  Dwight's classmates really want to figure out if Origami Yoda is the real deal or not, so they agree to share their experiences with his advice.  So each chapter is written by a different student--sometimes a girl, sometimes a boy.  Some of them are Team Yoda, some of them think it is all a ruse, and at least one or two are beginning to appreciate some of Dwight's differences.   And as each entry unfolds, the reader gets to see that even the "coolest" kids in school are grappling with self-image and relationship issues, especially in that most dangerous of topics--a burgeoning interest in the opposite sex.   I think Angleberger kind of captures that sixth-grade voice as well as an adult can, and includes in his chapter student-like drawing and comments or insults by other classmates as they read the entry of each chapter that helps make it even more authentic.

All in all, I think this is a VERY imaginative way to approach this topic, and Angleberger has done a fabulous job in making this topic very accessible to his target audience--ESPECIALLY to boys, who (not to be sexist or anything) might be less open to reading a heavier book on this topic, such as Mockingbird or Out of My Mind.  For example, while he finished both the others, he didn't really enjoy them.  But he loved The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, and rates it as one of his favorite books of the year.  And I think he got the theme of non-judgment and accepting the differences of others (which is a big value for us, both as a family and in the homeschooling and spiritual communities to which we belong) better from The Strange Case of Origami Yoda than he did from the other two.

Again, I don't know how the Newbery Committee considers these various factors.  How do you compare books that cover similar themes in such different ways?  All I can say is the The Strange Case of Origami Yoda is one of my favorite YA books of the year, and would definitely have a place on my personal top seven list for 2010 (I believe that is the official number Newbery members recommend).

Friday, December 3, 2010

Hanukkah Book Review: Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper

As I said in yesterday's post,  while I loved Mockingbird, my one complaint might be that I think it may be more of a critics' (and parents') choice than one of young adolescents.   There is another book that covers some of the same themes that appears to be more popular with the tweens I know from our local Mock Newbery Club and some other online clubs (at least, according to their blogs).  That book, Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper, is the subject of today's special Hanukkah book review.

Like the protagonist in Mockingbird, the narrator of Out of My Mind has some special challenges that make other students in her school dismiss her, unaware of the incredible gifts she holds inside.  In the case of ten-year-old Melody, she has a photography memory and is probably the smartest child in the school.  Unfortunately, due to her severe Cerebral Palsy, which has rendered her incapable of speech or writing,  Melody has never been able to communicate her inner brilliance to anyone else.  So instead of winning praise for her outstanding memory, she is shunted into Special Education classes that some years can be valuable, but other years nothing but a boring waste of time--depending on the attitude of her teacher.  She also sometimes attends part of a regular classroom, where the other students tend to either shun or mock her.  But despite the difficulties and frustrations, Melody searches for a way to prove herself to the world around her.

This is another good book.  Some of the passages are quite poetic, especially when Melody describes how words feel to her, or how she associates music with different colors (which is a real condition, called synethesia, that many musical talents, including Leonard Berstein, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, and Duke Ellington, apparently share).  Of course, since it is told in the first person, we readers get to hear what is going on in Melody's head, which is much more fluid language than the more silted conversations Mockingbird's Caitlin carries on with herself.  And it covers many the same themes about about not underestimating either oneself or others, being less judgmental about people with differences, and the difficulty in status and relationships that is so prevalent in middle school, obvious disability or not.

And I'm suspecting that it is easier for middle schoolers to learn those lessons from Melody rather than the more-difficult-to-get-in-synch-with Caitlin, even those Melody's handicap is more extreme.  I'm thinking that is why most of the middle schoolers I know prefer this book to Mockingbird (which I prefer).  I don't know whether that kind of thing figures into the Newbery committee or not.  But my personal advice, as a parent, is to give Out of My Mind to your tweens, and save Mockingbird for your teens.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Hanukkah Book Review: Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

For the second night of Hanukkah, I thought I would review the book that recently won the 2010 National Book Award for Young People's Literature and is on most people's short list for the 2011 Newbery Awards--Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine.

If yesterday's The Thirteenth Princess was based on a fairy tale, then Mockingbird was inspired by a nightmare--namely, the shooting of 33 people at Virginia Polytechnic University in Blacksburg, VA, close to where the author lives.  In this book, Erskine looks at how someone can pick up the pieces if his or her family have been the victims of such senseless violence.  But the protagonist and narrator of the book is not just your average "someone"--she's a 5th grader with Asperger's syndrome who not only lost her beloved older brother who helped her navigate the world, but whose mother has died from cancer, leaving her with only her grieving and just-barely-functioning father in the home.

This is a rough set-up for a story--but also, I think, a brilliant one.  Most of us can't even begin to imagine what it would be like to lose a loved one in something like 9/11 or Columbine or the VPI tragedy.  But imagine trying to deal with it compounded by the issues related to Asperger's, an autistic spectrum disorder that is usually not associated with a lack of cognitive or "academic" understanding, but with poor social skills, the inability to pick up on non-verbal or non-literal cues, and a lack of empathy or understanding of the feeling with other.  As I said, I think this was a brilliant concept of Erskine's.

So much of the book deals with the main character, Caitlin, trying to develop empathy for other with the help of a committed school counselor and a few off-beat, maybe/could-be friends.  But, of course, that is just the ploy; the real business of the book is for us, the readers, to develop empathy for people like Caitlin. Erskine puts us inside Caitlin's head, who dictates the whole book in first person, explaining not only what she says or does, but why she is saying or doing it.  It takes a little while to get into the thinking pattern, especially the verbal cues Caitlin thinks to herself to behave as she knows she is expected by the world to behave.  But it is definitely worth the effort, for once you figure out her system, it is a wonderful way to see why people that the world thinks act "crazy" are really behaving quite logically-within their own system.

There are a few other things that I appreciate about the book.  I love that it has an important tie-in with To Kill A Mockingbird, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.  I like the ending, which is hopefully without a "happily ever after" context that doesn't fit the situation.  I like seeing schools making a difference to kids like Caitlin, and even overwhelmed teachers who might act like dunderheads, but can realize their mistakes, apologize, and try to do better.  The characters in this book are all quite easy to relate to:  flawed people doing their best under a bad situation.  They are people in progress, just as we all are, and they are at least moving in the right direction.

My one reservation, at least in terms of this blog, is the question, "Is this really a middle schoolers book?"  Again, I'm not sure.  But I'm inclined to think not, at least for the younger end of the spectrum.  Once again, the reading level is appropriate, especially since it is being narrated by a 5th grader, and middle schoolers can definitely relate to the context if not the specific situation.  On the other hand, it is a grim situation to pick up and read about.  I'll confess that I didn't want to read it, although now I'm so glad that I did.   And it does take a while to get inside Caitlin's world and understand what is going on through her perspective.  So maybe it will work for 13 or 14 year olds, but I think it is a bit mature for the 10-12 crowd.  My son read it, and he thought it was pretty good, although sad and sometimes confusing.  And since it is such a wonderful book, if the reader can really get into it, I would advise holding off with your children until you think they are ready to really benefit from it.

But as an adult, I found it a very powerful, enlightening, and uplifting book.  There is kind of a mantra in the book about making something "good and strong and beautiful."  I think that is exactly what Erskine has done with this book.