Sunday, February 17, 2013

The importance of reading historical narrative, whether you are an 8th grader or not.

I recently started a graduate program and have been reminded of just how much I enjoy nerding out.  My class is on Tuesday nights and for the past three weeks since it started I have spent my Wednesday and Friday nights reading and writing for it--and enjoying it.  I was last in graduate school for English education nine years ago, and I have to say that reading professional books while being an active, experienced teacher is so much more engaging.  Before I was reading all of these theories and philosophies but without a real way into the conversation.  This time around I have 95 current students and 700 previous ones to think about as well as structures I've put into place to grow them as readers and writers--and reading the books is making me think and dream a bit bigger about what a gift it is to teach reading and writing and reminding me that I haven't figured it all out yet.  

{cover of Maus II}
I am currently in the middle of a Holocaust Literature book club with students--I have a group of 5-8 in each class reading Maus by Art Spiegelman and Night by Elie Wiesel over the course of 5 weeks.  (I've written previously about book club experiences with students here: Maus and Night and Harry Potter.) It never ceases to amaze me how 8th graders approach and handle such serious texts.  What I've come to realize while reading great books with small groups of students is that 13 and 14 year old students are aching to talk about and be trusted with serious topics.  Instead of nervous about handing titles like Maus and Night to them, I frame it with the context that learning about difficult times in the past is best done in community and that reading, reflecting, talking, and writing about them is one of the best ways to process through the stories that have come before us and to equip us in becoming educated, sensitive people when we walk out into our own lives.

This is where my reading for graduate school comes in.  One evening after our first Maus book club meeting I read: "History is about people who were products of their time and their own intricately woven value systems.  Literature study enhances our appreciation of history's complexity, which in turn expands our appreciation of present political complexities and better equips us to predict and prepare for the future.  History gives us statistics; literature lets us experience the human tragedy." (Teaching Children's Literature: It's Critical, Leland, Lewison, Harste)

This is especially fitting for our reading of Maus because it is Spiegelman telling not only the story of his father's survival of the Holocaust, but it is also the story of Spiegelman himself grappling with his family's history and how it shaped his present while writing the book.  In turn, the reader is able to contextualize multiple lines of history, feel pain over the fact that this is a true story, and ask questions about their present time and life.  I cannot more strongly believe that historical study must be paired with narrative if students today are to grow into educated citizens who can see nuance and complexity rather, who can ask questions and dialogue, who can be people who understand statistics but also tap into the real people represented by those numbers.

Spiegelman ends the World War Two storyline of Maus with a scene we as readers know from the beginning happens--the reunion of his parents post-Auschwitz.  We ended our conversation by asking why he would end the story in this way and if we were to have any hope as we move forward as people.  What we came up with is that love can still win--and despite the fact that most were not as lucky as Vladek and Anja Spiegelman, and despite the fact that human history still remains quite ugly, that perhaps the threads of goodness can restore and heal the human spirit.  And, perhaps, that by remembering both that and the historical details, readers can imagine a different kind of future.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Charlotte's Web: a tiny, humble hero

I have a lot of fictional female heroes and truth be told, many of them are from television: Tami Taylor, Leslie Knope, Liz Lemon, Brenda Leigh Johnson.  Of course others are from books like August Boatwright in The Secret Life of Bees, Hermione Granger in Harry Potter Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables.  This week I started taking a class called Literature for Older Children and we were assigned to read Charlotte's Web.  For a few years, the 8th grade curriculum included a unit on rereading childhood favorites, and Charlotte's Web was one of the texts, so I've become closely reacquainted with it--and what I believe is E.B. White's perfect writing style.  

Most of all, though, I truly love Charlotte and found a kindred spirit role model in the tiny protagonist.

She is quiet, fierce, unapologetic about who she is, and yet so kind.  She is a fellow introvert, not afraid to tell Wilbur when she is tired and needs to be alone.  I love White’s description of her on page 41, after she has shocked Wilbur with the description of her eating habits: “Underneath her rather bold and cruel exterior, she had a kind heart, and she was to prove loyal and true to the very end.” Sigh.  

What the teacher in me loved the most were the words that Charlotte spoke into Wilbur's existence that came true.  No one else saw Wilbur as radiant or humble or even as some pig--and yet those things become truth by story's end.  It reminded me of the power of words and the opportunity that adults have to speak good truth into a child's sense of self.  I will never forget a time early in my teaching career when a struggling student had an amazing piece of insight during our poetry unit and I just shouted without thinking: "Brilliant! Did everyone hear that? Brilliant!" In that moment I saw the student change: his posture, the look on his face--and as a 23 year old teacher I saw the power of words and encouragement at work.

Of course, in this story I mostly think about sacrificial love—Charlotte possessed the wisdom to know that she was not going to live as long as Wilbur, but she gave so much of herself and her time to prevent him from becoming Christmas dinner, and in turn, for him to see some of the true value in living.  When the reader leaves Wilbur at the end, he is far from the spring pig we met at the beginning:  “But you have saved me, Charlotte, and I would gladly give my life for you—I really would,” (164).  The way that he protects Charlotte's egg sac and loves her children is when we see that Charlotte's love has come full circle.

I hear White’s wisdom in the closing statements of “Last Day” on page 171: “Nobody, of the hundred of people that had visited the fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all.”  Sigh.  And then it’s so heart wrenching that “No one was with her when she died”—and yet, I feel confident knowing that she was strong and secure.   It never ceases to amaze me how much meaning can be packed into a children's book.  And as I look out on a snowy Brooklyn thinking about my upcoming move to not only a new apartment and new chapter of life, I believe I will finish my coffee and reflect a while on all that White had to say in the story about seasons.  Sigh.