Connections: Extra Yarn and Philosophy of Childhood

My youngest daughter (8 1/2 years old) just asked if she could read me a picture book. She gave me four to select from and I chose this one:

Here is what she had to say about it after she read to me:

I think that there wasn’t any yarn in the box for the Duke because it only worked for people who needed it. The Duke was rude and only wanted it (the yarn) to make him famous and popular. Annabelle was a young girl who wanted to make a change in the world that she lived in. It didn’t say that exactly in the story but that’s what I think because she was the only one who could get the colorful yarn. Annabelle chose to share the yarn to help make the world a better place. The Duke was just being greedy.

I love asking people what they think about books they are reading or have read. I specifically use the term “people” because age doesn’t matter. Whether it’s a preschool child who isn’t yet decoding words, or a Nerdy Book Club friend who reads voraciously, everyone can say something about a story. It makes me think about the phrase I often hear from adults in regards to children reading certain books:

Children won’t understand that. It’s too __________ (insert descriptor like complex, scary, or deep).

This comment makes me crazy. While comments like this may be true for some readers (again regardless of age), it is not true of all readers. When adults make decisions about what a child can or can not engage with before even talking to the child, it worries me. I was reading today about The Philosophy of Childhood. I’m still reading and processing – and will be for a while because it is a big part of my dissertation. But as I was listening to Annie tell me what she thought about Extra Yarn, it made me think back to this quote by Gareth Matthews:

“The models of development that theories of childhood offer to stimulate our research and challenge our attempts at understanding children may have many useful functions. But we must guard against letting those models caricature our children and limit the possibilities we are willing to recognize in our dealings with them as fellow human beings” (Matthews, 1994, p. 29).

If we, as adults and teachers, are too cautious about what we think children are capable or in terms of responding to literature, we are shortchanging them from a world of possible experiences.


Teacher and Reader: Reader and Teacher

Earlier this week, my friend Donalyn Miller wrote a Nerdy Book Club Post titled “Fangirl” about meeting and talking with authors; and the impact that has had on her as a reader. Something that I have always admired about Donalyn and my nerdy friends is the ways that they are committed to helping children develop into readers. And it isn’t some prescribed version of reader where everyone reads the same books and has the same response either. It’s a version of reader unique to each student.

Just like our students are unique readers, so are we, their teachers. I think that sometimes we get so lost in being teachers, that we forget to be readers ourselves. We forget that their is joy and pleasure, pain and sorrow, adventures and homecomings; all found within the pages of a book. But we have to find the books that work for us, that make us feel at home and also push us to see outside of ourselves. Donalyn posed the question,

How would children see reading differently if we taught language arts as an art appreciation class?

How about if we separate the mechanics of reading from the pleasure of reading? This got me thinking about something that Dr. P. David Pearson said at the Boston University Literacy Institute 2 weeks ago.

The language arts: reading, writing, and language are tools. Tools that we use to make sense of situations and subjects. Literature is it’s own body of knowledge, a unique disciplinary area. I don’t lump it with language arts even though it can be used as a tool.

So often, I hear and see elementary teachers only think of literature as a tool. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be used as a tool, but that it shouldn’t be utilized ONLY as a tool. Getting back to Donalyn’s question about teaching arts as art appreciation, I think that another way of thinking about this is to be more explicit about thinking about literature as tools (teacher) and literature as a discipline (reader).

And an appreciation of something has to be more than just choice reading or read alouds (though these are a great place to start). It also has to be (just to name a few things): identifying what genres we like and don’t like, identifying why we have the tastes that we do, discovering how images work in picture books and graphic novels, marveling at how a turn of phrase can give us goosebumps, and how, as Donalyn wrote, knowing the human being that created a story can make us tongue-tied.

My Professional Canon – Part 1

I’ve been working on a little thing lately, ok – it’s actually a big thing (no pressure): my dissertation proposal. The defense is quickly coming up and I’m having trouble narrowing down the texts I’m going to draw on for my humanities theoretical work around multidisciplinary thinking about children’s literature. Earlier today I was struggling with this and thought back to ALAN 2012 Conference when my good friend Teri Lesesne challenged us to think about our personal canons. At the time, I thought about this in terms of children’s and YA literature titles but this morning I realized that I could also think of the texts I’m selecting for this dissertation as my professional canon.

Even this wasn’t nearly narrow enough for me because I started thinking about teaching books, education books, research books… AGH then I refocused. (Thanks to my friend Laura Jimenez.) Children’s literature – this dissertation is focused on children’s literature.

So the question is, what books or articles do I want to include in my profession canon about children’s literature? Here are some questions I’m asking myself as I narrow down the list:

  • what inspires me to think more deeply about children’s literature?
  • what inspires me to want to actually write a dissertation about children’s literature?
  • what helps convey the complexity of children’s literature in ways that I want to engage with as I write?
  • I want to be sure and select texts from across disciplinary ways of thinking about children’s literature in Literature (English), Libraries, and Literacy (Education)
  • I want to include pieces that are beautifully written, as well as those that are thoughtful, insightful, interesting and engaging.

I’m still working on it, but here is what I have so far:


The power of language

While talking with my new children’s literature students last night, I was telling them about some of the goals of our course – specifically about learning and using the language of literary, design and illustrative elements.

I used the analogy of listening to music. Often someone will say that they love X type of music or Y performer. When asked why, the response is commonly, “I don’t know, I just like the way they sound.” Ok – that may be true, but that explanation does not help me (or anyone else) understand what it is that specifically draws that listener to that specific style of music or performer. I was a music major as an undergraduate student. I distinctly remember that the more that I learned about music theory and music history – the better able I was to convey both what I did and did not like in music.

The same can be said of reading and literature. I don’t expect the students in my class to like everything that they read, but I do expect them to read. I do expect them to be able to articulate what it is they notice, respond to, revolt against, or get sucked into while they are reading. I expect them to use language like genre, point of view, and style; hue, medium, and layout. Not in a way that shows they only regurgitates a definition – but in a way that shows they have a deeper understanding of those elements and the ways they can impact a reader.

Many of them come in with negative memories of needing to interpret a story in a particular way or of being judged by an AR (Accelerated Reader) score. They have forgotten how to read for pleasure, or perhaps never learned. While I sincerely hope that at some point during the semester, I will put the “right book” in each of my students hands – I realize that may not happen. But I can give each of them language to help them better convey what they do and don’t enjoy about the books that they read. Language that can help better equip them to ask for specific qualities they find pleasurable.

Next week we start with picture books. I can’t wait.

A new semester…

Today I’ve been thinking about the role that children’s literature plays in elementary classrooms. More specifically, the role that it does play, and the potential role that it could play. This is not to say that it is the same in every classroom – I know that it is not based only on the experiences of my own two children. But I am fascinated with how it is that literature comes to be considered and utilized so differently by so many teachers and school children. In particular, I’m interested in the ways that teachers think about it.

My goal in thinking about all of this is not to come to an answer – I don’t think that one, singular answer exists. But I do want to consider the factors that contribute to teacher thinking about literature. I know that the common core standards are currently a factor – as curriculum can be. But there are other factors as well, such as that teacher’s own experiences with books and literature. And my primary area of interest: how were they prepared to think about the role of children’s literature in their own classrooms?

I realize that these are big questions – with many possible scenarios and contributing factors, some more evident than others. But as I begin teaching a new class of preservice teachers to think about, read, and interact with children’s literature – I can’t help but wonder what they will do in their own future classrooms with the experiences we have together this semester with each other and books.

NCTE 2012: Friends, Books, Networking, and Nerdybooklovers

I spent last weekend in Las Vegas with a whole bunch of fantastic friends, colleagues and nerdybookclubers. Also known as the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Conference.  It was amazing. My preservice teachers often ask me for advice about staying current in the field, what to read, how to stay inspired, etc. Attending conferences is at the top of my list. While this was a national conference, our local Michigan Council of Teachers of English (held in October) and Michigan Reading Association Conference (held in March) are equally fantastic.

My head is still swimming with all of the books that I looked at, sessions that I attended, and people I spoke with – not to mention the constant sensory bombardment that is Las Vegas.

Highlights included:

  • presenting with my good friends and colleagues Lynne Watanabe & Dr. Laura Jimenez and using picture books and graphic novels across grade levels. Thanks to all who attended!
  • Running into nerdy friends Donalyn Miller, Paul Hankins, Cindy Minnich, John Scovill, and more in the exhibits
  • attending the Nerdy Book Club get together on Friday evening and talking to tweeps and nerdy friends in person
  • Seeing The Beatles Love show by Cirque de Soleil
  • more exhibits, more books, more nerdy friends
  • Seeing the Eagles come down the escalator for their sound check but not having the nerve to say anything (yes, those Eagles)
  • Meeting with Teri Lesesne (a.k.a. Professor Nana) in person
  • Attending the Children’s Literature Master Class on Fantasy with Dr. Barbara Kiefer and author John Stephens
  • Talking with illustrator Melissa Sweet
  • Getting an advanced review copy of P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams Garcia – the follow-up to One Crazy Summer.
  • Relaxing in the hot tub
  • Telling Kristin Cashore about the amazing discussions my children’s literature classes had about her book Graceling – they talked feminism, power, and identity!
  • ALAN Author Meet & Greet on Sunday evening –  I talked with Kristin Cashore, Rebecca Stead, Deborah Hopkinson, Jo Knowles, and Rae Carson at the same time. I told them I felt like a 12-year-old girl meeting Justin Bieber. Thankfully they said I had it more together than that.
  • ALAN Book Fest on Monday with 3 friends & nerdy folks
  • Pizza & Wine dinner in our pjs, in the room, with 2 of my closest friends on Monday evening.
  • but the best was probably having people ask me about my dissertation and respond with questions that made me clarify my thinking. More on this to follow…

There are many more people that I talked with that I didn’t mention here – thanks to each and every one of you for your smiling faces, love of books, passion for teaching, and curious questions.

The First Book Discussion

This week in my children’s literature courses, the students had their first in-depth book discussion. For each book discussion (there are 5 over the course of the semester) they read and write a response prior to coming to class. This week we discussed Grandpa Green by Lane Smith.

I love the first book discussion because the students almost always surprise themselves with how much they have to say and share with each other. They start by talking in groups of 4-5 people, each person having written their response paper from a different perspective. I explain that they will not all see and notice the same things and that is GREAT, it is what is “supposed” to happen. It is a bit nerve-wracking for some who are concerned with finding “the answer” or even “the right answer”.

But then, they begin. They each have their own copy of the book (a course requirement) and I see them turning pages and sharing their thoughts. Sometimes they get immediately into deeper questions, and sometimes they need to spend time looking through and sharing what they notice.

This semester’s classes did not disappoint. The small groups discussed the book for 30-40 minutes before we came together for whole group discussion. They were amazed – one student said, “Wow, that only felt like 15 minutes!”. Some things that they noticed and questions that they asked were:

  • looking at the first and last page to get another perspective of the narrative sequence
  • The way the intensity of the color green was used throughout the book helped differentiate memories and aspects of the garden
  • Who was narrating the story? Was it Grandpa or the little boy?
  • Was the Grandpa still alive or had he died?
  • the use of the color red on the page that Grandpa goes to war
  • was the garden real or imagined?

In two weeks we’re going to discuss The Arrival by Shaun Tan – I can’t wait!