Juneteenth and Some Symbolism from “The New Jim Crow”

This Juneteenth I happen to be midway through listening to a book that is unintentionally, but highly symbolic of this holiday. “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander (2020) has completely altered the way I view America. While June 19th celebrates the final messaging that American slaves were finally free, when Major General Gordon Granger shared the news to the citizens of Galveston, Texas on this day in 1865, Black Americans have yet to experience equality.


There are more Black men convicted of crimes today than were enslaved in 1850 (Chicago, T., 2013). 

The most incredible thing about Juneteenth, 1865 is that it came 2 and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation! The website History of Juneteenth presents a few potential reasons this may have happened. Slave holders in Texas may have tried to get one, and then more, harvests out of their unpaid workers. There is a story of the messenger who was assigned to bring the news to Texas being murdered along the way, preventing the Texan slaves from learning about their freedom. It is plain that the Southern state did not have enough Union soldiers to enforce the law until after General Lee surrendered in April of 1865. 

The reason I feel “The New Jim Crow” is symbolic of Juneteenth is that it communicates a Black America that has continued to be enslaved, during a time that civil rights were supposed to have been celebrated as finally achieved. How many White people feel like there is no difference between the potential of their offspring and the children of Black families? How many pride themselves in assumed colorblindness? This book opened my eyes to the stark reality of life as a Black person living in America versus my own view of the world around me. 

Before I continue writing about the paradigm shift that I’ve experienced, I think it important to point out that America is a big place. There are large parts that are far from any urban areas. Conversely, there are urban centers that would require an hour of driving before a farm is viewed. Books like “The New Jim Crow” present data and speak about ALL Black people, urban, rural, and suburban; educated, highly educated, and less educated; traveled, home-bound, restricted, and travel-averse; etc. I found that as I listened to the audiobook, I had to remind myself that there are many more Black people living in America than the few I am friends with. I can’t allow my personal relationships to skew my learning. 

The term White privilege is prevalent today. What does the antithesis look like? Black Lives Matter has arisen from mistreatment of unarmed Black men. It is important to draw attention to these atrocities, but what is going to stop the abuse? How can we fix what is broken? A huge step in the right direction is to attempt to understand the fuel of bad attitudes, racism, and prejudice that feeds the misbehavior. 

“The New Jim Crow” uncovers a pervasive, underlying attitude toward Black people in America. It points out messaging, practices, and laws that seem smart, but actually work at putting Black Americans in a place of second-class citizenry. The book begins by pointing out that there have been a few attempts to do this since emancipation. None have been as effective, though, as the most recent focus on branding Black culture as crime-infected

There are several ways that this messaging has been communicated. There seems to be data that supports it. Michelle Alexander dissects the disease of assumed-moral-depravity that racist and fearful White people have used to brand Black people. It is an inappropriate and cyclical label that needs to be broken. 

When I say, “There seems to be data…” supporting the idea that Black people are more prone to crime, it is because there are all kinds of charts, figures, and numbers that make it look like Black people are more engaged in criminal activity than White people. My last blog, “Sometimes it’s Classiest to Just Shut Up” was written as a reproof of people posting memes and texts on social media that attempt to steal the thunder or diminish the message of Black Lives Matter. I have seen tons of tables, charts, and graphs that make it seem like Black people are deserving of mistreatment. One Oklahoma police officer went as far as using data to back up the most outrageous statement I’ve ever read. Major Travis Yates of Tulsa, OK stated, “We’re shooting African Americans about 24% less than we probably ought to be” (Flores & Shannon, 2020). What does this message communicate to people already steeped in bad ideas?

It would be pretty easy to manufacture larger numbers of any subgroup involved in any activity if you tallied those people more than anyone else! For example, if Black people, who on average own fewer cars and drive less than White people, are pulled over twice as much as White people, one could look at that data and deduce that Black people must be worse drivers than White people. 

The great thing about “The New Jim Crow” is that it is full of data that points to the misuse of information. It does not possess a whiny tone of complaining about mischaracterization. Rather, it straightens out misunderstandings through explaining logical and historical facts. For instance, crack cocaine is effectively the same drug as powder cocaine, but it has been deemed more deviant by the media. Lawmakers have assigned punishments that are ten times as harsh for distribution of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. 

Michelle Alexander pulls the curtain back on things like crack cocaine having been messaged as the illegal drug of choice for Black people, when the data shows otherwise. The media has fed sensationalized stories for years that have skewed the facts.

In conclusion, I warn you to avoid the trappings of your personal experiences. Just because you don’t know any racists does not mean they don’t exist. There is an orchestrated effort to make Black Americans appear less classy based on the color of their skin. This work is being done under the guise of colorblindness; “Wrong is wrong,” its proponents propose. Don’t be fooled! Read the book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander (2020). 

Alexander, M. (2020). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness(10th Anniversary ed.). New York, NY: The New Press.

Chicago, T. (Director). (2013, March 15). “The New Jim Crow” – Author Michelle Alexander, George E. Kent Lecture 2013[Video file]. Retrieved June 20, 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gln1JwDUI64

Flores, J., & Shannon, J. (2020, June 12). Oklahoma cop faces backlash but won’t apologize after saying African Americans ‘probably ought to be’ shot more by police. Retrieved June 20, 2020, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/06/11/oklahoma-cop-black-americans-ought-be-shot-more/5346864002/

History of Juneteenth. (n.d.). Retrieved June 20, 2020, from https://www.juneteenth.com/history.htm

Sometimes it’s Classiest to Just Shut Up: Sequel to Silence is Not Classy

Social media has seen a war of words (and memes) since George Floyd’s death a few weeks ago. The treatment and subsequent death of an unarmed, non threatening Black man inspired the resurgent message that “Black Lives Matter.” As this three-word phrase flooded social media and people began to assemble with signs and solidarity, communicating discontent with the disrespect that Black people are shown across America, there has been push back, both literal and figurative. 

The mistreatment and disregard for Black people’s lives prompted the need to share the clear message that their lives are important. Some people who are not Black have read the three-word phrase “Black Lives Matter” and misinterpreted it. No one is saying, “Black Lives Matter MORE.” Rather, the unseen, but implied adverb is “too” or “also.” If they would defend against misinterpretation, why isn’t one of these adverbs included? Why don’t we say, “Black Lives Matter, too*”? (I haven’t seen any writing about this, yet. If you are reading this and have, please share with me.) It is my opinion that too or also would weaken the message. It would imply that Black Lives Matter, because… Or, “Since other lives matter, Black Lives might as well Matter.” In short, it would weaken the message. 

If you aren’t sure what to say, how about listening?

There is a lot of writing about the phrase “All Lives Matter,” so I won’t go into that, here. Suffice to say, it attempts to kick the feet out from under the people holding the “Black Lives Matter” signs, figuratively, of course. There are more and more phrases and memes getting attention, though. Just this morning (June 18, 2020), I saw #WhiteStrike trending on Twitter. It feels like the opposition to #BlackLivesMatter is trying to instigate a race war of sorts. 

Over the past few weeks I’ve seen many less offensive, but still passive/aggressive messaging. People who post things about cops being shot or mistreated might feel like they are sticking up for a targeted subgroup. 

All of this seeks to discredit Black Lives Matter. Whether it be targeted or subversive, any phrase addressing the country’s racial tensions that does not affirm the clear and distinct message that the lives of people with darker skin are valuable, important, and no less meaningful than other persons’ seeks to take the wind out of the Black Lives Matter movement’s sails. 

I am not saying that the only thing that people should be saying, writing, or sharing is “Black Lives Matter.” That would be ironic after my last blog suggested that the ultimate evil was “silencing” people. My aim in this blog is to help people recognize the gross insensitivity and perceived racist messaging of purposefully stealing thunder from Black Lives Matter. In other words, while it isn’t wrong to point out that police officers get shot, too, sharing this information in the face of unarmed black men getting gunned down is like telling a recently diagnosed cancer victim that you have a hangnail. 

This blog is written for white people who are trying to make sense of an inner conflict. If you are feeling as though stating “Black Lives Matter” means “My life does not,” listen up. That is not the message. Your life is fine. It matters. They all do. However, many people in this country have been acting as though Black lives do not matter. For this reason, it is important to message that specifically Black Lives Matter. If this makes you feel a little uncomfortable, do some reading, do some inner reflection, etc. Get yourself ready and secure. Then make some noise. See “Silence is Not Classy.”

There are many ways to “Make noise.”

One of the best things you can do to prepare yourself is listen to others. The first and most important step in becoming a good listener, which ought to be the number one role of white people right now, is shutting up

The very first lesson that I share with my third grade students at the beginning of the school year has to do with being an active listener. The first three things, and I repeat these like a mantra all year long, that an active listener must do is stop moving, make eye contact, and smile. 

Personally, I even refrain from commenting on the negative things that have happened during these past few weeks of protesting. The only thing that I will verbalize about beginning fires or vandalism is that “I don’t know.” 

I don’t know…

…who is responsible.

…what their background is… And, I refuse to project personal opinions onto people and scenarios that I know nothing about.

… who or what was targeted… I don’t know the goal(s), and I will not assume to interpret from a platform of ignorance.

I want to conclude this blog with an eye-opening text that I read this year from the 20th anniversary of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum (2017).

undefinedImagine the young eighth-grade girl who experienced the teacher’s use of “you people” and the dancing stereotype as a racial affront. Upset and struggling with adolescent embarrassment, she bumps into a White friend who can see that something is wrong. She explains. Her White friend responds, in an effort to make her feel better perhaps, and says, “Oh, Mr. Smith is such a nice guy, I’m sure he didn’t mean it like that. Don’t be so sensitive.” Perhaps the White friend is right and Mr. Smith didn’t mean it, but imagine your own response when you are upset, perhaps with a spouse or partner. Your partner asks what’s wrong and you explain why you are offended. In response, your partner brushes off your complaint, attributing it to your being oversensitive. What happens to your emotional thermostat? It escalates. When feelings, rational or irrational, are invalidated, most people disengage. They not only choose to discontinue the conversation but are more likely to turn to someone who will understand their perspective. 

In much the same way, the eighth grade girl’s White friend doesn’t get it. She doesn’t see the significance of this racial message, but the girls at the “Black table” do. When she tells her story there, one of them is likely to say, “You know what, Mr. Smith said the same thing to me yesterday!” (p. 142)

When I read this text, everything seemed to fall into place in my mind. I want to be the supportive White friend to my Black brothers and sisters, but I am often afraid of saying the wrong thing. Rather than remaining silent, however, I am choosing to actively listen. What are you going to do?

*A book with the title “Black Lives Matter (too)” by Mary Canty Merrill Ph.D. tells the story of the Black Lives Matter movement, but doesn’t explore the lack of the adverb.

Silence Is Not Classy: First in a Series of Blogs About Race

I feel a little embarrassed that it has taken me so long to pen a blog about the race-related upheaval around the United States. The essays I’ve begun are too grow too long and are never good enough for me to post.

Today, I have decided that continuing in silence would be more negative than releasing a text that may not be A+. That idea got me thinking.

Silence condones. 

I tell my third grade students that “Quiet is classy” all year long. Quiet is peaceful. Quiet is controlled. In order to communicate quietly, you must be clear and concise. 

Silence is a lack of communication. The Silent Treatment can be the most torturous punishment. 

Something inappropriate happens. You witness it. You are there; Within proximity, so that you could say something. If you were silent, you said nothing. You allowed it to happen, unchecked. Your silence communicates acceptance. Perhaps you made a face. That nonverbal communication isn’t silent, but won’t be seen by people behind you, people who hear about the story later. 

A quiet person may not want to make a scene. Not every personality is comfortable with being highly visible, and even the slightest sound can be fingernails on a chalkboard in a silent situation. I am picturing the hesitant, shy kid witnessing others misbehave. A cough. The audible shuffling of feet. Nervous laugh. Wrinkling of clothes. Sounds that communicate you are not okay with this can break the silence. These could be a warm up to actually speaking, too. Perhaps the clearing of the throat will loosen the tongue. 

This blog is my throat clearing. I have many things to say. I will start with this one: Silence is not classy.

Ages ago, a Black friend from Twitter posed a question that got me thinking. He asked, “How many people ignore race outside of Black History Month?” Since this seed was planted in my mind, I have made it a point to speak to race all year long. I now use Black History Month to champion the heroes of the Civil Rights and Abolition eras. February is when I will teach biography as a literary genre. 

To ignore race is to make our students ignorant. It’s time to make some noise, even if you are quiet about it.

If you have any ideas about how students or quiet people can voice support for #BlackLivesMatter I’d love to hear from you. Let’s empower one another to speak up with the message, “We are NOT okay with this.” 
Oh, one more thing: If ever you are looking for a definition of “evil,” look no farther than the people who attempt to silence others.

Honesty is an Attitude

Is it always classy to tell the truth? Is keeping the truth from someone the same thing as lying? Can you honestly omit vital information? The word integrity comes to mind, but sometimes there is more to the story than the black- and white-ness of true versus false. There is nuance. To think that one must say the 100% truth at all times is simple-minded. Don’t think that I am advocating for deception; by no means. I’m suggesting that a classy person looks for the best possible outcome; What will help others the most?

We have all heard or read the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” A ruler is duped into parading around town with nothing on because he is too proud to admit that someone could possibly lie to him. The court cowards at the thought of telling him the ugly truth. Finally, an innocent child bursts the bubble, and the crowd spills the beans.

The May/June 2020 issue of Storyworks Junior presents this age old story by Hans Christian Anderson, retold by Spencer Kayden in the form of a play. I assigned this reading, along with the questions that Storyworks Junior provided, recently. As I was looking over my students fabulous answers and leaving comments, a revolution of thought hit me.

Screen Shot 2020-05-19 at 6.48.32 AMIn this version there is a character named “Royal Aide” who, unlike the other members of court, wants the emperor to be successful. He fears the emperor’s exuberant love of looks, but he keeps this to himself… at least at first.

Through out the play this character shares the honest truth, but is rejected. In this super short, kid-friendly-version (the emperor still has his underwear on) of the age-old story the Emperor rewards the Royal Aide for having been the only person to tell him the truth.

Screen Shot 2020-05-19 at 6.57.20 AMOne of the questions that Storyworks Junior posed for engaging students when reading this play was, “What message is the author trying to communicate?” Some students simply quoted the text, and told me “It is better to be hated and honest than loved through lies.”

More than being annoyed that my students would copy the text for their answers, it bothered me how simple this seemed. Is lying always wrong? As an educator I am constantly telling students that I am pleased with their “hard work,” even though I am certain that they didn’t work “all that hard” on an assignment. Am I telling a fib? I certainly am! I justify this by telling myself that I am projecting. I’m trying to get them to want to do “hard work.” Does that make my false praise okay?

There are many lessons to be learned from this story, though. Here is one that places honesty on its head: Do not believe everyone is completely honest with you. The Emperor was annoyed when the Royal Aide shared his distrust of the crafty tailors. The Aide was honest with himself before being truthful with the Emperor. He accurately assessed the trickery the tailors were up to.

Screen Shot 2020-05-19 at 7.03.57 AM
This is when I realized, “Wait, there are many lessons, here!”

Screen Shot 2020-05-19 at 6.30.21 AMThere is a place early on in the play when the Royal Aide was honest with the emperor, but it didn’t pan out well. The palace guard told the aide that two tailors were here to show the emperor clothing that only intelligent people could see. What does the Royal Aide do with this nonsensical information? He shares it with his boss, who he knows to be weak in the area of resisting luxurious fashion!

It was his honesty that got his boss into all of the trouble in the first place. Your with someone who cannot resist candy. They know it isn’t good for them, but they have no self-control. It has gotten to the point where this person actually asked you to help him to avoid candy, so that he will not be tempted. A salesman knocks on the door, selling candy. Do you say, “Hold on,” while you go get your friend who cannot resist buying every item the candyman is selling? Do you send the salesperson away, but tell your friend about the incident? Or, do you keep the interaction to yourself; Perhaps you even lie to your friend, in order to shield him from the pain of his cravings?

In other words, honesty was a horrible choice for the Royal Aide to display in this drama! Even if he didn’t foresee the outcome of his actions, he ought to have protected the Emperor from himself.

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This is the crux of this blog: It’s all about ATTITUDE or motives.

In conclusion, the classiest action is hard to find. One must look deeply into a situation, explore all of the various potential outcomes, and choose what would be best. Also, one must decide “Best for whom?” Are you just looking out for Numero Uno;. yourself; or are you helping others first. On the flip side, will you hurt others in the long run if you are not available to help them due to allowing yourself to fall into disarray? Perhaps it is best to take care of yourself, then others. At what point do you flip the switch, though? It’s tricky.

deep-well-with-green-vinesThe well of understanding is deep. Drink its classy waters. Honestly assess the best outcome for all involved. Good luck!

How do you decide when to switch over from taking care of yourself to helping others?

100th Blog: Escape Novels

IMG_0624Bud compares ideas to seeds in “Bud, Not Buddy” (Curtis, 1999, p. 90). The same seed of thought that can inspire awe, entertain, and provide refuge could also be the thing that you smash yourself upon. It could be so all-consuming that it even hurts your relationships with others.

Cassie Beasley (2019) begins the sequel to “Circus Mirandus” with an idea. Her idea swims throughout the story, growing bigger and brighter, while always eluding the reader. Finally, it literally escapes; You actually want it to be realized, but the seed refuses to be planted. It has plenty of water, but no soil. (If you read “The Bootlace Magician,” you will know exactly what I am getting at!)

Claudia “From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” (Konigsburg, 2007, p. 1), originally published in 1967 and winner of the ’68 Newbery Award, had an elegant idea to escape her prepubescent plight of indifferent unappreciation by running away to the most plush place she could think of.

Feature Image
The “Escape Novels”

I had an idea.

Escape through escape. Stuck at home, we are all feeling the pull, the desire, the need to escape our physical isolation. 

One of the best ways to at least feel like you are getting away is by getting lost in a good book. And, what better way to lose one’s self than by identifying so much with a character or scenario that you feel like you are participating in the story?

I have three books for you. I am calling them Escape Novels. Two of them are Newbery Award winners, and the third has won multiple other awards. This idea of escaping through reading about escaping is geared toward middle school-age kids, but I am loving rereading these texts, myself, and I am far from ten or eleven!

  1. “Bud, Not Buddy” by Christopher Paul Curtis (1999)
  2. “From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” by E. L. Konigsburg (2007)
  3. “Refugee” by Alan Gratz (2019)

I chose “Bud, Not Buddy” (Curtis, 1999), winner of the 2000 Newbery Award, for its historical picture of a time the country hoped to escape, The Great Depression. The text shares some scary similarities to what America is experiencing right now. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs. Layoffs are lengthening. Continued closure of companies threatens. And, racial disparity is being ignored (Kaur, 2020).

Chapter 6 finds Bud, a 10 year old parentless black boy, in line to get breakfast from a mission (Curtis, 1999, p. 49). The line of African Americans was quiet, until it was faced with faces and words smacking of white privilege. The first image of the following slideshow displays this horror. The slideshow is a great tool for gaining background knowledge about the Great Depression.

The Great Depression  from Jackson

Curtis describes the billboard,

It showed a gigantic picture of a family of four rich white people sitting in a car driving somewhere. You could tell it was a family ’cause they all looked exactly alike. The only difference amongst them was that the daddy had a big head and a hat and the momma had the same head with a woman’s hat and the girl had two big yellow pigtails coming out from above her ears. They all had big shiny teeth and big shiny eyes and big shiny cheeks and gig shiny smiles. Shucks, you’d need to squint your eyes if that shiny family drove anywhere near you.

You could tell they were rich ’cause the car looked like it had room for eight or nine more people in it and ’cause they had movie star clothes on. The woman was wearing a coat with a hunk of fur around the neck and the man was wearing a suit and a ties and the kids looked like they were wearing ten-dollar apiece jackets.

Through using the first person point of view Christopher Paul Curtis helps white kids know a new perspective. When Bud witnesses Lefty Lewis get out of his car for the first time, he tells of his putting on a “black hat like the kind the police or some army men wear. But all the cops I’d ever seen were white, so I knew this guy must be a soldier” (Curtis, 1999, p. 98). Curtis doesn’t shy from the topic of race throughout this book. Here you have an African American boy assuming a man to be a soldier because of the type of hat he was wearing. Was it possible he could have been a police officer?

As it turns out, No. Not only is that concept completely naive, but dangerously biased. I like to try to keep as even a playing field in my mind as possible, but it only takes two seconds of research to find out about the Black Legion, a white supremacist group that was credited for killing at least 50 people in 1936! Curtis keeps his book kid-safe, but 1936 was a scary time for black people in Michigan. When Lefty Lewis finds Bud walking on the side of the road between Flint and Owosso, Michigan at 2:30 in the morning, Curtis (1999) has him explain to Bud,

Bud-Not-Buddy, you don’t know how lucky you are I came through here, some of these Owosso folks used to have a sign hanging along here that said, and I’m going to clean up the language for you, it said, “To Our Negro Friends Who Are Passing Through, Kindly Don’t Let the Sun Set on Your Rear End in Owosso!” (p. 105)

I am a 45 year old white male, having grown up in New England; How ignorant and stupid do I feel, learning that this Black Legion group famously killed Charles Poole, the leader of the Works Progress Administration, the very group that Lefty Lewis was helping in “Bud, Not Buddy?” (Curtis, 1999, p. 138). Chapter 12 has Lefty Lewis keeping his cool, when being pulled over by the police. Unbeknownst to Bud, Lewis has a box of fliers advertising a meeting of railroad workers in his car. These papers are exactly what the police officer was looking for!

train-tracks-western-railway-train-vintage-tracks
Backtrack for clarity.

As a side-side note, here; I am just now, having read this book many times, figuring out that this box of fliers is most certainly the very same box that had been in the back seat of Lewis’s car the night before, and had written on the side of it, “URGENT: CONTAINS HUMAN BLOOD” (Curtis, 1999, p. 106). This message had caused Bud to lose his mind, when he read it! Lewis had explained to Bud that he was delivering the blood to a hospital. I’d always figured Curtis had Lewis multitasking; Picking up a copying order, while dropping off medical supplies. His transfusion of blood wasn’t to one person or one hospital. He was transferring a message, help to all working people during the Great Depression!

After reading about “Bud, Not Buddy” (Curtis, 1999), one might feel like Claudia “From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” (Konigsburg, 2007) is a spoiled white brat. She isn’t. Before I get into explaining that statement, let me end my discussion of “Bud, Not Buddy.” Christopher Paul Curtis performs magic throughout this tale of a young parentless black boy growing up in the most depressing era, territory, and scenario in America’s history. It is said that people can’t be sad when dancing, and that is one of the reasons jazz music was so popular during the Depression. “Bud, Not Buddy” doesn’t just tell of jazz musicians; It’s prose and story IS jazz literature.

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“Shoot, this ain’t no city, this is just another cardboard jungle” (p. 65).

  • The steady swinging rhythm of Bud checking the contents of his suitcase…
  • A sax solo of Deza Malone’s dimpled kiss…
  • The brassy crackling of a fire consuming Hooverville…
  • Lefty Lewis fooling with the electric guitar…
  • All the while the hope of old Herman E. Calloway’s parentage thumbs the spinal cord of the blues bass line throughout the whole story.

The reader is left with the sweet sadness of the jazz tune never played but heard everywhere, “My Eyes Don’t Cry No More” (p. 159).

The character Bud has something important in common with Claudia, though. Both kids are attempting to escape their past, and in doing so they are finding themselves. Through this stay at home experience there have been times I wonder how my daughter Scarlet will look back at this time of her childhood. Claudia was unhappy with how she was treated at home. It is hard to imagine Bud being treated any worse than having a pencil shoved up his nose, confined to sleep in a haunted, hornet-infested shed, and parentless. It is true that Claudia did not have it nearly as bad as Bud, but in her world, she was being mistreated (Konigsburg, 2007, p. 2).

While her peers had full time maids, she was required to make, not only her own bed, but help take care of her baby brother. What was she growing up to become? During the Coronavirus pandemic, everyone is keeping themselves and others safe by not going outside. What are we preserving ourselves for? What will we do with ourselves when we are allowed out and can freely socialize with one another? Who will we be? The country seems to be bubbling with a frustration of being locked up to rot. Claudia wasn’t going to let herself be turned into a passive tool of her parents; Someone to help raise her three younger brothers and keep dust from accumulating on the marble mantle of her Greenwich, Connecticut home.

More than Claudia running away from her life, she made one for herself. I chose this book in my trio of Escape Novels because it represents the unknown of what will become of all of us. America is rich. Americans, however, are as powerless as the Kincaid children, Claudia and Jamie. In the same way that Claudia decided to stay in the most elegant place she could think of, I am suggesting that readers choose the best books to get lost in. Perhaps we will find ourselves through running down the halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Claudia and Jamie. When Elaine Lobl Konigsburg was writing “From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” (2007) in 1966, she was a stay-at-home mom of three kids, whom she left at the Met for the art to babysit, while she took art lessons in the city (Tolentino, 2007). Was Konigsburg running to something, from something, just running to run, or running the show? Thirty years later, she was to become the only person to ever receive a Newbery Award and Newbery Honor within the same year!

What are you making of yourself during this stay-at-home experience?

I never ran away from home. I never even entertained the idea, outside of a fifteen minute bought of insanity. I did, however, thoroughly enjoy reading about Claudia’s adventure when I was eleven or twelve. Some lessons that I gleaned from the tale then and appreciate now are the idea of self-sufficiency and independence that the kids learn. Claudia’s persistent determination and need for accomplishment in finding out the truth behind the creator of Angel. Lastly, but not finally, I must mention the planning. Claudia’s thorough thoughtfulness should be practiced by all.

Some people can escape into their planning. They can plan to never execute. The planning becomes the action. No event ever takes place; Just the planning. Perhaps Claudia had read Bud’s instruction manual, Rules & Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself, for she seems to have mastered Rule 328: “When You Make Up Your Mind to Do Something, Hurry Up and Do It, If You Wait You Might Talk Yourself Out of What You Wanted in the First Place” (Curtis, 1999, p. 27).

The third Escape Novel I chose was “Refugee” by Alan Gratz (2017). I already wrote about this in a review of the novel. This book made my list of Escape Novels because the characters of the book are trapped in so many ways. Reading about their situations and empathizing with their plights will free young minds of the biases that entrap so many xenophobic, racist adults. The reader of “Refugee” experiences the same thing Bud did when he was trying to figure out whether he belonged in the cardboard city of Flint, Michigan’s Hooverville (Curtis, 1999, p. 67). Bud looked around the place and saw all different kinds of people. He saw various body shapes, both sexes, and all ages.

They were all the colors you could think of, black, white and brown, but the fire made everyone look like they were different shades of orange. There were dark orange folks sitting next to medium orange folks sitting nest to light orange folks.

“All these people,” the mouth organ man said, “are just like you, they’re tired, hungry and a little bit nervous about tomorrow. This here is the right place for y’all to be ’cause we’re all in the same boat. And you boys are nearer to home than you’ll ever get.”

Someone said, “Amen, brother” (p. 68).

history-education-pss-depression-hooverville-source.jpg
Home is made of all kinds of materials, just like humanity.

Sources:

1997 Newbery Medal and Honor Books. (n.d.). Retrieved May 8, 2020, from http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/newberymedal/newberyhonors/1997newberymedal

Beasley, C. (2019). The Bootlace Magician. New York, NY: Dial Books.

Curtis, C. P. (1999). Bud, Not Buddy. New York, NY: Yearling.

Gratz, A. (2017). Refugee. New York, NY: Scholastic Press.

Kaur, H. (2020, May 8). The coronavirus pandemic is hitting black and brown Americans especially hard on all fronts. Retrieved May 9, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/08/us/coronavirus-pandemic-race-impact-trnd/index.html

Konigsburg, E. L. (2007). From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. New York, NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Tolentino, J. (2017, July 17). “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” Fifty Years Later. Retrieved May 2, 2020, from https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/from-the-mixed-up-files-of-mrs-basil-e-frankweiler-fifty-years-later

“Refugee” Review

As I write this, I am trapped… Trapped at home. I am living in the most comfortable jail of all time. The very worst thing that could possibly happen is for the Internet to fail. I could survive without power for several hours. Were the WIFI to go out, we would all die… or, dig out board games.

My friend Julia Dweck reminded me, however, “Too much of a good thing ceases to be good.” After eight weeks of staying at home due to the Coronavirus pandemic, I am ready to escape my peaceful prison. Luckily, we can laugh about our entrapment.

Recently, I was mulling over this idea of being trapped in tranquility, when I thought about people who did not have homes. I’m not speaking of homeless people. Although they have their difficulties, the stay home order hasn’t affected them as much as the people who are seeking homes in foreign lands. I’m speaking of refugees

When I walk to my mailbox, I look across the street. Human beings who were my neighbors are now potential carriers of the virus. How much more multiplied must the venomous thoughts of a hateful person be toward persons they already viewed as threats? I can’t even imagine!

In an era when we wish to escape our castles, it would do us well to see our situations from the perspective of persecuted peoples forced from their homes only to be rejected entry into any other. I read a book last year that haunts my thoughts of wanting to leave the house. What if the moment I stepped foot out the door, I was never allowed to return?

Refugee 

Alan Gratz 

It took ten paragraphs to completely hook me on this book, and halfway through I was wondering to myself, “How could this possibly NOT win the Newbery Award?” Few books have changed my perspective as much as Refugee. I was already sympathetic to the plight of refugees, believing that I couldn’t possibly understand what they experience that makes them leave their homes. Alan Gratz’s research and writing transformed this passive feeling into an empowered passion of empathy for refugees. No longer do I simply feel badly for them. I know that if I were in their shoes, I would have no other recourse but to throw myself and the fate of my family onto the path of the promise of a better life elsewhere.

Refugee braids three strands of families into a tight, strong rope of a tale. And, in the same way partners of greater genetic difference have the healthiest offspring (Oldfield, 2015), here is a book made stronger by its diversity. A middle class family abandons a decent job and life in contemporary Syria when there land experiences civil war. Persecuted for no reason past their parentage, a Jewish family is pushed out of Germany in 1936. The third family struggles with the decision to leave Cuba in 1994, during a brief window of opportunity. 

As different as these families are, there are many elements they share. The governments of the lands they flee to are not interested in helping. There are people in those places who want to help. Along the route, refugees are fueled by hope, while simultaneously finding it drained at every turn.

The reader of Refugee will find their heart tapped, and the beating blood of humanity, with all of its life-giving as well as soul-sucking qualities, pumped into it. Be cautioned. It is not for the faint of heart, but it will grow your heart.

IMG_6235BIBLIO: 2017, Scholastic Press, Ages 9 – 12, $9.74

REVIEWER: Matthew Weimann

FORMAT: Hardcover

ISBN-10: 9780545880831

ISBN-13: 978-0545880831

 

Alan Gratz author.jpgWhen we read, we escape. We live the lives of the characters from the text. Sometimes we escape boredom. Other times we escape reality. There are times we must escape ignorance.

What is the best way to put yourself in other people’s shoes? Put on other people’s shoes! Alan Gratz has been a writer-in-residence and teacher in Japan; Tokyo; the attic of James Thurber in Columbus, Ohio; and Jakarta, Indonesia. He grew up in Tennessee and now lives in North Carolina.

Books by Alan – “Novels” page from his website

Sources:

Oldfield, P. (2015, July 1). Diverse parental genes lead to taller, smarter children, finds extensive study. Retrieved May 7, 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jul/02/diverse-parental-genes-lead-to-taller-smarter-children-says-extensive-study 

Storyworks Junior: #OnlineLearning Tool Extraordinaire

I grew up getting “Highlights” in the mail. All I remember doing was circling the stuff where two seemingly identical pictures varied. I never read anything from any of the magazines. Storyworks Junior is very different! 

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You can make your own games out of text. #STEAM Tweet shows Polite Pirates connecting to text

First of all, there isn’t any coloring or games. But, that does’t mean they aren’t fun. On the contrary, the articles and literature within each bimonthly magazine is more intellectually engaging than anything else I’ve witnessed. A traditional paper magazine arrives in my teacher mailbox every other month with a four page educator outline of the periodical. The outline gives overviews of the magazine’s stories, skills, and online tools that are available. 

Storyworks Junior is not that old. It began four years ago, as an offshoot of the Storyworks magazine for 4th, 5th, and older grades. This “Junior” version covers the same type of material as the original, but is tailored for ages 7 – 10 (third grade and advanced second graders). 

The magazine is perfect for the young minds that I teach because it has just the right amount of information. Each issue starts off with a literary appetizer that looks like the kid version of something you’d find in Time. Some favorites are about “The Best Pet,” “Why Do Animals Have Tails,” and more recently “The Fattest Bear In Alaska.” These two page articles have minimal text, contain funny ideas, and provide interesting pictures to get you thinking. It takes five minutes to read these pages, but a creative educator could spend a week right here! 

Every issue has a feature story that is nonfiction. These usually come from the editor, Lauren Tarshis, author of the “I Survived” series. This report was supposed to be about an online resource, and so far I haven’t even mentioned the powerful online component Screen Shot 2020-05-07 at 7.49.42 AMof this incredible magazine! Well, buckle up, because here is where Storyworks Junior shines. I used to think that you have to read a book, before watching its cinematic rendition. If you witness the movie, the ending of the story will be ruined! Storyworks Junior, along with some accompanying research has changed this mentality for me. The featured story for each magazine has a video that you show before the students read it. This video is accessed through the StoryworksJr.com website. It not only has the story read to you by the actual author, but there are images and video that help kids visualize the text. One of my favorites was the story about the revolutionary war. The video had tasteful battle recreation scenes that made the story’s setting come to life, without being too scary for little kids. How do you do that with words? 

Screen Shot 2020-05-07 at 8.12.44 AM.png“Does the video give away the ending of the story?” you may wonder. While it does answer the burning question of whether the main character survived, more than that, it gives students a mental literary road map for when they read the story on their own. They know what to expect. The video shows some of the text as it is being read, in between dramatizations of the story. Also, it provides vocabulary words with definitions in the middle of the screen when they are mentioned in the text. 

If you stop to think about it, nothing is lost because the title gives away the answer, anyway: “I Survived.” You read and watch to find out what kind of hardships the kid survived.

Screen Shot 2020-05-07 at 7.54.59 AM.pngThe video isn’t the only online tool that Storyworks Junior provides. Every feature story comes in a variety of differentiated versions for beginners, intermediate, and advanced readers. And, don’t forget about those English as a Second Language readers! There is a text for them, too. These texts, along with vocabulary slideshows, worksheet packets, and quizzes, all made by Scholastic, can be shared via the Google classroom. Before Coronavirus imprisoned everyone at home, I used to print some of these packets for kids to fill in while reading/listening to the story. Then I’d let the kids use their work to take the quizzes that I nearly always altered a little. You can easily do this because the quizzes are Google forms.

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You can seamlessly assign StoryworksJr resources through Google classroom or provide PDF versions for printing.

Screen Shot 2020-05-07 at 7.36.18 AM.pngLet me backup a little. One thing that I love about assigning the Storyworks Junior magazine work online is that students can listen to the text. Scholastic knows the power of audio, so they have made every version of the story available in “Text to Speech” mode.

But, if you turn “Speech” on in the “Accessibility” section of the settings on your iPad, every single text from a screen can be read to students. When I type my own questions and information into quizzes in Google Forms, I can have students listen to the questions, explanations, and instructions. My aim with online learning is for kids to be able to do their work independently. I don’t want parents to be bogged down with reading or explaining things to their children. Between text to speech and in turn students using “Speech to Text” to type, I rest assured that my Polite Pirates have the tools in their hands to communicate their thinking to me.

There are many educators connecting and chatting online about Storyworks Junior articles and teaching tools. You could join the Facebook group or tag them on Twitter. Use #StoryworksJr to share information. 

 

License to Poetry

 

Sunflower
William Blake’s Ah! Sun-Flower: Poem Analysis. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://schoolworkhelper.net/william-blakes-ah-sun-flower-poem-analysis/

In my youth poetry was as elusive to me as calculus. It seemed unnecessarily complex and celebrated by the elite of literature. I wasn’t fond of reading in general back then. I definitely wasn’t going to champion wrestling over the hidden meaning of a poem.

 

And, really, if you want us to know that the sunflower symbolizes the afterlife, William Blake, just say so! Are poets trying to be annoying? In the same way no one imagines ever actually using calculus, poetry seemed worthless to me.

Songs_of_Innocence_and_of_Experience,_copy_AA,_1826_(The_Fitzwilliam_Museum)_object_43_My_Pretty_Rose_Tree_(cropped).jpgThen I became an elementary teacher. Poems are everywhere! Teachers begin the day with them. They are read on the morning announcements. Magazines end with them. Children’s literature is littered with them. Come to find out, some of my favorite authors celebrate poetry throughout their texts. Roald Dahl’s novels are packed with poetry. How did I never see this?

 

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Searching my Google drive revealed this poem I wrote in 2013!

Beyond the fact that I wouldn’t be escaping poetry, two things happened. I realized that this was a weakness. If I were a musician, I was playing rock and roll, ignoring the tendon of blues music that connected the muscle of contemporary privilege culture to the soul of bone-crushing hardship. Disregarding poetry would leave my students malnourished in the area of literary arts. The second realization I discovered was how interesting poetry can be. Come to find out it was fun to read and surprisingly easy to write!

 

I will say that before delving into this topic, I had to let go of the idea that only smart people can understand or read poetry. The fact that I might not “get it,” and would therefore feel dumb was holding me back from reading poetry. The concept that if I couldn’t write great poetry it would reveal a deficient intellect had to be released. Had I been defensively shielding myself from feelings of inferiority by purposefully ignoring this artful literature? Coming to grips with this possibility was the key for unlocking a love of poetry. 

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The librarian pulled a ton of poetry books for kids to hunt the styles after learning about them.

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These screenshots show comments between the librarian and I in 2014.

The first thing I did was prepare to teach the subject that I knew precious little about. I find that teaching helps me learn. I shared this idea with my school librarian, and the two of us planned to collaborate on a fun project of teaching several styles of poetry to my class. I convinced the librarian to use Google slides to make a slideshow that we could both add information to simultaneously and from any device. She hadn’t used this tool before. Sharing the same love of learning, my librarian jumped right in to figuring out this great collaboration tool.

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Link to Styles of Poetry slideshow for anyone interested to use, copy, and share

I learned poetry. The librarian learned Google slides. And, together we developed an exciting and fun interactive lesson that I still use to this day! Students are given a graphic organizer that has the names of the styles of poetry that they are about to learn on one side, five empty stars next to the name, and lines for writing. As they learn about the styles, they rate how they like them. In addition to coloring in stars, students are to write down a reason as to why they like or dislike  a style. I guide them through this activity, sharing some of my own opinions. We explore examples of the poetry, and even try writing some of our own. 

 

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Blog post “Poetry is Classy” has a poem (“Spelling Story”) about the homonym spell. It teaches the importance of spelling while demonstrating poetry’s liberty for misspelling. 

I by no means consider myself an expert on poetry. I have not read very much of it. The main change is that I am not afraid of it anymore. I’ve even tried writing some.

It helps that my audience is eight and nine-year-olds! By penning my own poetry and sharing it with my class, I am modeling giving it a try, even if you’re not good at it.

 

 

Not only that, but it is truly fun. One of the things that I like about poetry is the ability to break the rules. Like many things, it is important to know the rules, before breaking them. And then you don’t destroy grammar as much as bend it. My third graders are still a little young to truly understand “poetic license,” but they get the idea of bending rules. That’s for sure!

 

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I devised this “Grammar City” two week lesson in 2015, making metaphors of constructing buildings to symbolize the structure inherent in writing.

How do you share poetry? Why do you teach it? Why do you think poetry is important?

 

 

Communication During Online Learning

Anyone finding it tricky to communicate effectively with students and families during this 100% online learning experience?

A friend of mine uses Seesaw to share information with parents and students. This teacher is able to send blasts to her class with realtime, to-the-second info about things like Google meeting times and links, as well as clarification on Google classroom assignments. These same kiddos and parents have direct access to their teacher to ask questions and request explanations at any time of the day. This could be overwhelming at both ends of the communique, which leads me to wonder…

What is the ideal style of communication between Teacher and Class during Online Learning?

Seesaw isn’t the only app that fosters direct communication between parents and teachers. The Bloomz app is another powerful tool for connecting educators with homes. These social-media-style apps require logins, so they are safe for sharing personal information. This allows teachers to feel safe posting pictures of students, including names, and providing school information that would otherwise be too revealing on an open social media platform like Facebook or Twitter. Can the app be too social, though?

When group messages are posted, and parents “Thanks” and “Thumbs up” the message, each response goes to everyone. If you have “notifications turned on” on your phone or device, it dings over and over… Then families end up turning off the notifications and end up missing valuable information.

Classdojo is an app that I have used in the classroom. This one allows teachers to not only share information with homes, but educators can provide instant feedback concerning classroom behavior. With the proper settings and notifications, parents can be notified as to how their kid is doing throughout the day in a realtime way. Pictures, videos, and messages can also be communicated. Personally, I found that I was tied to the app, constantly looking for student icons to add information to, rather than actually addressing my students.

Additionally, when I used Classdojo, but this could be applied to any of these and other apps, families became accustomed to and dependent on the reporting. Teachers can become captives to communication!

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I’ve embedded a “Learning Plan” full of activities for the week into my classroom website. I try to “Link” as many items as possible to lessen the amount of “Searching.”

And, what about those families who are seemingly unreachable? Teachers collect all kinds of information at the beginning of the year; email addresses, phone numbers, best way(s) to communicate, etc. I’ve emailed, made phone calls, and texted. I want to respect people’s privacy, and not force my teaching onto their family life, but also make the educational experience reachable. I view my attempts at contact as throwing a pedagogical rope. If a family wants or needs some time to itself, they need not grab the string. It is there for them, though.

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I supplied videos and Google slideshows through the classroom website, as well.

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I love that this family got this assignment the way they knew how!

I have chosen to use a Google classroom to provide my online teaching. Because my school district uses Google and all of my students have Google accounts and are versed in Google apps, it was a no brainer. There are other platforms, but I imagine they behave similarly: Educators can post assignments, leave feedback, make announcements, and share links through an app that looks and behaves much like a social media platform. There is a “stream” of activity that teacher and students can scroll through to find things. Items are listed chronologically. Like the other apps, Google classroom provides the opportunity for families to be “notified” when there is app activity; when teachers post things to the classroom.

We return to my original question: What is the best communication between educators and families?

Too much could turn off families, causing them to literally “turn off” notifications. Not enough, and families will not be trained to depend on or look to the platform for updated information/assignments.

Composing this blog from an educator’s perspective, I am finding it difficult to locate my students’ work. In the physical classroom, I’d model and explain instructions to my whole-group of Polite Pirates (students) before posting a Google slideshow to the online classroom for them to engage with. Everyone heard the same message, and I was even available in person to aid students who needed guidance. Now that we are completely online, I am finding myself making movies to reiterate expectations. Luckily, I was able to train my class in the usage of the Google classroom before we were locked out of the school building!

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The flag next to the slide indicates there is a comment attached to it. The yellow box shows what the comment is attached to.

Here is a frustrating situation: I post an “Optional” assignment in the Google classroom. It is a Google slideshow that students can interact with; A copy was produced for each student. Because it is optional, students don’t have to do it. Do I have to check them all? I ought to honor the work of anyone willing to put in this extra effort! I have devised a system that could help me, and empower student work to be found for feedback. Simply tell me that you did the optional work in a comment with in the Google classroom. Additionally, in a slideshow made up of many slides, leave a comment on the slide that you worked on. In this way, students will be “flagging” their work. These comments are hands in the air saying, “Look over here; I did some work I want you to look at.”

I like the idea of “Less is More,” shared by iTeach:iMother on March 24th, 2020.

I am going to share this idea with my parents and pirates today. We’ll see how it works. What are some tips and tricks that you have used to streamline communication during this online learning experience? How can the connection between educator and pupil homes be made tight, clear, unhindered, unobtrusive, and most helpful? I’d love to hear from parents, teachers, administrators, app developers, and more! Comment below, and let’s make this out-of-school schooling as productive and beneficial as possible!

Not All Online Learning Is Created Equal

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Scarlet is a pro when it comes to imaginative play. 

Along with every other kid in the world, my 8 year old daughter Scarlet is experiencing at home, online learning during the “Stay at Home” novel Coronavirus Pandemic. She is receiving daily assignments of online activities. As I’ve been witnessing hers and preparing my own, I am evaluating what makes the most effective distance learning tools.

Recently, Scarlet was asked to log into a math website and complete a task geared toward teaching coin-counting. This cartoon animation had her making 25 cents with nickels and dimes. 

I try to let Scarlet do her online learning with as little distraction as possible, but this got to be too much for me! She was dragging coins to a spot on the screen until she accumulated 25 cents, and then it would celebrate her accomplishment with a silly jingle. I felt like my daughter was turning into a chimpanzee. 

IMG_6461I closed the device she was using and drew a grid. “I’m going to teach you a homonym; a multiple-meaning word,” I told her. “This is a table; not the kind you eat on. You use this to make sense of numbers.” 

We made a few tables with varying totals and different coins available. She made many different combinations of coins to show the same amount.

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Manipulatives help kids visualize math. 

While filling in a row of varying coins totaling a dollar, Scarlet made a slight mistake. The table already had one half dollar and one quarter. She wrote “5” in the nickels column which made me happy, but then she wrote “2” in the dimes space. I knew what had happened. She equated the value of one nickel with the number to be written in the field. No biggie. As it turned out, we happened to have toy coins that I had dug out of the closet. I presented the actual coinage on the carpet. Scarlet almost didn’t let me get out all five nickels, having realized her mistake. 

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If/Then problem solving; Cause & Effect relationships

Eventually, I made some puzzles where I would fill in certain coin fields and have Scarlet solve the missing number. “If you are making one dollar out of pennies, nickels, and dimes, and you have 8 dimes & 3 nickels, how many pennies will you have?” Not only did Scarlet solve the problem easily, but when I asked her to describe what she had done in her head, she walked me through her thinking

 

Thinking.

 

This is what was missing from the chimpanzee-producing online practice. The software allowed Scarlet to drop coins onto a spot on the screen and either rewarded her with a jingle or delivered a negative noise. It was up to Scarlet to figure out what worked best for getting the jingle to happen: Pull the lever to get the banana. 

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Follow Up Blog: “How Coding Can Be Taught Through Solving An Empty Field In A Math Table”

I’ve witnessed software programs that stop a kid after a few wrong answers and reteach a concept before allowing the student to continue an activity. Another way to check for thinking is having students type or video-record their reasoning for an answer. Then the educator can interact with the thinking, praising accurate steps, guiding ideas, and correcting missteps. 

The closer to simulating the tailored responses of a human teacher an online program can produce, the more thinking it will stimulate in the student. How can you make a program applicable to the most practitioners, while simultaneously being tailored to the most personalized outcomes/answers?