Chess, The Classy Equalizer

IMG_5301I couldn’t possibly be more excited to be starting a chess club at Willow Lane Elementary! This Tuesday is our first meeting. I had tossed around the idea of starting this club when I began teaching at Willow, 8 years ago. Instead, I began an after school club that published a school newspaper: Willow Lane News Update.

This experience was very rewarding. I learned a lot about iMovie, editing and publishing, plus Google Sites. I found a fantastic tool for online publishing; Smore.com. I don’t regret one minute of it.

The chess club will be a lot different because, while it can be addictive, it doesn’t hang over your head the way a publishing deadline, albeit self-imposed, might. It’s just a game. Or is it? –Check out these two battle for Room 207 2017-18 classroom champion after a week and a half tournament!

The idea for this blog began when I decided to pick up the Newbery Medal Winner that I’ve been slowly chewing, “Tales From Silver Lands” by Charles J. Finger (1924). Low and behold, what do I think of but chess… Of course! But, hear me out: A character from the second story (Yes, I am only on the 2nd tale!) exhibits a wonderful quality that chess shares: Equality.

There is an aging king who is seeking a son-in-law to take over the reign of his land. The beautiful, talented, wise princess has found no suitor to her liking. Men from every corner of land compete in sports and arts to win the woman’s affection. One day a man dressed in rags shows up. Every other suitor brought wonderful gifts for the princess and king. This man has nothing. But, when he competes in the contests, his carefully aimed arrow splits that of the best marksman’s. This ragged man does not just run faster than the deer-like champion. He flies like the wind. And, when it comes to singing, the man dressed in rags attracts the beautiful birds of the jungle, who cover him with wonderful wings. In other words, the man who seemingly had nothing, possessed the greatest talents, abilities, and attraction.

One of the amazing things about chess is that anyone can excel. It is a classy equalizer. No matter the age, gender, physical ability, or socio-economic status, chess is a vehicle anyone can drive.

It was the ability of the man dressed in rags to out match his opponents, rather than his looks, wealth, or status. The events that he competed in could have been practiced for nearly free, so that this character could have grown up running and singing. He might have made his own bow and arrows that he used to gather the food to stay alive. In the same way, chess can be taught to and played by all. It is a game that anyone can learn and grow to play well.

The 2018 World Chess Championship began this week. I was reading an article about Magnus Carlsen, five-time world champion, and was impressed by one of his life goals: “Make chess cool” (Kleinman, 2018). Carlsen has produced an app called “Play Magnus” in which chess enthusiasts can choose different ages of Magnus Carlsen to challenge. The idea is for players to gain bragging rights. This champion of chess is putting himself out there for kids to beat! “I defeated Magnus Carlsen!” is what he hopes to hear from kids who will spread the excitement to future potential pawn pushers. What a great ambition. And, the greatest equalizing part of it all is that the app is FREE!

Another popular and fantastic equalizing story is that of Phiona Mutesi, “Queen of Katwe.”  The true story of Phiona, who is from a village in Uganda where kids have to sleep in hammocks, high off the ground, so they don’t get washed away, out of their homes by surprise floods, among other things, was made famous by author Tim Crothers (2013). His book was made into a Disney movie in 2016 (Nair).

Frank Brady, the author of the one of the best-selling chess books in history, “Profile of a Prodigy,” wrote an article about an exhibition, “Into the Human Light: Uganda” (2016), for the US Chess Federation. In addition to all of Phiona’s hardships living in Uganda, Brady suggests that her plight was “sad”… until “She found chess.” Never mind economics, chess can raise the human spirit.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention one of the most influential organizations in helping me prepare to begin the new Willow Lane Chess Club: After School Activity

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ASAP works to equalize the opportunities for urban kids to be able to participate in the challenging, competitive, thinking, rewarding game of chess.

Partnership (ASAP) of Philadelphia. This past summer a friend, Julia Dweck, invited me to a Scrabble training that took place on the eleventh floor of a building in the heart of Philadelphia. I made the hour-plus drive to meet her there, and it was one of the better decisions I’d ever made! Come to find out the same organization that provides free training and supplies to educators interested in starting Scrabble clubs also promoted chess clubs. I greatly enjoyed my Scrabble training, and before leaving, found out about the chess program.

There is endless amounts of free apps, websites, curriculums, worksheets, etc. about chess online and at libraries. I downloaded a humongous manual on managing a chess club the summer before. It wasn’t until I revisited the ASAP office on Locust St. in Philadelphia, again in July, though, that I felt like I could actually do this. A handful of other future club leaders and myself were shown how to focus on deepening an understanding of each piece, rather than simply explaining the rules and letting kids have at it. Not only is this training completely free, but if I were an educator within the city limits, the organization would have provided me with supplies for free! In addition to the phenomenal training, ASAP also sponsors several free tournaments and other events throughout the year. The kids of Philadelphia are incredibly lucky to have this truly philanthropic organization. It is working to equalize the opportunities for urban kids to be able to participate in the challenging, competitive, thinking, rewarding game of chess.

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Sources:

After School Activities Partnerships. (n.d.). Retrieved November 15, 2018, from http://www.phillyasap.org/index.php/chess/aboutchess 

Brady, F., Dr. (2016, October 22). Exhibition Review: Into the Human Light: Uganda. Retrieved November 11, 2018, from https://new.uschess.org/news/exhibition-review-into-the-human-light-uganda/

Crothers, T. (2013, March 12). Game of her life. Retrieved November 11, 2018, from http://www.espn.com/espn/news/story?page=Mag15gameofherlife

Finger, C. J. (1924). Tales From Silver Lands. New York: Doubleday. [3rd Newbery Medal Award Winner]

Kleinman, D. (2018, November 9). From Chessboard To Boardroom: Magnus Carlsen’s Winning Regimen. Retrieved November 10, 2018, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/danielkleinman/2018/11/09/from-chess-board-to-board-room-magnus-carlsens-winning-regimen/?utm_source=TWITTER&utm_medium=social&utm_content=1888317888&utm_campaign=sprinklrSportsMoneyTwitter#34984ebb78dc

Nair, M. (Director). (2016). Queen of Katwe[Video file]. Retrieved November 11, 2018, from https://www.amazon.com/Queen-Katwe-Theatrical-Version-Oyelowo/dp/B01LYVID8R/ref=tmm_aiv_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

Weimann, M. (2018, July 19). “From Paralyzing Parameters to Powerful Potential; The Classy Pawn”. Retrieved November 15, 2018, from https://thecaptainofclass.com/2018/07/19/from-paralyzing-parameters-to-powerful-potential-the-classy-pawn/

Weimann, M. (n.d.). Willow Lane News Update. Retrieved November 11, 2018, from https://sites.google.com/eastpennsd.org/willowlanenews/home

Stories Are Magic Potions: Use With Care

 

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The Fourth, Ever, Newbery Award Winner, 1925

I’m back to reading the Newbery Award winners. The fourth-ever winner, published Julyimg_8887.jpg 9, 1925 (according to the information provided on the dust jacket) was a curiosity to me because, rather than a novel, it is a collection of stories collected from the native people living in South America.

 

As Dr. Rutledge points out in The Psychological Power of Storytelling (2011),

Stories have always been a primal form of communication. They are timeless links to ancient traditions, legends, archetypes, myths, and symbols. They connect us to a larger self and universal truths.

I was looking forward to reading these tales, thinking that they would connect me to a deep string of humanity that would be tied to nature. Instead, the first story alarmed me with a message of self-destruction.

 

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Initially, I hesitated writing in this old copy of “Tales From Silver Lands”, but it helped me engage with the text. 

As is normally my custom, I began my reading, writing notes in the margin of the text. I immediately loved the description of setting and character development, so I marked the IMG_8015text to share with my third grade students who are just beginning to learn how to “set a story” in a place and time. The author begins his book speaking of his experience visiting a tiny village in Honduras. Although the buildings and road differ greatly from the homes and streets that his readers of 1925, and even today, know, the children playing in a cool stream on a hot day resonates with all. In fact, I was greatly inspired by the use of the inclusive language, “…as any other little chap of his age, white, brown, or yellow” (p. 2), connecting his readership with the people he was writing about.

 

All of this served to butter me up to appreciate a terrific tale that had been told and retold for hundreds of years by the indigenous people the author was visiting. The amazing literature had cast a spell on me. I was bent on learning what would happen to some of the first humans to inhabit the jungle. There were birds singing, animals meeting and talking in harmony, and hardworking, talented, and powerful human heros. Just when you think that this sensational salve is a love potion promoting literacy, irony cuts through the beauty like the machete that the two young men in the story use to level every single plant of a part of the jungle.

The premise of this first tiny tale is that there are two talented brothers who are told to clear land in a forest to begin their adult lives. The father of these youths tells them to do all of the work within seven days. A wise owl discusses the problem of losing his habitat with a wizard of the jungle. The two hatch a plan to thwart the sons by deceiving the father.

At this point, I am wondering who I am to route for; the humans who seem to have an IMG_2687impossible task, who I empathize with, who are set up as the heroes of the tale; or the owl/wizard team who are about to lose their homes. The way the wizard attempts to stop the sons is through turning the father against them. The father is told that his hard-working sons are lazy and not clearing the land. Each time this happens, the father increases the amount of land that they must level. Now, this seems to go against the owl/wizard’s plan, and yet they continue their scheme until the sons are finally asked to do more work than they can handle.

Here, I want to tell you that it is only because I am planning on blogging about this book 6280907548_55d7291e4a_bthat I am reading it so carefully. If I hadn’t, I am sure that I would not have been able to shake the spell of the story. I like the hundreds of people who heard the story told by the elderly woman of the Honduras village that Charles Finger visited, who, incidentally, was depicted as smoking a cigar when Finger found her, and then threw it down to tell the tale; I, also, would have been completely mesmerized by the plight of the young men who wanted to please their father, earn their inheritance, and be successful in life. Just like a character in a fantasy fiction who has a spell broken awakens, realizing that his love had been an aberration, I found myself shaking my head at the human-size iguana who helped the human youths by showing them how to harness the power of the forest animals to clear every plant from the land that the very same forest animals use to make their homes, find food, and live.

Another reader and endless listeners of this tale would surely be swept in by the poetry, “I must do what I can, Is the thought of a man,” the seeming teamwork between human and beast, the defeat of evil in prevailing against the efforts of the wizard, and proving oneself to elders. I can easily imagine the recipient of such powerful storytelling being completely sucked in. What is the problem with this? Only that the storyteller was misleading listeners. Granted, the themes of working hard, never giving up, being ingenious, and listening to nature are all valuable lessons, but curtained in this spell of a story is the theme of humans enslaving the earth. It isn’t a surprise that the two youths are victorious in the end. The old iguana who “climbed into a tree and stretched himself along the branch of it where he could best see, and the birds gathered in a great circle, and matchless melody going up to the sky” would rest there until the next human cuts his tree down, also. Then more humans would cut down every tree that those singing birds occupied. When the magic of this wonderful story melted from my brain, I was aghast at the horror of the animals who were depicted as happy to help the humans destroy their habitat. The storyteller was sharing a tale that convinced listeners that nature wants humans to destroy her. In the end of the tale the brothers plant fruit trees on their newly cleared land. Do you think that they would tolerate the singing birds, who helped them clear the land to plant the trees, eat the fruit that grew there? Certainly not.

Again, I recognize that the themes within this tale were useful to previous generations. Humans struggled to master technologies, easing their existence on this planet. We have benefited from the inspirational stories of our elders motivating us to assimilate the best character traits for growing into the mature species we are today. Rather than this blog ending on a negative note, I’d like to challenge future storytellers to use their power for positive change. It is time to harness the magic of terrific tale telling to empower youths and adults alike for creative, innovative aspirations of helping humans come together to live harmoniously. Wouldn’t it be more beneficial for the “love potion” of storytelling to be transcendent than amorous, anyway?

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I couldn’t even believe what I was reading! Be careful with the power of storytelling. Use it for good. 

 

Rutledge, P., Phd. (2011, January 16). The Psychological Power of Storytelling. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/positively-media/201101/the-psychological-power-storytelling

A Classy Adventure Aboard “The Dark Frigate”: 3 Effects

One of my aims in reading the Newbery Award winners is to compare them with one another and contrast them from non-winners I’ve read in order to try and identify the characteristics that made them worthy of award.Character Dev What caused “The Dark Frigate” (1924) by Charles Hawes to rise to the top of the pile of books; best of class; from that year? I’ll be honest with you; When I first began reading the text, I was not very impressed. I shared in a previous blog, “iBooks are Classy,” that more than reading, I was laboring, trudging through vocabulary, vernacular, archaic verbiage, and technical jargon from 16th century sailing. In addition to this, the actual storyline lacked intrigue. The tale begins with the main character, Philip Marsham, wandering the countryside for a while, meeting people, experiencing peculiarities, and making plans before eventually boarding the boat. As I read, I figured these contacts and situations would probably resurface later in the book, the way they usually do in novels, with the author tying everything up tight and tidy. I was in for quite a shock.

Here “Arrr” 3 effects resulting from the classiness found in this not-quite piraty tale.

1. Romance. “The Dark Frigate” would not be considered a romance in the traditional sense of the word, but while reading it, I thought of another book that presented a unique definition of romance.

The point of view in which this tale comes under the romantic definition lies in the attempt to connect a by-gone time with the very present that is flitting away from us. It is a legend, prolonging itself, from an epoch now gray in the distance, down into our own broad day-light, and bringing along with it some of its legendary mist which the reader, according to his pleasure, may either disregard, or allow it to float almost imperceptibly about the characters and events for the sake of a picturesque effect. (from the Preface of “The House of Seven Gables” (1851) by Nathaniel Hawthorne)  House of 7.JPG

I read this ages ago, right after graduating college, and it made a profound impact on my thinking. To me, it seemed Hawthorne was suggesting that two things coming together in a beautiful and poetic fashion can be romantic, regardless of gushing feelings, kissing, or roses. “The House of the Seven Gables” (1851) marries Hawthorne’s contemporary post witch-hunting era with the murderous, land-grabbing colonists’ time. Ironically, that was a terrifically difficult read as well. Perhaps that is one of the reasons the book surfaced in my thinking.

Disappearing.jpgThrough “The Dark Frigate” (1924) Charles Hawes romanticizes eighteenth century English literature. More than it being an adventure on the high seas, it is a vernacular venture in archaic prose. It seems to promote a nautical nostalgia on the verge of disappearing. This was written during the industrial boom, when trains were rumbling through country, trucks bouncing through city, steamships cruising the seas, and planes on the verge of filling the skies. Sailing vessels were as efficient as using horoscopes to forecast the weather in an age when scientists had instruments to accurately predict tomorrow’s temperature.

2. Rub. I was enjoying the use of iBooks, leaving loads of notes in the margins while Rub.jpgreading, when I noticed the style of my writing was being affected by the text I was consuming. I laughed at myself and took a screenshot. My use of language was assimilating some of the prose from the book!

There are a variety of ways to season food. Some food needs no seasoning at all, but other dishes are enhanced by a little spice. The right combination of herbs can help bring out the natural flavors that are right there, but untapped until opened up through the chemical process an herb, combined with heat produces (Goldwyn, n.d.). The difficulty of deciphering “The Dark Frigate” (1924)’s language was working its way into my thinking. In the same way that salt penetrates a meat, opening pores, allowing subtle herbs their entrance, my struggle with comprehension forced me to dig deep into the subject of 18th century sailing speak, building brain pathways to new ways of connecting words and phrases. In short, I found my personal use of English seasoned by this saltwater excursion in literature.   

3. Realism. This book is more than realistic. Other novels fall into the genre of “realistic fiction” because they could potentially happen. Two people could meet ten years after a brief initial interchange, recognize one another, sparks fly, and everything is happy… It could happen. But seriously, how realistic is that? I don’t want to give away the end of the book, but suffice to say “The Dark Frigate” (1924) isn’t just an adventure of pirates; it is a pirate itself. This book will purloin its reader of hope and possibly happiness. However, there is value in understanding that “happily ever after” is for fairytales. Life; true, lived, experienced, trial-and-error; life almost never neatly ties its loose ends into place.

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This dark tale kept me up at night.

The more you struggle to achieve a goal, the more you get from the journey along the way. And, I got a lot out of this read! Also, have you ever worked really hard at something, and when it was over, you thought, “This is it?” Take care to appreciate the process, because sometimes the end result is unimpressive. You train, practice, and work at preparing to hike a mountain, only to find that the cloud cover doesn’t allow you to view anything. That was “The Dark Frigate” (1924) for me. If I hadn’t been taking notes, learning iBooks, and trying to gleam as much as I could from the read, I would have been in a “dark place” after having finished it. As it is, the novel was a wild rose in the forest. I leave you with a breath of fresh air from a dark text:

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Sources:

Goldwyn, M. (n.d.). The Science of Rubs. Retrieved August 14, 2018, from https://amazingribs.com/tested-recipes/spice-rubs-and-pastes/science-rubs

Hawes, C. (2018). The Dark Frigate. New York: Aeterna Classics. [originally published in 1924]

Hawthorne, N. (1851). The House of Seven Gables. New York: Books.

University of California – San Diego. (2016, May 26). How the brain makes, and breaks, a habit: Neuroscience study identifies brain chemicals, neural pathway involved in switching between habitual behavior, deliberate decision-making. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 14, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160526185419.htm

 

5 Classy Elements of “The Story of Mankind” (1921)

It is interesting that the American Library Association (ALA) would choose a history text IMG_5131for its first-ever children’s literature award winner. Was the organization making up for only just now (1922) beginning to honor kids’ books? Were the organizers thinking they’d catch everyone up to speed? “This is what has happened in the past; Now, lets award one book each year.” I’ll tell you one thing: This is one classy history book. Here are 5 features I found to be extraordinarily classy.

1. Figurative Language: What struck me first and foremost was a combination of beautiful prose and mountains of metaphor. To begin at the end of the book, on page 482 Van Loon refers to the world as a “workshop”. He sees the steam, gas, and new-to-his-era electric machines forging a global factory. The story of Hendrik’s history ends a few

New_Street_Station_Iron_Horse_sculpture_,_Kevin_Atherton
New Street Station Iron Horse sculpture , Kevin Atherton.jpg (with “Iron Horse” on rails behind it)

years after The Great War. He concludes the new world is a  place where political lines are as important as the edge of a concrete slab under a picnic pavilion (my metaphor;) Van Loon sees the “Iron Horse,” machinery in general, as the true victor of the First World War, running wild over, across, and through the entire world, regardless of man-made borders. Was he right? What would Van Loon make of today’s robots, not to mention the Internet!? The previous nearly 500 pages are teeming with as many metaphors.

Here is a fun passage for discussion:

And now that I have almost finished I discover that certain chapters gallop, that others wade slowly through the dreary sands of long forgotten ages–that a few parts do not make any progress at all, while still others indulge in a veritable jazz of action and romance. (p. 446)

Present Hendrik Van Loon’s self reflection prior to reading the text and then categorize the readings. Which chapters or sections would you label “gallop”? Are there any that were “jazzy” with action? Romance?

2.  Evidence-Based: The forever swinging pendulum seems to have exorcised more than 14219487807_6eabf4c50a_bjust public prayer from schools. A friend of mine told me recently that she was pointing out the similarities between the Greek myths and the story of Moses from the Bible. Her students had no idea who Moses was. Whether you are religiously-minded or not, this should alarm you. I am pleased to report that Van Loon mentions Moses, Abraham, and even Jesus in his history of mankind. He does this in a classy way. Rather than telling the reader what the Bible says, Van Loon provides outside sources. For example, a letter from AEsculapius Cultellus (Roman physician) to his nephew, written in 62 A.D. tells of a first hand account of treating Paul (the apostle) of the New Testament (p. 119).

3. Provides the People’s Perspective (a little): In addition to hitting many of the main events of history, Van Loon pauses to describe what life was like for a common person. Napoleon, his feats, the land his army conquered are all important facts to know. These

Eastlake_-_Napoleon_on_the_Bellerophon
What was life like for the guy holding the board Napoleon is leaning on?

events affect the course of history. Van Loon provides more than just the basics in his blitz of history. He paints a picture of life for the Frenchman who was proud to take up arms to help Napoleon. The way the Roman Empire gradually usurped land and people, assimilating other cultures into its own is a lesson in and of itself, but learning about the life of a slave under Greek and Roman rule brings the everyday life of thousands to light. What was life like for them? It is easy to project attitudes onto others, yet the author of “The Story of Mankind” gets into the character of his subject illuminating everyday struggles and fears, helping the reader empathize with the characters in the story of history.

Here, I have a criticism. Of course with any history project it is going to be “The Story of Mankind” according to the author, who in this case is a Dutch-American professor from Cornell University. In his view Holland and England were heroes to the natives of the Americas in the seventeenth century (p. 324). With sympathy, he provides the mildly racist annotation, “During their first relations with weaker races, all European nations have behaved with shocking brutality.” Although it is interesting to read about France exploring and fortifying the Mississippi River, cutting English and Dutch settlement off from westward expansion early in the new world exploration, absolutely no attention is given to the “mankind” that already inhabited the Americas. Of course space is limited, but an entire chapter is devoted to the relationship between Russia and Sweden! One of the best books I have ever read, devoted to the people’s perspective, is “A People’s History of The United States” by Howard Zinn. Before reading this text, I did not realize that in the year 1491 the Americas were more populated than Europe and that the largest city of Europe paled next to the Aztec capital, modern day Mexico City. There is a youth edition.

Discussion Point: Page 449 suggests that “Athens and Florence, during the hey-day of their glory, had only one tenth of the population of Kansas City.” The larger-than-life influence of Greece and Italy on our culture makes it feel like these peoples must have had infinite populations. It was a bit of a paradigm shift to realize that a tiny group of people could have such a large influence over a vast amount of time.

IMG_83534. Thought-Provoking: An informational text is naturally going to be educational, requiring cognitive engagement, but Van Loon has a knack for skipping the boring stuff of history and presenting ideas that get the neurons fired up. He assumes the reader already knows the basics of the American Revolution. Instead of covering the main points, Van Loon attempts to shine light on the unique angles. In the United States we focus very much on the ground battles led by our hero, General George Washington. How much attention is given to the weakening of the English army by its enemies from the European mainland, and how much that affected the outcome of our revolution?

Van Loon does an excellent job pointing out that there is always many factors that contribute to a single historical event. The famous Congress of Vienna, that ended The Great War are referred to as “reactionaries” in the chapter on “National Independence” (p. 381). 

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Caricature of Congress (of Vienna)

5. Opinionated: Here is a topic deserving of its own blog. It is not classy to believe what everyone else believes, just because everyone else believes it. Believe something based on the evidence available and how much sense it makes. The classiest people possess their own independent opinions. With knowledge of subject and contemplative thinking, they form cognitive constructs that they then share with others. Additionally, they are prepared for varying opinions. An example of Van Loon’s “opinion writing” can be seen in the chapter “After Seven Years.” He explains that the men who were responsible for ending the First World War treated the, at that time (1921), modern situation as if it were colonial times (1719), rather than recognizing the rise of the industrial age and accepting a more global perspective. He points to the way they sat around a map and drew arbitrary lines dissecting land with little regard for the people and industries that lived there. It is heart-wrenching for me to read text written between the two world wars: “Meanwhile in their agony and distress the people will turn to the cure-alls offered by Bolshevism and Fascism” (p. 480). Was Van Loon a prophet? No. He simply took what he saw happening around him and formed an opinion. If only we can be so classy.

 

Watch out for…

  • Violence–Can’t really talk about war or humanity without mentioning murder. What was the French Revolution without mention of the great invention of the guillotine? What little kid needs to picture heads rolling on the floor? –none. I would sticky-note and smooth over or couch the violence in age-appropriate concepts. For instance, “Learning history can be a way to help avoid mistakes made in the past. One bad thing that happened a lot, is war. Sometimes people and countries avoided war by getting together and talking. But, not always.” How to Talk to Kids About Violence

Here is an online version of the entire original text, complete with illustrations and hyperlinks from the index items to the “pages” containing the relevant information.

Sources

Child Development Institute. (n.d.). How To Talk To Kids About Violence. Retrieved July 16, 2018, from https://childdevelopmentinfo.com/how-to-be-a-parent/communication/talk-to-kids-violence/#.W0CQJzNKhE4

Van Loon, H. (1921). The Story of Mankind. Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing Company.

Zinn, H. (2007). A Young People’s History of the United States: Columbus to the War on Terror (For Young People Series). New York, NY: Seven Stories Press. [This was accessed for free via Overdrive through my public library. I read it on my iPad.]

Zinn, H. (1980). The People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper Collins.

3 Classy Things Dolittle Does

IMG_9875 copyAlthough I read “The Story of Mankind” first, I haven’t finished composing my blog for it. The book covers all of history, from the beginning of time to the “Great War.” (World War II hadn’t happened at the time of its publication–1921, so “World War I” was not numerated yet.) It is going to take me a couple of days to whittle my thoughts down to a handful of classy things. For this reason, I am providing my thoughts about the second ever Newbery Award winner, “The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle” (1923) first.

Hugh Lofting’s creation of a medical doctor turned veterinarian after discovering he can communicate with animals was so successful that it spawned 13 books in all. “The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle” is the second of the series. I was hesitant to jump into a sequel, having never read “The Story of Dr. Dolittle”, but was pleasantly surprised to find it very independent… and immensely entertaining, not to mention very valuable. Here are three classy takeaways.

  1.  A Unique Attitude Concerning Wealth: Dr. Dolittle cares little for monetary wealth. He needs money to go on his voyage and buy provisions, but his true wealth is the knowledge that he gains with new discoveries. The doctor never frets over where his funding will come from. He even seems to avoid the matter. When he is making a wager with Don Enrique during “The Doctor’s Wager” (Chapter 34), I was sure that Dolittle was going to ask for money. I was completely surprised by what the author put together! It was some of the most interesting reading I have experienced. Discussion Point: What is the most valuable thing you can think of? (Discuss the word “value” first.)
  2. Respect: In addition to speaking with the animals, the doctor treats them with respect. Throughout the entire book every animal is given the same level of dignity as humans. Discussion Point: The “Irony” of Dr. Dolittle cooking bacon for breakfast within sentences of a heavenly pig entering the animal-loving home. 2nd Discussion Point: I would talk to my students about the assumption of intelligence. The author, through the character of Dr. Dolittle, assumes every animal not only communicates within its species, but is smart enough to speak with any other, as long as the language specific to the species is understood. This is a fallacy that, in my opinion, ought to be mentioned, so that young listeners’ minds do not develop misconceptions.2369136756_0e0290fb16_b

Respect is given to enemies. In the beginning of chapter 48, “War!” news of a “thievish” and “envious” group of people preparing to ransack the provisions of a more studious tribe is communicated to the Dr. and his party. His response sums up the classiness of the doctor’s character: “Yet let us not judge harshly. Perhaps it is that they are desperate for food, having their own crops frost-killed before harvest” (p. 183). And, I won’t spoil it for you, but you will be as surprised as the Bag-jagderags when you read the end of “The Peace of the Parrots” to find out how the doctor treats these warmongering thieves. Discussion Point: What might someone else have come up with for “terms” of peace? Look up the terms of peace from other great wars.

Warning: With heavy heart I mention that this, like many old texts, contains traces of racism. I read the original 1921 version of the story that is now in the public domain. I thought that I would merely be mentioning the fact that the n word is used two or three times early on in the book as vernacular of England countrymen. But, upon further reflection, I want to mention a bigger idea. There is a character in the text, Bumpo, who is an African prince. This person studies at Oxford, which is prestigious, and one might, at first glance, think that this is doing Africans a service. When reflecting on the tale as a whole, however, I realized something disturbing that cannot be fixed by simple bowderization (Dominus, 2006). Bumpo, the Oxford student, is relegated to carrying things and cooking for the crew of the curlew (ship), while Tommy, an English boy of ten or eleven, is the doctor’s right-hand man. I’m not sure what kind of “discussion point” to make here, other than the fact that people have traditionally favored humans that look, act, and speak like themselves. This royal, presumably rich (Bumpo traveled to and paid for an education in Oxford.), intelligent (Bumpo was halfway through his studies.) man from Africa is portrayed as less of a person than Tommy. Think about it logically. Bumpo and the doctor have way more in common than do Dolittle and a boy. Tommy doesn’t even come from an educated, wealthy family! I must stop.

3. Science: Although purely and fantastically fictional, this fun novel paints scientific study in a perfectly delightful, exciting, and adventurous light. When other books have kids seeking treasure with buccaneers, Stubbins (the boy’s last name) joins an unlikely captain on the most exhilarating voyage any boy could hope to experience. This tale brings science to the plane of pirates, making knowledge and study as exciting and valuable as gold dublins!

Here is a bonus classy point. I loved the emphasis on thinking in this book. It seemed to me ironic that someone who does so much would be named “Do-little”. I was pleased to see his name changed, albeit temporarily, late in the book, to “Thinkalot”. It was rewarding to see this quality pointed out, rewarded, and admired in a children’s book. And with that I leave you. This was a very classy classic that I plan to read to my class this year. I look forward to the thought-provoking discussions my class and I will enjoy.

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Lofting, H. (2012). The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle. New York: Sterling Children’s Books. [Bowdlerized version, omitting or changing several racially inappropriate phrases]

Dominus, M. (2006, January 23). The Bowdlerization of Dr. Dolittle. Retrieved July 8, 2018, from https://blog.plover.com/book/Dolittle.html

Award-Winning Books Are Classy

The cream of the crop is (usually) very classy. Thus, I have decided to begin a new branchIMG_8534 of The Captain of Class focusing on Award-Winning Books. A couple of years ago I purchased a poster from Scholastic Book Publishers that had pictures of all of the John Newbery Award winners on it. After laminating it, I hung it on the wall to inspire reading high-quality literature. When I look at it, I feel a sense of pride in how many of the winners I have personally read.

IMG_8533One day, as I looked at the poster, a seed of an idea rooted itself in my mind: If the ones I have read were as good as I remember, I bet the others are great as well. Borrowing a metaphor from “Bud, Not Buddy” by Christopher Paul Curtis (2000 winner and recent read aloud), this seed of thought sprouted into a tree that all but required I read every single one of the books featured on that poster.

I recently conveyed this plan to a friend, and he told me about a grad class that required he read many of these. “They were really quite good,” he remembered. I chuckled. “Well, they won the most prestigious award that children’s literature has to offer,” I suggested.

Going in chronological order, beginning with the very first winner “The Story of Mankind” by Hendrik Van Loon from 1922, the year the award was invented, I plan to read each book and provide my two cents about its being used in the classroom. There are endless reviews of books out there, but The Captain of Class will be focusing on the “classiness” of each book. (Perhaps I will develop a “Class-o-meter” once I have a few of these under my belt.)

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My goal is to let teachers and parents know what to expect when reading each award-winning book; what to look for, what to get out of it, and what to watch for, if there are any age-questionable material. For instance, I read one of my favorites, “From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” (1967), by  E. L. Konigsburg to my third grade class this past year. This classic was thoroughly enjoyed by all. In addition to constantly telling my class that this idea of two kids running away was more believable many decades ago, and that no one should even dream of this today, I had to skip an entire paragraph in the middle (p. 75). It talked about a candy bar being poisoned with marijuana, and drug Matt shares book from carpetdealers using this tactic to create dope addicts (Commonsensemedia.org). Luckily, I am a quick reader and saw some verbiage ahead of time, so that I nixed that section. I did not remember that being in the book at all! It isn’t all that terrible a thing to be in the text, but I felt out of place explaining to my 8 and 9-year-olds what dope addict and marijuana were.

Although I believe that knowledge and understanding are classy, so is innocence. Naïveté should be chipped away, lest you break the spirit altogether. This new family of blogs aims at providing readers with the tools necessary for navigating the Newbery Award winners so that classrooms can make the most out of their reading, while preparing readers for potential problems. Whether you are a teacher or parent, it would behoove you to know about concepts that minds could be too young to absorb.

I hope that you will find this blog inspiring and helpful, not to mention classy;)

“The John Newbery Medal”, American Library Association, November 30, 1999. http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/newberymedal/aboutnewbery/aboutnewbery (Accessed June 28, 2018)

https://www.commonsensemedia.org/book-reviews/from-the-mixed-up-files-of-mrs-basil-e-frankweiler/user-reviews/adult