Please Cheat

Something amazing happened the other day in my classroom. During our class’s online morning meeting two girls excitedly shared that they had worked on a quiz together during a Zoom meeting the previous day. Not only was I “Okay with that,” I enthusiastically celebrated–not their supposed “confession,” as you may imagine it to be–but, their tremendous success! 

I teach a hybrid third grade class of 22 kids in suburban Pennsylvania. In addition to having my students only half of the time, my district shortened our school days, so I have one less hour than I normally would. This has pros and cons. One difficulty to manage is administering assessments. I only see these kids 12 hours a week! It doesn’t make sense to sit them all down and have them bubble in answers on a test during diamond-valuable instructional time!

 So, I have been providing Google forms that contain comprehension questions on days that my students are not physically with me. These forms accompany texts that students read outside of school. I have struggled with what to call these questionnaires. With students taking them in who-knows-what setting with who-knows-how-much help, they aren’t true assessments.

Because I want my students to complete them, I’ve been tempted to call them “quizzes.” And, I confess that term may have left my lips once or twice. 

My favorite title for these text-accompaniments is “teaching tool.” Although this is exactly how I view them, the title has far less pizzaz than “Test.” What I most commonly do is use several different terms in reference to the same assignment. I will call a Google form a quiz, but then explain that it isn’t really a quiz. It is more like an assessment. Then I suggest that I want them to go back and read the feedback that I built into the form, because more than this testing you, it is a “teaching tool.” Does all of this sound confusing? It doesn’t seem to discombobulate my pupils. 

I’d like to write more and provide examples of how I put together and use these Google forms, but this blog is about students supposedly cheating!

…And, how I encourage it!

This past week, I cleared a couple of mental hurdles that I want to share with educators. The first occurred Wednesday, when a student showed me his use of Safari while taking a quiz on vocabulary words. He interrupted a guided reading lesson to show me how he had used split-screen to look up each vocabulary word, as he evaluated them to find which would best fill the blank in a sentence. 

I had to make a split-second decision. 

Do I point out that he ought to have worked harder to learn the meanings and uses of the vocabulary words the day before, so that he would not need Safari? Should I suggest that he didn’t do anything wrong, but ask that he not do that in the future? Can I just tell him to, “Stop interrupting me and my guided reading session,” to buy time and think about the most appropriate answer? Perhaps I should pretend I didn’t hear this news and sweep the idea under the cognitive carpet: “Where were we, students?” 

This is what I did: I stood up and told that student to screen-mirror his device through our classroom Apple TV. The student’s split-screen iPad filled the screen on the wall, so every pupil could view the potential misdemeanor. I then praised the student for this ingenious way of researching answers. I pointed out that vocabulary is a wonderful tool, but when used wrongly, it can wield unfortunate results. “You definitely want to know what you are saying. I love that this student made sure that he got each word just right, when filling the blanks in these sentences!”

I suggested that everyone open the slideshow, containing the definitions of these particular vocabulary words, and have that available in split-screen mode, along with the Google form. Many words are homonyms, and it would be helpful to have the definitions that I provided to accompany your decision-making for filling blanks in sentences. 

Mouths involuntarily fell open. Sighs could be heard. 

I also showed the class how they could simply press and hold down a word in their Google form and a menu containing “Lookup,” among other things, would appear. This would enable them to double-check the meaning of a word, while taking a quiz.

“Wait, hold on here,” you may be thinking. “Weren’t you assessing students’ knowledge of those vocabulary words that kids are now looking up???” 

“Why are you quoting yourself within your own blog?” Mr. Weimann asks himself. “These are not normal times,” he explains. “Stop pretending they are!”

“Yup,” is my answer. “And as long as I am speaking to you within this silly blog, I will explain that we, educators, MUST break out of traditional thinking!!!”

I am speaking as much to myself as anyone else. What I am sharing here are surprising realizations. They are not masterfully planned and researched pedagogies. I am sharing an idea… And, I would love to hear your thoughts about it. 

As revolutionary as this seemed to me at the time and now, my students sort of shrugged the suggestion off. Some will use the split-screen to make sure that they choose the very best word to fill in blanks, and others will just guess at which ones are “right.” There will always be students who want to succeed, some who want to finish so they can bother me with, “I’m done; What do I do now?” There will be kids who need to get assignments completed as perfectly as humanly possible, and others who only care about what is for lunch or “How long ‘til recess?” 

Allowing students to use the tools that they already found and craftily accessed to complete my “teaching-tool-quiz” validated that first kid’s genius and points to the development of 21st century skills. I almost titled this blog, “Another Brick in the Wall,” referencing one of my favorite songs and diatrib-ing against traditional assessment.

I know teachers who are trying to figure out ways to administer the same paper tests that are years-old to students who are wearing masks, sanitizing their hands every ten minutes, sitting 6 feet from one another in a half-full room, and have been teaching themselves through self-guided, unmonitored learning sessions at daycare centers, in bedrooms, at doctor’s offices, etc. This is not traditional. Stop trying to be traditional. Stop attempting to forge “bricks of kids” for a wall that should never be built. Factories are not the future. 

Okay, I’ll get off my soap box. I still have the story of two girls sharing all of their answers over a Zoom call to discuss.  

It was the same exact quiz that my in-class student had used split-screen to complete. This was a longer questionnaire, with 24 questions. In all transparency, and what makes this whole story more meaningful, I had actually planned to use the results of this Google form to measure how my students were doing. So, it was honestly a shock when two of my students excitedly shared that they had figured out a way to use split-screen to participate in a Zoom call, while simultaneously filling in answers on a quiz. 

I laughed when they told me. They were so innocent. Again, do I reprimand them? Do I deflect attention from this seeming “abuse of technology?” Should I tell them that I won’t count their “scores?” 

Educators, how sad are you that our students cannot “pair-share” in the classroom? My heart breaks that I cannot partner kids up to help one another and work together! 

These two girls found a way around COVID-19. They snuck under the pandemic wire to escape the confines of their isolation. 

Did I get an accurate measure of their ability to answer questions correctly on their own? 

I cannot even put to text the negative answer to that question. My mind makes the cognitive noise of wagging a metaphorical mental tongue, pedagogical spit flying everywhere. WHO CARES? 

Sure, I want to have data to see how well my kiddos are reading and understanding… but, why? What is that data good for? I would like to know what my students need to grow. Don’t they need to socialize, learn how to work together, figure out ways to problem solve??? 

Let me stop here. I love the fact that my students cheated on their quiz. I’m thrilled that they told me. I rejoice that they found each other. They were not friends before this year, and now they are Zooming. I am ecstatic about the possibility of my students communicating with each other about academics. 

I know I said I would stop, but let me leave you with one more thought: Do NOT force yourselves or your students into regimented, controlling, synchronous instructional sessions at the peril of this kind of organic, collaborative learning opportunity. Don’t do it. Say “no” to building bricks out of kids who ought to be astronauts.

Straight Answers Close Doors

#Bowties EVERY Tuesday!

I’m a bit of a jokester. There are different kinds of jokesters. I’m not the type to play pranks or make up silly stories. My style is to never give a straight answer. My coworkers will tell you that they usually adopt the opposite of whatever I tell them when it comes to deciphering the truth on a matter. Everything I say is met with sighs… That kind of jokester.

Can you just be straight with us?!

In the classroom, I am even worse! Right before I’m able to provide some hokey response, my students complain when one of their peers dare ask me a simple question. They know I will use that inquiry as a tool to teach an entire, off the cuff, mini lesson that will share a ton of valuable, real-world-information, and they will eventually love, but might take time away from whatever task is at hand.

I teach third grade, which finds student-development at pre-abstract-thinking. This doesn’t stop me from throwing curveball answers at every swinging student. Life isn’t straight. Why pretend its answers will be? Look at this pandemic. Look at politics. Look at pedagogy. Everything is swaying and swerving and swinging.

The moment an answer closes a question, the journey of thinking is over. This is why I encourage my students to ask open-ended questions. Even when these are “answered,” there is a whole adventure of learning just beyond the horizon of the information provided. Rather than the answer closing a door, it shows you an orchard where, not only can you eat the fruit of that information, but you have a treasure trove of other interesting facts at your disposal.

This morning I noticed a classy comment in the Google classroom. A combination of my having just downed some super strong coffee and my being a jokester caused me to provide a pretty productive answer.

The question had to do with the recent requirement of reading at least 20 minutes per day. My school is operating, like many during the pandemic, in hybrid mode. This means that I don’t get to see my Polite Pirates (students) nearly as much as I would like! Now, they are going to have to deal with my jokester answers in text form! Ha!!

This student wanted to know if I was requiring any kind of proof of her reading. What will she need to “do” while she reads? What tangible things will she produce as a result of having read some text?

My answer: If you do it correctly, you will grow as a reader… As a person… As a citizen… As a Polite Pirate… As a student of life…

Lest you think I left my poor pupil hanging with nothing but a ranting reply, I’ll settle your soul with the fact that in the end, I finally gave the class a clear explanation of expectations.

The moment an answer closes a question, the journey of thinking is over.

Combat Prejudice by Turning Your Mind into an Entire Judicial System

Have you ever seen someone who you thought wouldn’t be nice, but once you got to know them, you were pleasantly surprised? Have you experienced the feeling of regret after realizing you’d wasted time keeping your distance from someone, only to find out they are the most friendly, helpful person you’d ever met? And, now that you got to know them, you wish you had that time back. 

To pre-judge is human. It can be useful to observe information and categorize people as friendly, helpful, hardworking, and also unkind, lying, and dangerous. This notion of placing a person into a closed category can be problematic. What if the person who looks scary is actually both friendly and knowledgeable? 

Before pre-judging, consult the jury.

There are few things more classy than having an open mind. Observe the behaviors of others, judging whether their actions are friendly, intelligent, and/or wise. Before you completely write them off, however, do this: Turn your brain into a courtroom. 

This is the case in Chapter 2 of my story, “The Polite Pirates.” The survivors of the massive storm (See Chapter One) did not feel comfortable being stuck on an island with pirates. The leader of the pirates was not only frightening looking, but also appeared to be lazy and bossy. All he did was command his few remaining friends to do things for him! Was he bossing them or instructing them, though? 

What does this mean? When you are judging someone’s behavior, introduce some additional thought-characters; principally, lawyers and a jury. Lawyers use the Law to forge arguments, proving and disproving cases. They interpret laws, using them as tools. A judge is like a referee. What do the jurors do? Jurors are like the audience at a baseball game. If players cheated, and a biased umpire favored the cheaters, the spectators would boo the wrong-doers right out of the stadium. Another outcome, if there was persistent cheating, could be growing disinterest and lack of support for the sport. 

Jurors are common people from the populace who are purposefully un-versed in the language of complex laws (Horan, 2019). They force judges and lawyers to frame complicated ideas into simple, easy to understand concepts for everyday people to grasp. 

Apply this to what you do in your head when you are judging someone. Do not trust your base instincts. Do not assume all you preserve is the whole story. How much backstory are you missing from an action you are witnessing? Try not to project your own attitudes and experiences onto other people. They didn’t grow up the way you did, where you did, with what you had! 

Source:

Horan, J. (2019, March 6). All about juries: Why do we actually need them and can they get it ‘wrong’? Retrieved September 09, 2020, from https://theconversation.com/all-about-juries-why-do-we-actually-need-them-and-can-they-get-it-wrong-112703

Chapter 1: “The Island”

With Coronavirus keeping everyone at least 6 feet apart, how can we foster a sense of camaraderie?
I was tempted to scrap my usual “Polite Pirate” theme this year, in favor of doing something with “scuba diving.” While I still plan to incorporate this unique concept of underwater exploration & adventure, I decided to keep my original theme, as well.
This blog provides the first chapter of my classroom story. I shared it yesterday with my new students.
While we are all wearing masks, and we must keep our distance, the massive storm that disrupted the characters of our tale is more obviously symbolic of the pandemic pulling pupils out of school than any concept previously dreamed up!
Now, even more than before, we need to find ways to creatively connect with kids. Plugging students into pedagogy will be extra difficult with all of the flip flopping and seemingly impersonal screen work. How will you tie your students to your teaching?

The Captain of Class

Screen Shot 2019-08-24 at 7.05.40 AM Students wrote comments, connecting to the text, via Google Docs

One of the most important things to establish at the beginning of a school year is comradery among pupils. Several years ago I came up with a story idea that focused on this concept. It introduces my classroom theme of #ThePolitePirates as well as giving us a shared purpose.

The story has grown over the years, as I come up with more themes and invest more time into it. I usually share it with my students in a Google Doc through Google Classroom, so each kid has his/her own copy to practice connecting with the text via leaving comments. This year, for the first time, I plan to publish the chapters in this blog, so anyone can read the story and leave comments.

Feel free to “pirate” my tale. Change and tailor the idea to fit your classroom. I usually…

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Getting to Class; Turn Day One Jitters into Day Won Class

I wrote this two years ago.

For years I have captained a classroom of polite pirates. The theme has involved turning pedagogy into an adventure. Learning content and skills was a treasure hunt for my students. Preparing for the first day of school, when I would meet my new crew was always exciting.

With a global pandemic promising to punish positive thinking, I have been pondering a new theme for this year. I will be teaching a team of “Cave Divers.” Not only will we be learning all about scuba diving, but the class will prepare to go where no one has gone before.

This year, my goal for the first day, week, etc is one word: “Safety.”

I look forward to blogging about the use of this theme of cave diving. Have you had to change your theme to fit the “unprecedented situation” school is facing this year? How have you changed your teaching to meet the safety concerns?

The Captain of Class

It’s August. Back to school sales are raging. Letters are arriving that tell students who their teachers will be this fall. Nervous energy is buzzing through bodies… Not just students’. Teachers worry about the first day of school, also.

IMG_9065 August First, 2018 — This is what I saw when I pulled up to my building.

Here are a couple classy ways that I deal with the start of school jitters:

  1. I have a goalONE goal for the first day. I’ll accomplish more than the one thing, but I measure my success based on this one thing. It isn’t the same every year. Sometimes it is learning everyone’s name. Other years, all I wanted was to get everyone back home safely. Nowadays, my goal usually centers on classroom management. I like  the momentum to begin in my favor, so I establish myself as captain. The class is my crew…

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A Couple Positive Thoughts on Remote Teaching

Today I am returning to school, but unlike any other year. Teachers are entering the physical buildings in my school district in order to prepare classrooms to meet social distancing guidelines: Students are to sit 6 feet apart and face the same direction, among other things. It feels a little like preparing the classroom for the PSSAs, Pennsylvania’s standardized testing scenario. 

I don’t think it is a stretch to suggest that every teacher in the world could use some positive thoughts, right now!

Here’s a couple, and I want to hear from educators that have others to share. Let’s see if we can bolster our mental health through optimism. 

Thank you so much for my book, Barbara!

On Friday I was able to hang out with one of my favorite people, Barbara Bray. She is an author, blogger, edu-chat host, and technology innovator, among other things. I have followed Barbara on Twitter for a couple of years now, and I have been very impressed with the topics and hosts that she presents through #Rethink_Learning. 

A few weeks ago, Barbara contacted me about guest hosting a chat. In addition to complimenting me on my recent efforts trying to help people feel comfortable talking about race on Twitter, Barbara shared some of the exciting things that she has been up to. It was Barbara who used the phrase “Pushing the Envelope” first, when she described her attitude about self-growth. I loved it and immediately began researching its etymology. 

We used the saying “Pushing the Envelope” in our questions for the chat that I hosted. Through comments, replies, and shares, Barbara made it appear as though I were the one to come up with the theme of the chat. I mention all of this because it illustrates the classiness of this edu leader. Not only allowing someone else to take credit, but going so far as to promote the idea of another’s credit-worthiness is really above and beyond classy!

Fine and good, but what does all of this have to do with “Remote Teaching”? you ask.

Here’s the thing: Barbara Bray lives in California. I live on the other side of the country, in Pennsylvania. When we “got together” on Friday, it was through Zoom. We had wanted to chat about a blog I’d written recently. As we shared our introductions, a recurring theme was how helpful social distancing has been in the way of connecting people who wouldn’t have “gotten together.”

True, we were not in the same room. But, seeing each other’s facial expressions, witnessing body language, and connecting all of this with a voice, helped breath life into a relationship of text. When we ended our meeting, Barbara was more than a “contact” or collaborative partner. Having shared an experience, we found ourselves forging a friendship. 

This would not have happened, had we never video-conferenced. 

Perhaps your mind is telling you that you would have forged deep and meaningful relationships just fine, if you were face to face with your students in the classroom. While I won’t argue you on that, I will propose using video-conferencing tools like Zoom, Google Meeting, Skype, etc. can empower you to begin and build relationships in ways you wouldn’t have. Not only that, but if you think about it, do you honestly communicate with your students equally when you are teaching face to face? Or, do you rely on your class benefitting from the back and forth you practice with the same outspoken students day in and day out?

By being forced to use text more and rely on video-conferencing, teachers can more easily document the discussion equity of all students. While in the physical classroom I would tolerate some students monopolizing whole group conversation, a grid of kids on a computer screen makes this more evident and therefore easier to moderate. 

What benefits or positive thoughts can you come up with as you prepare to begin varied levels of remote teaching? Are there any aspects that you look forward to?

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.

Screen Shot 2020-05-19 at 5.58.33 AM
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).

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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