Have you ever heard of the Problem Novel? According to Amy Pattee’s (n.d.) blog about Problem Novels, this genre presents a hot button social issue, explores it from various angles and leaves the reader to make his/her own judgements in the end. Jodi Picoult is a master writer in this field.
I have read many Jodi Picoult books that would fit this definition. “The Tenth Circle” deals with sex. It’s hard to imagine a more touchy teenage topic! Picoult has you squirm in your seat as she wields her words, weaving a web of deceit and mistrust. What causes what in this seemingly cause/effect story? The problems paramount as infidelity matures into murder. Where does it stop?
Another Picoult book, and one that made her mainstream, is “My Sister’s Keeper”. Made into a movie, this story is about a girl, Anna, entering her teen years having lived, it seems, only as a surrogate for her older sister, Kate. Kate has had Leukemia for years. She requires Anna’s help to stay alive. In fact, it feels like Anna was conceived in order to keep Kate alive! This life or death problem goes deeper as Anna tries to wrestle with her own identity.
Problem writing can be dark. Picoult brings the reader to death’s door, and sometimes even allows you a peek inside. Amy Pattee mentions the book “The Girl in the Box” (1988, Joy St. Books) as an example. In this story a girl is kidnapped and placed in a cement cell. She never sees her captor or anyone else, is given water and only barely enough food for sustenance, has to use the bathroom in a plastic bag, but [apparently] has a typewriter and plenty of paper to document the whole experience. As I read Pattee’s description of this problem novel, I thought it was the perfect metaphor for authors exploring the deepest corners of thought. Ouida Sebestyen, author of “The Girl in the Box”, created this cement cell in his mind. Then he lived the horrors of this girl by imagining her feelings, fears, hopes, and actions.
What makes problem novels riveting is their realistic nature. The events and situations within these tales are only as captivating as they are imaginable. In Picoult’s “The Tenth Circle” the daughter of an adulterer is date-raped. As it turns out, the perpetrator is the young girl’s ex boyfriend. The teacher of story-telling knows that every tale must present a problem. The line between “Realistic Fiction” and a text being a “Problem Novel” lies in the intent of the text. While a Problem Novel would fall into the category of Realistic Fiction, in that it is believable, the all-consuming problem of the story has the reader completely wrapped up in constant conflict. You are reading ONLY to find out the answer to the problem. And, be forewarned, the better the Problem Novel, the less likely you will be provided a solution!
This reminds me of my “Controversy Can Be Classy” project. The concepts that Picoult presents would be considered controversial, because of their reasonableness. Yacek speaks of a controversy as being “alive” when it is believable in his paper, Thinking Controversially: The Psychological Condition for Teaching Controversial Issues (2018). He explains that both sides of a problem must be a realistic solution. This is where the masterful writing of a good Problem Novel comes into play. The more realistic the problem, setting, and characters, the more empathetic the reader will be.
Have you read any good Problem Novels? What might attract someone to read this genre? Why would an author choose to write this type of book? How does reading a Problem Novel help you?
Do you ever wonder where the ideas for a great novel come from? What inspires the thoughts that grow in an author’s mind, that eventually bare fruit in terrific and terrifying texts? You might think that Frankenstein was born of lightning, but the idea, the seed planted in the mind of the 20 year old Mary Shelley in 1817, was nothing more than a yellow eye. Shelley woke up from a terrible dream, and all she could remember was a hauntingly yellow human eye. This feeling grew and stretched into the novel that has dawned countless Halloween costumes.
For Kate DiCamillo, it was hands; The capacious hands of a stranger who picked up her 86 year old mother after having fallen in the doorway of a cafe one cold January day. This giant of a gentleman helped Kate’s mom to a chair, while Kate stood stuck in the uncertainty of her mother’s admonition that she “Couldn’t do it.” Kate was not used to hearing her “Piece-of-Work” mother confess defeat. She was a fighter, if nothing else. Like dominos, her mother’s health toppled, and within a week she died.
DiCamillo explains the presence of this word, already traveling through the veins of her consciousness, in her acceptance speech at the 2014 Newbery-Caldecott Banquet for “Flora and Ulysses”. The word was birthed in the reading of Maxwell William’s “The Thistles in Sweden” (Maxwell, 1976). The last line reads, “And, I think that if it is true, that we are all in the hand of God; What a capacious hand it must be.”
Flora And Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures
Written by Kate DiCamillo
The father of Flora is said to have a “capacious heart”. In the beginning of the story this character is a dysfunctional shell of a man, recently divorced from Flora’s mom, and stuck like a malfunctioning computer program. His only lines are his introducing himself to people, “Hello, I’m George Buckman. Pleased to meet you.” He wears a suit, complete with fedora, everywhere, no matter the temperature, situation, or time. The reader is made to believe that this man could very well wear this suit to bed.
When Flora’s pet squirrel reveals its super powers to the dad, he snaps out of his stupor and revives. He begins to think for himself again. He laughs. He stands up to malfeasance, a word repeated throughout this hybrid of novel and comic book. It was Ulysses’s superpowers that defibrillated George Buckman’s heart, but it was the capaciousness of his heart that loved Flora, a struggling tween, back to life.
This exciting book has hilarious and head-scratching mysteries throughout. A boy who seems to have self-induced, temporary blindness due to a traumatic event that he won’t talk about is Flora’s unexpected sidekick. The reader isn’t sure if the apartment-guarding cat or the mom trying to kill the squirrel is the true nemesis of the superhero. And, the question most prevalent throughout remains unanswered at the end: “Can you be a superhero, if you don’t save anyone or anything?”
One thing is for certain: boredom will be vanquished through reading this novel. DiCamillo has a capacious talent for storytelling, and this one keeps you on the edge of your horsehair sofa. (You’ll have to read the book to understand;)
Kate DiCamillo has lived in very different parts of America. Born in Philadelphia, she grew up in Florida, the setting for one of her Newbery Award-winning books, “Because of Winn Dixie” (2001). Her “About Me” page says that she lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, currently.
Can blind-belief be bad? This is a question that haunts me after rereading “Circus Mirandus” a third time. In this book, published in 2015, a boy visits a circus that can only be found by people (kids) who believe in magic. The author, Cassie Beasley, uses her own literary magic to weave a fantasy world where people live for thousands of years with a reality of an aged man dying of a respiratory disease.
The boy’s name is Micah, and it is his caretaker-grandfather, Ephraim, who is dying. Throughout the entire book Micah believes that the magic of Circus Mirandus, a place that both Ephraim and Micah visit, can save his grandfather from the inevitable; End of life.
It is hardships that bring the circus into both boys’ lives. Grandpa Ephraim found the circus when he was a youth and his father had been sent to war. He was battling depression and loneliness. Micah was drawn to the circus by the stories his grandfather had shared with him and the fact that this might be a place where he could find a cure for his grandfather’s worsening sickness.
Another main character of the text is a man called Lightbender or “The Man Who Bends Light”. This ages-old mystic is a confessed illusionist. Toward the end of the book he reveals that he only causes people to think they see things. For example, part of his show is to get kids to visit Antarctica. They feel like they are actually there. Penguins are squawking all around them. In reality, the kids are sitting safely inside a tent at Circus Mirandus. This mind-bending power is used several times, in several ways, and for several reasons. In the end, Micah realizes that the power to believe something has its limitations.
I read this book to myself, then to my daughter, and I just finished reading it aloud to my third grade class. A powerful vibe I get when I’m wrapped up in the storyline is the idea of faith or blind-belief. The thing is Micah and his friend Jenny, who he brings along with him to the circus the first time he visits, don’t blindly believe. Jenny is portrayed as a rational, scientifically-minded girl, who can’t view the circus until Micah coaxes her to just give it a try. He teaches her to be open-minded to magic. At one point in the text Jenny is even more open-minded than Micah. Beasley does an excellent job developing her characters and maintaining their deep personalities, even through this seeming role-reversal. Jenny continues to be calculating, constantly planning, while Micah’s faith is wrapped up in his emotions and unfounded hopes.
Micah matures throughout the text, and in the end, Micah induces a purposeful, man-made, blind faith by actually closing his eyes to reality. You will have to read the book to understand what I mean. I’ll share Chintzy, the messenger’s hint: “Don’t look down”.
As I reflect upon whether I think that it is okay to allow children to “believe” in Santa Claus, leprechauns, cupids, tooth fairies, and the like, I am realizing that this novel is The Book that Bends Light. While reading it, you get sucked into a slightly altered reality where magic really does exist. A movie that this reminds me of is “The Matrix”. The main character of that flick is Neo, a young man delivered from the make-believe world of computer-generated bliss. While not everything was hunky-dory for Neo before leaving the Matrix, reality is even more grim.
In “The Matrix” characters get “plugged into” a virtual reality world that is made up solely of zeros and ones. It isn’t real. This being said, if a person dies while being plugged in, their mind, so wrapped up in the believable fantasy world, will break, and the actual, physical body will die. Neo ends up being his own “Light-Bender”, escaping the trappings of the mind to live beyond the Matrix.
I am writing this blog during a seemingly dystopian time of pandemic closures and lockdowns. COVID-19 is sweeping the nation and world, infiltrating all socio-economic statuses, ages, and races. This virus is undetectable for up to 5 days, lasts about two weeks when in effect, and kills between 3 and 4 percent of its victims. There is a lot of talk about different actors multiplying the calamity of this virus through spreading dis- and misinformation. Some say the media has made a big stink about next to nothing. Many more people die from lots of other viruses and diseases. We don’t freak out about them! Others say that authorities should have taken the virus more seriously at the beginning. Government officials attempted to bend the light that science was trying to shine on this very serious problem. By acting like the virus was no big deal, were authorities communicating that 3-4% of the population was expendable? Their actions, if not some of the blatant messaging seemed to communicate, “The stock market crashing isn’t worth worrying about three to four out of one hundred people.”
How much of the rise and fall of stock prices depends on belief? It seems like a circus sometimes. When the dust settles, I wonder how many Neos will be unplugged from the make-believe-world constantly telling us everything is hunky dory. You can pull the cord, or it will be ripped from your head as the earth falls away. If you pull the cord yourself, you can self-educate and learn to adapt and survive.
I recommend you weave plenty of entertaining activities into your self-educating-agenda. Reading is a great escape from both the Matrix and reality. I like books that make you think, and Circus Mirandus does just that! It explores the dangers of the pull of power. If you had the power to cause others to believe things, what would you do with it? Luckily, there are people in the world who work to help children and others believe in a better tomorrow. That is my aim.
Although slightly dark, I hope that this blog is inspirational, also. What do you do to help others see the light?
I am halfway through scoring and writing feedback for my third grade students, and it hits me: Writing opinions can be “controversial”. When you state what you believe, as opposed to a proven fact, you are providing a point of view that others may refute.
Having finished typing feedback for all 27 kiddos, I am impressed with the arguments that my students used. The assignment was to share whether or not you thought the men who escaped Alcatraz in 1962 survived their daring prison-break. The December (2016)/January (2017) issue of StoryworksJr magazine had an article about the amazing true story of the one successful escape from the infamous “Rock” (Hopkinson, 2016). This article ends by telling students that no one knows if the prisoners survived the treacherous swim across the San Francisco Bay. It asks, “Do you think (they) made it out alive?”
How is this controversial? David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson of the University of Minnesota published a landmark paper in 1979 titled “Conflict in the Classroom: Controversy and Learning.” In it they define controversy as an incompatible conceptual conflict that craves reconciliation. What question is more in need of answering than survival? Did the men make it? And, the two answers couldn’t be in more contrast with one another.
The beauty of this particular assignment is that, although my students were asked a “Yes or No” question, they were required to back up their opinions with facts from the text. In this way, the kids invest in their answers. It causes them to interpret the text, seeing the trials of escape from the perspective of the prisoners. Students assumed a more active role in reading the text. Rather than looking back at the text to find answers to boring multiple-choice questions, students are hunting for ammunition to do battle against their idea-opponents.
This was a great assignment because it could go either way. There is plenty of evidence for both sides of the argument, which makes the cognitive fight even. And, because this assignment is so rich with ideas, it is extra easy to turn feedback into a communicative conversation, instead of straight “You did this well/You need to work on this.” I find myself writing things like “Have you thought of this angle?”
By conversing with students about what they wrote, an educator can ensure the acknowledgement of ideas for writing improvement. Instead of “You did this wrong” the educator can suggest, “If you want to persuade me to believe this, you should word it this way; You should include information from the text; You might want to explain yourself more.”
With each new paragraph to grade, I look forward to seeing where my student stands on the issue. Sometimes, when I use controversy to teach, I will assign sides. I want the opposition to be even. A question will be posted in the Google Classroom. I make it so that students may be able to edit their answers, and they can read/reply to others. If you do this, you want the sides to be fairly even, so that no one feels overwhelmed with opposition. This particular project seemed to have opinions split down the middle, lending nicely to a balanced battle of wits.
I made sure to show my third graders a balance of points from the StoryworksJr text, too. As a class, we discussed some reasons it seemed unlikely the men survived the escape; They had to swim 1 ½ miles across shark-infested, freezing cold water, and that was after climbing a tall, sharp fence! When you are doing something daring and exciting, though, your body fills with adrenaline that can cause seemingly superhuman strength and endurance. With more back and forth ideas, we constructed a balance of ideas.
Yacek explains the importance of having opposition on both sides of an argument in Thinking Controversially: The Psychological Condition for Teaching Controversial Issues(2018). He tells of a lesson he thought would spark controversy but fell flat because even the students who argued against the action didn’t truly believe it was a possibility. In order to foster the intellectual disequilibrium that Johnson & Johnson (1979) propose works best to arouse learning, students have to buy into their position.
For the prisoners, I suggested that these were tough men. The text had mentioned that they had successfully broken out of other prisons. That is why they had been sent to Alcatraz; “The Rock”! Just when you feel like everything is tipping toward a successful escape, however, there is the fact that it doesn’t matter how tough you are against hungry sharks and 1 ½ miles of open water! Also, don’t you think we would have heard of their survival? Everyone craves fame. “But, there was a letter written in 2015!” students exclaim through their essays. Yes, but this was a person who was looking for help paying for medical expenses. There is no proof that he was an escapee. And, the scale goes back and forth.
We may never know if Frank Morris or the Anglin brothers made it to safety. One thing is for sure, my students’ reasoning and writing skills grew as a result of wrestling with the controversial idea.
Hopkinson, D. (2016, December). Escape From Alcatraz. StoryworksJr, 4–9.
Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1979). Conflict in the Classroom: Controversy And Learning. Review of Educational Research,49(1), 51-70. Retrieved August 13, 2019.
Yacek, D. (2018). Thinking Controversially: The Psychological Condition for Teaching Controversial Issues. Journal of Philosophy of Education,52(1), 71-86. Retrieved August 5, 2019.
“That makes me smile.” David Wiesner explained the effect of critics in a blog, “The Beginning“(Wiesner, 2020).
This account is left right there. That is all Wiesner has to say about it. “That makes me smile”; a four-word phrase that implies quite the opposite of violence…
Unless, the implication was to stimulate a “violence of thought”; Not “violent thoughts”; But, thinking so transformative, so life-altering, so paradigm-shifting as to be jarring–to clash with the cognitive systems already set up, that are comfortable and familiar.
The beauty, the magic of Wiesner’s work is that it raises more questions than answers. Why does the criticism of his very first professional art assignment cause him to smile? Did David Wiesner smile the moment he learned of people’s misgivings about his illustration? This statement is written in the first person present. Is he still smiling? Is this a constant source of laughter? What kind of smile is it? Condescending? Amusement? Bemusement? I can picture Wiesner’s emotions evolving through many smiles.
Why do we smile? We are told to smile. I tell my students to smile. My thinking has been that a reason for smiling will surface once you have begun. If we wait for a reason, it may never arrive. Jumpstart the happiness by raising the corners of your mouth. Smiling can be an act of violence, especially, when you don’t feel like it. You are waging war on your soul.
David Wiesner’s smile is a metaphor for this picture, drawn in 1979 for the table of contents of the September Cricket Magazine of that year. It was his first commissioned artwork. He had all summer to produce it. I bet at the end, after Trina Schart Hyman praised his work, he removed his spectacles, free to smile at his accomplishment. Having just graduated art school the spring before, David didn’t plan to enter the world of children’s literature. Like a cricket, chirping in the corner of the room, it beckoned him.
I first stumbled across David Wiesner when my daughter Scarlet became enamored with frogs. We found the book “Tuesday” (1991) in a used book store. We were drawn to the text by the beautiful cover. This tale of frogs flying through town, managing mayhem and inspiring mystery, was an instant favorite. We “read” it over and over. The word read is in quotes because this is a wordless book.
At first Scarlet and I were attracted to the artwork and frogs, but as we reread it, many more meaningful lessons were uncovered. How do you “read” a wordless book? I spoke to my emergent reader about what was happening in the images. We took turns asking each other questions and pointing out phenomena. We celebrated one another’s surprises: “Did you see this?!” How many “Oh my goodness-es” were uttered?
The “goodness” is that each reading was a goldmine of conversation between a daddy and his daughter. The lack of text makes the illustrations more open to reader-interpretation. The artwork lies somewhere between realistic and animation, just like the story line. Scarlet and I discussed how plausible it was for frogs to fly. The frog faces show expressions. How much do frogs feel or think? They seem to operate a remote control for a television in one picture. Do you think frogs could do that? Would they want to?
I use “Tuesday” in my third grade classroom to introduce the reading strategy, Questioning. It is the second day, and I have students write down questions while I page through the illustrations. We discuss the students’ questions along with how important “questioning” is, as a reading strategy. I am still finding details in the artwork that I hadn’t noticed before.
BIBLIO: Reprint, 2011, Clarion Books, $6.54
REVIEWER: Matt Weimann
FORMAT: Picture Book
A book that I use later in the year that David Wiesner also wrote/illustrated is “The Three Pigs” (2001). This one may have text, but the storyline is much more dependent on the artwork, thus awarding it the Caldecott Medal of Honor. The three pigs discover a way to escape the mean wolf through completely exiting their story altogether! They then explore a parallel universe of nursery rhymes where they find a few other lost souls. The three pigs help extricate the characters in peril from their tales.
How do you explain “Out-of-the-box thinking” to youths? Share with them this “Out-of-the-book story” by David Wiesner. Practice the art of thinking this way by “rescuing” a character from a different book. Students could draw comics to illustrate what could happen if a character stepped out of their story to explore the outer world.
Another use of this thinking is to teach the uses of literary parameters. An author sets up “givens” that help readers interpret actions in a story. Readers won’t be happy if halfway through a story, the historical fiction narrative completely changes to science fiction, with aliens visiting from outer space. Even with our three little fugitive pigs, the illustrations and ideas are consistent throughout the book. They can visit other stories, but they don’t become microscopic and fall through the atoms of matter. In order for there to be “Out-of-the-box thinking” there must actually be a box.
Information about other texts by award-winning author/illustrator, David Wiesner can be found on the “Bookshelf” page of his website.
“I Got It!” (2018)
“Fish Girl” (2017)
“Mr. Wuffles!” (2013)
“Art & Max” (2010)
“Sector 7” (1999)
“June 29, 1999” (1992)
“Night of the Gargoyles” written by Eve Bunting, illustrated by David Wiesner (1994)
“Free Fall” (1988)
“The Loathsome Dragon” retold by David Wiesner and Kim Kahng (1987)
I leave you with this thought: The more mature a writer becomes, the less drawing fills his/her pages. A five-year-old only draws. Teachers instruct youths to add text. We get children to provide words to describe the settings they see in their minds. Develop character traits through actions. What word choice will perfectly convey the mood and theme of your story? Are we capturing and boxing up these young minds by teaching away the artwork? Perhaps the cages from David Wiesner’s illustrations at the start of this blog were setting the crickets free. Artwork is the music for text penned and sung. Let’s help our crickets sing their song.
If you search “Easter Eggs” in youtube, you might get some videos of kids running around a field, but more likely your server will be flooded with videos of people sharing stuff that is seemingly hidden in movies. When I was a kid, I remember people going crazy about seeing ghosts mysteriously appear in a few frames of a movie. Supposedly, you weren’t intended to see this, which made it all the more creepy!
Easter eggs are different, in that they are apparently purposefully hidden by directors, illustrators, etc so that cult-like movie-watchers will find them. Could this just be an excuse for watching a well-liked film an otherwise abnormal number of times? Perhaps. And, maybe the producers of these films are aiming to foster this kind of multi-watching phenomena.
Interestingly, the term may have come from one of the most cult-producing movies of all time: “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. According to Urban Dictionary, the guests/prisoners of an alien home participate in a completely random Easter Egg hunt. When the characters fail to find many of the hidden eggs, they appear later on throughout the movie. Viewers enjoy looking for the literal Easter Eggs, which spurred the use of the term for hidden items in films.
Easter Eggs in Teaching
The reason all of this came to mind is that I was teaching a lesson that had Easter Eggs in it, and I thought this was a neat pedagogy to explore. What if teachers purposefully hid learning experiences inside lessons, so that students would have to go back and find them?
My school district is working hard to introduce computer science in elementary school. We used a grant to buy some SpheroEdu kits. A team of teachers was formed. Instructors were brought in to train us in the world of coding. We brainstormed and planned how we might share this information with our district’s students. Each of the teachers on this “tech team” tried out the lessons in our own classrooms, and now we are sharing them with all of the 4th and 5th grade students of the district.
I just taught lesson 1; This is the one that had the Easter Egg. The tech team built a slideshow in the Pages app that could function as an independent or whole-group teaching tool. The “pages” (slides) walk students through some instructions on how to use Pages, what is expected, and how to complete the lesson. We chose to use the Pages app, because it forces students to learn a tool on their iPad that they may not be familiar with. Also, it has an easy to use drawing tool.
The lesson requires students to move some images, arranging them on a grid. Paired kids, sitting back to back, take turns using “Sequencing Commands” (the object of the lesson) to get their partners to draw a path on an empty grid. Once done, the two partners compare their screens. Would the path land on the squares that images are resting on? They are to take screenshots of their work and a picture of their partner’s grid. This way, they can put the two images side by side to evaluate accuracy. Part of their reflection is to analyze what could have helped them use fewer commands. Also, is there a better route for collecting the images?
Easter Egg Time
As it turned out, moving the images was not exactly easy. It works well to first tap the image, and then touching the very middle of it, you drag it onto the grid. If you don’t get the middle, you’ll enlarge it. “Undo” is our best friend!
If kids click on the text that is near the images, it becomes “active” and covers the images. When this occurs, there is no way to get to the images to move them! Oh no!!!
Here is your Easter Egg for the lesson: Students must “Unlock” the text box. Then they can “Arrange” the order of objects, placing the text box behind the images. Now, the image may be accessed again.
Questions for student reflection:
Why would you want to “Lock” an object or text box?
Why is it important to know how to “Arrange” the order of items on a page?
This Easter Egg was only found because a student let go of an image too soon. He was getting ready to drag an image up to the grid, but stopped right over the text box. Oops! When he couldn’t figure out how to get to the image, he brought his iPad to me, and we worked on gaining access, again. I then showed the classroom STEM teacher whom I was partnering with on the lesson. I wanted him to know how to remedy this kind of problem if it came up again.
Something that struck me in that moment was the idea of teachers thinking that they have to have all of the wrinkles ironed out before doing a lesson. Guess what. More often than not, you will create a new wrinkle when you carefully iron out a potential problem. Perhaps locking that text box was thought to help students grab the images and not the text box. But, it ended up covering the image and preventing us from getting to it!
I thought of a way to remedy this for future lessons: make the text part of an image, along with the grid, that is the background for the slide. Then images cannot go behind it. But, then again…
Nooooooooo! Don’t fix it at all! Leave it as is, and even show earlier finishers of the lesson this problem. Here is an Easter Egg in the lesson. See if you can figure out how to solve the problem. Then these kiddos could help anyone who comes across this problem in the future.
I leave you with this: How can you build Easter Eggs into your lessons? How could you purposefully plan problems that students may not find, but that could give them something to chew on, enriching the learning experience?
I have a small bump under my right eyelid. I’ve always had it, but didn’t notice it until a few years ago.
What is it? Many people have these kinds of tiny bumps on their faces. Sometimes, but not always, they have some color to them. Some people are famous for them. Cindy Crawford’s is iconic (Brolley, n.d.). Did you know that kids can buy these and stick them on their faces? How many movies have teenagers using markers to add them?
My mom called them “beauty marks”. She had many. She was beautiful. She assumed beauty. We recognized it as such.
“The truth about beauty marks” (Brolley, n.d.) explains that they are all technically moles, but the ones on a person’s face are sometimes referred to as “beauty marks.” This incredibly interesting article discusses some historical facts about our beautiful little bumps. Shakespeare had a thing for them, for one. Did you know that beauty marks have been politically active? And, they are not dangerous… just scandalous… if you were to travel back in time to the 18th century, Great Britain. Be careful, Doctor Who!
What struck me, though, is that simply renaming… branding something differently, completely alters your perception of it. “Mole” doesn’t sound nearly as attractive as “beauty mark”. I witnessed this superpower of renaming first hand when I helped my daughter Scarlet re-see her handicap of hearing impairment as a “superpower”.
At the beginning of last year, when Scarlet was beginning first grade, she voiced frustration in the fact that she did not get to experience recess the same way her peers did. When rain was imminent or it was drizzling out, Scarlet was kept inside because it is important that her hearing equipment not get wet.
Recess is a big deal to an elementary-age kid, and Scarlet liking school and being happy is a big deal to me, so I put my mind to this challenge. The winning idea was to spin Scarlet’s struggle into a positive point of view. Yes, she would have to forgo some fun, but she can do something that no one else can; She may not have the same recess as her peers, but she DOES have a superpower!
The moment I named Scarlet’s hearing impairment a superpower, she became proud of herself and her situation. I previously wrote about a cute story of her telling a dentist “It’s Okay, I Have A Superpower” just before she used it to NOT hear the loud air pump he was about to turn on. The success of this experiment led us to compose a little children’s book, “Scarlet’s Superpower”.
The experience of publishing our story lead to a school contacting us about sharing our “super message” with its students. Beaver River Central Elementary School in upstate New York was launching a “Literacy Celebration”, and they invited Scarlet and I to help them kick it off. They were attracted to our tale because they were using a superhero theme to celebrate literacy. Their slogan was “I’m a reader, what’s your superpower?”
In the same way calling a mole a beauty mark readjusts one’s perception of it, this school district was telling its students that readers are super powerful. Here’s a wild fact: Cindy Crawford considered surgically removing her facial mole! Had she done that, who knows whether she would have achieved the stardom she has? The fact is that we don’t always appreciate our greatest gifts. What if Superman wanted to get a little cobweb off of the ceiling, and ended up flying right through the roof! Oh, man! I hope the home owner’s insurance covers that!
Kidding aside, viewing reading as a superpower is a beautiful way to inspire youth to develop this ability. The principal at Beaver River Central told her students that it is a power that no one can take from them. What a powerful message!
In preparation for sharing “Scarlet’s Superpower” with the audience at Beaver River Central, I thought it would be neat to act it out in a short play. In this way the audience would have more to experience, it would involve Scarlet, and I could get kids from the school to participate. I wrote the story into a short skit, complete with stage directions. A group of fifth graders worked on practicing it, and I rehearsed it with Scarlet at home.
You should know that Scarlet has never spoken in front of a group of people this size, let alone acted out a play! She began voicing her concerns the night before the performance. I could have explained to her that it was natural to feel nervous, and then tried to console her. Instead, I told her that what she was feeling was “excitement”. We get excited about all kinds of things, and it isn’t perceived as negative. Why let Scarlet see this wonderful experience through a negative lense?
She did great. We did great. The 5th graders from Beaver River Central did great. Interestingly, the students seemed to be much more excited to meet Scarlet, because they were actually part of her story. Incidentally, I didn’t call the drama that I composed a “play”, either. I labeled it a “Readers’ Theater” because I allowed the students to have their scripts with them. This cuts down on nervous feelings. Renaming things can be super helpful!
Thank you Beaver River Central, for inviting us to be part of your literacy celebration.
What have you “renamed” in order to infuse superpowers?
A person wants to get from point A to point B. Point B is on the other side of a forest. The first time that the person finds his way to point B, it takes a while. He gets scraped up. Some frustration may be involved. There will definitely be corrections in direction. He might use tools like GPS or a compass. Probably, the person will mark his travel. On the way back to point A, he will have an easier time of it.
The next time that the person wants to travel from point A to point B, it will take far less time and work. Plus, the person will not get as beat up, because he will know where the briars and boulders lie, and he will avoid them. He might even cut them back or move them, if he plans to travel this way regularly.
Now that there is a trail to follow, getting from point A to point B is easy, fast, and thoughtless. You know what to expect. You look forward to the natural outcroppings of rocks and groupings of trees that mark your progress along the route.
Technology has developed to the point that mountain bikes are available and in vogue. You get one and begin using it on your favorite trail.Getting from point A to point B evolves into a recreational activity. While you use the trail to get from one place to the other, the journey has become the entertaining part of the trip. You even invest some time in building parts of the trail to make them more fun. A straight path up a hill becomes a switchback with berms. Maybe you search out gnarly terrain to shred instead of racing directly to the end of the trail.
Eventually, your passion and excitement is communicated to others, and they want to try your trail. It morphs from a singletrail to a wider path.
Next, people who don’t mountain bike find that your trail is a convenient path from point A to point B, and they begin using it. Now, there are bikers and hikers. The hikers don’t need the entertaining gnarl of the mountain biking trail. They level portions, clear your favorite bunnyhopping logs, and widen the path.
As more and more people use the path for traveling, the importance of getting from point A to point B in less and less time with fewer distractions becomes valuable. It gets leveled, and then paved. It grows wider and marked. Eventually, your entertaining path turns into a rode.
Why does the last word of the previous paragraph look rong? Wait. What is happening hear?! Why are these homophones being spelled incorrectly?
This entire blog is an analogy for learning to read. These supposed misspellings at the end are obstacles for you to mentally bunnyhop over. If you have made it to this point*, you are a masterful reader who uses sounds, spellings, and can identify common letter groupings unconsciously.
Hopefully, you didn’t “yardsale” when you red (I just did it again! Ha ha) the word “rode”. It is ironic that the past tense verb for mentally travelling through this text would sound the same as the noun for the symbol of the text itself! Daniel T. Willingham rights (Sorry, I can’t help myself! Last time, I promise) about how our mind translates text when we read in “The Reading Mind” (2017). With wildly entertaining (at least for a geek like me) examples and figures, he explains the way we interpret sounds, decode meanings, and relate commonly used letter groupings. Reading this book shows how technical this seemingly simple task is, as well as how natural it becomes once we figure it out. Chapter 3 “Reading At A Glance” was the inspiration for this blog.
And now to wrap it up. The point** I was trying to make was that the process of reading evolves in each of us, and we get better at it by doing it. As adults, we read many texts that get us from point A (ignorance) to point B (knowledgeable) with the goal of speedily fixing our ignorant situation. This is often necessary and important. It is the goal of teachers to train students to be able to read well, so that they can also easily traverse the distance between point A and B. Given that this skill is refined by much repetition, wouldn’t it behoove the practicing reader to enjoy the process?
I am composing this blog to challenge adults to model mountain biking through text, so that others see your example and want to try out the trail for themselves. I suggest you find something fun to read, and make it visible, modeling your performance to inspire others. If you are a teacher, show your students. If you are an administrator, spur on your teachers. If you are a parent, show your child how useful reading is.
There is an adult reading challenge that I threw together for Twitter users that you might enjoy using. I made this in order to inspire a game/social angle for sharing our mature reading habits publicly. Feel free to join me and other grownup readers as we share our mental mountain biking!
Willingham, D. T. (2017). The reading mind: A cognitive approach to understanding how the mind reads.
*Congratulations on successfully finding point B; the place where all of this is explained.**Point B, throughout the analogy was never a tangible place, but rather reading, itself.
This blog was originally published under the title “Competition is Classy”. I decided to retitle it “The Reading Super Bowl” as I reblog it because it isn’t actually about the concept of competition being classy. The article is all about a classy competition that motivates students to read.
This past fall I finally read Daniel Pink’s seminal work, “Drive”. This has caused me to rethink the idea of using extrinsic motivations like this competition to impassion attitudes and habits. I’d like to write a blog in the future that explores whether competition is or isn’t classy; or, the classy aspects of it. This one is just about a fun competition The Polite Pirates have been conducting for years. “The Reading Super Bowl”!
Every year, on the first day back to school after the winter break, I initiate a competition between two teams in my classroom. The contest is to see who reads more, but the purpose is to make reading a habit and instill an excitement for text consumption. I call it “The Reading Super Bowl”, and it lasts until the actual football game.
The class is broken up into two equal groups. I’ve done girls versus boys, odd student numbers versus even student numbers, and broken the class up according to desk arrangements; Doesn’t matter how you do it. The NFL teams that are entering the playoffs are listed on the board. Kids get the lunch/recess time to decide on their group’s team. Then the players are passed out. I usually project a few pictures of each team’s jerseys on the wall for kids to model the coloring of their figure…
I grew up working on puzzles with my family during the winter holiday breaks. Every year between Christmas and New Years, every member of my family could be found hunched over a temporary card table set up in the middle of the living room. Never-mind Santa Claus; The main source of magic in those days was waking up to find a gigantic portion of the puzzle completed. Sometimes, feelings of gratitude flooded the soul, since a piece that had eluded me was found and locked in place. Other times, I would feel cheated, because a large portion of the puzzle was no longer available for construction.
The purchaser of puzzles was my mom, and she wasn’t very picky. She brought home pictures that she liked. They were typical interlocking jigsaw puzzles consisting of anywhere between one and two thousand pieces.
Mom was the best at finding matching pieces. I remember puzzling over a section for a long time, only to have mom visit the project, survey the available pieces, and pick the most random-looking one out of the mix. Not every time, but often, she’d have flawlessly, and seemingly effortlessly found the missing piece!
Now, I am teaching my daughter Scarlet how to assemble puzzles. My wife and I have given Scarlet puzzles for years, but this Christmas is the first time that she is really engaged in puzzling through a 750-piecer, independently. I came downstairs yesterday morning to find her hunched over the colorful enigma, piece in hand. As I began explaining that sometimes it isn’t enough to look at the colors of the pieces; “You have to examine the negative space to find a matching piece;” I thought about the ways people interact with one another.
When Scarlet and I first dumped out the 750 pieces, I instructed her to turn all of the pieces over, so that the glossy, colored sides were facing up. As we did this, we placed any pieces that had straight edges into a separate pile: Those were the edge pieces. We also began forming a few other distinct piles of pieces during the flip over process. Any pieces with blue on them went into a pile separate from the pile of red pieces.
Anyone familiar with putting together puzzles knows that you first assemble the border, so that you have a literal frame. This also provides a frame of reference for where to place increasingly connected groups of pieces. Sometimes you have to open up the border to allow large sections of connected pieces to slide into the middle of it. Other times, you can pick up a handful of attached pieces and drop them into their spot. Then there are times when you work on bringing individual pieces into the frame to fill gaps and complete sections, all the while you are hunting relationships between interlocking, individual, man-made masses of color and shape that are meant to be together.
Scarlet, Mommy, and I are only about a quarter done assembling our family puzzle, when it hits me: What if people had the same attitude about other humans that a person putting together a puzzle possesses? The whole time you work on a puzzle, you are only thinking, where does this piece in my hand belong? Who does it connect to? What spot in the puzzle is its home? How does it relate to the rest of the puzzle?
The puzzle that we are working on is tricky, in that the pieces seem to be cut right on the cusp of varying colors. I am working on assembling a section full of poinsettias and looking for an adjacent piece. I first try pieces that look similar to those adjacent the vacancy. None of those fit. Next, I examine the opening that the missing piece forms; the negative space. Are there any pieces in the pile of red that possess a similar shape? Eventually, I go ahead and try sticking red pieces into the gap, just in case there is a geometric abnormality that I am not seeing. Perhaps one will work, even though it does not look like it. That’s happened before. No success. I widen my scope of potential pieces to include ones that share the colors of surrounding pieces; greens and browns. When finally I do find the piece, I notice that the cut followed the line of red color, seeming to purposefully fool anyone relying on that.
This story goes to show that while it may be advantageous to categorize puzzle pieces into separate colors, initially, this reliance on related pigments can eventually cause frustration. I would have found my missing piece faster, had I looked at the picture of the puzzle on the box, and included any piece that had red AND leaf colors/designs in my pile of poinsettia pieces. And, really, if you want to get really figurative and technical, poinsettia petals actually are leaves that turn red!
The important thing to understand is that the entire time you are putting together a puzzle, you are being inclusive and accepting. Every single one of the 750 pieces is a potential fit for any opening. They all belong somewhere. I think it was the experience of this particular puzzle’s play on color that brought this to my attention. Time after time, I found myself needing to open my mind to accept the possibility that pieces I never would have imagined going together actually did!
A coping strategy for dealing with frustration when assembling puzzles is to step away from working on a difficult relationship, in order to focus on another part of the puzzle. When I am not finding the elusive connecting pieces between poinsettias and chipmunk, after searching for tens of minutes, I must move on to the yellow section of flowers on the other side. Often times, I will eventually stumble across a piece that I recognize belongs to a foreign part of the puzzle. The satisfaction felt when dropping it into its home is immense.
Each piece has a home; Has a purpose; Has a special function. The piece that you hold in your hand belongs somewhere, even if you aren’t sure where that spot is at the moment. You can put it down, but don’t lose it! It has immense value. They all do!
The most important dangers of a puzzler include: Do NOT lose even one piece! In fact, if you lose even ONE, you may as well throw the whole thing away. Or, if you are creative and graceful, you could make a substitute piece, but if there are more than one or two missing, it does not matter how creative or full of grace you are, the puzzle will look wholly unfinished; not holy. Never force a piece. If you do this, you could ruin its shape, so that it won’t fit nicely into the relationship it was meant for. Also, if you leave a forced piece in place, it warps the whole puzzle. You might attach a few more pieces to this wrongfully placed piece, but eventually there will be a line of unrelated-ness, like a saltwater tide infringing on brackish water in a bayou.
Before I leave you to chew on this metaphor, I must mention some of its limitations. First of all, Life has no borders; It has a beginning and an end, but there is no ceiling or floor. Sore as high as you can, and be careful of exploring its depths too far. Understand that experiences, places, and people are all part of your puzzle. Also, it is more like a three-dimensional puzzle. Build out wide on either side to support potential experiences that could attach to your life. Then, watch piece after piece fall into place, grow, and assemble. Finally, but not conclusively, it is ever changing. The piece you hold in your hand may not fit now, but in a few minutes, it could be exactly what you need! Life is like a coral reef; a puzzle of plant, animal, and rock… Living rock.