Coronavirus Controversy

I witnessed a situation the other day that illustrates why students should be taught controversy in the classroom. It’s the middle of July, 2020, and the Coronavirus is in full force! Right now, school administrators and boards are trying to figure out what form of teaching will happen this coming fall. I do not envy these leaders, their tasks of balancing student health & safety with political messaging, parental pressures, & seeming economic responsibilities! 

I have no idea what the fall will bring, but, like most Americans, I am going about my summer business, trying to stay as safe as possible, while maintaining my humanity. The other day I witnessed something curious. I was in a Wawa in Pennsylvania, waiting for my number to be called, indicating that my sandwich would be ready for pick up. While wiping my phone with a disinfectant cloth that Wawa was kind enough to supply, I overheard a gentleman apologizing. 

“What number do you have?” a young man with braids covered by a bandana asked a slightly older gentleman who sported a long ponytail. They both had masks, but were close enough for me to hear the entire exchange.

Wawa originated in Philadelphia area.

The man with the long ponytail looked at the ticket taped to the box in his hand. He realized his mistake as he read the number aloud. “Sorries” were spilling out as he attempted to hand the box to the braided bandana wearer.

The person to whom the order belonged acted like the box of food was a delivery of disease. He would not take it. He wasn’t rude, but unsure of how to proceed. 

Eventually, he took the problematic parcel, but only to bring it up to the plexiglass separating customers from the mask-wearing workers preparing food. The young man explained that someone else had accidentally picked up his order, and that he would like them to simply place it into a new container. 

I thought that this sounded reasonable. I was surprised by the worker’s response. “I cannot take that food back. You can throw it away, and I will make another for you.” 

The young man was now faced with a dilemma. He could do as the Wawa employee suggested and discard the uneaten food. He would get a brand new order that wasn’t tampered with by an ungloved stranger. This would require him to wait longer, and he would be responsible for wasting what could very well be perfectly fine food. On the other hand, the young man could tell the food preparer behind the plexiglass to not worry about it, and he could chance eating the food inside the box. 

What if the older gentleman had transferred fomites (infected particles) to the cardboard container, though? Even if the young man were to use a glovebox to remove the food from the infected container, who knows if any fomites would transfer to the food?

Gloveboxes are used to handle potentially dangerous materials.

Over-caution and waste… or potential contagion; These were the conflicting choices.

My number being called, caused me to retrieve my order and leave the store, never finding out how the controversy ended. Both people were still standing near the plexiglass when I left. The man with the ponytail was still apologizing, and the man with braids and bandana hadn’t supplied the Wawa workers a definitive decision. Would he get a new sandwich by default? Would the food preparers interpret his continued presence as a passive plea for a new parcel? He was still holding his damaged goods when I exited. Maybe he would wait for the new order to force him to throw away the box he held in his hands. 

Will school districts end up throwing away a year of learning? No one knows for sure what fomites and aerosols will contaminate halls and classrooms or what that will mean for the consumers of education? Should the two gentlemen from Wawa stay home and make their own silly sandwiches, from now on? What would happen to the convenience store industry? Is it the job of the public to maintain industries in the midst of a war on our welfare?

Students must eat knowledge and grow in skill, or they will intellectually deteriorate.

Do we give them potentially contaminated containers to handle? Should we waste time? What if there aren’t any sandwich-making materials at home? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I will say that our pedagogy should share the skill of wrestling with controversies. I’m not suggesting we teach with controversial issues. My message is that students would do well to learn how to dissect a topic, analyze it from multiple perspectives, and weigh options. When they grow up, they will have very important decisions to make. 

How have you, or how do you plan to teach with controversy?

The Classy Mask

The other day I entered a convenience store to get something. On my way into the store I passed a very large sign stating that “Masks Are Required.” There was a little more information, and it was classy looking. Since the emergence of the novel Coronavirus, I’ve worked hard to “in”-frequent stores and public places in general. I am pleased to say that my family has taken the “Stay Home: Stay Safe” suggestions quite seriously.

Anytime that I’ve had to venture out, however, I’ve donned my comfortable, large, extremely obnoxious painters’ mask. 

In the beginning, I was under the impression that wearing a mask would help keep me safe from contracting the virus from others. My mask is a respirator, containing charcoal filters and a one way exhaust valve. When I wear it, I breathe clean, filtered air, and the breath that I exhale leaves the mask, completely. I’ve had this for years, having used it when painting with products that have harmful fumes. I can prime a tiny powder room with stinky oil primer and never smell a thing… until I remove my mask!

Although I originally felt rather ridiculous sporting this gigantic device in public, I cherish my health and wanted to protect my family the best I could. Surprisingly, my mask didn’t seem to attract as much attention as I thought it would, or at least very few people bothered to say anything. I caught double-takes and whispers here and there, and from time to time a fellow patron of a store might comment on the thoroughness of my face-covering, but everyone had masks on, so no big deal. It was like wearing bell bottoms in a crowd of pants-wearing people. 

It is simple and fast to put on, and you can even wipe down the rubber interior.

Over time I’ve come to learn that wearing a mask is most helpful in preventing other people from contracting the novel Coronavirus. More than it protecting the wearer, the concerted effort of everyone covering their faces would control the spread of respiratory particles (aerosols) that infect people with the virus. 

When I entered the convenience store the other day, I saw a variety of masks; None quite as obnoxiously as mine. A gentleman and what appeared to be his mother seemed pretty impressed with my thorough face covering. 

Having recently donned a dark cloth mask when out in public with my wife, who was not as keen on my sporting an obnoxious respirator, I could succinctly contrast the two styles of mask. My respirator is roomy, and therefore cool. Because it allows air to actually leave the breathing space, I am not recycling my breath the way one might with a paper or cloth covering. The admiring couple asked about where to get one. I told them that I’ve had it for years, but you can get them from most home repair supply stores or paint stores. I admitted that they are expensive, and the couple suggested that it seemed like a good investment, since we are probably going to be wearing these things for a long time. 

It dawned on me that the three of us, discussing face covering, were protecting each other from ourselves. I was not shielding my lungs from others, as much as I was keeping my aerosols from the public air that others were breathing. I commented on this. Then we discussed the idea of my crazy mask representing just how serious I am taking the “Let’s all work together to defeat COVID-19” policy of face covering. I confessed that I probably look like a weirdo. The classy couple made me feel nice when they affirmed my intentions of simply keeping others safe. They also respected the fact that I did not care what I looked like.

Wrong mask, Scarlet! Superheroes cover their mouths and noses, these days.

In conclusion, regardless of what it feels like, looks like; How annoying it is to remember and drag around… Masks may make it difficult to hear voices, see facial expressions. Wearing a mask is classy, because looking out for others, helping people stay healthy is classy. As crazy as I look wearing my obnoxious painters’ mask, that is how serious I am about ending the spread of COVID-19. How serious are you?

Juneteenth and Some Symbolism from “The New Jim Crow”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are many ways to “Make noise.”

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

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

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

I don’t know…

…who is responsible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence condones. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honesty is an Attitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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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 

Storyworks Junior: #OnlineLearning Tool Extraordinaire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

License to Poetry

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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