Holiday gloom? Read Fran Lebowitz.

With brightly-lighted trees and beribboned packages, the holiday season is a time of wonder. But as with life itself, that sense of wonder can soon turn to melancholy.

My first inkling that it isn't all Currier & Ives came when I was 12 and only got a pair of sneakers for Christmas. My mother had stacked gift-wrapped boxes for my siblings and me on the back porch, labeling each with the penciled shorthand she learned in secretarial school. I thought that I'd cracked the code and a dozen presents were headed my way.

After I opened my first gift that Christmas morning and realized it was my last, I burst into tears.

Then there was the Christmas my father was diagnosed with a brain tumor. We tried to cherish our time with him, knowing that the clock was ticking, but we were desolate.

A year later he was gone, and so was my brother Michael, who was killed in the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Center. A gray pall seemed to cloak our New Jersey community as dozens of victims' families grieved losses.

Still, life went on. In a new documentary, Terror on a Train, my friend and former colleague Mi Won Kim talks about finding meaning in life after a traumatic loss. Her sister Mi Kyung was murdered 20 years ago this month when a deranged man pulled out a gun on the Long Island Rail Road.

Six people were killed and 19 injured.

Watching the documentary, I remembered how we waited to hear from Mi Won the day after the massacre. For several hours, there was a slim chance that her sister would pull through. Then we got the phone call.

As the documentary shows, no matter how many years elapse, even the memory of trauma can make you cry in an instant.

Life is unalterably different, especially around the holidays. But eventually your heart stops hurting. In cases like Mi Won's and mine, it is a literal hurt, one that makes you think you should go to the emergency room.

Too many Americans know the effects of trauma firsthand, including the families in Newtown who mark a somber anniversary this month—in peace, one hopes.

I have no antidote. So I look to humor. This season it comes in a Fran Lebowitz interview in The Paris Review. I remember devouring the Q&A back in 1993 when it appeared in print.

It's even better the second time around. The Paris Review has posted several interviews from the archives—with Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin and Edna O'Brien, among others—each writer more miserable than the last.

At the risk of making Lebowitz, a notorious sufferer of writer's block, sound like Henny Youngman, here are some of her best lines:

"I write so slowly that I could write in my own blood without hurting myself."

"I've always liked people who are older. Of course, every year it gets harder to find them."

"Now that I realize I don't hate to write, that I just hate to work, it makes writing easier."

"I look at my dictionary, a Webster's Second Unabridged with nine million words in it and think, All the words I need are in there; they're just in the wrong order."

"I like a person who is embittered. That embittered sensibility is not possible in a young person. You can be nasty when you're young, but you really have to be older to achieve bitterness."

"I smoke so much while I'm writing that it's hard for me to make out what few words I've actually gotten down on paper."

I hope you find wonder this holiday season, if only in a Lebowitz turn of phrase. But please don't smoke.

Your brain on exercise

What's your memory of gym class from when you were a young student? It may induce a panicked feeling of being picked last for a kickball team, a fond recollection of sinking your first three-pointer in basketball, or flashbacks of pain from getting hit in a game of dodge ball.

Physical education today is moving towards a fitness focus instead of a sports focus, ensuring inclusion of all students (and hopefully avoiding some of the extreme feelings mentioned above). Organizations such as Sparking Life are working with schools to find PE curriculum that will “optimize learning, improve motivation, activate impulse control, moderate mood, build self-esteem…and make our students want to be in school!” The organization cites research showing that exercise and movement improves learning and academic performance. To learn more about their work, watch this video about the success story at Naperville Central High School, where students raise their heart rate in the gym before their most difficult classes.

As a teacher, how can you incorporate this into your classroom? Allow time for short stretch breaks, a brief yoga sequence, or a song or chant with movements. Also, check out this EdWeek post to see how regular breaks can benefit student health.

#GivingTuesday: Why it’s so important to give back year round

It’s been a week since Giving Tuesday, and as part of an effort to continue to raise awareness about the important contributions so many non-profits provide year round, I asked a few of our extraordinary partners to share some thoughts on why it’s so critical for companies and individuals to give to organizations who are helping to address some of society’s most pressing issues.

Mike King, President/CEO, Volunteers of America: “The importance of donations from individuals, foundations and corporations can never be overstated. Philanthropy represents our margin of excellence; it lets us serve more people and affords us an opportunity to address the quality as well as the quantity of our services. It helps us fill gaps in existing funding to create new services in response to emerging needs.  It is the difference between simply keeping people alive and giving them a life.   Philanthropy makes a critical difference in the lives of the people we serve.”

Dr Dipesh Navsaria, MPH, MSLIS, MD, Medical Director, Reach Out and Read Wisconsin: “Through Reach Out and Read, medical providers arm more than 4 million families with books and knowledge about the importance reading to children beginning in infancy. The research, including 15 peer-reviewed studies about the effectiveness of Reach Out and Read, shows us that books in the home, and involved parents make a world of difference in a child's school, and overall life success. During the preschool years, children served by Reach Out and Read score three to six months ahead of their non-Reach Out and Read peers on vocabulary tests, preparing them to start school on target.” Read more in this recent Huffington Post blog.

Jane Heaphy, Executive Director, Learning Leaders: "It is important for companies and individuals to contribute to organizations like ours because we are all stakeholders in the success of our public education system.  Our society is built on that success.  We know that family engagement is key to student achievement. Learning Leaders promotes this by building family-school relationships, providing parent information workshops, and training volunteers to provide classroom and other assistance in NYC.  As a non-profit working with over 300 schools, making a difference in the lives of 180,000 children, we require philanthropic investments by corporations and individuals to sustain our work.  A donation supporting education makes an impact on children today and on future generations."

Lee Seham, General Counsel, NBRA: “We’re so proud of our collaboration with Scholastic on the program “Time Out for Reading,” which is designed to enhance the literacy skills of sixth grade students. Each referee participating in this program cherishes the wonderful opportunity to give back to the community by visiting the schools and serving as positive mentors to the children. Each community has leaders that can help make a difference, simply by giving their time.”

Michael Haberman, President, PENCIL: "More and more, people are looking for opportunities to put their skills to use in a way that creates real change for their communities. The funding we receive allows us to develop and support programming that helps people use their professional skills to build stronger school leaders, boost family engagement in their children’s learning, and prepare students to thrive in college and their future careers."

Sheena Wright, President and CEO, United Way of New York City: "United Way of New York City is fiercely committed to student success and we strive to reach as many supporters as possible to enlist their help for our work, including READ NYC, our new campaign to get children reading on grade level," says Sheena Wright, President and CEO of United Way of New York City. "We leverage our unique and long-standing partnerships in the corporate, nonprofit and public sectors to cultivate communities of advocacy, giving and policy change. Our goal? To make New York work for every New Yorker. #GivingTuesday provides one more opportunity to accomplish this."

The Reader as Narcissus

In college, I studied Shakespeare with a brilliant scholar named Edward Tayler. One of his most repeated phrases—"the Reader as Narcissus"—still echoes in my mind.

As another former student of Tayler's describes it: "There are two types of readers in the world: the Reader as Narcissus, who goes to the page looking for his own reflection, and the Reader as Understander, who goes to see what the writer is up to, what the words themselves are doing."

David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core's ELA Standards, is plainly in "the Reader as Understander" camp. But my experiences at the annual NCTE convention last month underscored that readers intoxicated by language are both.

We may go to a text to understand a subject better, or we may seek to understand why we feel, somehow, different than everyone around us, while managing to see ourselves in a made-up protagonist. Often our quests for knowledge of the world and ourselves are intertwined.

This was illustrated in a New York Times article about President Obama's recent purchases at a Washington, D.C., bookstore. To be clear: Of the 21 books that Obama bought while shopping with his daughters, we don't know which ones he actually plans to read.

Still, Peter Baker, a Times reporter, muses about the president's selections, which include Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, a novel about ethnic violence in Chechnya. Did Obama choose the book because of the background of the Boston Marathon bombers? Or does he want to delve deeper into America's fraught relationship with Russia?

Baker asked Marra why the president might look to fiction to gain insights into a conflict that is all too real.

"I imagine someone in his position gets a lot of facts and figures," Marra said. "But the novel is really about the experience, about the psyche and the soul."

Whatever the case, Baker concludes that a work of fiction "would give the president a more visceral feel for one of the world's most brutal conflicts than the graphic intelligence papers that cross his desk."

Obama also chose books "about identity and reinvention, about what it means to be American." His desire to make sense of his singular journey reminded me of YA author Jacqueline Woodson's words at NCTE, that a student needs to see him or herself reflected on the page.

No one I met at the conference was prepared to cede the primacy of fiction. But I'm guessing that no one wants Obama to stop reading his daily intelligence briefs either.

Why kids need to read what they want

A new book by Jeffrey Wilhelm and Michael Smith (available for purchase now via download, and in print in January) makes a powerful case for the importance of letting kids read what they want.

The culmination of five years of research into the nature and variety of pleasure reading, Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want - and Why We Should Let Them demonstrates the complex and rigorous intellectual work children do when they read genres like vampire books, horror, fantasy and Harry Potter novels.

We'll be sharing more from Jeff and Michael and from their new book in the coming months, but here's a wonderful quotation from the must-read article they recently contributed to The Atlantic:

We want to help our students fall in love with books in ways that foster a life-long devotion to reading. So what should schools do? We think the implications of our research are manifold, but two seem especially compelling.  First, our data make clear that educators should consider interpretive complexity in concert with textual complexity, a centerpiece of the Common Core State Standards.  Every text our participants read—from graphic novels to dark fiction to Harry Potter—required sophisticated strategies for entering a story world and absorbing the twists and turns of the plot line and character relationships.  All fostered deep intellectual engagement.

Our data also convinced us of the importance of choice. Students should have regular opportunities to behave the way adult readers do and choose their own reading.   They know the kinds of texts from which they will take pleasure. At the same time, teachers should expand the possibility of pleasure by introducing students to new books they might not select on their own."

What is close reading and how do I teach it?

In an article from Reading Today (full article available for members), San Diego State University professors Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey define close reading as “a form of guided instruction in which the teacher questions, prompts, and cues the learner. It’s part of the gradual release of responsibility, not a comprehensive instructional effort.” Fisher and Frey suggest how to strategically prepare and follow up to support successful close reading:

Select an appropriate text

Choose a complex, challenging text that lends itself to “grappling.” Multiple readings and deep discussion should be necessary to ensure understanding.

Develop student habits

Discuss the purpose of multiple readings, explaining that repeated readings allow students to dig deeper into the meaning. Teach students to annotate the text by writing questions and reactions in the margin, underlining key ideas, and circling confusing words or phrases. As students mark up the text, they can note evidence to cite in discussion and writing tasks. 

Engage students with text-dependent tasks

Provide opportunities for close reading activities:

1. Text-dependent questions

Questions should lead students back to the text to examine key details, vocabulary, text structure, and author’s purpose.

2. Peer discussion

Students should engage in collaborative conversations with classmates as they read and reread text. Provide support such as sentence starters to help students express their ideas, back up claims, and build on the discussion.

3. Post-reading tasks

Writing prompts and Socratic seminars should tie back to the text, as opposed to personal experience.

If you have other advice to share with colleagues, we'd love to hear it in the comments!


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