Life, death and the stories in between

Books teach us about life and its corollary, death. We try to make sense of the splendor and the ruin around us by turning to great works of literature. Often, those works were written by someone we don't know, even someone from another era altogether.

As you look for reading material for your students, especially your reluctant readers in middle and high school, why not start with an obituary? A good obituary, reporter Marilyn Johnson observed in The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, is a "tight little coil of biography" that "reminds us of a poem" and "contains the most creative writing in journalism." It can also reignite our interest in a life's work.

Consider this obituary of Maya Angelou, whom I best knew as the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a memoir about growing up in the Jim Crow South, and “On the Pulse of Morning,” a poem she delivered at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. Here are just a few of the things I hadn't realized — or hadn't remembered — about Angelou:

  • She sang calypso.
  • She spoke at least six languages.
  • Although she never went to college, she had more than 30 honorary degrees.
  • She was nominated for a Tony Award in 1973.

Most significant, perhaps, Angelou took a huge risk in publishing her first memoir, something we now take for granted.

“All of the writers of my generation must honor the ground broken by Dr. Maya Angelou,” author Tayari A. Jones posted on her Facebook page after Angelou's death on May 28. “She told a story that wasn’t allowed to be told. Now, people tell all sorts of things in memoir, but when she told the truth, she challenged a taboo — not for shock value, but to heal us all.”

If your students want to delve into the life and work of Angelou, check out these links:

These obituaries and appreciations of other writers may also be of interest:

Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014)— The Guardian
"Few writers have produced novels that are acknowledged as masterpieces not only in their own countries but all around the world. Fewer still can be said to have written books that have changed the whole course of literature in their language. But the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez . . . achieved just that."

E. B. White (1899-1985): Recollections by His Stepson — The New Yorker

"White’s gift to writers is clarity, which he demonstrates so easily in setting down the daily details of his farm chores: the need to pack the sides of his woodshed with sprucebrush against winter; counterweighting the cold-frame windows, for easier operation; the way the wind is ruffling the surface of the hens’ water fountain."

Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), Author of Splendid Nightmares — The New York Times

"As portrayed by Mr. Sendak, the wild things are deliciously grotesque: huge, snaggletoothed, exquisitely hirsute and glowering maniacally. He always maintained he was drawing his relatives — who, in his memory at least, had hovered like a pack of middle-aged gargoyles above the childhood sickbed to which he was often confined."

Madeleine L'Engle (1918-2007), Author of the Classic A Wrinkle in Time The New York Times

"She once described herself as a French peasant cook who drops a carrot in one pot, a piece of potato in another and an onion and a piece of meat in another. 'At dinnertime, you look and see which pot smells best and pull it forward,' she was quoted as saying in a 2001 book, Madeleine L’Engle (Herself): Reflections on a Writing Life, compiled by Carole F. Chase. 'The same is true with writing,' she continued. 'There are several pots on my backburners.'"

Dwayne McDuffie (1962-2011), Comic-Book Writer — The New York Times

“'You only had two types of characters available for children,' Mr. McDuffie told The New York Times in 1993. 'You had the stupid angry brute and the he’s-smart-but-he’s-black characters. And they were all colored either this Hershey-bar shade of brown, a sickly looking gray or purple. I’ve never seen anyone that’s gray or purple before in my life. There was no diversity and almost no accuracy among the characters of color at all.'”

Roald Dahl (1916-1990): The Story of the Storyteller — NPR

"[Dahl] had an extraordinary confidence about his ability to see into a child's mind and to see the world the way a child saw it."

Barbara Park (1947-2013), Author of Junie B. Jones Children's Stories — Daily News

"Park remembered herself as a troublemaker who knew well the path to the principal's office."

Louisa May Alcott (1832 - 1888) — The New York Times

"There was probably no writer among women better loved by the young than she."

 Adapted from our Editor's Corner

Peer-to-peer sharing: When students spread reading love

Great power for spreading the joy of reading lies within the hands of our students. As teachers we read aloud passionately several times daily, give gotta’-get-my-hands-on-that-book book talks, and create vibrant, inviting classroom libraries. But, how much time is devoted to having students influence their peers about reading? Students themselves are one another's most influential force. If we give them time to talk while honoring their voices, preferences, noticings, and wonderings, a community of engaged, sometimes frenzied, readers develops. Every single student becomes involved. 

Here are five of my favorite strategies for promoting student sharing around books.

1. Buzz Groups (Steven Layne talks about this in his book Igniting a Passion for Reading): Several times a week, students meet for ten minutes to share what’s catching their attention in the books they are currently reading. You can form groups or allow students to create their own. They can share annotations to let other readers in on their thinking (they love using sticky notes to interact with the texts). I like to keep the talk in these groups open-ended, and listen in to see what’s ‘trending’ around their self-selected reading at any given time. As I listen, I come across thinking I want to highlight in class lessons and I discover areas where I might push thinking forward. I sometimes also assign a ‘focus’ for their sharing depending on what aspect of reading we’re studying.

2. “The Golden Easel:” (See photo above!) Students can nominate books to be featured on the golden easel—a special place of honor for books. Readers who nominate books can add sticky notes to the covers, briefly sharing why they want to inspire other readers to read them. Then, those who are interested can write their names on sticky tabs and put them on the books. Viola! A list of readers waiting for a title! A bunch of readers making plans for their reading!  (Hint, place the ‘golden easel’ in high traffic areas, by the sink, for example. Students are washing and find themselves cleverly drawn into a book commercial!)

3. Plastic Document Holders: Love this strategy! Again, place these strategically around the classroom (I like to have several by our door, so as students are waiting, they are once again drawn into reading one another's thoughts about notable books). Since they are clear, the COVERS of books are easily visible. Readers can add their thoughts on sticky notes along the bottom of the holders, and peers can comment on the sides. I found the plastic holders at OfficeMax (they also come in sets of 3 attached holders, but I prefer the single ones so book covers have more visibility).

4. “I Just HAVE TO Share” Parking Lot: This is a poster where students can place sticky notes about things they simply MUST share with classmates. When there are a few seconds here and there in a day, I have the student retrieve the note and share what must be said! If I find we’re getting flooded with notes, I allow students a minute or two to come up, grab their note, find a buddy or group and share OR I simply tell them to take their note to lunch and share it with other readers!

5. Televised book talks:  Many teachers record their students giving books talks. Take it one step further:  televise them! A TV strategically placed near the lunch line, where book talks are broadcast, can go a long way toward creating a culture of reading in a school. Plus, students feel so empowered: their reading lives are potentially affecting the reading lives of countless peers!

Just think how these strategies can ignite your room with talk, exponentially increase the number of books students are exposed to, and spread positive energy around the act of reading. When visitors walk into a classroom that is flooded with books and genuine talk about books, they know reading isn’t just a priority, it’s a passion!  

Learning disabilities: What we know, don't know and think we know

A new report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) examines the impact that learning and attention issues have on millions of children and young adults in the U.S. The State of Learning Disabilities looks at how these individuals fare in school and beyond and provides resources for parents, teachers and employers to better understand and address their needs.

According to the report, 5 percent of children in public school have been identified as having a disability that impedes academic progress. An additional 15 percent or more of students are thought to have "unidentified and unaddressed learning and attention issues."

Inaccurate information and misperceptions, the report finds, are hindering efforts to provide much-needed support for many children with learning disabilities (LD).

"Stigma, underachievement and misunderstanding of LD continue to be stubborn barriers for parents and children to overcome," says James H. Wendorf, Executive Director of the NCLD. "The data in this 2014 report reveal that, left unaddressed, as many as 60 million individuals risk being left behind, burdened by low self-esteem, subjected to low expectations, and diminished in their ability to pursue their dreams."

The statistics are alarming:

• One in two students with LD experiences a suspension or expulsion from school;

• Students with LD earn lower grades and experience higher rates of course failure in high school than students without LD; and

• One in two young adults with LD (55 percent) reported having some type of involvement with the criminal justice system within 8 years of leaving high school.

I recently spoke with Dr. Sheldon H. Horowitz, Director of LD Resources at the NCLD. Dr. Horowitz also answered my questions via email. Here are excerpts from our conversation. 

What do you want parents to know about the new report?

Statistics, percentages, graphs and charts can be intimidating. With this report, we did our best to be "parent friendly." We want parents to bring data from the report to their child's school and ask questions about how well students with LD are faring in reading and math.

We also want parents to learn about postsecondary transition and how they can help their child avoid being underprepared for college, job training or employment. In short, we want our data to be their data so that they can become confident and effective advocates for their child and other children.

What do you want policy makers to know?

Protection and entitlements for children with LD are important, but they're just a starting point. The ESEA [Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965], long overdue for reauthorization, requires schools to meet rigorous standards for educational content and student achievement. For kids with LD, that means making sure they're not sidetracked from what should be a path to a high school diploma.

What should the general public know?

Almost everyone seems to know something about LD, but it's not always accurate. Often, the misconceptions are outrageous. LD is the result of laziness? Of watching too much television? Of the home environment? The purpose of our report is to get the facts straight so that myths around individuals with LD—that they are unable to learn or compete in the job market—are not perpetuated.

With implementation of the Common Core Standards in states across the country, what concerns/hopes do you have for children with LD?

The Common Core is going to be good for all kids, including those with LD. It raises academic expectations—and why not? Children with LD are bright kids whose struggles are unexpected and unexplained. If we get the assessment piece [of the Common Core] right, it will showcase the richness of knowledge that children with and without disabilities have.

Still, there are huge challenges ahead. Educators who specialize in LD and those who do not must work collaboratively, and schools must provide professional development that ensures the delivery of the highest quality instruction and mentoring. Parents must work with educators to support their child's intellectual, social and emotional development.

What additional research is needed in the field of learning disabilities?

There is so much we still don't know. Why do so many kids with LD leave school before graduating? Why do a disturbingly high number of young adults with LD have dealings with the criminal justice system? Why does disclosure of a learning disability outside of school—on the job and in the community—carry such a powerful stigma?

Some of our greatest thinkers, including Thomas Alva Edison, Chuck Close and David Boies, overcame dyslexia. How is it that dyslexia can also be a "gift"?

First, let me say that these individuals did not overcome dyslexia. Rather, they learned to live with it in ways that did not diminish their energy, hopefulness, self-confidence, drive, thoughtfulness and creativity. As far as referring to dyslexia as a gift, it may well be that some individuals with LD have unique strengths that appear to emanate from their area of weakness, or "difference." Consider, for example, a radiologist who, as an adult, remains a slow and inaccurate reader of words, but who can skillfully read an X-ray, an MRI or a CT scan. He or she may notice patterns that would likely elude others who only focus on isolated details.

What role might technology play in helping students with LD?

Technology can be empowering. It can distracting. It can be accommodating. It can be a nuisance. Whatever the case, technology that supports children with learning and attention issues can be lifesaving. It can help a child demonstrate what he or she knows rather than how the disability interferes with learning. It can help provide instruction in ways that meet a child's need for multiple representations of content. It can allow a child to interact with content in fun and personalized ways. But technology is not a panacea. What it can't do is make a child want to learn or replace the role of a caring, insightful adult.

What support is available for parents who are coping with a child's learning disability?

There is on-the-ground support that addresses everything from structuring homework time and making friends to teaching social cues. The important thing to keep in mind is that resources don't just target children. Our report shares some fascinating survey results, helping us to see that parents can be thought of as belonging to any of three groups: those who struggle to accept their child's learning issues, those who are conflicted about how to deal with those issues, and those who are optimistic about their ability to parent despite a child's LD. Help is available for all of these parents.

What do you have a ‘fixed mindset’ about?

“I’m not a math person.” “I can’t dance.” “I’m dumb and she’s smart.” “I’m just naturally an artist.”

All of the above are statements you might have heard from your students, your children or your peers. You might even have said one of them about yourself. They’re also all statements that are symptomatic of a “fixed mindset.” Say what??

We’ve blogged on several occasions about research into academic mindsets, and the effect that having a “growth mindset” vs. a “fixed mindset” can have on anyone’s ability to learn.

In the education context, think about “mindset” as your belief in your ability to learn and increase your intelligence on any given topic.  Cognitive research has shown that our brains are quite malleable and our intelligence is not fixed. Meaning: If you’re not good at something now, that doesn’t mean you can’t work hard and get better at it. To believe and understand this is to have a “growth mindset.” Yet so many students (and so many adults) have a “fixed mindset” about certain skills, believing that they’re simply “not a math person” or “a dance person.”

Dr. Carol Dweck, a researcher who for years has studied the effect this can have on students, would argue: “You’re not a math person… YET.”

More and more educators are thinking about how to incorporate this research into classroom practice – helping students learn about their brains, re-thinking how they praise students (praise effort, not results), and working to build school cultures around the growth mindset ideal.

Almost none of us are completely immune to “fixed” thinking. For me, it’s dancing. I took a few classes before I got married to avoid embarrassing myself on the big day, and pretty quickly just gave up.

So I ask YOU: What do you have fixed mindset about?

High prices for higher education

When I prepared to leave home for college, my parents sent me off with plenty of advice. One of the most memorable was this: Do not open a credit card. They warned me of how easily I could fall into debt through credit card transactions. How ironic that was considering the debt I was about to accumulate through tuition loans! Although college for me was a good “investment,” it came with a hefty price tag.

According to new research from the Pew Research Center four out of 10 American households headed by someone younger than 40 years old carry a form of student loan debt. And the Federal Reserve Bank of New York  reported that student loan debt reached a new high of $1.1 trillion during the first quarter of this year with the average graduate facing an average total debt of $30,000.

Today more than ever, there is an increased emphasis on ensuring all students are college and career ready. College is seen as a must for a successful future. Yet, for many students, that "must" comes with the reality of future debt.

Should college be a basic right? This Education Week article argues, yes.

Don't underestimate the importance of knowledge

I could read with a fairly high level of understanding a complicated paper analyzing education policy or corporate communications strategies or a Major League Baseball pennant race. But give me an article on Russian literature or economics and I’ll have a tough time. I’d at least have to slow way down and re-read a few times to grasp the meaning.

We talk a lot about the importance of teaching students strategies and the “skill” of reading (and that’s important!). But we should never underestimate the importance of knowledge for a person’s ability to read with a high level of comprehension. Studies have shown that knowledge is, in fact, MORE important than a student’s reading level in predicting comprehension. (See 1988 study by Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie)

Ask any teacher and he or she will tell you this is true: A student who reads at a low level can often read a highly complex article or book if he or she is interested in the topic and knows quite a bit about it going into the reading. It’s true for all of us, no matter our skill levels.

Dr. Dan Willingham has shaped my thinking around this topic quite a bit (here is one post by him where he cites the Recht & Leslie study), and I was reminded of this again last week when I heard him speak on the topic.

According to Willingham: Knowledge is obtained most efficiently through reading. So, students who do a lot of leisure reading in the early years are better equipped to become strong readers as they progress through school.

Read more, and you’ll read better!


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