Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Adam's Tales for Young and Old

Last fall, writer Adam Gidwitz spoke with great humor and enthusiasm to a group of rapt Middle Schoolers at Browning. His first book, A Tale Dark and Grimm, was a top seller at our book fair, gaining devoted fans in every grade from second to eighth. We're all eager for his next book to drop! I spoke with Adam about his experiences teaching and about becoming a writer.

SM: Can you talk about your inspiration for A Tale Dark and Grimm?

AG: It started like this: I was asked if I would be a substitute librarian for a day at the school where I used to teach. Well, librarian is about the most awesome job I can imagine, because, as I understand it, you get to hang out with kids all day and tell them the best stories you know. So I was like, "YES." They told me I'd be reading to second graders. No problem, I said. They told me I could read any story I want. I was like, "Score." So I went home and went looking around my shelves for a story to read. I came across, on my shelf, a book called GRIMM'S TALES FOR YOUNG AND OLD. I was like, "Fairy tales! Those are PERFECT for little kids!" So I opened the book up and started reading a story called Faithful Johannes. In it, two kids get their heads cut off.... by their parents. I thought, "Can I read this to second graders? Will I get fired?" And then I thought, "Let's find out!" So I read it to them, making jokes as I went and trying to make things not too terrifying. And afterwards, half of them were completely traumatized, and the other half asked me to make the story into a book. But the story was already in a book. So how could I make it my own? What I eventually settled on was taking every joke I made to those second graders, every warning I gave them, and putting them, verbatim, into the story. Once that voice was established, the rest of the book blossomed from there.

SM: Although I imagined the book as being popular with 4th, 5th, and 6th graders, we had hoards of 2nd graders lining up for it. What age group were you imagining when you wrote it?

AG: Jane Yolen says that you should NOT think about what age group you're writing for as you're writing. That you should just write, and the right age group will find it. As I wrote, I pictured those second graders I had told that first story to. I literally spoke out loud to them as I wrote. But as the book went on, it became darker and more mature. I initially pegged it as an 8-12 book. Penguin, wanting to be careful, said 10 and up. But I know plenty of seven year olds who have read it and loved it. I think the miraculous thing about kids is that they get what they are ready to get. There is all sorts of messed up innuendo in the chapter A Smile as Red as Blood, for instance. But most kids below 6th grade just see it as a scary story, not a CREEPY story. Which is perfect. And some kids get it, and don't like it, and just put the book down. Kids are amazing like that. We can, I think, trust them. 

SM: After years of teaching, what made you decide to start writing? Or had you been writing all along?

AG: I never wrote as a kid. The story goes like this: 

When I was 13 years old, an author came to my school. I remember nothing about her except her answer to one question: “How do you know if you’re a writer?”

She paused, wrinkling her brow. Then said, “Writers write.”

I was floored. Of course! Writers write. Not just when their teachers tell them to, I assumed, but voluntarily. Was I, then, a writer? It seemed I was not.

You see, all through my childhood, I spent three to four hours a day immersed in that most edifying of pastimes—playing with G. I. Joes. Sometimes I would go outside and play on my seven-foot basketball hoop, narrating athletic glories that I would never in a million years achieve.

I did not write. Ever.  So I decided right then that I was not a writer and never would be. If I ever got an idea for a story, which I did sometimes, because everyone does, I would write the first few lines and then say, “Who am I kidding? I know I am not a writer.”

That belief obtained for the next ten years. After college, I was teaching second grade, and I was doing a curriculum on Ancient Egypt. I wanted to read the kids a novel that took place in Ancient Egypt (no time travel or anything like that), but I couldn't find one that would suit them. So I decided, on a whim, to try my hand at writing one myself. I was still certain I was not a writer--I was just going to tell them a story, and write it down. So I wrote one chapter, and read it to them, and the funniest thing happened. They wanted to hear what happened next. So I wrote another chapter. And another, and another. Before I knew it, the book was done. Now, none of you will ever see that book, in all likelihood. But it's how I got into writing. 

And, as I was writing it, I realized the strangest thing. When I write, I am talking to myself, telling myself a little story, just exactly as I used to do with my GI Joes, or on the basketball court. It is EXACTLY the same thing. It turns out, you see, that I was always a writer. I just never wrote anything down. 

SM: Do you have any advice for educators who want to get started in writing?

AG: Do as I did. Start telling stories to your students. If they WANT to hear more of them--actively WANT to--you're on the right track. The great thing about kids is that they make you finish. Finishing a book is the hardest thing to do. But if you're reading it to kids, you can't get too precious about it. You've just got to tell the damn story.

SM: Can we look forward to more Grimm and/or grim tales soon? 

AG: You better believe it!:

On September 27, 2012…

Two children.

One frog.

Seven mermaids.

Lots of giants.

A handful of murderers.

Three talking ravens.

And one slightly intrusive narrator.

Fairy tales are awesome again.

If you're interested in inviting Adam to your school, go ahead and email him. Tell him I sent you!

Posted by Sarah Murphy

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Talking Tech and Looking Fashionable: Björk at NYPL

Last week I got a surprising email from New York Public Library inviting me to bring Middle School students to the Schwarzman building for a presentation by Icelandic recording artist Björk. She would be discussing her Biophilia iPad app, which integrates science, technology and music. Okay, I said, and promptly recruited a handful of savvy Middle Schoolers.

The presentation was a delight, mostly because of being in a room with Björk, but the meat of the matter is that the Biophilia program will hit New York Public Library and Children's Museum of Manhattan this summer.

Oddly, neither CMoM nor NYPL has a lot of info about the program on their sites, but it's made the event calendar at the Museum, at least. And Tuesday's event was covered by the Daily News and Gothamist.

The app is pricey, but it's worth checking out, especially if you work with music and science teachers who are eager to use emerging technologies. I got sucked into it, "making" music with my fingers and feeling pretty darn cool. 

Björk announced that she has always wanted to teach music, but got sidetracked by pop for twenty years. Judging from the work she and her team have done on this app, I think she would be pretty good at her dream job...

Bjork at NYPL, Tuesday 5/22

Posted by Sarah Murphy

Monday, May 21, 2012

June Book Club

Tuesday, June 12th at 5:30pm

Location: [Please note location change!]
Corlears School
(btwn 8th & 9th Aves)

What We're Reading:
Dying to Know You by Aidan Chambers
The Fairy Ring: Or Elsie and Frances Fool the World by Mary Losure

Thursday, May 17, 2012

For Whose Eyes?

I've been thinking about library self-censorship more than usual this week. It all started with the Cover That Shall Not Be Named (I simply cannot bear to give the weekly mag that issued it more attention) and my subsequent worries about its highly visible placement in the library.

I have yet to eliminate any periodical from display, and I'm not about to start now. This policy has caused more than one headache, though, since we are a K-12 school sharing one library. The dark side of providing open access to cover art is feeling that I am doing the boys no favors by featuring this idea of "working women." The light side is watching a group of first graders dissolve into gleeful giggles over this hilarious (and quite brilliant, in my opinion) cover of MAD. And there's my favorite magazine moment of all time when a lower school boy tried to help me out by letting me know about something "inappropriate" in the library. After informing me, he leaned over to his buddy and stage whispered, "it's a butt!"

School librarians may be tempted to censor materials all the time. Would anyone even have noticed if I had thrown away any of the magazines above? (Well, in this latest case, yes I imagine they would have.) And, when it comes to the web, it's easy enough to shift responsibility for filters onto the tech department, and just look the other way. But an opinion piece in this week's Education Week presents a compelling case to make good and sure you know exactly what's being filtered at your school, why, and by whom.

Joshua Block, of the American Civil Liberties Union, cites the 1982 Supreme Court case Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico ruling that public schools "cannot engage in viewpoint-based censorship of library books." Block points out that this ruling must apply to schools' treatment of Internet based information as well.

He writes:
We at the American Civil Liberties Union launched the "Don't Filter Me" campaign last year after receiving a disturbing number of reports from students who were blocked from accessing websites about college scholarships for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender teenagers; anti-bullying resources; and activities for student-led gay-straight alliances. In response to the campaign, reports flooded in from students across the country whose schools were using filtering software configured to block LGBT-supportive websites. When activated, the filter would block websites that expressed support for LGBT people and their legal rights, but allow access to websites that condemn homosexuality as immoral or oppose laws protecting LGBT people from bullying and discrimination.
Read the entire article on pages 24-25 of the May 16th print edition, or online here. (Subscription is necessary to read the full text, but if your school has a print subscription, you'll be able to create on online registration if you haven't already.)

Our tech department uses OpenDNS to filter "adult content," i.e., porn. I'm told that without that filter (which thankfully does not affect access to the types of LGBT sites Block mentions), we wouldn't be eligible for federal funding giving us a significant discount on Internet access. 

I am glad that the boys aren't watching porn in the library for reasons I probably don't have to explain (and reasons I wouldn't even be able to imagine but for real life being stranger than you-know-what), but I admit to feeling a little uncomfortable with some outside company deciding what is and is not "adult content." 

What are your school's policies toward filters? Do the filters go further than ours? Or, has your school chosen to forego funding in order to maintain completely open access?

Posted by Sarah Murphy

Thursday, May 10, 2012

What We Have in Common

Choosing a Common Book 

Sometimes I struggle to find commonality with my students. For one thing, they are all boys, and so in some essential ways we will always be a complete mystery to each other. Their interests seem to revolve wholly around either screens or sports; their humor is at its apex when talking about farts, and their musical tastes... well, there's nothing I can add to the well documented critique of auto-tune.

This lack of likeness certainly contributes to my vehement passion for our all-school summer Common Book program, in which every student entering grades 8-12, all members of the faculty and staff, as well as the board of Trustees are asked to read one book in common. There are challenges a plenty, and let's get real, I know not everyone actually reads it, but even so: the simple fact of sharing one experience with all members of my school community feels pretty darn good.

Our 2009 choice, and one of my favorite all-time books.
The boys couldn't believe they were required to read something so funny and "easy."

A lot of schools require or suggest a common book, and programs vary widely. At the recent HVLA Roundtable meeting, we chatted about trials and errors, uncommon books, and teacher sponsored choice reads (where various faculty members will pitch a book and students are asked to choose between them). My only experience with programs like these comes from my time at Browning, where I have been the (sometimes unofficial, sometimes official) head of the Common Book committee for the last few years. I'll outline what we have done, and I hope to hear about similar programs and challenges in the comments section.

The Process

  • Towards the end of winter I send out an email to faculty and staff asking for volunteers to sit on the committee to choose, promote and provide programming ideas for our next summer Common Book. My goal in assembling a group is variety. This year's committee included teachers from English, Art, Math and Science departments as well as our Upper School Head, Learning Specialists, and all three members of the Library staff. The members are expected to attend a handful of meetings, read a bunch of books, and comment on them.
  • Committee members provide suggestions, sometimes with a prompt (i.e., fiction, nonfiction), sometimes without. We also take suggestions from readers who don't feel they have time (or patience) to join the committee. These books form our long list.
  • Each member agrees to read someone else's suggestion(s), and we go from there, whittling the list down to four or five that all or most of us agree fit the following criteria:
    • The book should not be a burden. Browning’s students have considerable assigned reading over the summer, and if they view the Common Book as a laborious read, they will likely skip it.
    2010 Common Book
    • The book should be developmentally appropriate for and have appeal to students in grades 8-12.
    • Whether fiction or nonfiction, the book should explore themes that enrich our understanding of the world.
    • The book should be well written, and in the case of nonfiction, well researched.
  • There is no scientific method to choosing one book from the short list, but there tends to be a clear frontrunner. Something emerges that committee members feel compelled to share, something they can clearly imagine a teenaged boy tolerating, maybe even enjoying.
  • By mid-May we present our first choice to the Head of School, complete with supporting materials like lists of awards, book reviews, comments from the committee. We always have a second choice ready to go, just in case.
  • In the past, students were expected to purchase their own copies, but faculty, staff and trustees were given a copy. This made no sense to me. We were already struggling to get students to follow through on the reading (more on that in a bit), so it seemed logical that forcing it into their hands made it at least a little more likely that they'd open it up. Dealing directly with publishers, I've been able to get good deals on a bulk order, and the money comes from the library budget. I could also imagine funding coming from a parent donation through the book fair or even through our benefit auction.

The Promotion

We could choose the greatest, least burdensome, most mind-blowing book of all time, but it's not worth a damn if nobody reads it. At our school, there are no assessments related to the Common Book. If I had to wager, I'd bet that in an average year, 80-90% of the 8th graders read it, and about 15% of seniors do. Over the years they figure out that skipping the Common Book is the thing least likely to get them in trouble. 

Another challenge is getting the faculty to read it. It seems as though adults are even less enthusiastic about being told what to do with their summer than kids are! Go figure. 

A year ago, we spent a lot of time discussing whether we should even bother to continue the Common Book tradition. In 2010, we brought Dave Eggers's Zeitoun to our community, patting ourselves on the back for choosing such an awesome story, such a hard hitting look at our own country. And indeed, a handful of 8th and 9th graders seemed genuinely moved by the book, asking questions of themselves and their fellow citizens that had not occurred to them before. But really, in the end hardly anybody read it. Maybe if we had successfully lured Mr. Eggers to the East Coast things would have been better.   Maybe if our follow up discussions had been more spirited and less preachy... Maybe if we could have withheld college recs until seniors produced a thoughtful review/podcast/multimedia art project inspired by the Common Book... 

2011 Common Book
When in Spring 2011 we made the decision to go with Wes Moore's The Other Wes Moore, we knew that we had to do a better job getting our community to buy in, and we decided to start with the faculty. It seemed preposterous to demand more from our students than we did from our colleagues. We made a few simple changes. Instead of letting everyone know the books were available for pick-up, the committee hand delivered each copy at a faculty meeting.  During our faculty work days before school began in September, we assigned them to small break-out groups to discuss the book (rather than what we had done in the past: forcing them to listen to a panel of the enthusiastic few speak for 45 minutes on the book's many virtues). And, we made a video that managed to be both self-deprecating and self-important in an attempt to amuse and guilt-trip our colleagues. (If you can bear the amateur stylings and silly inside jokes, the password to view it is zeitoun.)

What Follows

The biggest change in 2011 was that we were successful in getting the Common Book author to visit Browning. Wes Moore is a New Yorker, and though he is in high demand he makes a real effort to visit schools. He came to ours in October. By that time, it was clear that many of the boys had read the book, in some cases because their teachers had incorporated it into curriculum and classroom discussions more than they had in the past. Students who hadn't read it by the time Mr. Moore made his presentation, were quick to come and see me for a copy once they had met him. 

Wes Moore, being awesome
Wes Moore is a solid writer, and the book is certainly worth a read. But he is a spectacular presenter. I guess you could say I'm easily moved, so it's no big thing for me to cry when a skilled speaker addresses a crowd, but I saw some seriously cynical teachers wiping their eyes when he encouraged our students to find something, anything that they truly cared about and to actually go out and do something about it. I had seen Mr. Moore speak before, and I knew he'd be great, but he exceeded my expectations by tailoring his delivery perfectly to each audience (he presented separately for parents, Upper School boys, and Middle School boys.) He signs off his emails with "elevate," and that seems an apt farewell; he certainly left us all feeling a little lifted. He also made me a bit of a hero. Colleagues and administrators, parents and even students went out of their way to thank me for helping to organize the event. Any thoughts I had had the spring before about ditching the Common Book completely evaporated.

But the fact is, we won't be able to get every author (and not every author is a rock star). Should a book be disqualified from contention if there's no hope of booking its creator? We've done our best to create interesting programming around each book, but there is no doubt that having the author helps generate enthusiasm, and perhaps more importantly, dampers push-back from faculty who are tired of having their classes canceled for assemblies, etc.

I would love to hear about what other schools are doing to help make a Common Book experience integrated into the life of the school. Student presentations? Small book groups and lit circles? Volunteer opportunities?

Our Summer of Love and Fallout

2012 Common Book
There were two issues I hoped to address with the selection of the 2012 Common Book. First, all of the books in our recent past were stories about men, penned by men. We're a boys' school, so there was nothing overly shameful in that, but I felt it might be time to include a woman. Second, it's the year 20freaking12; we're living in the future, and everywhere I look I see that print is dead or dying. I thought perhaps we could choose a book to help answer the question, "why make a book at all?" 

I got all of my wishes. Our next Common Book is Lauren Redniss's gorgeous Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout. It's an illustrated biography of the Curies, and it's a reflection on progress, technology, warfare, love, history and art. It is a librarian's dream. Redniss created it while she was a fellow at New York Public Library, and it is a stunning example of how research can come alive if you just dig a little deeper. She created the typeface to resemble title pages of manuscripts at NYPL. Primary sources are evident throughout. The cover glows (glow-in-the-dark paint), and so do the reviews.  Ms. Redniss is local (she teaches at Parsons), so I have every hope of bringing her in next fall. 

What We Gain and Why it Matters

Accepting that 100% participation is never going to happen, I still believe that having a book in common matters. It's a point of reference that we can all make. It's a shorthand for the summers as they pass ("oh, that was the Zeitoun year.") It's a statement about what we value. We value the written word enough to celebrate it, question it, and argue about it. Together. 

Our school is very tiny, so it's impossible for all of us to meet in one room. Our school wide meeting places must either be off campus or virtual. I'd like to think that every summer we have a meeting of the minds. Maybe on one July evening, a science teacher, a phys ed coach and a sophomore will all be doing the exact same thing at the exact same time, learning the same thing, looking at the same picture, and no doubt having three entirely different responses. I admit that this view is somewhat sentimental, but something short of total fantasy; I think it could happen. I think, anyway, that it's a worth a try.

Posted by Sarah Murphy