Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Finding Narrative in Numbers

Nosing around online for information about my maternal grandfather's family--a part of our family that neither I, nor my mother, have known--led me to the family 1940 census record. 

This is a great lesson is trying to find a story in the numbers. I'd never tried to find a story in math before today, but I imagine many amateur genealogists find themselves faced with this challenge as well. It is part of the fun of the puzzle.

My brain took me immediately to the fact that seven adults and one child shared a three bedroom row home on Wharton Street in Philadelphia. Shuffling the possibilities in my head, I can put my grandparents in one room, possibly three or four siblings in another (Thomas, John, Francis, and Sam), and a step-sister (Sanina) and her 4 year old son in another room. Knowing the small dimensions of those bedrooms, I can't imagine four young men sharing one room. Some must have slept in what would otherwise be the dining room or living room--perhaps the young boy--putting three in one bedroom and two in another. Still, everyone must have been climbing over one another in the one bathroom home.

Another number leapt off the page: 0. My grandparents, Joseph and Lillian, reported making $0 in 1939. Born in Italy, they were 65 and 58 respectively. Reporting as laborer and housewife, and having just come through the Great Depression, I can't imagine much savings.

While census records, on the surface, may not be able to confirm the details my mind immediately gravitated to--where did everyone sleep--the records do tell me another angle of the story. The records remind me about the culture of sharing these generations fostered. 

My grandfather, John
I forget that...and I forget how drastically we've changed. For better or for worse depends on your perspective.

From what I can gather, the average American income in 1939 was $1,368. Among the three reporting income and working, John, Thomas, and Sanina, my grandparents' household made $1,960 in 1939. That comes to just under $38 dollars a week when everyone is working and income is consistent. However, only one of the three wage earners, Thomas, a shipping clerk, reported working a 40 hour week consistently...and my grandfather, John, worked a range of hours week to week driving a truck, while Sanina reported working only five hours a week as a tailor.

In 1939, a gallon of gas was estimated at 10 cents a gallon, a loaf of bread was 8 cents, and a pound of hamburger meat was 14 cents.

This was the first census that attempted to measure the social and economic situation of the country. Never before had someone been asked to declare how much money they earned--the previous models of the census were built mostly around population shifts and growth. By the end mid 1940s, it was common to find editorials bemoaning the census changes as an invasion of privacy. 
Barron's National Business and Financial Weekly, April 24, 1944

The numbers leave me with questions that I know I will never answer. For instance, I am left wondering how my grandparents' household managed when my grandfather enlisted on August 7, 1942 and shipped off to the Pacific theater in WWII. While my grandparents household depended on the $780 my grandfather made in 1939, I wonder how much of the estimated $468 he made as a private was sent back home.

In the end, the numbers leave me thinking about the moral of an often rewritten story--rewritten and retold for good reason: the families of the greatest generation took great care of one another. And I wonder in what ways we search for ourselves in their example.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Hunt for Calvin Figgins

The spirit of my podcast, I Remember, rises from family stories. Sometimes the stories are bittersweet memories and sometimes they are thrilling accounts shaved from the pages of history.

So far, my participants have shared a range of stories from ancestors chasing Pancho Villa to the impact of the Armenian Genocide to the importance of a library card in a home that many families shared. 

And as we talk, I can hear the excitement as people share the answers they have found--the answers that have provided another anchor to hold onto the past with--but these answers only stir up the need for more questions to answered. 

We can never have enough anchors in our life.
Photo courtesy of Gary Anderson

My December 26th, 2014 interview with Gary Anderson teased out one of my favorite stories in the podcast series to date--a Civil War soldier who vanished (AWOL?) while one duty. So many questions surround this tale of Calvin Figgins who disappeared (fled?) and who resurfaced as Charles Mills. When Gary told the story, I was riveted. And to hear that much later in life Charles Mills visited a man named John Figgins...and a photograph existed...well, my head popped. It brought up questions and thoughts of fear and honor, fight or flight, family and secrets...and I wondered how Gary followed this trail, how he came across the photos and the details, and I wondered how that must have felt to discover something tangible about your family, something no one is left to talk about, no one who knows for sure. 

You have to listen to Gary tell the story to appreciate the full scope of the mystery and the hunt for answers that he engaged in with his father.

Sooner or later we all go on a hunt for our ancestors. Some of us are lucky enough to still have people alive to ask questions of, but even if we don't, Gary's stories are an example of the kind of detective work possible today.

It excites me to be able to share in, and share, Gary's story. I hope it inspires others to keep digging into their family histories. And if anyone needs a forum to share their stories, you can always contact me at bjk925@gmail.com or @_briank_ to set up an conversation on an upcoming episode of I Remember.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Spoken Word Poetry

Yesterday, late in the afternoon, a student reached out to me on email...

Jacqueline was right, I did enjoy the spoken-word poem, To This Day Project by Shane Koyczan. While one might argue that all poetry at its core is meant to be heard aloud and is "spoken-word" poetry, I see something else going on here: the importance of teaching digital texts.

Perhaps the importance of teaching the components of digital texts (visual text, spoken text, written or composed text) is as plain as the nose on our face. My student did not send me a newspaper article, or a book, or even song lyrics. She sent me a video...with enthusiasm. Consider her words:

I would love for you to watch this...

We can't forget that reaching out to an adult--whether parent, teacher, coach, pastor, et al.--is a big leap for young people. We have to reach back too.

In the process of sharing something with me, Jacqueline has given me pause to reflect.

image from Koyczan's To This Day Project
Digital texts have been composed for several decades, but it was restricted only to those trained to work in expensive studios. While we might think of digital literacy as the ability to access and present information, digital literacy has become bigger than that.

What Jacqueline shared with me is more than just a fun, fluffy activity. It is another option in the arsenal of writers. Digital Literacy reminds us that writing does not have to just be essays.

As teachers we can work outside the box.

Digital Literacy includes an ever-expanding number of ways that people tell stories...and it makes it accessible to anyone with a device. Just as I responded to the astonishing energy of MTV as an adolescent in the 80s, the current culture is responding to digital texts...and I can't express how rewarding it is as teacher to have students who reach out to include me in a piece of their world.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Video & Informational Writing

Using a short news video, especially a student-produced news story, has been effective in helping my students understand the conditions of informational writing.

While asking students to speak a specific list of vocabulary from the board, we discuss the news story: analysis, evidence, implicit, explicit, and inference. 

Part of our discussions gravite on organization, the use of transitions, and whether the lead and conclusion struck us as effective. It has been useful to scribe the opening sentences on the board aloud with the class--to break it down, to analyze the strategy the writer used in composing the news story.

The PBS Student Reporting Labs have been a great resource of student-produced video for me. I find a range of topics as well as examples from both middle school and high school students.

The use of video to discuss informational writing becomes another access point for the students. Too often, we tend to see writing as something we just do for school, or worse...something done just for English class. After a steady diet of student video, students analyze  professional news stories in the same way, and we find very few, subtle, differences among them, structurally speaking.

Students have been able to apply these lessons to their writing of informational texts and become excited to compose videos of their own. Right now, we are brainstorming and digging for news stories about our community.

I like that we can watch a 2-3 minute video and then either discuss or response to a CCSS-type prompt in order to practice those question types, find a comfort level with the test jargon, and still remain on course as writers and readers of relevant, accessible texts in multiple formats. Even my next test on informational writing will include a section where students analyze an alphabetic text news story and a different section where they watch a video on a personal device in order to analyze that story.

Showing students the relevance of informational writing outside of our classroom--and how dependent it is with strong narrative skills--has become an energizing focal point in this unit. My kids still think of the tenets of story-telling throughout the informational writing unit.

Not the least of which is the great, grounding question for student writers: why does it matter?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Podcasting our Family Histories

Podcasting has found a niche in my writing life. It stems from one seed heard again and again from people in my generation or older:
I wish I knew more about my family, but no one is around anymore to ask. I wish we wrote things down when they were still with us.
When I interviewed Rita Sorrentino on Saturday for Episode 3 of the I Remember podcast series, this regret came up again and again.

My family shares Rita's lament. 

But what are families to do? If few or none remain to tell the stories, the stories no longer live. Unfortunately, writing does not come naturally to everyone. The fear of not knowing what to put down on paper can make writing a chore. Others may feel lost, unsure of where to start, what to write down.  

Yet, most of us enjoy telling a story to another person.

Podcasting may be a great way to make a change in our families.  If we start recording our family stories, we preserve our heritage, our history, and our memories for future generations. Our stories live on.

While I am not a member of Rita's family, I still connected many times with her stories. Early in the podcast, holding back tears, she shared the importance of a library card and reading books in her childhood. I remembered my own experiences walking to the neighborhood library on Broad Street. I remembered our elderly Italian cousin reading library books in large print because her eyesight was failing. The books were also in Italian because English had always escaped her grasp.

Writers know that one of the best prewriting activities available is simply turning and talking to another person. Some writers rely on speaking to someone to help draw their ideas out. It is amazing what we can dredge up simply by talking. Even though I interviewed Rita for an hour, I know that we only scratched the surface. I hope Rita continues to dig and search and write...and maybe even record herself and her family memories.

For anyone who shares my interest in this process, some consideration in the art of conversation or asking good questions to help nudge your interviewee is helpful. NPR's Story Corps publishing a solid list of questions to get anyone started. I like to start with a few specific questions, but then I try to let the interview develop its own momentum and arc. I try to listen and building follow-up questions based on the specific memories the subject shares. I try to ask questions or make connections that allows the person to dig deeper.

If you share my interest in family history, and you want to commit to preserving your family stories, consider podcasting your family stories. Our memories may be unreliable, but they are all our families have sometimes.

I am always looking for guests for my podcast series. If you would like to engage in an interview with me and share a piece of your family heritage on my podcast, please write to me at bjk925@gmail.com or leave a comment below and I will be sure to get back to you.