Thursday, December 31, 2015

[Review] Symphony for the City of the Dead. by M.T. Anderson

As I read M.T. Anderson’s nonfiction text for teenagers, Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shoshtakovitch and the Siege of Leningrad over Christmas break, I pulled out my iPhone to search “Shoshtakovitch 7th Symphony” on YouTube. Over one hundred renditions of the 7th Symphony appeared--including a short clip of Shostakovich playing a fragment of it himself.

Before reading Anderson’s book, I couldn’t have said much about Shostakovitch. Additionally, I knew little about the Siege of Leningrad and the city of Leningrad itself. My lack of background knowledge neither stopped me from being a reader nor stopped me from being a writer. My personal device--an iPhone--brought the sounds of the 7th Symphony along with images of war-torn Leningrad into my den. Yet, it is Anderson's gift at weaving a story that kept me riveted. I read the book cover-to-cover in less than 24 hours.

Technology patched the gaps in my background knowledge in that it quilted together raw information, pictures, archival footage, music, et al. at my fingertips. This immediate access to information helps all of us to become more effective creators--because the same device which allowed me to pull up supporting information also invited me to record my thoughts.

Technology allowed me to pause my reading and listen to the 7th Symphony, to search images of the Siege of Leningrad, and to share my thinking on this blog. 

And I thought...why couldn't students learn to use a device to help them leave tracks of their thinking as they read? Of course, they could. But back to the brilliant book...

For long stretches, I reclined into the comfort of my sofa and listened to Shoshtakovich's music as I absorbed Anderson's word with my inner ear.

Sometimes the music by Shoshtakovich made me go back and reread, such as this excerpt on page 344:

A soldier in the Red Army wrote in his journal, ‘On the night of 9 August 1942, my artillery squadron and the people of the great frontline city were listening to the Shostakovitch symphony with closed eyes. It seemed that the cloudless sky had suddenly become a storm bursting with music as the city listened to the symphony of heroes and forgot about the war, but not the meaning of the war.

Starving and weak, survivors endured daily bombings, cannibalism, and cruel taunts from the Nazis surrounding Leningrad--they air-dropped pamphlets reminding the Russians that they would all starve to death soon. And these physically frail, emotionally brittle, human beings found the will to perform this brand new symphony composed during the Nazi invasion.

And sometimes the music of Anderson's writing made me reread passages such as the one below:

It was not only the Russians who reacted. The Germans listened too, too, as the music rose up through leafy streets and above the gilt barrage balloons. It barked out of radios in the Wehrmacht barracks. Years later, a German soldier told Eliasberg, “It had a slow but powerful effect on us. The realization began to dawn that we would never take Leningrad.” That was enough in itself. “But something else started to happen. We began to see that there was something stronger than starvation, fear and death--the will to stay human (345).

Riveted, simultaneously hunched over my iPhone and a book, I watched and listened and read and thought. This impromptu coupling of Anderson and Shoshtakovich enchanced my reading experience. 

I resolved that I would share this segment of the symphony and the story behind it with my students next week because just minutes earlier I knew scant few facts about Shostakovich. I knew less about Leningrad. Yet Anderson and Shoshtakovich together left an impression on me that I will never forget.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Joy & Value of Choice

In 1977, my mother and aunt trundled me off to art classes at the Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia. My mother, single and working, paid for the classes even though money was tight.

Recently she reminded me, “You didn’t like going to classes. You just liked doing things on your own at home. You used to paint and draw all the time. But then you took the class and you just moped around about it. You finished all the classes but you didn’t want to go back. ”

A painting of mine from college. Using oils.
I painted a portrait of Eugene O'Neill on
a canvas of egg shells and cardboard. I did it
for me, on my own time, and not for a class.
Even though I was nine-years-old, I can still vividly remember the blinding white light bulbs throughout the studio. I remember the bright lights forced my eyes low towards the floor. 

The staff, friendly and encouraging, set me up at an easel with pastels. They clamped a pad of white paper to the frame of the easel. The paper gleamed like fresh, smooth ice. Every place I looked--at their faces, at the paper, at the artists next to me--it was clean, white, light.

I remember feeling the weight of never having worked upright on an easel or on paper so perfect. I had never held a pastel. 

Used to drawing at home, sprawled across the floor with cheap pencils and wax crayons, I was now afraid to make a mistake.

Wedged in between other students and a maze of easels, I peered at the other sheets of paper to see what others did with pastels--large circles and half arcs, haphazard lines. This didn't look like the drawing I was used to. I smudged a bit of red on the paper.

We were to draw the still life of bright round oranges by a pink-flowered tea set. 

I remember not liking the idea of being told what to draw. And I remember not liking how the soft pastels mashed against the paper and smeared onto my fingertips like stage makeup.

My mother laughs when she remembers, “No, you didn’t save anything from those classes.”

Not long afterward, I tried guitar lessons. A nice man owned a small music shop right around the corner from us on Percy Street. I remember banjos hanging on the wall and I remember thinking about my Uncle Joe teaching himself to play the banjo. At the time, I was amazed that someone could teach himself how to play an instrument. 

When I recently asked my cousin whether my memory of his father is accurate, he replied:
To my knowledge, yes, my Dad was self-taught on the banjo and guitar. I remember the guitar more. He like to play the acoustic as it was easier to keep handy than an electric guitar. He also played the mandolin. My brother Joe took some lessons when we were younger but he didn't stick with for more than a few years. I do recall my Dad hearing Stairway to Heaven and saying what crap it was. He picked up the guitar and started to play it after hearing it the first time, and playing it well.
The adolescent me reacted the same way to the guitar lessons and the art classes: turned off! And I loved art.

These memories make me wonder today--as a teacher and writer--in what ways do we move students away from being writers? In spite of all of our good intentions, what conditions make our kids feel less like writers? So many of my young writers tell me stories about how much they used to love writing...before school entered their lives.

What conditions can we be mindful of which actually move kids closer to not only feeling like writers, but these conditions actually move students closer to being writers?

In the case of the guitar lessons I remember I sat on a stool in a cramped space, curtained-in on four sides with my instructor. I remember that he demonstrated the notes, and that I imitated him. 

The best way I can describe the feeling is that I felt like a caged gorilla because of the conditions of the physical space. 

It was confining. It did not feel like home. It did not feel like a place where I could explore. It did not feel like a place where I could play.

And I felt like a caged gorilla because of the rules. So, I did not practice the guitar. The rules caused me misery. Actually, I resented having to practice the chords. It required effort. It felt hard. And, more importantly, the rules and the chords suddenly meant I could be wrong.

I found no joy in the rules.

I found no joy in the still life.

I found no joy in the possibility of being wrong...or being corrected.

I can still remember the joy, however, in drawing what I wanted. I can still remember the joy and the value of choice.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Flash Fiction as Argument

Ralph Fletcher writes in Making Nonfiction from Scratch to have students "take what they're writing about and put it in brief narrative form--that is, embed it in a story."

As we are studying Argumentative Writing, I built in time for students to try Fletcher's advice. We are writing "flash drafts."

When I introduced it, students asked about what it was--and I realized I had no models handy other than the brief paragraph Fletcher includes in his book.

So, I wrote my own. You can scroll through the document to read it:

I've read that flash fiction can go up to 1000 words and that anything under 300 words is called micro fiction. So, when Fletcher suggests a flash draft I am asking my students to work with this knowledge in mind.

Students watching and listening to me share my writing.
In the end, we are trying to write a piece of fiction which argues something. When I heard Jack Gantos speak at SCBWI a few years ago he asked the audience who or what changes after we read a book. The answer, of course, is that we change. The book doesn't change. The book never changes. The reader changes from having read the book.

My students are writing fiction to try and change a reader's perspective about something.

Perhaps they will write about something near and dear to their heart. Initially I asked students to think about an example--someone who dances--someone who has been told that dancers are not athletes. And perhaps this bothers this person. Instead of writing a traditional argumentative essay that dancers are/are not athlete, write it in narrative form. Show us the story of an adolescent being told he/she is not an athlete and then show us this same kid going to rehearsal--show us the rigors of dance, the physicality, the preparation, the study, the teamwork, and the demands. After we read it, perhaps we will be changed.

In the piece I wrote and shared above, my topic was creativity. I thought about the long list of students--spanning more than twenty years--who have told me that they are not creative. And I tried to demonstrate through flash fiction that everyone is, indeed, creative...and that all writing is creative because of the decisions and choices that we make.

Friday, October 30, 2015

When the Child Talks, We Learn

Who has (or does) conferring belong(ed) my classroom?

Many images of conferring show teachers sitting in chairs or kneeling alongside of students. The teacher asks the questions and the student does the talking.

In theory, conferring belongs to both the student and the teacher. The student learns by talking. Donald Graves writes, "Children don't know what they know. Most learners don't. When we speak, or when someone else elicits information from us, it is as informative to the speaker as it is to the listener." If we agree with Graves, how do we ensure that the experience, results, and impact of the conference remains with the teacher and the student beyond that single moment?

Writing as the teacher, I realize record keeping matters. Yet, it can be challenging. I have tried many variations of coding and shorthand. In the process of conferring and recording by hand, I find myself distracted and not fully absorbing what the student says. Additionally, my ability to engage the art of conversation--listening and asking questions to nudge the speaker further into his/her thoughts--suffers. In the end, my hand-scrawled notes serve as nice evidence of conferring, but they did not necessarily help me help the student.

I'm struck by something specific that Donald Murray wrote, "I must listen and the students must do the talking."

If Murray meant listen and write he would have written listen and write. But he did not. He wrote listen. Yet, I have often felt obligated to scribble hieroglyphics onto yellow legal pads while students poured out their thoughts, struggles, triumphs, and discoveries. I wonder what opportunities for growth we may have missed...

Over twenty years ago Graves suggested, "Keep tape-recorded samples of your conferences with children who do well and children who struggle." I wonder, if Graves were alive today, if he might amend his advice to record every conference on a personal device. 

I have read that students should write four times more than a teacher could possibly read or respond to--could the same be true of conferring? Should students be conferring 4x more than a teacher could ever participate in?

I imagine this depends on who we feel the conferring belongs to.

Currently, I use the app Voice Record Pro because it works on my iPhone, but more importantly I use it because I am able to easily store and manage conferences in a variety of places. These options include sending it by email or SMS, saving conferences to Google Drive, Drop Box, OneDrive, Box Cloud, or Sound Cloud. Also, I can send the recorded conferences to a personal website or even Facebook. However, I immediately upload the conferences to a private/unlisted YouTube channel.

By keeping records in this manner, I am able to place my device down on the desk and truly engage my listening in the moment with the student. I am also able to go back and listen to conferences and I am able to share conferences with the students, parents, administration, or guidance counselors if need be.

I can even share one with you here.

However, I am back to my original question--who has (or does) conferring belong(ed) to in my classroom?

Do I still wield more ownership than there needs to be--even if the student is doing the bulk of the talking? Have some of the conditions of conferring improved for both the teacher and the student since Graves wrote his advice decades ago?

One way I am going to examine and reflect on these questions is by inviting my students to record their own conferences with their writing partners. My classroom is a BYOD classroom and most students bring in a personal device. For those who do not, I have a classroom set of iPads and Chromebooks.

My students sit with self-selected writing partners. We write 4 out of the 5 days in class, and the writing partners discuss and share throughout the entire process when they feel they need it.

I am wondering how Graves and Murray would feel about the possibility of students recording their own student-to-student conferring sessions and then uploading selected conferences (student choice) to a classroom YouTube channel or a shared classroom folder in Google Drive or DropBox.

I imagine we may be crossing into a new and relatively unexplored territory of ownership and access. Imagine building a library of student-to-student and teacher-to-student conferences where all students had the ability to listen and learn from each other--beyond their writing partners, beyond the one-on-one with me, and beyond the confinement of time and space in school.

My current classroom research with Dr. Jolene Borgese has led me to experiment with the creation of just such a library.

After all, some students already set up shared documents--on their own--or email stories to friends for feedback. The more I set my yellow legal pads down, and the more I simply listen, I hear the students tell me that they want feedback...they want conversation...they want to share...and they want it with their peers. They want to own the conferring process because it is deeper with a friend than with a teacher.

Since deeper might just mean more meaningful, why wouldn't I create the space and conditions for those deeper, more meaningful, connections and discoveries?

I have been recording conferences (such as this one with two writing partners) where students share just how much--how deeply and specifically--they discuss writing without me. This is powerful and instructive for me to hear.

In their own way, students have been telling me, who the conferring should belong to in this classroom.

I am wondering if my students are speaking to you as well?

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Blank Space

In my interactions with teaching candidates still in college or who recently exited college, I am surprised that many do not use Twitter for professional growth.

For example, I have spoken as a guest in two college classrooms over the past year and have extolled the virtues of developing a professional network--especially on Twitter.

In each case, I passed around a legal tablet with my name, email, and Twitter handle and asked the education students to fill in the same spaces. When the pad has been returned to me, each time, the blank space is loud and clear and confusing--no Twitter handles. It is amazing to see all of that blank space in the Twitter column.

This brings up questions, not criticism.

Are college education programs showing students how to develop a personal network? Just in my narrow band of experience, this powerful tool is passing by largely unexplored. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe my experience is too limited. Maybe these education candidates are just not interested in sharing their Twitter handle with me.

I emailed my surprise to a colleague and researcher--someone I have collaborated with as a writer for professional journals--and his response leads to even more questions:

"I know what you mean, Brian. In the feedback I received on the article that was published in English Education this summer, one reviewer asked if prospective teachers really need support using blogs, microblogs, and social network sites in ways that advance their professional practice. That reviewer seemed to assume that because prospective teachers use social media in their personal lives they must be savvy enough to leverage them for professional purposes. However, what you've described--and what I've seen in my work with prospective teachers--indicates otherwise." 

When I started teaching in the early 90s, my professional network was limited to individuals who worked within the brick and mortar of one building. Quite honestly, my network was even more limited than that--I wish I knew and learned from everyone from my building. We still only really get to know teachers who have common lunches or planning periods.

Today, all teachers have an unprecedented opportunity to learn and connect beyond the brick and mortar of their buidings.

Yet, I find myself wondering when I will meet the college students, young teaching candidates, who can speak about professional conferences they followed on Twitter (#ISTE15, or #pctela15, or #ksra15, or last year's #ncte14, or the upcoming #ncte15)...or something interesting they saw Tweeted by Carol Jago, Penny Kittle, Tricia Ebarvia, Gaetan Pappalardo, Barry Lane, Thomas Newkirk, Donalyn Miller, Jeff Anderson, Meenoo Rami, Lynn Dorfman, any and all writing projects, Eric Sheninger, Kathleen Sokolowski, Linda Rief, Bonnie Kaplan, Kathy Schrock, Christopher Lehman, Kristin Ziemke, Amanda Hedrick, Mark Overmeyer, Shawna Coppola, Jennifer Hogan, Nancie Atwell, Nicole Lemme, Gary Anderson, Jennifer Ward, Katie Wood Ray, Sir Ken Robinson, Christina Cantrill, Lee Ann Spillane, Stacey Shubitz, Ruth Ayres, Cindy Minnich, Sarah Andersen, Rose Cappelli, Luke Hokama, Ernest Morrell, Kylene Beers, Ralph Fletcher, Alfie Kohn, Jeremy Hyler, Kevin Hodgson, Diane Ravitch, Kelly Gallagher, Wesley Fryer, Paul Oh, Troy Hicks, Judy Jester, Jim Burke...

Did I make my point?

We all have access to one of the most positive, inclusive, and effective faculty rooms--and it remains, I gather, one of the best kept secrets in education. This kind of access did not exist when I started teaching in the early 90s.

The doors of access to one another have been completely reimagined and reshaped...and I wonder how many of us (cagey, wiley, old veterans included) are still not connected?

This is not a generation gap. This has nothing to do with age or not understanding Twitter because I find as many 50 year old educators not using Twitter as I find 20 year old educators not using Twitter. This is about want to.

If you want the access to conversations with some of the most positive, influential, and pioneering mentors in education then you will find your way to Twitter.

All of which brings me back to my original question--why am I not running into college education students on Twitter? Follow me! Follow Penny Kittle! Talk to us. Reach out. We love education. We love teaching. We love learning from one another. And if you are in school studying to be an educator then you are like me...I am still in school studying to be an educator.

THAT journey never ends.

And the access to that highway is free and open.

And you are welcome to join us.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Remaking a Teacher Through Picture Books

Children's picture books fascinate me in their role as doorways or portals. Often regarded as a bridge to lead children to a love of reading, children's picture books have launched me into being a better reader, writer, and teacher.

I have learned that some teachers use picture books to introduce the moves a writer makes--this has been an effectve shift in my planning and teaching. For instance, I could teach almost any lesson or mini-lesson on writing with a collection of picture books: 

  • Examine the similarities and differences in the leads and conclusions
  • What transitions are used; in what way are they used?
  • Follow the punctuation--which punctuation contributes to story?
  • How do the images complement or deepen the impact of the words?
  • Any grammar concept can be isolated, explored, and imitated.

Additionally, I am some finding children's picture books as launching points for my own reading life. I had never read anything by Jane Goodall--or anything substantive about her. I'd only known of her through fragments of life. Yet, after reading The Watcher: Jane Goodall's Life with the Chimps by Jeanette Winter, I am motivated to pick up one of Goodall's books.

I found the The Watcher while curating a pile of twenty-five picture books for a classroom unit on memoir. This is how I make good use of my library card. By the way, my local library has been very accommodating by allowing my to check out vast piles of picture books for extended periods of time.

Working my way through my library book pile, two struck me because of their potential for not only my reading life but also my writing life: How I Learned Geography, by Uri Shulevitz (Poland), and The Wall, by Peter Sis (Czechoslovakia).

How I Learned Geography frames a life around one significant experience. When author Uri Shulevitz was a child, his family struggled after the Warsaw blitz in 1939 and fled to Turkestan (Kazakhstan). One day, Shulevitz's father spends what little money he has on a map of the world instead of a few crusts of bread for his hungry wife and son. Having read this book, I now want to read more from this culture and certainly about this time period.

The Wall just blew me away in its combined simplicity and complexity. SO much is going on.

The basic story reads simply across the bottom of the page. Yet, it is so interesting to look at the physical page. Ninety percent of each page is filled with imagery filled with history, tension, conflict, and hope.

It challenges my brain. When I first began the book, my eyes were confused. I found myself hunting for the text. My eyes flitted all around the page trying to make sense of it all.

When I figured out the structure, I found myself spending more time on each page--and reading and re-reading the imagery more than the single lines of text at the bottom of the page.

Actually, the line of text functions as a story within a story.

It makes me wonder what might come out of my own writing should I try something similar about the neighborhood I was raised in...or about my experience as a student in school...or my experience as a teacher. 

Irrespective of where this carries me specifically, the point is children's picture books are leading me across a bridge to being a better reader, writer, and model for my students. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

This Much is True

This much is true: write for you.
Necessary yet temporary,
Writing for school may help us achieve.
Yet, writing for you will help you breathe.
And believe.
And conceive
All that is true.
Oh, the life you will live when you write for you.

by Brian J. Kelley

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Choice in Classroom Management

Years ago, a student about to graduate high school told me about first meeting me in middle school. She said, I was quaking in my boots.

We had a laugh because she came to realize that she did not need to be so nervous. It wasn't anything I said or did--just entering the new classroom with new classmates and a new teacher was enough. So much uncertainty! 

Before Erica, the student, shared her experience, I hadn't really thought about how our years of experience, confidence, or energy plays one part of--and influences--our classrooms or our early conversations with our new students.

Teachers across America are in the early stages of a new year. Many of us have been putting in a lot of time establishing classroom routines and developing classroom communities.

Now in my 22nd year, I can not undersell the importance of establishing community. It took me almost half of my career to really digest that reality. It is more important than curriculum. It is. Without community and relationships, the curriculum might be delivered but it certainly won't be received.

Developing community is worth any time that it takes. And we must care for it and tend to it throughout the year. Don't be afraid to take the time to work on it. Teachers muscle through and adjust to so many interruptions--assemblies, weather, state testing--that flushing the time to develop community because we feel compelled to genuflect to the curriculum we must cover...needs to be rethought.

Developing community isn't sacrificing anything--it is investing in everything that matters.

Yesterday, I had the good fortune to participate in a professional development session for colleagues in our district's induction program. The topic was classroom management. 

Asked to spend about 45 minutes leading a discussion on this topic I went to Peter Johnston's research and his book Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Student Learning. As I prepared at home, I also received the most recent edition of Voices in the Middle. I found a relevant article in it: Relationships Matter: Fostering Motivation through Interactions by Erika Daniels and Ron Pirayoff.

Daniels and Pirayoff's message resonated with me and matched what I was hoping to share during the professional development session:
"You are just a moment in their time, but you could make it a positive moment or you could hurt them. Think about what you say and be careful about what you are doing (20)."
While I embrace the message wholeheartedly, I can see how it might be jarring to some teachers. After all, the words hurt and be careful carry a hefty warning. 

What do you mean I might hurt them? Powerful stuff to consider.

As we met during the classroom management session, I was brought back to my former student--the one who entered my room quaking in her boots--and wondered if my sharing the research, the evidence,  and the theory of how we speak to kids was helpful...or jarring...or intimidating.

Learning that we have as much--or greater--an impact on classroom behavior as anything a child brings into our building can be sobering. We experience many approaches to classroom management--desk arrangement, seating charts, clear classroom rules, allowing students to generate ownership in the rules, rewards, punishments, contact with counselors and colleagues, et al. However, the one strategy which trumps all of that is the establishment of community.

Community takes time. We don't just move into a classroom and experience instant community.

It takes a very concerted effort. I spend a lot of energy focusing on the words I choose in my classroom. I am not perfect at it. I find myself stumbling or pausing sometimes. But I am more aware of my word choice. Seriously, this is not just something I am writing because I know it is good advice, I am writing it because this is where my classroom management energy goes: using word choice to elevate how kids see themselves in their eyes--especially in my content area.

Since learning about Peter Johnston's work, I find almost zero management issues in my classroom. Ninety-nine percent of the detentions I wrote in my career occurred during my first eleven years of teaching. As a matter of fact, I can't even recall the last detention I wrote concerning a student in my classroom. I feel confident in estimating that it has been at least ten years.

We can spend more time and energy cleaning up discipline issues (which are always temporary) and never truly mentor positive behaviors. Quite honestly, once we are in the discipline stage it is too late to do much about that incident other than clean up the mess. Each mess, however, creates a new opportunity to start over--to work on building a community so that foundation is strong and student behavior does not crumble before our eyes and through our fingers.

Developing a community is not easy. Changing our language--the words we choose to use--is not easy either. However, the concerted effort put into getting to know our students and allowing our students to know the positive ways in which we see them matters. It matters. It matters above anything we can do regarding classroom management. 

At the very least, it has mattered to me...

...and it will continue to matter a great deal to those next kids who will come into my classroom already quaking in their boots.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Reading the World: 8(b). Argentina

George Bellow's Dempsey and Firpo (1924)
After reading An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, I chose to remain in Argentina with Martin Kohan's Seconds Out.

Without spoiling the book, Seconds Out is fiction which traces the seventeen seconds of a real fight between boxers Jack Dempsey (American) and Luis Angel Firpo (Argentinian). Yet, this isn't a novel about boxing as much as it is about human weakness and frailty. 

All I knew about the Dempsey-Firpo bout of 1923 was the painting by George Bellow. Quite honestly, I always just knew the painting--and never the names of the boxers in it. I had no idea it was of an actual fight or of the significance of the moment.

It is interesting to note that the referee in the painting appears to be counting. Part of the narrative of Seconds Out surrounds controversy that referee Jack Gallagher did not begin counting soon enough. In the novel, a character suggests that Dempsey was knocked down for seventeen seconds--well past the requisite ten for an official knock out, end of fight, upset, and crowning of a new heavyweight champion. 

When I look at the YouTube video of the bout, it appears that Gallagher does indeed count once Dempsey lands.  Go to the 5:00 mark of the video I included here.

According the novel, the rules of boxing stipulate that once any part of a boxer's body touches the canvas (other than the soles of his feet) it is considered a knock down and a count must begin. Unofficially, I can only get to five or six when I begin counting--at worst, Gallagher is only a second behind my count.

But this is fiction, and like I mentioned, this is not a boxing story. So much more is woven into those seventeen seconds--the relationships between composers Johann Strauss and Gustave Mahler; cellists Otto Stiglitz and Abraham Horischnik; journalists Ledesma and Verani; referee Gallagher and boxer Dempsey; referee Gallagher and boxer Firpo; and several other relationships...including alternate referee Kid McPartland (featured in the painting as one of the two men Dempsey falls on...rendering him incapacitated to count and support Gallagher who for unknown reasons did not count when he should have).

This is the second book I have read by an Argentinian author and I find myself enjoying their style and perspective. As I continue to read at least one book per country on Earth during the Reading the World challenge, I will tempted to finding my way back to more Argentinian novels.

Monday, August 31, 2015

When did you start enjoying writing?

When did you start enjoying writing?

One of my new students wrote this question to me on a form modeled after an exercise I borrowed from educator Lee Ann Spillane:

What strikes me about the question is that I have an answer beyond a basic "Oh, I have always loved writing" or "This one teacher inspired me..."

I started to enjoy writing when writing started to me. Not for school. Not for any assignment. When I started to write for me I started to enjoy it.

It happened organically. 

I was in graduate school and I fell in love for the first time. Sure, I had crushes and girlfriends in high school and when I was in middle school. College too. But this time, falling in love unhinged my bones from my muscles from my nerves from my breath. Love made me a puddle but she did not know me well. We were not a couple.

So I started to write to her.

Outside of The Rodin Museum--the first museum I loved.
It was all I could do. Yes, I talked to her--but I was a puddle, remember. Writing let me be sincere. Writing let me experiment with letter writing, poetry, sketching...everything. Writing helped me sort out of the jumbled mess of bones and nerves in my gut and it allowed me to take a breath, reorganize myself, and reach out to her--my audience of one.

This is when I started to enjoy writing. I found out so much about myself. It was at this point where I started to try other art forms even though I had no experience with them: painting, sculpture, sketching with charcoal.

Writing opened doors for me--not only to express myself to my first love but also it encouraged me to try new things. It gave me a new perspective. I thought about things differently. I realized, as a writer, that even though I still knew so little, writing (and all of the arts) could be a way for me to explore and learn so much more about the world.

Since then, I have not stopped writing or trying new things. I believe being a writer has introduced me to ballet, the orchestra, opera, different types of theater, photography, in addition to all kinds of painting techniques and artists.

I love writing today, yes, but when it all started for me it all started with a girl.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Reading the World: 8. Argentina

Two Riders Resting, by Johann Moritz Rugendas
German artist Johann Moritz Rugendas travelled South America to paint. While crossing Chile and Argentina, he suffers injuries during a storm on horseback which render him grotesque. Once recovered, he continues to sketch and record the landscape.

Soon, one of this two wishes (to experience an earthquake or an indian attack) appears. Hundreds of indians raid a settlement used to these attacks.

Rugendas, suffering debilitating migraines from his injuries, records the raid from a distance with charcoal and red pencil. The story ends long after evening has fallen with the artist entering the indian camp, sitting with his sketch pad, a drawing each of them up close.

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, by Cesar Aira is a work of fiction which brings a portion of nineteenth century Chile and Argentina to life. The book, patient and deep, establishes just enough of a background to understand who the artist is and why and where he is traveling.

What interests me is the artistic journey of a landscape painter towards wanting to sketch and paint the fearsome indians up close. Landscape, by its nature, is the wide angle if the viewer is sitting in a dark theater--we are at an arm's length from the subject matter.

The closer an artist represents his subject the more potential for the psychological. The closer we are allowed to approach as a viewer or reader, the more likely we slip into the clothes of the actors onstage...and share the experience.

As the story evolves, Aria thrusts Rugendas as deep inside nature--beautiful and fearsome--as one could be. He writes Rugendas into the middle of a lightning storm. On horseback, alone in the middle of the night, rider and horse are by lightning:
The charge was flowing out of the animal too, igniting a kind of phosphorescent golden tray all around it, with undulating edges. As soon as the discharge was compete, in a matter of seconds, the horse got to its feet and tried to walk. The full battery of thunder explodes overhead. In a midnight darkness, broad and fine blazes interlocked. Balls of white fire the size of rooms rolled down the hillsides, the lightning bolts serving as cues in a game of meteoric billiards. The horse was turning. Completely numb, Rugendas tugged at the reigns haphazardly, until they slipped from his hands.
Maybe I am completely wrong with what I take away from this book. The interplay of landscape and close-up, artist/writer and viewer/reader strikes me as a central theme--and strikes me as something I'm dying to talk about.

I really enjoyed this story--the writing was a pleasure and the episode was detailed enough so that I not only gathered what happened but also why it mattered--I was allowed to share in the experience. This is a story about being an artist as much as it is about any viewing any one artist from a distance.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Reading the World: 7. Australia

from The Arrival, by Shaun Tan
Immigration has become a topic of great interest to me--and feels very much like a life-long interest. Immigration, tied in with culture and family, comprise the bones of the story.

Tan writes about his experience developing The Arrival on his website, "I was reminded that migration is a fundamental part of human history, both in the distant and recent past.

In Tan's story, a father from an unnamed land travels to another unnamed land. He leaves his wife and daughter behind as he attempts to earn enough money to send for them to join him.

We encounter giants, shadows of monsters, strange fruit and vegetables, indecipherable language, astonishing vehicles, foreign customs, and a feeling of being a complete and total outsider.

The fact that there are no words in this book did not bother me in the least. The progression of images connected me closer to the main character, the immigrant father. I learned with him. I felt confused and uncertain. I lived his struggle to find food and a semblance of a steady income.

Actually, I can't imagine this book being "written" any other way.

from The Arrival, by Shaun Tan
And I suppose the feeling I encountered as a reader, is the backbone of my experience. I felt more than I saw or digested as traditional text. The uncertainty which each page brought was welcomed.

The main character not only succeeds because of his grit and perseverance, but also because of the kindness of strangers. He encounters people with their "silent" stories to share. These people sympathize with his circumstance and help him make it.

I am looking forward to placing this book in my classroom library and asking students what they think this story is about--I really can't wait to hear some of their take-aways from The Arrival.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Reading the World: 6. Angola

Credit: Angolan contemporary artist: Atonio Ole
As I read, I jot down observations and questions, or I research current headlines written about the country at hand. Caught up in the charm of Ondjaki's The Whistler, I did not stop to write anything. The pleasure of the language was enough.

However, at a loss to write something about The Whistler looking at headlines helped provide a touch of context:

Angola Prison and the Shadow of Slavery

The New Yorker-Aug 19, 2015
Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick's photographs from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, which were taken between 1980 and ...

Voice of America-Aug 14, 2015
JOHANNESBURG—. In the last decade, the nation of Angola has pulled off what some experts consider an economic miracle, transforming ...

Inonge Wina commends Angola

Zambia Daily Mail-Aug 20, 2015
VICE-PRESIDENT Inonge Wina has commended the Angolan government for putting in place a successful social protection system that ...

Angola regime rules in apartheid style - activist

News24-Aug 16, 2015
Johannesburg - From beating women to unleashing dogs on protesters, Angola's government runs the oil-rich nation with an apartheid-style ...

Clearly, Angola has been immersed in volatile change--growth and loss--over recent decades. Further digging brought me to an article about Angolan art by Joanne Thomas in USAToday:
"Contemporary life in Angola is hard. According to World Factbook, the nation has the lowest life expectancy in the world at 38.2, and 40.5 percent of the population live below the poverty line. These impoverished conditions, in conjunction with prolonged civil unrest, have marred the continuation of cultural traditions. Celebrations and traditional ceremonies, for example, were largely interrupted or discontinued during the civil war."
Thomas' objective was to explore Angolan art--previously ignored and forgotten. To have a hopeful, gentle book like The Whistler emerge is remarkable. For me, as I continue to think about the book itself, what matters more is that beautiful art is present and emerging from Angola. The Whistler underscores the importance of art in all its forms for all cultures.

In trying to match an appropriate image with this blog post, I fell into a blog called Angola Rising: Dialogue of Ministry in Angola; A Land Rising from Past Challenges. Specifically, I focused on a post about emerging Angolan art.

In it, Angolan artist Antonio Ole says, “The world is in transition. And during transitions there tend to be artistic explosions, explosions of creativity. Right now, everyone should be alert. Interpreting the world is part of what we artists do.”

My take away from the experience of reading The Whistler is that it exposed me to art as language, as a way for human beings to evidence that art emerges, can still live, even without the nourishment I (blindly) assume all art comes from.

Ole goes on to say, “I feel very inspired by this positive energy. Development is not only about education and health; it is also about the evolution of a cultural identity."

The Whistler, and in a bigger sense the blossoming of art in Angola, gives me a new lens to view...and think about...the world, yes. But it also gives me a new lens to think about me and my place in the world.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Reading the World: 5. Albania

Adrian Limani, flourished bulb
What happens when you read a novel by an author "hailed as one of the world's greatest living writers" (according to the bookjacket) and you struggle finding any way "in" to the book?

You don't put it down even though the little voice inside your head is telling you, "just put it isn't going to work out for you...put it down..."

I did not put it down. And the little voice did not go away.

So, I took notes on an envelope doubling as my bookmark as I read--not because it was difficult or to keep track of a tangled plot--but because I could not connect with the book. I kept looking for a thread to latch onto.

Part Orwell, part Kafka, part Beckett, The Palace of Dreams is Ismail Kadare's attempt at creating his version of hell. And for much of the first half of the book I engaged (a bit) even though the little voice inside my head kept murmuring, "weird..."

Wishing I knew more about Kadare's homeland, Albania, I jotted down thoughts which seemed like metaphors worth digging into later:

--the influence of dreams
--outside influences on dreams
--the value of dreams from the peasant to the king
--what kinds of information needs secrecy?
--when do dreams need to be kept secret?

And then I felt myself grasping to use anything--any shard of an historical context of the relationship(s) between the Albanians and the Turks. Kadare threaded a theme of "shared power" (and shared knowledge) and it made me curious about how historically oppositional cultures find common ground. This interesting line on page 68 kept the little voice inside my head quiet and hopeful for a beat:

"Sharing power doesn't just mean dividing up carpets and the gold braid. That comes afterward. Above all, sharing power means sharing crimes!"

But, like much of what I found interesting, this theme fell flat for me and the little voice inside my head railed on and on, "told you...if you are not enjoying a book just put it down...Kadare won't be offended because he did not write it for you anyway."

Unfortunately, the book did not work for me. I lost track of any slight scent of engagement once I reached the last 1/4 of the story as the plot just unravelled like old, cheap yarn--leaving me with little to want to discuss with other readers. For me,  The Palace of Dreams went from weird and interesting to dull and disconnected.

The reality is we are all not going to connect with every book...irrespective of author or reader, culture, or era. I believe the hype about Kadare and maybe I should give something else of his a shot.

But for now, it is on to another country...

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Reading the World: 4. Armenia

Credit: The Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute
An eyewitness account of the butchering and slaughter of Armenians by the Young Turks, Armenian Golgotha sickened me as much as it informed me. 

The challenge in reading accounts of epic atrocities is being left with what happened without the bitter balm of why it happened. Survivor and author, Grigoris Balakian, covers what happened, when it happened, where it happened, who it happened to, etc.

Not many pages were need to cover why, because as is too often the case, the why is hatred. But hatred seems far too pale a word.

While I write that the account sickened me, I acknowledge that it is an important book to read. The murders are savage. That is all I will write to that detail. Yet, this year is the much publicized beginning of the centenary, or 100th anniversary, of WWI. I do not see much publicity that the world is entering the 100th anniversary of this Armenian Genocide. Perhaps it is overshadowed by the Great War? Is the Armenian Genocide lumped into the estimated 17 million killed and 20 million wounded in WWI?

It is very difficult to write about the savage hatred which human beings inflict on one another but the pain of such savage hatred is my take-away from this book--moreso than Balakian's remarkable escape and survival. The pain is just embedded in each line:
The wretched Armenian mothers who were unable to take thier underage children (two to six years old)--children who had fallen ill from starvation, extreme cold, and the hardship of the long, half dead or in the throes of death--had to leave them on top of the already dead. Tearfully, the eyewitnesses told us how two large mounds of corpses of thousands of Armenian children rose up in front of Kanle-gechid, among them also numerous children who had not yet died and who extended their hands, searching for their mothers (225).
Each day I become more of an advocate for sharing family history and culture. I even dabble in a podcast encouraging others to tell their family stories. And, for the most part, the stories people choose to tell are the good stories, the happy memories, and fragments discovered in documents. But I have to add, that the difficult stories are also necessary for us to share and read. Understand, this is a part of what I asked of myself when taking on a "reading the world" challenge; nevertheless, nothing quite prepared me for such sadness and pain. Even in moments of great kindness and comfort, Armenian Golgotha is a difficult but necessary account to stomach:
Resting in a clean, comfortable bed, I felt for the first time in long months that mine was a life fit for human beings. I pulled the blanket over my head--when an unstoppable sobbing burned my throat, and I began weeping bitterly. It was not tomorrow's worries that were causing me to break down: it was the memory of erstwhile happy days, when we had the good fortune of lying in a clean bed like this every night. For who knew, perhaps tomorrow I would again end up wandering over mountain or valley, and being hunted down (267).
Armenian Golgotha takes its place as one of the most personally challenging books on my shelf.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

More than just us

Fred Quattrone
In Episode 6 of the I Remember podcast Fred Quattrone discusses where his love of family came from and the implication of keeping the extended family together today. 

A particular highlight of this episode is Fred's recounting of a Quattrone family reunion where all Quattrones which they could possible contact--a few hundred--were invited to meet one another back in the 1980s. The seminal idea for this all-inclusive reunion came from a cousin ripping pages out of telephone books while working on the road just to see how many Quattrones were out there...

Regarding family reunions and the annual Quattrone family toast celebrating the arrival of patriarch Ferdinand Quattrone to America 114 years ago, Fred said: is all about us having this multi-generation thread so to speak...of showing, in my case my grandchildren who are anywhere from 2 to 8, that there is more than just us...but it makes them see part of a bigger picture...that they feel secure in, I think, and that they get to know their roots... 
With roots in Pellaro, Reggio Calabria, born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Fred grew up among crowded and joyous family dinners, many cousins, aunts, and uncles, and grandparents who modeled the example of the importance of familial love which he shares with his grandchildren today. 

You can play the podcast on the player below and you can also find it on iTunes. Simply search "I Remember podcast" and it should come up for you. Anyone wishing to participate in the podcast by sharing an element of your family history or culture, please email me at

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Reading the World: 3. Algeria

Algeria, by Dana Kyndrova
Forgiveness can only ever be shared. Regret can only ever be owned.

What the Day Owes the Night, by Yasmina Khadra takes its place among the most meaningful novels I have read in a long while. The note on the first page of the novel, "Yasmina Khadra is the nom de plume of the Alergian army officer, Mohammed Moulessehoul, who took a female pseudonym to avoid submitting his manuscript for approval by the army" grasped my attention before I read the first line: "My father was happy."

What do I have to learn about that part of the world, of culture, of history and humanity?


And even after finishing the novel, I am really only aware of just how much I have to learn to and experience.

However, what strikes me immediately about this specific book and experience is that the writing is just a pure pleasure--especially the similes and metaphors (of which there are many):
The wheat fields billowed over the plains like the manes of thousands of horses galloping.

Oran was a city of airs and graces, people referred to her as la ville americaine, and every fantasy in the world was becoming real. Perched on a clifftop, she gazed out to sea, pretending to languish, a captive maiden watching from a tower for Prince Charming to arrive. She was pleasure itself, and everything suited her.

Beyond the writing, the reason why I took on the challenging of reading the world is on full display here. While the struggle for Algerian independence comprises the setting of the novel--I found myself researching as I read--the familiarity how the characters interact carries the day. By familiarity I mean irrespective of Arab or European, I recognized jealousy and love, fear and honor, prejudice and sorrow, et al. 

Being human is familiar.

I found myself wanting to talk to someone--anyone--about the struggles between Arabs and Europeans, the wealthy and the poor in countries just like Algeria, the roles of men and women in different societies, the fact that love and honor is not a privilege of race or culture, the unwieldy tangle of the word "duty"...duty to family...duty to culture...duty to is all here, woven together. 

So many moments of "duty" in the novel bring me back to the title What the Day Owes the Night again and again:
  • What does the father owe the family?
  • What does the mother owe the child?
  • What does the individual owe his/her culture?
  • What does the lover owe his/her lover?
We could get more specific:
  • What does Younes owe himself?
  • What does Younes owe Emilie?
  • What does Younes owe Madame Cazenave?
And my questions go on and on. These questions only scratch the surface as the book begs to be read and discussed. I'm dying to discuss it with someone--so, please, if you read this novel and you stumble upon this blog, please leave your thoughts about the book--I'm all ears (or eyes).

Finally, as bring the blog to a conclusion, I want to add how much I was affected by the balance in the novel. The author's gift and skill and being able to weave extended kindnesses among extensions of cruelty; oaths of silence with oaths of violence; and deep chasms of regret with micro-thin lifelines of forgiveness made everything else work together so well. 

I really loved the experience of reading What the Day Owes the Night because it had me thinking, has me thinking, and will continue to challenge me.

What do I (we) owe...