Archive for March 14, 2011

School Visit Central: Fuel Me Up

I’m in the middle of school visit season, and it bears repeating:

Authors don’t do school visits; schools do author visits.

By the time I arrive, 90% of the work is done. The students are either primed and ready, or not. The magic in not the author, it’s the shared energy and enthusiasm that librarians, teachers, administrators, and school volunteers put into the event. When I walk into a building, I can feel the difference. I can tell how much the school has invested in this moment.

Sure, it helps me when the kids are prepped and excited. I walk down the hall and see them pointing, whispering to each other, “That’s him!” My job becomes easy. But that’s not the point. Like everything else in life, the students get so much more out of an author visit when they’ve put something into it. When they’ve read and discussed books. Talked about them, thought about them, made meaningful connections. And at the end, when they bring home a book that’s been signed by the author, a book they are eager to read, well, that’s when the circle is complete and we can all call “the day” a success. Except it’s not a day . . .

An author visit doesn’t happen in a day. The author’s arrival is the cherry on the top. It is a culmination of your effort, time, and energy. Weeks and weeks of anticipation. Art projects. Research. Classroom discussion. Reading. Writing. Thinking. All of which happens when the author is off somewhere else.

Anyway, busy time of year for me. It’s wonderful (and disruptive) and inspiring to visit with students, to see and speak with readers. It makes me want to write more books. The irony is that when I’m out on school visits, I’m not at home, in my office, doing my job. I’m in a hotel and kind of groggy and usually a little bit sad to be away from my family.

But here’s the thing. I get a lot (a lot, a lot) of questions about “ideas.” Where they come from, etc. And to me, writing is not so much about ideas as it is about energy. I’m like Santa’s sleigh in the movie “Elf.” Unless the needle on the meter vibrates with life, there’s not going to be any liftoff.

More than anything, those visits to schools fuel me up. Thanks for the inspiration.

As an author, I’m fortunate in that I’ve written a range of books for ages 3-up, so I do entirely different presentations from Pre-K to 8th grade. Here I am with a K-1 group at Ballard Elementary. The kids standing to the left are my Greek Chorus of Hiccuppers. Seriously.

Look at this cast of characters! When there’s time and the inclination, I’ll enjoy lunch with a small group of students. It’s often the best part of my day.

My special thanks for the above photos go to Katie O’Donnell, the Library Media Specialist at Ballard Elementary. I mourn the fact that elementary-school librarians are not mandated positions in New York State. It’s insane. In these days of budget cuts, I worry that many schools are going to dismiss these essential educators. Great people will be out of jobs. And our children will suffer because of it. These are hard times, indeed.

Here’s a quick scene from “Elf.” Authors can’t compete with Santa, but sometimes when I walk into a great school, I almost feel like I arrived pulled by eight reindeer.

Isn’t that how we want our children to feel about reading?

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Cyberbullying Link Dump

I’ve been reading a lot about cyberbullying in preparation for Tuesday night’s panel discussion. Here’s a quick link dump of a sampling of the better articles.

Colin Archer/AP Photo

* White House Ready to Rumble With Cyberbullies: President Obama takes a strong stance against cyberbullying at a White House Bullying Prevention summit.

It’s something that we care about not only as president and first lady, but also as parents,” Michelle Obama said. “It’s tough enough being a kid today, and our children deserve the chance to learn and grow without constantly being picked on, made fun of, or worse.”

But according to a new survey released Wednesday, the issue simply isn’t getting enough attention.

The report, released by the National Cyber Security Alliance in collaboration with Microsoft, claims that just 26 percent of K-12 teachers surveyed have taught kids how to handle cyberbullying, versus 15 percent who have spoken to students about hate speech online.

* Cyberbullying and Suicide: A summary from the Cyberbullying Research Center. As summarized by Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D. and Justin W. Patchin, Ph.D.:

One factor that has been linked to suicidal ideation is experience with bullying. That is, youth who are bullied, or who bully others, are at an elevated risk for suicidal thoughts, attempts, and completed suicides. The reality of these links has been strengthened through research showing how experience with peer harassment (most often as a target but also as a perpetrator) contributes to depression, decreased self-worth, hopelessness, and loneliness — all of which are precursors to suicidal thoughts and behavior.

* Five Things Parents Should Know About Cyberbullying: Harrison Pennybaker reports:

It is unclear exactly how prevalent cyberbullying is. However, some statistics suggest that anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of youth in the United States encounter the phenomenon, although this figure varies depending on age. Since cyberbullying can be done by computers, cell phones and other devices, and since these devices are widely owned, the means to cyberbully are easily accessible.

* Cyberbullying an Epidemic, writes Jennifer Dudley-Nicholson.

The Australian study of more than 1000 parents found that 87 per cent of children aged between four and 16 own or have access to a mobile phone and 66 per cent take their mobile phones to school at least some of the time.

Van Vugt said this access to technology needed to be better managed.

“All children have the capacity to behave badly, especially if they don’t understand the impact of their behaviour,” she added.

* Tips to Fight Against Cyberbullies by Kenneth Butler, who consulted with Nancy Willard (Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use), Parry Aftab, author of A Parent’s Guide to the Internet, and Anne Collier, executive director,

For social networking and online etiquette, the popular saying “What goes around comes around” is as valuable as knowing when to use a frowning smiley or a winking one. When chatting, posting messages, or sending e-mails, it’s always a good idea for young web users to be “mindful of their digital footprint,” said Nancy Willard, director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use. In other words: “Don’t engage in unkind or hurtful actions online because the person you really hurt will be yourself.” That includes being the instigator of online spats as well as retaliating in them. Too much combative behavior could lead to a bad reputation online, and it could damage relationships with peers both in front of and away from the computer screen.

* Jostens Launches a “Pause Before You Post” program.

Before I make a post, I pledge to ask myself:
* Who will be able to see what I post?
* Will anyone be embarrassed or hurt by it?
* Am I proud of what I’m posting?
* How I would feel if someone posted it about me?

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* What are the warning signs? What can parents do? What can educators do? Here’s a great resource: StopBullying.Gov.

There are many warning signs that could indicate that someone is involved in bullying, either by bullying others or by being bullied.  However, these warning signs may indicate other issues or problems, as well.  If you are a parent or educator, learn more about talking to someone about bullying.

* A Yorktown mother, Taryn Grimes-Herbert, provides a list of bully-proofing ideas that “really worked” for her family.

Over the past few years, I’ve spoken to many educators, parents and kids who’ve had to learn this very difficult lesson: We cannot change the behavior of others. We can only choose how to respond to it, and how we respond to it reveals our character.

* Mahwah Police Chief James Batelli promotes new software which allows parents to monitor their children’s online activity.

“Call it whatever you want,” Batelli said in an interview in his office at police headquarters on Franklin Turnpike on Tuesday, March 1. “If it’s going to save my daughter or someone else’s daughter, then call it whatever you want.”

* More parents are getting involved in their kids’ online activity — by helping them lie about their age. (“Where Age Is What You Say It Is,” from The New York Times, by Matt Richtel and Miguel Helft.)

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

* States look to pass bills that make cyberbullying a crime.

State senator Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) is now pushing SB214.

“It was the news of so many children committing suicide who had been bullied via the internet so as a former educator it resonated with me that we’ve got to do something,” Chesterfield says.

The one page legislation would establish the crime of “cyber bullying” in Arkansas.

“This is an acknowledgement that in this day and time with technology the way it is, that people are able to use other means and sometimes hide their hands when they throw the rocks,” Chesterfield says.

The bill says someone commits cyber-bullying if they electronically communicate with someone with the purpose of harrassing or intimidating, whether by cell phone or on-line.

* Another great resource: The Cyberbullying Research Center.

From the home page:

If you only have time to read one of our documents to get up-to-speed about the problem and what you can do, read this one!

Cyberbullying: Identification, Prevention, and Response.

* Olweus Bullying Prevention program adds new focus on character.

Now two Pennsylvania districts — Mt. Lebanon and Penn Hills — are piloting an enhancement to the program that includes a character education component aimed at turning students into good citizens and empathetic colleagues who will be less likely to engage in bullying behavior.

* Lastly, more and more schools are featuring this well-reviewed book for a “One Book, One School” program.

Cyberbullying Panel Discussion, March 15 in Albany, NY

I’ve been invited to participate in a panel discussion on the topic of Cyberbullying: What Every Parent Should Know.

Essentially, from what I can gather, there’s going to be a bunch of experts . . . and me.

The panelists include:

* Lydia Kulbida, Moderator. WTEN-TV news anchor. Mother of two teens.
* Lori Cullen: blogger. Mother of three teens. Founder of Millennial Youth, an independent, youth-run magazine housed at the Times Union
* Sandra Morley: Principal, Bethlehem Central Middle School
* Prof. Stephen Birchak: Educator, lecturer, author of “How to Build a Child’s Character – By Tapping Into Your Own”
* Lt. Joseph Donohue: State Police Computer Crime Unit. Oversees the federal Justice Department’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force
* James Preller: Author of more than 80 children’s books. His most recent novel, ‘Bystander,’ tells the story of bullying from multiple perspectives


James Preller Interviews . . . Thomas Newkirk, author of “Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture”

I recently read Thomas Newkirk’s outstanding book, Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture. I sent him a complimentary email and, to my great surprise, he agreed to an interview. My reasons were selfish. I simply wanted to learn more from this very smart, insightful man.

Back in college, I had an English teacher who taught me an important question: So what? I mean, okay, boys don’t read as much as girls. They do other things well. What’s the big deal?

I think there are two responses. Reading well is so tied to school success — and to liking school — that it is unethical to write off a big percentage of boys as non-readers. It may have been possible in previous times to drop out or barely finish school and go on to good jobs. But that is not the case now.

I think the bigger argument that reading is a deeply pleasurable and enlightening activity — or can be. I don’t want boys to miss out on it.

Thomas Newkirk.

One of the things I loved about your book was how you wove in small pieces of memoir, little stories from your life, and connected those experiences to the book’s larger themes. You tell a wonderful story about how as a young man you visited the library in Harvard. You saw a dusty old scholar with a suitcase full of index cards and suddenly recognized the absolute weirdness of the literary life. Silent, isolated, inactive –- and how utterly strange it must appear to a non-reader. As book lovers, I don’t think we fully appreciate the perspective of the non-reader, how foreign it must look to a boy who typically chooses action, companionship, and noise.

Reading doesn’t have to be silent and isolated — although it must appear that way to readers who have never been in what Nancie Atwell calls “the reading zone.” When we enter that zone — identifying with characters, visualizing, hearing the voices of the narrator and characters — we are NOT alone. And if reading can be shared in friendship groups, talked about, it becomes even more social. C.S. Lewis once said that we read to learn that we are not alone, and I believe that.

You made a funny comment, when exploring the tension between literacy and the code of the real boy: “What better disguise could there be for Superman than to turn him into a writer!” It’s just not a very masculine endeavor, is it, shutting one’s self away from the active world, isolated and alone, sitting in a chair in silence. How much more un-boy can you get?

But I think technology is changing that. To compose with the resources of the Internet — to make digital stories, to navigate the various social networks, to create animation. We have recently seen how exploiting these social networks can bring down dictators. This is writing that is anything but isolated. Maybe school writing and reading is too isolated, but digital literacy is anything but.

At one point, you note, “Boys often feel than an open show of enthusiasm for schoolwork, particularly in the language arts, can undermine their identity as a ‘real boy.’” It seems like boy culture –- the codes of behavior — can be a major obstacle for boy readers.

Absolutely. I remember the African American journalist comment on the social pressure for African American boys to see trying at school as being “white.” His comment was: “With friends like that who needs enemies?” One reason parents look desperately for charter and private schools is to find places where trying and excelling at academics is part of the school culture.

As an adult, I enjoy reading closely observed, realistic fiction. Life’s little moments. I love Richard Ford and nothing ever happens in his novels. It takes him twelve pages to go to the store to pick up some muffins. And that fits in perfectly with a classroom emphasis on memoir writing. But I can vividly recall that as a boy I wanted things to HAPPEN in my stories. Otherwise, why write about it? So I think when boys are pushed to write about, say, their trip to the beach, about real things, they are bored and disappointed. A bomb didn’t explode? A shark didn’t attack? Why bother writing about eating chicken salad sandwiches with Uncle Max?

There has been a lot of the imposition of adult tastes on students — who may find fantasy and adventure genres more appealing. I don’t think that means that we give up on asking students to read and write realistic genres — but we need to be open to other tastes as well. Fantasy allows us to escape, to be bigger and braver than we are, to suspend the limitations of time and space. I think we all need that freedom as well.

Many years ago, not long after 9/11, I volunteered in my oldest son’s 3rd grade classroom. One boy, typical of many you discuss in Misreading Masculinity, wrote a story that included exploding bombs. I learned from his teacher that the mandated response was for us to forward the story to a school counselor who would contact the boy’s parents: “Billy’s writing about bombs again!”

Yes, unfortunately, many schools have given up on making meaningful distinctions here. I have never understood, for example, why it is OK to read about violence, even the gruesome violence of Beowulf, and that’s ok, even culturally valued. But if a kid writes something like that, it’s off to the guidance counselor. For me the key question is this: does the writing seem threatening to anyone; does it make anyone feel unsafe or targeted. If is does, it fails to meet the basic rules of any school. But if a kid writes a Star Wars take-off and a space ship explodes, does anybody really feel threatened by that?

I guess it’s natural for us, as enlightened adults, to want boys, or any students, to value what we value. We want them to read and appreciate what we consider to be good books. When those values aren’t shared –- when, say, they like low-brow stuff, AKA, “crap” –- the tendency is for us to see it as a deficiency in them. There’s something wrong with boys.

I think we all like some AKA crap. No one is high brow all the time. So it seems to me OK to ask kids to value what we value; but we also have to understand the appeal of what they like. It can’t be all one or the other. We have values and goals for their reading and writing; but we won’t win the cooperation of students if our attitude toward their culture is one of dismissal. Teaching is a cross-generational trade.

As a man who came to reading through my boyhood love of sports, where I’d dive into the morning paper (pre-ESPN, thank goodness) for the stats and scores and stories, I liked that you included a nod to “the literature of sports tables.” I can read a box score and imagine a half-dozen story lines.

Yes, it’s so rich in information — the scores by quarters or innings. Who’s hot and who’s not. It is still my favorite page in the sports section. I am convinced that one advantage boys have in math is their early immersion in sports statistics.

At times you use the term, “school literacy.” How do you distinguish that from ordinary literacy? Is it a matter of “school-approved” literacy?

School literacy is necessarily a limited subset of possible literacies. It traditionally focuses on the verbal over the visual; on high culture over popular culture; on print over oral expression; on realism over fantasy and escapism; on extended formal writing over informal and expressive writing.

It resonated with me when you gave a historical perspective on oral vs. silent reading, linking it to a “cult of efficiency.” We know that speed readers are taught to eliminate sub-vocalization, and instead to scan chunks of language, eliminating meaningless words. Yet as a writer, some of the best advice I can give is to read what you’ve written aloud, to really hear what you’ve written, the sound and rhythm of the words. That is, it’s the total opposite of what most of us do in silent, sustained reading!

I am convinced that even when we read “silently” we are attending to the intonations of language. In other words, “silent” reading is not really silent. That’s why writers will often read their work aloud to revise—even though almost all their readers will not read it aloud. But I would argue that they still register sound in some way, internally. I will expand that idea in my new book, The Case for Slow Reading. Stay tuned.

You argue for television as a legitimate source of writing topics. Why do you see television as an under-valued resource?

I think schools see TV, the Internet, and video games as the enemy. And this makes some sense—studies show that many students spend way too much time with this media, often multitasking. But I believe that TV can teach dialogue, conflict, characterization, narrative, humor. The visual narratives can provide scaffolds, or cultural props, for students to use in their writing — if teachers let them. They can write parodies or alternative versions with their friends co-exiting with fictional characters — Darth Vadar and the kid down the street — all in the same adventure.

I hesitate before opening this can of worms, since much of my livelihood depends upon the approval of gatekeepers (editors, teachers, librarians, bloggers, book purchasers) who are overwhelmingly female. Clearly, the world of children’s books is a woman’s world. Is that, in your opinion, part of the problem when it comes to boys literacy?

One challenge is to look at books from the boy’s point of view. I don’t think gender is an absolute barrier here. What’s needed is an open mind, a sense of curiosity. What makes this boy tick? What are the themes, passions, competencies in his life that I can build on? To teach we all need to get outside ourselves, and into someone else’s skin. I know many female teachers who are wonderful at this. And it seems to me that when a boy senses a female teacher cares about what he cares about, that boy will be open to other things the teacher asks of him.

Finally, can you recommend any other books on this topic?

I’d read Ralph Fletcher’s Boy Writers. I’d also watch the PBS documentary “Raising Cain.”

I loved Fletcher’s book and commented on it before, so I second the nomination. Thanks, Thomas, for taking the time out to answer my questions. You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about. And I’ll be looking forward to your new book, The Case for Slow Reading. I posted on that subject back in September, 2010, and led with a quote by . . . Thomas Newkirk: “Teachers can enhance students’ pleasure and success in reading by showing them how to slow down and savor what they read.”

My best to you. Keep up the great work. And here’s a clip from “Raising Cain.”

Readers, note: Please check out my other blog, FATHERS READ, for more on the subject of boys literacy. I’ll be away on school visits for most of the week.

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Thomas Newkirk is Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. He has studied literacy learning at a variety of educational levels — from preschool to college. His book, Misreading Masculinity, was cited by Instructor Magazine as one of the most significant books for teachers in the past decade. He is also the author of Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Ideas Worth Fighting For and The Performance of Self in Student Writing.

Music Video Weekend: John Grant, “Marz” — a song, and sort of a list poem

I recently discovered John Grant, formerly of the Czars, and his remarkable solo debut, “The Queen of Denmark.” His backing band on the album is Midlake, if that means anything to you (good things, good things!). The disk was named by Mojo magazine as the 2010 album of the year.

For whatever reason, I can’t stop listening to this song. The lyrics are largely a list of milk shakes and assorted flavors from a Michigan candystore/drugstore of his childhood. It’s interesting how evocative that can be, a simple list that links back to a time of simplicity and innocence and, with it, attendant loss. It’s somehow heartbreaking.

Before you go, or as my father used to say, “While I’ve got you,” — teachers might want to check out this link, where children’s poet Bruce Lansky teaches how to write a “what bugs me” list poem. It seems like a nice, easy, accessible format for young students.

Now to the song!

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MARZ by John Grant

Bittersweet strawberry marshmallow butterscotch
Polarbear cashew dixieland phosphate chocolate
Lime tutti frutti special raspberry, leave it to me
Three grace scotch lassie cherry smash lemon freeze

I wanna go to Marz
Where green rivers flow
And your sweet sixteen is waiting for you after the show
I wanna go to Marz
You’ll meet the gold dust twins tonight
You’ll get your heart’s desire, I will meet you under the lights

Golden champagne juicy grapefruit lucky monday
High school footall hot fudge buffalo tulip sundae
Almond caramel frappe pineapple rootbeer
Black and white pennyapple henry ford sweetheart maple tea

I wanna go to Marz
Where green rivers flow
And your sweet sixteen is waiting for you after the show
I wanna go to Marz
You’ll meet the gold dust twins tonight
You’ll get your heart’s desire, I will meet you under the lights