Monday, February 15, 2021

A Remote Hope

I think remote schooling has been a teaching success.  

There, I said it.  

Here’s why.  

Thousands upon thousands of teachers rose to the occasion of the “unprecedented times” (even though they were, in fact, a little bit precedented, if you look at prior pandemics and wars) by seeking training for themselves, training each other and creating valuable online communities of professionals to share strategies and resources.  Teachers subsidized remote learning by buying and/or using their own equipment, document cameras, laptops; their own subscriptions to necessary apps to make remote learning happen; their own digital books; upgrades of their own home internet connection speeds to facilitate instruction. There was so much we didn’t know how to do.  The running joke was, every teacher is a first year teacher this year.  And like all first year teachers, we were exhausted.  We cried.  We hated it and smiled for the children in the face of it. I was exhausted, cried and hated it.  Children, too, were exhausted, crying and hating it.  That’s what happens when you don’t have what you need and it makes you feel like you’re inadequate.

Once I realized I didn’t have to be good at every bit of new technology being thrown at me all at once, I hated it less.

Once I realized things were going to go wrong and it’s okay, it happens, I hated it less.

Once I realized that some of the reasons things were going wrong were because I didn’t have what I needed and I didn’t even realize it, and I started getting those things for myself, I hated it less.

Once I realized that my relationships with children were not contingent on physical proximity but on the daily expression of interest and compassion, just like it always was, I hated it less.  

Once I heard the children laughing again, cracking jokes in the chat, getting answers right, begging for read-aloud not to end, creating wonderful projects that they couldn't wait to show me, I hated it less.

And once I hated it less, I had the tools and became de-centered enough to help children to hate it less.  

Once I realized that the people who kept decrying “learning loss” have no longitudinal data to support any long-term harm (how could there be, we are still in it, after all), I hated it less.  What we are measuring as loss may not be what children really would have learned as a result of this experience anyway.  The gains may never be measured; one thing I've learning from teaching during COVID-19 is that data is meaningless unless we ask the right questions, and unfortunately I no longer trust that we know how to do that in education, there are too many private interests at stake.  Even when we do ask the right questions, we don't use the right answers.  I mean, if data ever meant anything, wouldn’t the data suggesting older children need more sleep or that children should not be in front of a screen for so many hours a day or that boredom is more than okay, it’s necessary, or that homeschooled children are better socialized than people think or that read-aloud is one of the best and most reliable things we can do to support academic achievement have come more into the forefront, especially now? This pandemic has been nothing but a daily opportunity to finally, actually use what we know about children and best practice.  We have had so, so many chances to reinvent education with the child at the center of it, and instead, too often, it was an embodiment of our mania for doing things the way they have always been done.  Failure is a condition of learning and growth.  We try to exorcise a fear of failure from our children so they will try new things but systemically we model that fear. 

And there’s the rub. Everything about teaching and learning that felt like it was “bad” or like a “loss”  or “failure” has been the result of trying to do things as they had always been done, as if there wasn’t a pandemic going on.  Every time I tried to keep up the pace and schedule and even the content as if we were in person, I floundered, I suffered, and so did the kids. 

There was no “powering through” this; in order to be successful, we would have to actually slow down. My students and I had to actually meet each other where we were.  I needed to really evaluate what was going on in the homes of the children I taught in a new and deeper way.  I really needed to revisit the virtue of patience as technology failed us again and again.  I really needed to teach step by step, paying extra careful attention that nobody fell through the cracks. I really needed to invent new units, revisit the curriculum, reinvent my whole methodology for presenting to a roomful…now a screenful…of children. I needed to make things more hands on, create new and more dynamic projects to engage them, and with that, new ways to assess them. I had to do things differently, the children have done things differently.  I’m a better teacher for it, the children have showed versatility.  And I daresay, if we are being perfectly honest, even after the best-case scenario in which we get the spread of the virus under control, if we give any credence to things like, oh, climate change, maybe deep down we believe we might have to do this again sometime in the decades to come…and next time, at least, we might know a little better how to do it.  Is that so bad?  Does that constitute “a loss”?  So many school mission statements include creating 21st century learners.  If this isn’t 21st century learning, what is?  

The pandemic is surely the cause of situational depression, stressful childcare crises, boredom and feelings of isolation to those families privileged not to have experienced the more enduring grief and trauma of job loss, home loss, illness or death.  But just like I had to discover as a teacher that what I was suffering was not always my fault as much as a void in receiving what I need to do better, so is it time for Americans to  translate their needs into policy. In the long run this may prove more effective than scapegoating and martyring the teachers whose job it is to deliver instruction, a role I have heard belittled too often these days, as if it is some little peripheral little thing and not what requires deep relationships to really work, the thing that empowers the skills that lead to opportunity, the thing with the ability to make so many of the shortcomings of childhood ephemeral.  America uses teachers and staff as babysitters, as mental health counselors, as caterers, as custodians, and then resents them when they ask to teach remotely for the health of themselves or their own families or suggest, as Alderwoman King of the 4th Ward in Chicago so bluntly put it, we don't want to "ride two horses with one ass." Teachers are not your enemy, nor are we your panacea. We may be a workforce comprised largely of women who are finally learning to say what we need…and some of what we need are boundaries. And, I might hazard to suggest, there's nothing wrong with your child being taught by someone who knows how to model saying no. 

Meanwhile.  Grown-ups: please.  Stop saying what a failure remote learning is within earshot of your children. Stop saying it will be over soon if you don’t know for sure; instead, focus on creating a cheerful and quiet space where children can work effectively so it won’t matter as much. Please appreciate that kids are not only socialized by other children; traditionally throughout history and certainly in times of extenuating circumstances, children were socialized by their own families, children did not spend so many hours at school, it's only our modern condition that makes us so much less practiced and makes it so scary. You have a role to play that can make or break your child's experience and impact everyone else's as well. Stop badmouthing your child’s teacher when you are frustrated; it creates a culture of disrespect that we will not be able to survive in or out of the building.  And please stop saying teachers need to get “back to work.” Not only is it fallacious and insulting and demoralizes the teacher, it undermines the work of your own child, the teacher’s true and symbiotic partner in this adventure.  

Remote learning can be done well with the proper mitigations at least as well as in-person learning can be done well with the proper mitigations, neither of which teachers in urban districts generally trust they will receive outside of their own volition, as evidenced by clashes…and precedent. If you have righteous indignation about kids not returning to in-person learning during a pandemic, maybe redirect it working toward accessible Wifi and equipment for all families, a school library and trained librarian in every school, hiring enough people to clean and fix filthy and rodent-infested buildings, effecting gun control legislation, addressing food insecurity and lack of affordable health care and child care and putting a stop to the funding of schools based on property taxes and thus breaching Brown v. Board every day...all of which have longer term implications on equity, achievement and health than a year of remote teaching and learning ever could.  

I am proud of my students and the way they have carried through this chapter of what will be history.  I am proud of their hard work and what they have accomplished, even while their internet connection dropped and reconnected repeatedly.  If I can’t see them in person, I try to embrace the now and look forward to seeing them on the screen at home and will support their academic growth as they are eating snacks and offering me cyber-bites, squeezing their pets for comfort, showing me their toys up close on the full screen, their younger siblings appearing in the frame now and then, their intermittent disappearances as they enjoy the novelty of going to the bathroom without the whole class in tow. I know these kids are adjusting and sometimes suffering, I know this situation is stressful and strange, I know they do not have all the resources they need for this to be optimal. But I also know there are some kids who were socially awkward or anxious, who were distracted by social drama, bullying or neighborhood terrors, kids who needed to have more physicality than sitting at a desk all day, kids who needed more time with and attention from their families and they are shining in this moment. I love teaching students to make scrambled eggs, do stop-action animation, use the public library’s collection of thousands of digital books, meet a surprise online guest author, things we might not have done if school were being held in person. It’s not the same, of course, and maybe/probably our egg-scrambling skills won't show up on the test, but I don’t feel like we’re losing.  We’re just doing something differently, in our schools, in America, in the world, at a time when we need to be doing more things differently in all of these places.  

That looks a lot like success to me. 

Thursday, August 06, 2020

COVID-19 Can-Do: Three Unorthodox Things We Can Do to Improve Equity and Engagement in Remote Teaching Right Now

artwork by Jean Marc Cote

I am a K-8 teacher-librarian with the Chicago Public Schools.  I went to an online training early on in the COVID-19 outbreak to learn how to produce basic video content in which the instructor said, "just put up your green screen..."  Green screen?!  Oh, yes, let me go grab that, right behind the shock mount for my boom and my three-point lighting kit.  Did I leave that behind the toaster oven?

Though I would say most teachers did the requisite excellent and overly-practiced job of making a silk purse out of a sow's ear this past spring, it's a struggle to have real equity when teachers have varying experience, comfort and training in not only creating content for online instruction but producing it, as well as varying levels of bandwith and access to equipment in their homes (not unlike the students).  What, then, outside of mastering the magical mysteries of myriad screens, can we as teachers and instructional leaders do to ensure quality educational experiences for all students in the time of COVID-19?  

1. Make your "specials" classes your core curriculum.

The great (if uncertified) teacher Auntie Mame says, "life is a banquet, and some poor suckers are starving to death."  How are we setting our academic table?  Kids cannot live by bread alone.  We have the chance to examine the failures in engagement of the past season and correct them with the classes that are the spice of life.

To that end: we don't need fewer specials during this special time, we need more, more, more. Art. Music. Physical Education. Library. Drama. Technology. Turn it all over, give these teachers and subjects unprecedented leadership and time.  Arrange your school's schedule around them, the way you used to schedule math and reading.  Last spring, a lot of these classes fell to the wayside  to prioritize "core classes" in terror that students should "lose time" to the COVID-19 slide. What if students should drop in academic achievement?  Insert pearl-clutch here. The worst that could happen by reversing curricular priorities is that students will do as poorly as everyone expects on standardized tests for a year or two. The best: the discovery of passions. Lifelong learning.

And you should expect the best.  The approaches of these "special" classes necessitate quick engagement and transitions and are often project-based, exactly what students need during crisis learning.  This is where the children will move and create.  This is where there is room to be developmentally appropriate while we have kids looking at screens too much of the day. These "specials" teachers are used to seeing every kid in the school over a period of years, and can integrate the hell out of whatever you're teaching, just tell them...and trust them. 

Examine your biases about these subjects and let them go. "Specials" can't be relegated to extras, incidentals, prep periods any longer.  The stringency of subject areas defined a century ago needs to die.  Invent some new special classes that would be exciting to try online: environmental education, media literacy, armchair travel geography, financial literacy, film history!  Bring back home economics, foreign languages and shop class! If you don't have special classes at your school, enlist teachers to integrate these subjects into the core (some already do). 

Exuberance aside: this is not a minor detail in terms of creating educational equity.  You think families in rich suburban schools and private schools consider art or music or a library an "extra?"  Parents with resources are engaging their children in wonderful online pay-to-play opportunities like Outschool (to their credit, Outschool offered scholarships and reduced rates during the initial outbreak).  People who want to give their children an advantage know the edge that "specials" deliver.  While everyone's heads are turned by the distractions of disaster, up the equity ante for the underserved by being seriously extra in your curriculum.

2. Get great children's literature in the hands of great children.

If you want to maximize elementary school learning and minimize loss during this time and any time, read-aloud to your child consistently every day from children's trade literature and make print matter available.  Period. 

I have said and written that access to children's trade literature (the kind of books found in libraries and bookstores) coupled with the best practice of read-aloud is our best hope for equalizing education in America.  Why?  Because a great book in the hands of a rich child is the same great book in the hands of a poor child.  Access to books has been proven to be as important an indicator as parent's educational level in determining a student's chances for academic success.  
I wrote a whole book about becoming a supporting character in a child's reading life story, to ensure that if schools fail, your children don't have to. You can also scroll through over a decade of children's book recommendations here.

I have written in a preface to one of my annual lists of book recommendations for children
Books in thoughtful combination are an education in themselves...I can only imagine how a child who experiences these titles will be changed, and change is the definition of learning.  Through what new lenses will the child view the world after experiencing this art?  What biographies will inspire them, what mentors will fly through space and time to scaffold their dreams and efforts?  How will they view and understand the natural world?  What new friends will they find inside books that will inform them to know how to connect and empathize with people outside of books?  What will make them laugh, cry, think?   
A child who discovers the magic of reading will never be as lonely or bored as the child who has not.  That meant a lot on an average day.  During quarantine, it means even more.

Let's take a moment to talk books. Are they all created equal? The crisis has led many teachers and students, understandably and necessarily, to turn to digital resources including ebooks.  However, studies have shown that readers of printed books have a cognitive developmental advantage over readers of e-books. Home libraries have a "very substantial effect on educational attainment."  That means children from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds (in this country, about 1 in 6) relegated to free school e-book collections and limited public library access alone may be getting a separate but equal reading opportunity. 

One thing we can do as a country to promote access to print books for all children would be to insist that catalogs, in order to be eligible for bulk rate through the U.S. Post Office, contain a certain percentage of pages dedicated to reading material at the end of them, at least through the course of this pandemic.  Graphic novels, serials, favorites...can you imagine how children would hop up and down at the arrival of the Pottery Barn catalog if a few pages of a Raina Telgemeier or Dog Man were attached?  This will ensure that all children with an address have access to reading material.  The U.S. Post Office has a long and magnificent history of disseminating necessary information through the mail.  This crisis could usher in a new age of appreciation of the agency as it delivers educational equity to children when it is so sorely needed.

For children who do not have an address (unfortunately a demographic of poverty predicted to grow in the coming months and years), we must more aggressively and publicly fund Little Free Libraries.  Right now, most of these libraries are cute and expensive and privately set up, but they need to be recognizable and ubiquitous, the way we have post office mailboxes.

Lastly, look at this plan from the Chicago Public Schools for Instructional Priorities for the 2020-21 school year, a thoughtful descriptor of expectations of the coming year. Do you know else what they are describing?

They are describing a school library with a program run by a trained school librarian to a T, actually.  Yet now, during the COVID-19 outbreak, there are only about 100 librarians in the Chicago Public School system for over 600 schools, i.e. about 100 librarians for over 350,000 students, even though research from 34 state studies suggests undeniable correlation between staffed school libraries and student achievement.  That means a system with over 75% economically disadvantaged students, a system with over 80% Black and Hispanic children, have a 1 in 6 chance of having a school librarian. I am calling out my own city,  but this is hardly the anomaly in urban areas across the country.

During COVID-19 and in the years of recovery to come, this blatant disparity will only serve to widen the gap of achievement and all of the economic opportunity that it ultimately affords. So I'd hazard to say, if you are privileged by your race and/or your tax bracket and/or your zip code and your child goes to a school with a school librarian, you have work to do outside of putting a sign on your front lawn.  Equity in education is part of showing, not telling, Black Lives Matter, and school libraries are equity in education in action. So let's make sure we advocate loudly for the advantage that school libraries deliver and that some children receive while others do not.  If children's books are our best hope for equalizing education for all children we need school libraries to deliver them. 

3.  Train parents first.

Just as experienced teachers know the first week is when you can really set the tone for the classroom, in the context of COVID, rather than diving into assignments and protocols with the children, the first week might be better spent dedicated to helping parents to support learning in the home, patiently walking through how to log in, how to find assignments, how to know when they are due, how to communicate with the teachers, how to create a positive physical space in the home conducive to learning, how to juggle the needs of many children in one household with limited computer access.  Answering these kind of logistical questions, and making answers available in the home language, will contribute to equity and confidence.

Think back to March.  
Oh, the panic.  How much of this do we have to do? Where do they turn it in?  Why is it taking so long to do?  If the work is finished early, what are they supposed to do? What if I don't have a job, or childcare, or someone is sick? Is the teacher looking at my messy apartment?  What if other children need the computer?  What if I need the computer?  What if the computer breaks or I can't get a connection?  What if I have to be at work and my child runs into a problem on the computer?  What if I can't get my child to sit in front of the computer?  What if I don't have a computer?  How will that affect the grade?  Will my child be held back?  But by far, the most common question I heard from shocked, overwhelmed parents when the schools closed: "does this count?" If it doesn't count for the grade, why should my child do it?  The grade, the grade, the grade, icing the towering, dreadful COVID cake is the grade, in the face of, well, death and illness and job loss, here we are, still worried about the grade.

And after responsibly giving attention to the grade in the face of all this, a sense of entitlement may start to creep in, and parents may find themselves frustratingly thwarted by teachers; turns out, working for a long time is not necessarily meeting a standard, busy is not necessarily the same as learning, and every time your child raises a hand or turns something in, it may not result in an "A" (though your child may still be a good and successful person in the long run nonetheless). What counts, then?  What counts?  

Many parents are terrified, it seems, of failure in a time when it seems all systems are failing; when many of us, as adults, are working without economic or health care safety nets in a time of crisis. Some parents, faced with a high level of necessary school involvement, are heavily projecting their own childhood anxieties around school and performance.  Completely understandable.

It is fair to suggest assessments and accommodations may look different during COVID, and parents need to know this.  Letter grades during COVID have already proven intrinsically inequitable because everyone's situation is so different.  We can start by underscoring the big, basic, new-to-many idea that participation can "count" and matter even when it is not graded. 

Better-communicated expectations, affirmations and real partnership can do so much to alleviate deeply personal parental insecurities surrounding academic failure coupled with situational stress and depression that can result in clashes with teachers and family members. A climate in which adults are mutually respectful is always in the interest of children. It doesn't always happen, but it's something to strive for. 

Parents are not professional educators, but they are always in a role of model and always positioned to foster a relationship with the child that can either cultivate or stifle positive values and attitudes toward learning. In the context of claustrophobic COVID, this role is newly pronounced and overwhelming and parents often need extra reassurances and clarification. This is not the Hunger Games, we're all in the same boat, a lack of play dates is unpleasant and potentially maddening but not fatal (while the disease potentially is), and the teachers you may disparage today will still make sure your kids have the skills they need tomorrow. 

If we don't handle climate on the front end, we will all suffer for the rest of the year. So let's take the time to inservice parents respectfully as partners in their children's education by like giving them a leg up, sharing pedagogical insights for survival that we would afford any first-year teacher.  Some may be instinctive, others not.

Parents need to learn, as new teachers do, that there are good days and bad days, and that an education is the sum of many parts.  One bad day is not the end of the world. Forgive yourself and others and keep going.

As new teachers do, parents need to turn focus from whether they are succeeding to whether the child is succeeding, and accept that some portion of challenge or even failure is often necessary for growth. 

As new teachers do, parents need to learn to break tasks down into small steps and be generous and genuine in celebrating steps toward mastery, both to encourage the child and themselves.

They need to see, as new teachers see, that the most effective behavior management comes from engaging children in interests and relevancy, not negative consequences. 

As new and effective teachers do, parents need to examine their own enthusiasms and skill sets to determine what they really have to share as human beings and then realize that lifelong learning comes from the relationship implicit in that sharing, not from any worksheet or app divorced from the context of that relationship.

Parents then need to be encouraged to value, without belittlement, whatever it is they have to share, whether it's the theory of relativity or long division, or how to enjoy a book, or cooking soup, or playing "Chopsticks" on a piano, or growing flowers, or making change for a dollar, or making a bed, or telling a joke, or braiding hair, or speaking another language, or locating the Big Dipper, or simply how to be brave even when things aren't really going your way. 

Most of all, parents need to learn, as teachers invariably do, that if the child doesn't have have mental and physical health, if the child doesn't feel safe, if the child is tired or hungry, it's hard or impossible to deliver any content at all.  And if what a parent can do on a given day is take care of these needs, set the expectation that their child participate in whatever the teacher has arranged for them as best they can, if they stop at the library or tell a story or even just love that child in a way that lets them know, guess what, that's the job description, that's an A.  That's what counts right now.  Maybe it always has been what counted. And if you know of a child whose parents can't provide this, maybe they can start counting on you.  

This may be the end of the age of fallacies that upheld a status quo.  The big assignment now is that we invent ourselves.  The children are so bravely growing and doing this work every day, with or without us.  Refreshed curriculum that invites art, movement, handiwork, the chance to read and some sanity in their inner circle will go far to support this work, preserve the humanity of the children we serve and keep our influence positive, even in the face of our own trials. 

I leave you with a short film that made a big impact on me in imagining a new school year.  Thank you, Liv McNeil.  

I look forward to knowing what you imagine, in the comments section and elsewhere.

Stay well and happy reading, friends. 

Sunday, March 15, 2020


Art by Garth Williams, 1948 from Wait Till the Moon is Full by Margaret Wise Brown

Some helpful hints for parents as you begin your COVID-19 homeschooling adventure:

It is anticipated that most families will be having a little more screen time than usual during the quarantine.  By turning on this feature when your child watches a show, you are ensuring important exposure to print even when your child is not reading a book.  Please!  This is a small thing to do that can make a big's a great way to painlessly increase a child's sight word vocabulary and reading fluency!

Filling the days with piles of worksheets and assignments will likely bore your child and create conflict. Keep in mind, many children can get a lot more done in less time working at home, where there are fewer bathroom breaks and transitions between classes and peer distractions.  Children learn from relationships.  Teach your child to make scrambled eggs or walk them through a family recipe.  Play board games.  Work on tying shoes.  Read aloud.  Interview an elder.  Write letters to friends.  Plant a windowsill garden.  Learn a craft on YouTube together.  Watch a classic movie together (suggestions to come). Build indoor forts, or models, or cardboard box dollhouses.  Whatever you can do is enough, whatever you have can be enough.  Don't stress.  This can be a positive and memorable time just by being as present as possible. Find your own flow and put the mental and physical health of your family first.

The internet has rich offerings during this time but also potential pitfalls.  Have a conversation about screen time and phone use at the outset.  Especially with older kids, come up with a plan you can agree upon and a cut-off time for phone usage to avoid conflict as the days wear on.  While we don't want to isolate children during the quarantine, we also don't want them to develop poor habits.  Increased unsupervised online activity can also be a recipe for exposure to inappropriate thematic content or contact with inappropriate strangers or online bullies.  Check histories, activate filters and put screens where activity can be monitored.

TALK TO YOUR CHILD ABOUT THE NEWS.  In middle school library classes, we have been talking about citing sources and the credibility of what we read, where information comes from and considering the viability of who is speaking or writing.  Who do we believe?  What makes information fact and what makes something an opinion?  Use the news that the children encounter online and on television to continue that conversation and to mitigate fears during this stressful time.

ENCOURAGE JOURNALING.  Children can keep a personal diary of life during this time or make a daily family newspaper.  Remember, this is an unprecedented time.  Remind kids they are living the history we read about.  Their stories matter and will matter.

GIVE YOUR CHILD THE RECESS WE CAN'T.  Your child loves, craves and needs physical activity.  Because of mandates of the way time is spent during a school day, we can't give them the long recess they developmentally deserve.  You can.  Long, long walks and bike rides are encouraged while keeping social distancing. It will help focus and mood.  Recognizing that many parents work; do it as you're able.

IT'S OKAY TO BE A LITTLE BORED.  While it is helpful to have art supplies and books and resources within your child's reach, it is not your job as a parent to fill and schedule every moment.  A little down-time fosters creativity, imagination and autonomy...and reading!  Speaking of...

Comic books are real reading.  Sports magazines are real reading.  Cookbooks are real reading.  Books on tape are real listening (and reading, if you get a copy of read along).  Picture books are real reading and promote visual literacy.  Read-aloud across the grade levels is one of the most academically beneficial things you can do for your child during this and any time.  Even when your child knows how to read, reading aloud with your child following along in the book (you can run your fingers under the word as you read) does wonders and also fosters positive connections with books and with you. Additional and specific book recommendation blasts from the recent past I have recommended to my own students may be found herehere and here, and on my personal children's book review website you're reading right here, but again, access to specific titles is going to differ from house to house during the quarantines and there are no wrong choices.  Your assignment:  read what you have and read for fun.

SET REASONABLE GOALS IN READING AND ALL THINGS.  Try a Book Bingo (sample card here, but tons from which to choose).  Or create a reading batting average (picture book = single, nonfiction = double, chapter book = triple, classic finished as a family = home run; use the sport of your choice and the categories of your choice).  Or, how many award-winners (or any genre) can you read?   Small, attainable steps toward a goal or open-ended achievements build confidence.

ADDITIONAL HOMESCHOOLING ONLINE RESOURCES below!  Try not to be overwhelmed; remember, you don't have to do them all or any of them at all, they are tools to be used if needed.  An "assignment" might be for children themselves to explore five a day and write "reviews."

Free Reading Websites for Kids

Starfall (good for primary, some free, some premium)

ABCYA!  (online reading games)


(Whoa!  Brought to us by

(Arts courses.  Ms. Esme takes a class here!  Good for older kids)

(recipes and information from every country in the world!)

Homeschooling on Pinterest

When I wrote How to Get Your Child to Love Reading, it was with the heartfelt, almost religious belief that children's trade literature and read-aloud was our best hope for equalizing education. I wanted to give every family the tools to be a supporting character in a child's reading life story, no matter what their socioeconomic background might be.  It was marketed as a parenting book, but it really, it came from my lesson plan book.  I have been a fifth grade teacher, a homeschooling mom and now a K-8 school librarian with the Chicago Public Schools for over a dozen years. I still know quality children's literature has the potential to give every child a solid elementary education, in or out of the school building.  You can temporarily access this book for free during the COVID-19 crisis here.  

Teachers, librarians and parents are all partners in education. The closing of schools is a call to cooperation.  I hope this guide and PlanetEsme, which has been recommending books since 1999 and offers hundreds of free book reviews right here via this blog, will be useful, inspiring and empowering to you and your family during this challenging time.  

Wishing you health and the enjoyment of books and one another from my home to yours.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

You Don't Have to Be Jewish

It has unfortunately recently come to my attention during the course of a six hour workshop about diversity in children's literature by a high-profile and impactful sponsor, no books representing Jewish people were included.  My understanding is that when a participant questioned the exclusion, it was pointed out that the recommendations also did not include obsese or old people, either; time was limited, not every group can be included.

Well, the Tree of Life synagogue shooting that happened in Pittsburgh less than a year ago didn't happen because people were obese.  And the attack on the San Diego synagogue this spring wasn't because people were old.  I appreciate that not every religious group can be represented at book recommendation events, but the timing of such exclusions is questionable. If any other racial or ethnic group marginalized in our history were excluded from the lists at the same time that mass marches were actively happening to call for their eradication byWhite Supremacist and other hateful groups, well, what would you call that?  Poor timing?  Outrageous?  Or something else?

Tzivia MacLeod has written a very brave article, Dear Diversity: Are Jews Allowed? which references another separate scenario of exclusion.  

Respectfully, to professionals: please. Find the room, find the time.  Whether Jewish or not, inclusion of this literature in collection development conversations is more than religious representation.  It's respectful acknowledgement of the backgrounds of some of the most seminal contributors to the genre:  Maurice Sendak, the Reys, The Hobans, The Zemachs, Judith Viorst, Judy Blume, Shel Silverstein, R.L. Stine, Judith Kerr, Julius Lester,  Mordicai Gerstein to name a very few. It is an acknowledgement of the fact that Jewish American contribution is American history, extending broadly and meaningfully into the secular American world.   But more than that, as is the battle cry of diversity in children's literature:  all children deserve to see themselves represented on the shelves.  Further, all children deserve access to quality literature that reflects people different from themselves.  Holes in collection diversity are holes in preparing students for encounters with the human diversity that with any luck and effort will demarcate the 21st century as much as any technology, so if you have no Jewish kids at your school, you need Jewish children's books even more. If you are a teacher or librarian and you do not have books representing Jewish people in your collection, there is a lack in the diversity of your collection.

So, what's the fix? 

The first thing to do is probably get acquainted with The Sydney Taylor Award list, which is kind of like a Jewish Newbery given by the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL).  A committee of professionals determine "outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience," not unlike the Coretta Scott King Award and Pura Belpré award for their respective representations.  The authors and illustrators do not have to be Jewish to receive the Sydney Taylor award. The AJL has a handy annotated list of all winners since the award's inception in 1968, which is an education in itself. 

A less extensive but very thoughtful list is the Love Your Neighbor:  AJL Recommends Jewish Books for All Readers compilation (full discloure: one of my books, Vive la Paris, now out-of-print, appears on this list, and has also received a Sydney Taylor Honor). These titles can be organically integrated into character education programming.  One of my favorite articles I have read is "Is The Rainbow Fish Jewish?" by Heidi Estrin.  Written for Jewish educators, it is a powerful testament to the overlapping of values found in vibrant children's literature to be embraced by many faiths. Rachel Kamin, an esteemed and active AJL committee member and reviewer, along with her colleagues, compiled a beautiful and extensive list of Jewish Stars:  Recommended Books with Jewish Themes for Schools and Libraries that deserves the attention of anyone adding Jewish identity to the diversity of their collections.  And the Book of Life is a long-running, fun and informative podcast hosted by Heidi Rabinowitz for anyone interested in Jewish literature for young people.  

I am the lucky librarian in a racially, ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse school in Chicago and am acutely aware of the balancing act between presenting diversity and separation of church (and synagogue and mosque) and state.  But the bottom line is, a good story belongs to everybody.  These are just a few titles I personally use successfully in my programming over the years with the children I serve. I hope you will share yours in the comments section.

All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor.  The name Sydney Taylor comes up a lot in conversations about Jewish children's literature because she was "the first children's author to write books about Jewish people that were read by mainstream America" (Cummins, 2014). She started the series in 1951, a chummy plum of realistic fiction that finally depicted Jewishness as a matter-of-fact in the course of the daily adventures. To me, it's kind of like The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 of Jewish literature.  Throughout, there's feeling that family is the world, but the rest of the world is still there, too. For better or worse. 

Taylor also was pioneering in the way she wrote about urban life, a family crowded into a small apartment, relatable to many of my students.  The exciting, funny, emotional, episodic chapters are devour-able, thank goodness she wrote more than one. Fans of old-fashioned book candy a la Beverly Cleary and Betsy-Tacy series will rejoice.  The series holds up like a good TCM movie: classic. 

King Matt the First by Janusz Korczak is the story of a boy king who rules over a country of children while the grown-ups make a mess of their own.  By page two of a read-aloud, my fifth graders were hooked.  Whether being in the trenches of war with his foul-mouthed roughneck bestie Felek, building life-sized dolls to fool his jealous advisors, trying to ingratiate himself through dispersal of chocolate or traveling the world to find an unlikely guest for his meeting of a children's parliament, this book is a masterwork of cliffhangers.  It also contains some of the most nuanced, profound and entertaining characters in children's literature.  Popular as Peter Pan in parts of Europe, it is largely unknown here in the states, which is a great loss to be ameliorated.

Korczak's real life story is legendary, and ultimately tragic.  He was a Polish pediatrician during WWII who ran orphanages in Warsaw (and really did try an innovative children's parliament as described in the book in that setting).  Korczak had many opportunities to escape the Nazis but elected to stay with his charges, and died with them at Treblinka.  Every time I read this book, I can feel Korczak loving those children and trying to prepare them for the difficulties of this imperfect world.  He wrote and read aloud these words as a gift to the children he loved, children he was trying to distract from suffering with the joy and excitement of these great adventures. And now, almost a hundred years later, the words can come from your lips to the children you care about, and they still work their magic.  A miraculous legacy of read-aloud. 

Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories by Issac Bashevis Singer, illustrated by Maurice Sendak.  Written by the master storyteller, my students have thrilled and laughed raucously to this read-aloud, favorites being "Fool's Paradise," the story of a family who tricks a bridegroom into believing he has died and gone to Heaven in order to help him appreciate his life on Earth; "The First Shlemiel" which is a slapstick series of events gone wrong with culminating hilarity and forgiveness; and then the cover story, Zlateh the Goat, in which a goat saves a boy's life in a winter's storm.  There is also "The Snow in Chelm," an introductory story to the town in literature that is famous for its wise fools, though exploration of this may be better served in Singer's wider collection, Stories for Children.   To introduce children to Singer's work is to introduce children to truly graceful narrative and a gentle view of humanity.  


Less gentle but just as important: The Devil in Vienna by Doris Orgel and Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy.  If the only books that represent Jewish people in your collection take place during the Holocaust, that would be as much of a mistake as only representing African Americans in the context of slavery.  That said, it is an important chapter in history shared by all humankind, and there are some remarkable children's books set against this backdrop.  Two of the finest are, inexcusably, out of print, one of them being The Devil in Vienna by Doris Orgel, a brilliant translator and author whose own family escaped Vienna during the war.  She does such a resonating job of depicting the painful cleaving of a friendship between Jewish Inge and Leiselotte, daughter of a Jewish S.S. officer.  It is easy for children today to imagine the strain between the two friends, and the ultimate loss.

"In 1945 the war ended.  the Germans surrendered and the ghetto was liberated.  Out of over a quarter of a million people,  about 800 walked out of the ghetto.  Of those who survived, only twelve were children.  I was one of those twelve."  Yellow Star was written by the niece of one of these twelve, composing the unthinkable story into an accessible verse memoir that does the honest and tricky work of presenting what really happened to the Jewish people during World War II while still being readable and appropriate with guidance for middle-grade readers.  A masterful introduction, and in tandem with The Devil in Vienna, they do highly effectual work in teaching students about the human experience in this most inhumane context. 

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Hershel has agreed to spend eight nights in the synagogue and rid the town of Ostropol from the goblins plaguing their Hanukkah celebrations. Part ghost story, part holiday story, and decorated with both hilarious and beautiful illustrations by the inimitable Caldecott-winning Trina Schart Hyman,  this is the favorite, favorite,  favorite annual classic read-aloud for my second grade; I show the children menorahs, dreidels and chocolate gelt to allow children who are not Jewish to understand the objects referenced, and then we all play dreidel, dance the hora and draw pictures of our own goblins.  This is what I mean when I say story belongs to everybody.   More mystical Jewish fun may also be found in reprint of the classic The Rabbi and the Twenty-Nine Witches by Marilyn Hirsh, one of my own childhood favorites.  

You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Andre Carillho, is the story of the great New York Dodgers pitcher so dedicated to his faith that he would not come to the mound during the 1965 World Series on the highest Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, even in the face of great discrimination. Biographies are a great place to start with sharing Jewish history and identity, and they can be read aloud across the grade levels.  Besides, there are so many good ones: I Dissent:  Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley;  Brave Girl:  Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet; Sholom's Treasure: How Sholom Aleichem Became a Writer by Erica Silverman, illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein; Through the Window:  Views of Marc Chagall's Life and Art by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mary Grandpré; Write on, Irving Berlin!:  How An Immigrant Boy Made America Sing by Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by David C. Gardener, to name a very few, many more cited on the lists referenced above and out there in the world, including one of my very favorites: 


Emma's Poem by Linda Glaser, illustrated by Claire A. Nivola, the wonderful story of Emma Lazarus and how she came to compose the words on the base of the Statue of Liberty, "The New Colossus," which famously begins, "Give me your titred, your poor, your huddled masses/yearning to breathe free..."  Every young citizen deserves to know this story and that a Jewish woman is behind this national invitation.  It is a great story to begin a school year with, but also perfect for integration into units about immigration which also often happen around Thanksgiving, an occasion to read another Jewish classic, Molly's Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen, though I usually elect instead to share the Oscar-winning video adaptation of the book, a little pricey but worth it and along the lines of Eleanor Estes' masterpiece The Hundred Dresses as far as fodder for discussion of bigotry and empathy.  Here is the trailer:

Finally, Bagels from Benny by Aubrey Davis, illustrated by Dusan Petricic, which I share with children just because it is a book I happen to love.  In an effort to show gratitude to his God, Benny hides bagels in the Holy Ark of the temple.  The bagels disappear, and Benny's grandfather is outraged at the sacrilege.  But where are the bagels actually going?  This tear-jerker is about the connection between people's idea of God and the more earthly ideas of gratitude and service, the idea of tikkun olam, acts of kindness performed that honor and are in keeping with one's faith; like the Golden Rule, a concept embraced by caring people of all religions and all non-religions, and certainly by children.

By sharing these kind of stories, children will learn important words like "synagogue," "rabbi," "mazel tov," "mitzvah," "Shabbos,"even latke and dreidel, vocabulary that I do not believe will invite conversion any more than reading a book about a child in a hijab will make someone a Muslim or seeing an illustration of a Christmas tree will make someone a Christian, but it will in fact allow children to navigate in a friendly, knowledgeable, tolerant and compassionate manner amongst people of a particular group who may be different in some way from themselves. I would think that would be a general objective for the education of all children.  

To suggest "well, we also didn't include people who are heavy" when talking about limiting our conversations about diversity is unfortunately an utterly nonsensical answer; think of it being offered to any other racial or ethnic group.  It is logically flawed.  An old person used to be young, and a heavy or thin person might change their weight, but regardless of religious practice, Jewish heritage is part of an unchangeable identity. As sure as African American, Native American, Latinx or Asian people have unhappy stories of American aggression and "otherness," so do Jewish people. And in conversations about diversity in children's literature and allowing children to see themselves reflected in the literature they read, to exclude Jewish children's literature, particularly at this juncture of revisited history, is irresponsible at best and a form of ethnic erasure at worst. It is especially ugly juxtaposed with the publishing world's flood of salable, sometimes platitude-filled pablum about empathy.  Kindness is as kindness does, and the word is a living thing.  Read and develop collections with g'milut chasadim, or loving kindness, in deed as well as in mind.  My wish for the Jewish New Year.  


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