Book Review: Kent State

A wife of a teaching colleague sent along her copy of Kent State, by Deborah Wiles, many months ago, with a recommendation that I read it, and there it sat, until last week. I had not an inkling that the anniversary of the shooting of college students by the National Guard was even approaching, never mind the 50th anniversary (which is today), when I picked it up last week. I only had a gap in my reading list, and the book filled a need.

Talk about good timing for a book and a historic event.

I was immediately drawn in by the experimental use of voice in this well-researched book by Wiles, who taps into the concept of the collective Greek Chorus, of giving voice to various factions of the time and place, through use of font style, size and page placement. The way the page looks helps to tell the story. Although somewhat a free verse novel, the passages don’t read like poems, more like gathered voices standing on the page, arguing points about what happened at Kent State on May 4, 1970.

We read/hear different student perspectives (the calm voice of sadness and the frustrated voice of anger; the Black voice of student protest wading into the racial contours of America’s response to the white college students killed by gunfire by the American government); the townspeople (irate businessman and scared mother of small children, the one who remembers the military helicopters most of all); and the National Guardsmen, too, explaining how young they were and how chaotic the college protest was for them.

These voices weave in and out of each other, as the story of Kent State unfolds over a weekend, starting with unrest on the campus over Vietnam and the federal and state government, leading to the shooting on campus that shocked and rattled the nation. Wiles explains at the end of the book how she spent a lot of time with oral biographies and with personal interviews, to capture the tension and confusion, the anger and regret, the voices of the times for her book, and her effort to be true to the event and the people shows.

There is no single point of view in Kent State, as there should not be although we often only know the story of soldiers killing college students, thanks in part to the song “Ohio” by Crosby Stills Nash & Young (a song that my band still plays).

This short but powerful book ends, as it begins, with a call to the reader (to us) to show empathy to all sides of the tragic event, and to be the one (you, I, us) who helps make the changes that make for a better nation.

We hope you’re
on fire
for change
for hope
for love

I would say this book is most appropriate for high school, but some upper middle school readers might enjoy it, too. It could easily find a home in a Social Studies/American History classroom, as an example of how to turn research into a work of experimental art.

Peace (today and every day),

Picture Book Review: Let The Children March

One of the many topics that come up when I read Christopher Paul Curtis’ novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963 is the role of young people in the civil rights movement. Although the novel never references the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, the movie adaptation does, through the memory of some cousins of the Watson children, and so we spend time discussing how young people took the streets in protest, were attacked by police with fire canons and dogs, and were sent to jail by the hundreds.

Let The Children March, a picture book by author Monica Clark-Robinson and illustrator Frank Morrison is a powerful text companion to those discussions. With brilliant visuals and an engaging story (plus, a valuable timeline of 1963 in Alabama during the Civil Rights era), the book brings to the surface the courage of the kids who took to the streets, the wariness and worry of the parents who allowed the march (code-named D Day and Double D Day) to happen, and the movement leaders who accepted that children being arrested would create tension for the Kennedy White House to finally act against segregation.

The picture book centers on a narrator voice of a child who takes part in the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, but it more of a universal voice, advocating for change against unjust rules and putting the self in danger to force confrontation against a police force that was part of the problem, not the solution.

I appreciate how Let The Children March gives those young marchers a voice, and also, explores the results of the march (which the scenes in the Watsons movie does not do because of the time frame). President Kennedy did get involved after getting pressure from the country and the world. Birmingham did end official segregation (if not racial violence, as the bombing of the church that forms the center of the Watsons novel shows. Change happened, even if the results of those actions are still something we continue to reckon with as a country.

Peace (for all),

Book Review: One Long River of Song (Notes on Wonder)

Luminous, is the word I would use to describe some of the essays in this collection by Brian Doyle, a writer I was not familiar with until reading One Long River of Song.

This book, which I borrowed from the library but now feel so entranced by it that I am probably going to buy a copy for myself, was mentioned somewhere in a review, caught my eye, and so I kept it on my radar (I have lots of books on my radar).

Lucky me. While Doyle apparently is well known in many circles as an essayist of renown, exploring spiritual matters (one of his gigs was with a Catholic journal, I believe), which sort of would turn me off from him if things veered too religious, the collected pieces here are full of humor, insight, reflection, quiet, family and more. The spiritual aspects are more a sense of shared humanity.

Yes, there is a deeper spiritual nature and some references to religious beliefs to Doyle’s pieces, but these elements allow him to step back and look at the larger world with, as the subtitle says, Notes on Wonder. From the natural world (he is particularly attuned to Hawks and birds, and a piece about hummingbirds to start the collection is exquisite) to the unanticipated pleasures of parenthood (he and his wife were told they would not have children, and then had three) to growing up in a bustling family (one essay about biking to the beach along the highway, only to be saved from near death by an older brother is touching), to conversations with friends and strangers that become small odes of intensive observation, Doyle is a writer of note.

I am sad to report that this collection, curated by his wife and put into context by a writing friend, David James Duncan, whose foreword is a moving piece of textual friendship, was published following Doyle’s death from brain cancer. And yet, even the later pieces, in which he writes about leaving this life, Doyle somehow finds the right words to touch your heart, to be grateful for what you have in the moment you are in. One particular late essay in which he imagines what his wife thinks of him, through his own strange wanderings and mutterings, is touching, funny, and so deep with humanity.

As part of my own reading life, I often take passages and sentences that I deem to be beautiful or enriching, and share them out elsewhere under a #smallquotes tag. It’s a way for me to remember my reading, and honor the writers, but also, in typing out the passages from the books, I learn more about how to be a writer myself. Doyle has been a wonderful teacher, in this regard, giving me so many beautiful passages and flowing sentences that I could have easily found dozens in this book.

I wasn’t aware of Brian Doyle when he was alive and a vibrant writer of novels, essays, poems and more, but this collection of pieces has brought him and his words into my world, into my heart, and for that, I am grateful.

Peace (flowing on the page),

Book Review: How To (Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems)

You’d probably be better off searching YouTube for how to really take a selfie, win an election, build a highway, charge your phone, cross a river, predict the weather, build a lava moat, dig a hole and the whole host of other both odd and common topics that pepper Randall Munroe’s recent book, How To (Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problem).

But it wouldn’t likely be nearly as much fun.

If you know Munroe’s work (through his xkcd comics and other books), then you know that his brain is wired with both logic and humor, and both are sure to get you laughing while you’re thinking. Or is it thinking while you’re laughing?

In either case, you’ll be doing both.

With math and science at his fingertips, and with plenty of his signature stick doodles to pepper the pages, Monroe tackles a wide range of issues with practicality and impracticality. If you are a teacher like me, you’ll quickly realize that this kind of expository/informational writing could potentially become a neat and interesting model for students to explore.

Nothing Monroe shares here is untrue (as far as I can tell) and much of it is written in clear, concise language (for the most part), and the illustrations connect to the text (if in funny tones) — so what if this kind of book becomes a sort of mentor text for teaching this kind of technical writing?

Even if not, this book is certainly worth your time. There’s even a final chapter on “How To Dispose of This Book.” You could send it to the Sun, bury it deep into the earth, put it beneath the ocean floor or just hand it over to a friend to read. Whatever’s easier.

Peace (stick people rule!),

Book Review: Vintage Innovation

As someone who has followed John Spencer for a few years, I have enjoyed the ways he explains innovation, design, teaching and learning. His latest book — Vintage Innovation (Leveraging Retro Tools and Classic Ideas to Create Meaningful Learning) — revisits some of his previous ideas around project-based learning and design cycles, but he looks at it through the idea of student inquiry dependent less on technology and new-fangled digital tools, and more on duct tape, cardboard and deep thinking.

His aim, or my take-away, is to remember that technology may be flashy and the “thing” in the moment — maybe something to hook the interest of our students — but in looking to what’s new, let’s not forget what has worked, and to revisit those “vintage” concepts in the age of the new.

The book explores concepts of integrating more divergent thinking that opens up wonder (as opposed to convergent thinking, which narrows the focus); encouraging students to be local historians and local journalists in their own communities through writing, interviews and publishing; tapping the power of imagination to think through and grapple difficult problems; reaching for the duct tape and cardboard before the laptop and phone; and more. John peppers the pages with his own illustrations, his own stories and his own sense of writing self, which is curious, compassionate and quite lighthearted and funny at times.

Three concepts really stood out for me after reading Vintage Innovation.

The first idea stems from the chapter in which John reminds us that nature and the outdoors provides plenty of ways to think about design (bio-mimicry), to inspire writing, to consider projects to help the larger world, and to use the quiet long walks or getting lost in the wild to mull over problems and solutions, all on their own time. (As a facilitator of the Write Out project, this entire chapter of his is right up our alley.)

Second, John spends a solid chapter reminding us that the teaching of Philosophy soft skills is as important, if not more so, than many of the harder skills of the STEM framework — that the philosophical underpinning of students thinking about problems, and devising solutions, can guide student innovators into ethical and important decisions about which path to take, and it is that point in which technology and other things may be tools for design. (If only Zuckerberg and company had done more of this …)

The final take-away for me is his powerful message that, at the end of the day, teachers are the most important player in helping our students grapple with modern day problems, not screens; that the ability to challenge critical thinking is something that can create magic in the classroom, beyond anything a website or app can do; and that the tools for innovation are easy found, and require neither elaborate MakerSpaces, 3D printers or any of the other expensive hardware that technology companies pitch our way.

“Apps change. Gadgets break. Technology grows obsolete. But teachers will continue to take creative risks and experiment with new ideas. They will continue to build relationships and inspire new possibilities in their students. When our tools have grown obsolete, teachers will continue to impact lives and change the world.” — John Spencer, in Vintage Innovation, page 224

Peace (in people),

Book Review: Rain Reign

How can you not love Rose Howard, the protagonist of Ann Martin’s beautiful novel, Rain Reign? How can you not wonder at her voice, at how she sees the world through the lens of a young person with Asperger’s? How can you not obsess along with her on her quest to find homonyms as a way to make sense of language — her list is ever-growing and her discoveries are scenes of celebration — and the chaotic world? How can you not love her dog, Rain, and worry when Rain runs away in the hurricane raging outside?

You can’t, and you won’t.

Rose is such a unique character that her passions and her sense of justice and injustice guides the story forward, even as her father slowly comes apart, and Rose’s whole world spins out of control, the very last thing that we need to happen to Rose.

If you are a teacher, as I am, you know Rose. You know the single-minded sense of the world that some students bring to the classroom, and you know the struggles to help students like Rose grow and flourish, even when the unpredictability of the world comes crashing in on them.

Losing your dog is traumatic. Losing your dog in a storm, even more so. Losing your dog, knowing your own father might be the one responsible for the loss, is something Rose grapples with, confronts her exasperated and overwhelmed father with, never quite makes peace with, even when she does find her dog, Rain, and must make a moral decision about Rain.

There’s a lot left unsaid in this novel, about Rose’s mother (gone but not how Rose thought) and her father, a man not emotionally equipped to deal with a child with Asperger’s. There were moments when I was genuinely worried about Rose in the presence of her father. There were times when I wanted to give Rose a hug for all the baggage she carries with her and to bring her kind uncle to the scene to rescue her if I could not. Rose felt real in my mind and my heart, and what more can you say about a book, right?

Peace (rains and reigns),


WMWP: Takeaways After Reading ‘White Fragility’

Our Western Massachusetts Writing Project leadership team is reading White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo and we will be having a book discussion next week, facilitated by one of our WMWP colleagues. It’s a book on my radar for some time because it has been mentioned so often in so many circles, so to read it knowing we will be discussing it together as a group of teachers is helpful. (DiAngelo, who is white, is a diversity trainer, brought into companies and organizations to confront racism and she brings many stories into the book of how difficult those conversations can be).

It became clear rather quickly that I am a target audience, all the way. White male. Living in a neighborhood that is predominantly white. Grew up in an apartment complex, predominantly white. I teach at a suburban school, predominantly white.

DiAngelo’s book frames such white experiences in a way that makes sense — once you let your defenses down — but it takes courage to step back and see it as it is. Even if we suggest we are open-minded and not racist, her message is that our culture is, inescapably, and therefore, we, the white population with much of the social power and financial capital, bring that history and those societal influences to the table with every single interaction we have.

I appreciated the various ways DiAngelo names these things, such as the defensive reactions that white people have when called out for saying something hurtful, or the excuses white progressives have for why they are not racists, or the way we use “color-blind” as our defense, or the various triggers for white people when race becomes a topic of conversation, and more.

Honestly, I started the book thinking, I won’t see much of myself in there. (And double-honest, this was not my first choice from our list of possible texts — I had hoped we would read the New York Times series about the start of slavery — The 1619 Project) I consider myself rather progressive. I am leader in WMWP, which espouses social justice and works race and equity into our programs. I teach my young white students to question the world. I run a diverse summer camp project in our large urban center. I have my own personal history, in which I was the only white soldier in a military platoon of black soldiers, the outsider for a long time. And on and on.

I was wrong. I saw myself all over the place in White Fragility.

This is her whole point.

If we don’t intentionally notice and own up to our views, we will never make progress, never take forward steps. She suggests that no white person will ever be free of racism — it’s engrained too deep in our society — but that we can make progress in addressing those issues, in making amends when we make mistakes, and in looking deeper at ourselves, not blaming others.

We live in a time — The Time of Trump — when the very issues that she writes about – defensiveness, blaming the other, turning racism around, ignoring the inequities, fear — seems to be on the front page, every day, either overtly or inferential, and on the political stage. with regularity. If Stephen Miller is whispering in your ear and if Breitbart is your alt-right source for news, then the world is skewed and will remain so.

But voting out Trump won’t change the racial currents of our country. Maybe some of DiAngelo’s suggestions can help make a different on a small scale, person to person, and that is ultimately where change can happen. Maybe it starts in our classrooms. Or so we can hope.

Peace (digs deep),

Graphic Novel Review: Amazons, Abolitionists and Activitists (A Graphic History of Women’s Fight for Their Rights)

Amazons, Abolitionists and Activists (A Graphic History of Women’s Fight For Their Rights) by Mikki Kendall and A. D’Amico is a powerful statement about the past and ongoing struggles by women to find equal footing with men in the world, or even respect (we still see this playing on political stage, don’t we?). I could not even begin to list the dozen and dozens of women who are profiled in this dense and packed illustrated book.

Suffice it to say, this graphic novel — told through a narrative lens of a group of young women learning from a mentor about the many women who have fought for change on gender issues¬† — covers a lot of ground. Many of the profiled women — politicians, warriors, tribal leaders, cultural icons, everyday people — come to the reader in short biographical sketches, with just enough information to spark an interest that could lead to further reading or inspiration to take action.

Seen through this larger quilt of historical perspective, one realizes just how many brave women — of all races and of many countries — have risked their lives to ensure a better path for the generations behind them. And even with many modern day gains, there are a still many glaring gaps in equality. There is still work for all of us — women and men and as the book notes, transgender people, too — to push for a better world for all of us.

The book also repeatedly reminds us of how our history books so often, too often, ignore women’s role and leadership in the stories told of the past, or reduced powerful women to mere figures of compliance to the men around them. This book seeks to counter that narrative.

“Welcome to the history you clearly never learned,” the mentor/teacher/guide tells the group of young women. “You’re where you need to be. Pay attention.”

My complaint upon finishing the book is that it felt as if there was so much information, so many women to be admired, so many situations and conflicts to learn about, so many countries with such different histories, and so many pages jam-packed with wonderful art and images … that it began to feel like a blur to me. I ended up forcing myself to read shorter sections at a time, to put the book down for a day or even a few hours, and return to it with a fresh and attentive mind.

This graphic novel would be appropriate for high school and above, although much of it is also appropriate for middle school.

Peace (in the push for equal rights),

Graphic Novel Review: This Place (150 Years Retold)

There may not be a more beautiful pushback against a prevailing cultural narrative than This Place (150 Years Retold), a collection of graphic stories that dig deep into the indigenous peoples of Canada, and all the myriad of ways their lands have been stolen from them, and their heritage, reduced.

I am neither Canadian nor indigenous to the soil I live on, so I openly profess much ignorance and little knowledge of the background of these stories. Alas, I can hear the echoes in the ways my own country has treated Native Indian tribes here, and in the ways other natives of other lands were treated when white Europeans stepped ashore and decided the land was theirs. The pattern of removal from communities, abuse in state-sponsored schools and foster homes, the theft of language, forced assimilation and more is a terribly familiar one.

It’s hard for me here to capture the powerful scope and artistic merit of this collection. So let me say that the variety of graphic novelists here — there are 10 different stories — have different styles — some more modern than others, even as they tell of ancient tales — that neatly connect together the narrative of a people constantly being pushed to the brink by the Canadian government.

The stories almost always center on the people, and the mystical nature of people and the land come through in ways that tap into the creative power of comics and graphic arts. The medium does justice to the stories, as the stories inspire the push at the edges of the medium.

The editors also enacted a brilliant move to complement the stories. They included a running timeline that begins in the 1860s and stretches to the current day by the last story (which is a look ahead into the future of the tribes). I learned more about Canada than I ever knew. What emerges in this collection is a love of tribal nations, the skills of powerful tribal leaders, and a love of the land and of the past, even as both are systematically encroached upon with relentless might of the government.

This Place (150 Years Retold) is appropriate for high school students and older, and it would be a powerful supplement to any historical inquiry into Canada as a nation, or to a study of native people pushing back against assimilation. In the ideal world, this graphic novel collection would not even be the supplement, at all, but would be the main text. But I know that day is probably still far off from this day. Until then, linger on the stories.

Peace (in the lands and people),

Book Review: Book Love (Comics by Debbie Tung)

A few years ago, I reviewed a book called Book Love by Penny Kittle, which is all about how to instill a love of reading in students. It’s a wonderful book, full of insights and wisdom and ideas. And perfectly titled.

Along comes Book Love, by Debbie Tung, which is a collection of comics about loving books (and tea), from the view of a passionate reader and collector of books, and self-described introvert. And perfectly titled.

I love that we all love books so much. Tung’s small book collection of her comics explores her passion about stories and reading. I saw myself in way too many of her comics, but maybe that is not a bad thing. Each page here is a different comic, and most come from her Tumblr site, focused on books and tea (she loves to drink tea when she reads).

Here, you see her character (her) refusing to pass by a bookstore without either gawking at the window or going in (and coming out with a book or two or three). You see her praising libraries as the most perfect public space imaginable. You see her passing books to friends (and worrying that the books won’t get returned). You see her bringing books with her everywhere … just in case a minute or two frees up for some reading.¬† You see her worrying that movie versions of books she loves will ruin the stories and characters in her head. You see her choosing paper books over digital books, for the tangible nature of bound stories (and her fascination with the smell of real books).

If you’re like me, you see yourself.

Book Love is a quick read, but a lovely one.

Peace (beyond books),