Marc Aronson's Blog, page 4

March 23, 2012

In my CC talks I often say the third C in Common Core is "collaboration" — within the school the librarian and the teachers need to work together; publishers whose books juxtapose well need to realize they are not in a zero-sum fight for shelf space. I still believe that, but recently my attention has shifted to a fourth C, curriculum. Right now — as any of you who teach in, have kids in, or work with classes from middle school up know — coverage is king. As Myra has said, her teachers are required — according to a Scope and Sequence no one believes in — to teach "from Plato to Nato." Why? One reason is tests — you can't skip something a kid might need to be able to identify and define. Another, at least in my field of history and social studies, is that we've lost any idea of our narrative. The Culture Wars of the 20th century ended in compromise: we were not going to teach our kids Western Civ, or American Values, to the exclusion of World Cultures, or American Crimes. No, we just added on more — so students and teachers are responsible for more, with less sense of why.

Along comes CC, which, especially now when the standards for reading, writing, and thinking are in place and standards for content are still being developed, asks teachers and students to keep deep instead of wide. In other words that whole "coverage" model is in direct conflict with, for example, the repeated focus on student research, student writing, student thinking. A class galloping ahead from Holocaust to H Bomb via Internment Camps (3 days, 3 topics) is precisely the opposite of a class in which students encouter, wrestle with, debate, absorb, investigate, and articulate well-founded views on the past. To get from one kind of class to the other requires changing curriculum.

Looking over the middle school SS scope and sequence at several schools recently I noticed an obvious absence. Any author knows that it matters how you begin — a book, a chapter, a paragraph. You need a hook. So what is the hook for each unit? All of the material I saw begins with whatever ideas and events the teacher is to cover. Why not, as in a book, begin each unit with a scene setter — the teacher fully evokes some key moment, You Are There, uses that experience to prompt responses from students (which will surely be all over the map). The responses are posted on the blackboard. The class covers the unit over the following weeks, then returns to their initial responses at the end — returning to see what has changed in their understanding. Engage, question, debate, investigate, learn, debate again, move on.

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Published on March 23, 2012 04:03 • 13 views

March 21, 2012

By fortunate coincidence, just at the Hunger Games tsunami is hitting young people, my YA Materials class pulled in to Dystopia Station — Maze Runner; Ship Breaker; The Hunger Games; Feed. Rereading the four novels even as merchandizers hawk Hunger Games nail polish made me think about why dystopia is so popular — and how that relates to NF. I have three theories — tell me what you think.

The New: I grew up in the 1950s and 60s when the idea of the new was powerful and positive: Our Friend the Atom — soon the miracle of atomic power would bring cheap, clean energy to world; Civil Rights — we were changing the world; the Moon — we were launching into the great adenture of space travel; Woodstock/music/generation gap — though angry and fraught there was also a sense of rising power — we could sweep the old away and create the better, the new, the beautiful. In one sense the new is still with us: the lines around the block for the Ipad3; the demand that the iphone5 be so much more advanced than the 4e, etc. The scramble to get the latest and greatest — which indeed can do many more tricks than last year's discarded model — is on. And yet there is no sense of a horizon after which the climate will settle, wars will end, the economy will boom, a next generation with right our wrongs. The new has changed from a dream to a product — a product who shelf life is only as long as the next production cycle.

The amusment park of the mind: Maze Runner and Ship Breaker, especially, strike me as action adventures more like amusement parks, video games, or movies than books. There are only barely and incidentaly about characters — the invention is nearly entirely in plot — just like an amusement park ride there are hairpin turns, swoops up and down, terrifying technicolor moments, screams, and chills, and so much rush you can't wait to get back on again. In one way the line by line writing is frustratingly bad — almost amateur compared to, say, Feed. But in another there is this dynamic churn where book, film, game, broadcast swirl around us and sometimes, as in the Hunger Games, capture something in our moment, where American Idol crosses with footage from one war or another overseas. This brand of writing leaps from one form of media to another, carrying readers (viewers, players) along with it. Plot replaces character as the the vital, creative center of one brand of fiction.

Channels: ever since Harry Potter I have argued that the distribution channels for Megahit books are so well mapped that there will always be a next one — the system needs it.

Question: all of this leads to the question of why we need to locate our disquiet about the future, our need for thrills and chills, our craving for a Next Big Thing in fiction. In some way we are so disconnected from history that the action, however reflective of our present, must be cast ahead. We don't expect the past to tell us anything. The real is the imagined — or so it seems to me.

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Published on March 21, 2012 03:35 • 23 views

March 19, 2012

Recently many of these blogs have been about the Common Core, what it means to schools and libraries, and my various contacts and experiences in talking about CC implementation. From time to time I, and members of the INK Think Tank, have talked about authors Skyping in to schools. And over at CCBC some parallel discussions about CC and NF have gone on this month. If we step away from the particular topics there is a larger trend here that can and should mean a lot to everyone who reads this blog: we are fording that old and longstanding gap between authors and schools. For most of the 25 years I have worked in the field of literature for young readers, trade book authors only knew about author visits, and author visits — famously – were initiated by the school. So if your phone didn't ring and now school asked, you literally had no contact with schools (outside of the very limited views of your memory and your kids).

What is the picture now — schools seeking out NF, authors creating the INK TT program to explore and map out how Skype visits can be woven into classroom teaching, and behind the scenes all sorts of contacts among professors of education, librarians, curriculum developers, teachers, in which authors have a natural place. So no matter how CC goes, and no matter whether Skype is replaced tomorrow with some new and better technology, the rules have shifted. We no longer have wallflower authors waiting by the silent phone for a date; and teachers are getting the message (and having the experience) of seeing what bringing a NF author in to a class can do for them. It is too soon to say we have opened the gates, but the gates are opening — that is the big picture, and I like it.

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Published on March 19, 2012 04:24 • 24 views

March 16, 2012

The discussion theme over at the CCBC listserve has been on nonfiction — first books in the elementary years, now middle grade and high school. Woven in to that discussion — which generally wavers between people listing fave raves and broader and more thematic posts — has been concern about exactly the same issue I posted about last week: the way CC seems to favor short NF texts drawn from primary sources, especially in the upper grades. The fear raised by some on CCBC, which kind of matches what Chris Harris seems to favor, is that textbook houses and database providers will soon offer (or are already developing) the Macdonald's of NF — many happy meals of approved short passages from cannonical documents, doubtless with all sorts of handy supporting materials — such as competing essays and interpretations, along with easy-to-use skill-building frameworks for taking notes and framing reports.

I've said this before and I'll say it again — I am dubious about primary sources. It is very difficult to make sense of material from another era — context is all important. I'm a trained historian and I don't go to primary sources until I feel very well grounded in secondary sources — I need to know what experts have made of something before I test myself. Otherwise I am so likely to stumble over something that has long been investigated and understood. The example I always use is "pursuit of happiness." What does that mean? Why is that phrase front and center in the most crucial of American primary source documents? What did it mean to Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams (who collaborated in drafting the DOI)? One view is that this mainly refers to property — the right to enjoy what you own. Another, ventured in Stephen Greenblatt's wonderful book Swerve, is that it is a bow to Epicurianism — which was important to Jefferson. The one thing I would not do is ask young people "what do you think it means" without giving them any tools, any context, for understanding — not, "what does it mean to you," but "what did it mean to them?"

If our books have something to offer it is something in between the document and its meaning — our hunt for answers, our insight filtered through our adult learning, our method of thought and study. I could see an interesting kind of book that offered a primary source, competing interpretations, and then a chapter in which an author who writes for those readers picks his or her way through the thicket — offering a model response. But that is not a happy meal, it is a slow exploration — better for the stomach, and the brain.

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Published on March 16, 2012 06:00 • 22 views

March 14, 2012

In my blog on "Pandemonium" I spoke about how the twin forces of the Common Core and digital publishing are rippling through schools, libraries, and publishing houses. But a series of recent conversations suggest that the epicenter of shock, and change, is even wider than I'd supposed: just as K-12 teachers are being asked to train their students in the languages and mindsets of academic professions, Ph.D. programs are facing the fact that they are dishonest with their students — there are no jobs at the end of the rainbow. There is a glorious opportunity here — so long as we are willing to change everything. Dr. Thomas Bender was my doctoral advisor years ago, and we've stayed in touch. He sent me a link to an article of his in the Chronicle of Higher Education (link here, but it is only a stub as you need a subscription to get the whole article Dr. Bender argues that the reality for many of even the best Ph.D. students in history is that they will not find jobs as history professors — so what can a university do? I'd been having similar discussions with Dr. Leonard Cassuto, a friend and neighbor who writes about similar issues in his own Chronicle column.

I'd been thinking about the grad school problem when Loree Griffin Burns skyped in to my class on nonfiction for K-12. She told us about her career path: she had her Ph.D. in Biology and was getting set to seek out a postdoc when she learned she was pregnant with twins. Casting about for what to do with herself, she realized that while she loved the work of being a scientist, she had always also wanted to communicate outside the small circle of her academic peers. Thus writing books for younger readers was not a setback, it was exploring a path she had long had in the back of her mind. What if, I thought, every Ph.D. student was required to take a Communications course while they were working on their dissertations. In this course they would gain exposure and experience in a variety of channels for reaching the public: writing books for the adult general reader, writing for K-12, teaching K-12, designing curriculum for K-12, working in museums, creating documentaries, designing edutainment games, sites and activities, etc.

The graduate students would have a better sense of where they could bring their skills and knowledge, while the general public — and the transforming K-12 world — would be infused with an ever-renewing cadre of people who have precisely the training we as a society have decided needs to be shared and expanded. We have grad students with great training but limited job prospects, and a society at large with a rapidly growing need for people with that kind of disciplinary training — all we need is eharmony for grad students — a dating service matching skills and needs. I suggest we call that a course in Communication.

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Published on March 14, 2012 03:48 • 18 views

March 12, 2012

Yesterday brought the time change and nice weather to our neck of the woods and so the boys were in an out of the house and playing an endless variety of outdoor games seemingly forever. They came in exhausted, cranky, difficult. At bedtime, it was my turn to read to our younger son and I foraged around until he remembered that he and Marina had bought a book that afternoon and he wanted me to read that. I took E.D.Hirsch's "What every Second Grader Should know" from out of the bag, and opened it up. The TOC directed me to Tall Tales and Rafi — who knows his geography — laughed and laughed at stories of how Paul Bunyan and his ox reshaped America. And this morning's paper brought this article, Dr. Hirsch seems to be everywhere.

You all must know Dr. Hirsch and his "Core Knowledge" plan. His point is that there is a certain basic cluster of content students need and that we fail students by focusing on reading itself, not what is read. He was at one time also controversial in that he was seen as an old fashioned Cultural War figure trying to steer us back to Western Civ in its most restrictive sense. A glance at Core Knowledge as it exists today will show that that is not the case. The Times article describes a study in NYC public schools in which some used the Hirsch method and some the "Balanced Reading" system developed by Teachers College. As the article explains, "The study found that second graders who were taught to read using the Core Knowledge program scored significantly higher on reading comprehension tests than did those in the comparison schools. "

Dr. Caulkins of TC objects to the nature of the study. I'm happy to let those who are skilled at parsing educational studies fight that out. But there is something appealing in the central Core Knowledge insight: "the more you know, the more you are able to learn." And if we add this study to the recent one about poverty and education, we are reminded of the ladder of knowledge public school is meant to offer. I look forward to exploring further with Rafi and thinking about what kinds of Core Knowledge he and other young readers need.

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Published on March 12, 2012 03:15 • 32 views

March 9, 2012

I'm sure many of you have read Chris Harris's thought-provoking essay, on The End of Nonfiction:

I've admired Chris from a distance over the years for his full-on plunge into technology, librarianship, and education — he seems to be totally familiar with every digital development I'm just reading about. And there are several strands in his essay that match exactly what I've been writing about here and talking about with teachers, librarians, and students all over the country: the need to get rid of the confusing name "nonfiction" — a relic of the 19th century — the difference between authors whose strength is passing on what they Know, and authors whose strength is sharing their journey as Learners (Betty Carter's helpful terms), the need that Myra and Mary Ann have articulated here to recognize the different "stances" taken by authors, and to match patrons needs not just with content ("I need a book on the Civil War") but with approach ("where are the fact books, where are the history detective books, where are the big picture scene setting, in the action books?") As his essay shows, he is seeing the same universe of challenge and opportunity we've discussed here. But.

Chris says the CC requires primary sources and short texts. Sort of. The CC is asking young people to become familiar, as early as possible, with Point of View as a necessary aspect of knowledge, and thus to become early historiographers — comparing and contrasting how one author handled evidence and argument with another. That is not a skill you can get from looking at a primary sources — they are hard to read, as they necessarily use the language of their time, and reflect the culture of their moment. To begin to evaluate and make use of evidence you need a guide — sure that is the teacher's job in class — but it is also the author's job in a book. That is not the same as telling a story, and it is not the same as providing discrete data points of information. Indeed the author's role as finder, evaluator, crafter, and sharer of evidence is crucial not merely to the learning a book can offer, but to the reading experience. That is what we need to remember about our books, they are not just another form of story, and they are not just databases of approved facts. Rather they are a set of contentions, arguments: tapestries of ideas, insights, and evidence we individuals have woven.

So I agree with Chris that we need to rethink our libraries — but not by turning reference over to the net, lumping NF story with other story, and featuring CC-approved bits of primary sources with short narratives. The heartbeat of real "knowledge books" (as one term we might use) is the individual fabric we authors weave — which serve as models for our students, as they glean bits of data and begin to feel the warp and weft of knowledge-creation. Real books have authors, whether we call those books novels, poems, plays, biographies, or theories. and it is those authors who have most to offer young people as they enter the Common Core universe.

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Published on March 09, 2012 03:50 • 20 views

March 7, 2012

Yesterday in my YA materials class we discussed humor, including Louise Rennison's very Brit Angus thongs and full-Frontal Snogging. One running phrase in the book is 14-year-old Georgia Nicolson's terror that she might be a lesbian, along with her hyper-dramatic projections that her (could she be a lesbian?) gym teacher is oggling her. This is all done in such a 14-year-old voice that the author plainly means it as raging stream of consciousness YA froth, not some actual view of sexual preference. But one student brought the larger question of why the fantasy/fear is that teachers whose own sexual preference is for their own sex are more likely to prey on young people? That reminded me of the Lavender Scare of the 1950s where hundreds of people were fired from the State Department on the grounds that they had, at some point in their lives, perhaps decades earlier, expressed sexual interest in a person of their own gender. Thus, the logic went, they were possibly subject to Soviet blackmail and should be fired. How many proven cases were there of the Soviets blackmailing a US govt. employee based on same-sex attraction?

Zero. Indeed the Soviets happily collected blackmail information on heterosexual affairs aplenty, yet that was not the narrative of the day. All of this brings me to this article in the Times: As the article explains, "One in five black boys and more than one in 10 black girls received an out-of-school suspension. Over all, black students were three and a half times as likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers." If there is a reigning belief among the administrators in a school that young black males are dangerous, that will be reflected in how they are — differentially — treated. To give one perhaps random anecdote, I know of a very liberal public school where three 5th graders organized a protest movement over what they considered to be unfair treatment during lunch hour. Almost as in a movie, one was white(ish), one was hispanic, one black. The school did not take kindly to the criticism, and one student was hauled into the principal's office and threatened with disciplinary action. Can you guess which one?

I keep thinking about the Daniel Kahneman book — about the narratives we build quickly in our minds, and convince ourselves are true: the oggling gym teacher, the blackmailed State Department officer, the dangerous black male. Vicki Cobb skyped in to our Nonfiction class yesterday, and she described science as "replicable discovery": if I do the same experiment you did and in the same way it will produce the same result. Maybe that is ultimately what we offer in nonfiction — an approach to knowledge that does not rely on the narratives we tell ourselves but challenges those fantasies, at all points, with evidence. Fiction can perhaps mirror our inner stories (wow, that is just like me). But nonfiction forces us to go beyond them (wow, I was wrong, I have to change my mind).

And that pointed to the even larger point of the categories of projection — the narratives all of us build which then have concrete results in the world

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Published on March 07, 2012 03:52 • 52 views

March 5, 2012

The indefatigable Sue Bartle graced my in-box with several links this morning, which comment on one another in ways I thought I'd share. First, as many of you must know, Random House has drastically increased the prices it charges libraries for ebooks: From the ALA itself down to individual librarians this was bad news. Or, sort of bad news: the good news is that RH is still selling to libraries. And if you read more carefully, RH wants more circ data on ebooks from the libraries (aggregate numbers, not info on individual borrowers ala the Patriot Act clash) which to me seems like the beginning of a rational exchange. RH is saying — if we sell you a print book, and it circs well, soon enough you will need to buy a replacement copy. Our business model for that kind of book includes what is called "backlist" sales — that is books first published long ago but which continue to reprint — for bookstore sales, library sales, classroom sales. HarperCollins had tried to account for that with the 26 circ limit. Now RH is trying to load all future gain into the initial price. Both of these solutions may be wrong — but it seems to me that, rather than merely being upset about cost, libraries need to think about what models would make sense — for their budgets, their patrons, the publishers, and the authors. If sticker shock now is the biggest problem, then should a library system work with some reputable organization — the Authors Guild, the association of American publisehrs — to share aggregate circ numbers of print books, thus identifying when a book generally gets replaced, and to arrive at a reasonable scale for when a library would need to pay to refresh a range of kinds of digital publications.

A second article that arrived via Sue-mail was this rather inspiring piece about what bookish apps may become:

And it linked nicely to this third Sue-gram, an interview with Anthony Horowitz about whether authors needs publishers:

The Horowitz fits with the Martinez essay in that they both identify where there is, and where there is not, real potential in the eworld. Horowitz imagines a digital reading experience in which ebedded in the "page" are clues the "reader" (more like experiencer) can pick up: for example, if a character speaks, the reader has ways to discern if s/he is lying. Similarly Martinez talks about the cheap or free tools already available for developers to experiement in app creation. Horowitz argues that self-publishing in e-land is something of a mirage, since so often authors (he expressly includes himself) need editors. Martinez makes a kind of parallel argument for the "law of surprise and demand" — to gget buyers to go to a new technology it must offer a new kind of experience.

So adding it all up — we are battling over how to circ digital versions of print books in both our physical libraries and the library extended via devices, but at the same time we just beginning to figure out what new kinds of digital creations can be as tech marches on. I'm wondering if the crossing point is that idea of the library extended — the library bot, the curation collection mindset that is available to patrons anywhere and on anything — knowledge as we invent the future — that's the frontier I want to explore.

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Published on March 05, 2012 03:56 • 25 views

March 2, 2012

Marina is at the AWP convention in Chicago today: In case you don't recognize the initials, this is an organization for "writers and writing programs" — as in undergraduate, MFA, and professional authors. But if you look at the link I included you will notice ever more attention to YA, with familiar authors of ours speaking, and panels organized around questions related to writing for teenagers. The evident presence of YA in this conference reflects a number of trends: how hard it is to get published in the adult world, the boom in YA (fiction) sales, the increasing freedom YA authors feel to experiment and explore form and content. These financial, cultural, aesthetic trends have both encouraged adult authors who might have loved YA but not expected to write for that audience to do so, and suggested that the frustrated author unable to crack adult might shift to this more welcoming territory. The results for us in YA have been uneven, but looking at the AWP schedule we can see the ferment — the stirring — that brings new authors to us. Of course this is overwhelmingly a matter of fiction and it may be some time before we see panels on writing YA NF at AWP.

Speaking of NF, Marina's panel is on research and memoir: if you are writing a memoir, as she is, when do you go out past what you recall to what you can learn, and how to blend that personal voice of memory with the fruits of research? This is a big deal panel with some famous names on it, but that is not why she is abuzz. Marina published a piece in The Daily Beast yesterday

in which she talked about another sense of being under radar: how — in adult, not YA — some leading male novelists seem to dismiss or not notice female novelists (occasioned by Jonathan Franzen's rather odd essay on Edith Wharton in the New Yorker). It is interesting — you might say YA was to adult as adult female authors were to adult male authors. But now YA has become visible and appealing — so that leaves it to us: in adult, fiction and NF are peers — with fiction having prehaps more cache, but NF visible in stores and the media. In YA, fiction rules and NF is barely visible — under radar, as out of sight as Edith Wharton was to Jonathan Franzen. But as we know from Jeremy Lin, just because people don't notice you doesn't mean you can't play — the problem is in their eyes, not your potential. I wonder when AWP wlll notice us?

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Published on March 02, 2012 05:15 • 18 views