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BOOK REVIEW: Better With Books

July 12, 2019

Thanks to Laken Brooks, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

Melissa Hart’s Better With Books is a crash-course in diverse young adult literature. The book suggests preteen and teen reading lists in the following categories: adoption and foster care, body image, immigration, learning challenges, LGBTQ+ youth, mental health, environmentalism, physical disability, poverty and homelessness, race and ethnicity, and spirituality. Hart debuts Better With Books in a time of increasing sociopolitical tension and growing diversity; however, she effectively references contemporary issues like immigration policies to argue that reading - now more than ever - is a vital tool to grow a new generation of empathetic and civic-minded people.

Hart relies on breadth rather than depth to introduce her audience to as many books about as many marginalized identities and experiences as possible. This scope succeeds because Hart writes to a friendly audience of fellow educators and caregivers. From the foreword written by Sharon M. Draper, a National Teacher of the Year recipient, to her own introductory comments on social issues in the classroom, Hart establishes this book as a necessary reference for any teacher. Therefore, she spends little time making the case that books do actually promote empathy in young readers. After all, her intended audience of educators supposedly agree that diverse representation in literature is a foundation for civic values. Hart does argue, though, that diverse literature has transformational, measurable change on individual students.

While Hart’s book operates as a guide of suggested reading lists and book summaries, the most fulfilling sections are the chapter introductions. She frames every chapter with stories about how one book has changed a child’s life. Hart deftly expands the lens in each chapter from an individual -- an immigrant, the mother of a transgender daughter, and Hart’s own child -- to a larger population. For example, in Chapter 1, Hart describes Lyda, a preteen who lived in foster care. After reading Steve Pemberton’s memoir A Chance in the World, something shifts in Lyda’s life. Now a college honors student, Lyda says, “literature can help … It pushes you to feel for characters and makes you want to do something about the issues they’re facing” (3). Hart then zooms from Lyda to the following: “At any given time, 438,000 US kids live in foster care” (3). Upon closer investigation, a reader may recognize rhetorical flaws in these large jumps from individual students to entire populations. While no one student’s experience can represent a marginalized group, Hart does effectively hook readers by demonstrating how books have changed one person’s life. The not-too-subtle suggestion, then, is that a book can also change numerous more lives. As per the back cover, “Through the power of reading, kids can find comfort and perspective,” but adults should curate these books to “find a way into meaningful conversations with their tweens and teens.”

Hart does not necessarily imply that all students will engage with books in the same way, but she does use literacy as the thread through which she invites readers to imagine a better future. After citing the 438,000 children in foster care, Hart ends her introduction by returning to Lyda being adopted. She describes a photo in which Lyda poses with her parents at a baseball game: “In the photo, they look joyful … intimate. They look like a family” (9). On the next page, the reader sees a stock list of book summaries and suggestions. While the transition to the reading list may seem abrupt, this tension highlights Hart’s intention. She pushes the reader to make the connection back to their own classroom, encouraging educators to fill in the gap between Lyda’s story and their students. While teachers cannot possibly ensure that every child is adopted or has a happy ending, Hart emphasizes the readers’ responsibility to help other children feel acknowledged and validated by reading books about people like themselves.

While Hart thoughtfully and soulfully connects individual people to life-changing texts, her text could benefit from precision. For example, Hart lists preteen and teenage options without describing how she is labeling the texts as such: reading level, maturity of content, states curriculum guides, or other metrics? Additionally, Hart could preface her introduction with a note on how she avoided books that tokenize diverse groups. For example, in the section on physical disability, Hart could have clearly noted which books were actually designed for readers with disabilities: books with multimodal components and Braille translations. Furthermore, a brief conclusion would provide more cohesion to the text and a final call to action for the reader.

Better With Books is much needed as a down-to-earth reading guide that connects educators and parents with books about diversity. Hart writes with an easy-to-navigate format, an accessible tone, and a clear conscious.

Hart, Melissa. Better With Books. Sasquatch Books, 2019, Print.

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The Day After Independence

July 5, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

What happened the day after independence? Or the next day, or the day after that? How does one go about constructing a cohesive, yet flexible, democratic society? What is it like to transition from a single goal – defeat the British – to a much more fluid goal of a free society? To better understand some of the history of this period, I have been reading Cokie Roberts’s books Founding Mothers and Ladies of Liberty. Roberts includes some amazing research which helps to paint the picture of the day. She worked tirelessly reading through notes, letters, receipts, transactions, logs – basically any existing writing which would offer clues about the time period. With this research, she writes eloquently about the struggles of founding a nation – and also the prominent female voices of this time period. Roberts cautions that these are not books about the common experience of the day, but rather ones focused on those with means and power. Today’s blog will glean a few details about the powers that be in the years that followed the fight for independence. I truly appreciate Roberts’s work and recommend these books to anyone interested in the history of America and/or women’s rights in general.

Ladies of Liberty begins with the death of George Washington, which had the potential to be a truly destabilizing event. Washington was revered by all. He and Martha had long served the country and in his wake, Martha received many visitors long after George was no longer in office. He died during John Adams’s presidency at a time of rising factions in the U.S. and problems with the French. In fact, Washington had warned against both of these things at the end of his presidency. His eloquence did not assist the second president, however. Instead, political rhetoric and vicious party fighting marked the campaign for the second presidency. Roberts writes:

“Political parties emerged in this country soon after the men who had fought together in the Revolution and struggled to ratify the Constitution formed the first federal government. With each side claiming to carry the banner of the Spirit of Seventy-Six, John Adams’s Federalist Party – which advocated a strong central government – was derided as pro-British and monarchical while Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party - more inclined to support states’ rights – was attacked as pro-French and anarchical. Since it was considered unseemly to seek the job of president openly, surrogates waged this first presidential campaign through the bitterly partisan newspapers, with intraparty shenanigans making the outcome unknown. When the ballots were counted the results proved interesting indeed. Under the system at the time, the man with the most Electoral College votes became president, the number two in the tally vice president. As president of the Senate, John Adams announced the totals on February 9, 1797: John Adams 71, Thomas Jefferson 68, Thomas Pinckney (running for vice president as a Federalist) 59, Aaron Burr (running for vice president as a Republican) 30. Not only was it a hair-thin victory for Adams, but the president and vice-president for the first – and last – time would hail from opposing parties.” (8)

In addition to the creation of political parties and state roles such as vice president, the newly born America witnessed the birth of the position of “First Lady.” Both Martha Washington and Abigail Adams worked tirelessly to support their husbands and their country. They viewed civic responsibility with utmost importance and both sacrificed much personal pleasure. Like John Adams, Abigail was in the unique and difficult position of following in Washington’s footsteps. Adams’s presidency also encompassed moves from New York to Philadelphia to D.C., into what would ultimately become the White House. In its initial days, the move was a struggle, making consistency difficult. It also created major problems with entertaining, an important role for any First Lady. Furthermore, the role of entertaining and receiving guests came entirely from the president’s own pockets. Roberts notes, “As the first person to play the role of Second Lady, Abigail enjoyed her time in the temporary capitals – New York, then Philadelphia – but found that the constant entertaining was taking its toll on the family finances, which she had so carefully husbanded for many years” (7).

During John’s reelection bid, Abigail returned to Philadelphia and then to D.C., to no avail. John Adams served only one term before losing to Thomas Jefferson in a bitterly fought battle. During the campaign, Abigail continuously noted the lack of factual information in the papers, which were strongly partisan (something else that Washington had warned about). During the heat of the campaign, John Adams wrote to Abigail from the White House: “I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof” (42). Roberts notes that today those words are “inscribed above the fireplace of the State Dining Room” (42).

John and Abigail Adams wrote many letters and their correspondence paints a portrait of their characters, strong will, determination and opinions. In fact, Abigail kept up such correspondences that we are blessed to see a rich picture of the day, both in and out of the White House. From these (and other resources), Roberts highlights important American firsts, such as the first American Sunday School set up by Catherine Ferguson in New York City. Her story, like many others in her day, was an unlikely one. Born into slavery, she received freedom only after raising $200 to purchase her independence. It is thought that some of this money came directly from Abigail Adams who opposed slavery. Catherine lamented the numbers of poor children on the streets of New York, and so she “took charge of forty-eight kids, both black and white, either placing them with other people or taking them in herself. In about 1793, when she realized how little the children knew about religion, she set up Katy Ferguson’s School for the Poor in New York City” (53). This school subsequently moved to the Murray Street church which, Roberts tells us, launched the Sunday School movement in New York (53).

Two other exciting finds from Roberts’ research include mentions of female authors at this time. Roberts notes that “Hannah Adams, a distant cousin of John Adams, published a couple of texts about religion in order to earn a living, making her the first woman in the country to live off her writing income” (53). Other writers included Susanna Rowson, who was a school teacher as well, but published one of America’s first popular novels, Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth. In fact, this time period at the end of the 1700s and beginning of the 1800s saw great changes in printed materials. As technology advanced, publications reached new and specialized markets, including women’s magazines. Roberts explains that “More publishing meant not only more bookstores but the birth of lending libraries – making books, newspapers, and, especially, magazines available to all comers” (59). Also during this time, Amelia Simmons published the first American Cookbook.

Looking at the political rhetoric of the Thomas Jefferson and John Adams debates - driven largely by media and newspapers, factions and political parties - one realizes that the past is not so distant. On the other hand, education models and recipes evidence a bit more change. Does custom influence one arena more than another? How are customs intertwined with laws? Where do these customs come from and who sets the precedent? This book explores mostly those with money and power, but yet also notes women of small means who took great risks in order to influence higher powers, such as Catherine Ferguson. Certainly their legacy is worth more than a footnote.

America’s founding figures are rich with intrigue, flavor, romance, debate and, of course, politics. I find the reading entirely enlightening, educational, and entertaining.

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Dear Reader

June 28, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Letters often hold interest for me as a researcher and reader. They demonstrate humanity in ways that other writing cannot. People allow themselves a level of intimacy on paper that is not allowed in other areas of life. I love to write letters and I do lament that they are not as popular now as they once were. This is one of the reasons that I became interested in a collection of letters titled Velocity of Being, Letters to a Young Reader, edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick. In it, the editors have compiled letters from many famous and successful individuals, scientists, artists, musicians, and authors. One interesting aspect of this book is that the letters are all written to an unknown reader, but yet some of the letters are still startling intimate. These letters, written by successful and interesting individuals, explain how or why books have helped them in life. They all encourage us to read, but the reasons for doing so vary from person to person, and experience to experience. There are so many letters worth reading, but I have space share only a handful on today’s blog. I invite you to peek into the book yourself to better understand what your favorite public figure thinks of reading.

From Ann Patchett (page 242)

“[N]othing that matters in life should be taken for granted, so if you love to read, here’s how you can ensure that the generation after you and the generation after them will keep at it: all you have to do is read books. Sometimes you should read them in public places. At least some of the time read books that are printed on paper and hold them up so people can see what you’re doing. When they say, ‘Is that book any good?’ stop reading for a minute and answer them. The wonder of books is that they are worlds we enter into alone, and yet at the same time they can connect us to other people.”


From James Gleick (page 248)

“[S]omehow you do learn to read. Then, when you open a book, you scarcely see the letters or even the words. They vanish, an invisible blur across the printed page, while the information they encode pours into your mind as if through a fire hose. Look. Listen. Moonlight shining in the window; a mysterious smile glimpsed in a mirror; a muffled cry from a distant room; the squelch of wet shoes on the tile. Sights and sounds rise from the page and mingle with your experience and stir your memories. You fill in the empty spaces. There is no reading without imagination.”

From Anne Lamont (page 254)

“Books are paper ships, to all worlds, to ancient Egypt, outer space, eternity, into the childhood of your favorite musician, and – the most precious stunning journey of all – into your own heart, your own family, your own history and future and body.”

From Elizabeth Alexander (page 256)

“In the 1920s she [Alexander’s grandmother] wrote to a university in Denmark: I am what is known as an American Negro, and I imagine you have never known one. Will you invite me to come and study at your school? This was one of my favorite of her stories. Why Denmark, I would ask her, entranced by her tales of smorgasbord, the puzzle ring she brought back from a suitor that one day became mine, and the sari she began to wear after being mistaken for Indian. Because when I was a teenager I read about the statue of the little mermaid being built, in Copenhagen harbor, and I wanted to see it for myself.”

Helen Fagin (page 58)

“At twenty-one, I was forced into Poland’s WWII ghetto, where being caught reading anything forbidden by the Nazis meant, at best, hard labor; at worst, death./ There I conducted a clandestine school offering Jewish children a chance at the essential education denied them by their captors. But I soon came to feel that teaching these sensitive young souls Latin and mathematics was cheating them of something far more essential – what they needed wasn’t dry information but hope, the kind that comes from being transported into a dream-world of possibility…./ A knock at the door shattered our dream-world. As the class silently exited, a pale green-eyed girl turned to me with a tearful smile: ‘Thank you so very much for this journey into another world.’… / Of the twenty-two pupils in my secret school, only four survived the Holocaust./ The pale green-eyed girl was one of them. … / There are times when dreams sustain us more than facts. To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive.”

Alan Lightman (page 66)

“Keep in mind that information is not the same thing as knowledge. You still need to think about what you are learning and what it means. To do that, you will need to turn off your neurochip from time to time. It is valuable to connect to the world, and it is also valuable to disconnect and listen to your own mind think.”

There are many other inspirational letters in this interesting volume. If you get the chance, take a peek in this book (as well as many others).

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An Ancient Southwestern Town

June 14, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Ancient history can be a difficult subject for students because it is inherently foreign to them. Not only is there a language difference, but it is genuinely difficult to envision life removed from today’s technologies. When speaking of ancient cities, most people think of ancient Greece or Rome, but today I want to focus on an ancient city of the southwestern United States.

Chaco Canyon, located in northwestern New Mexico, is a great example of an early city. Archaeologists continue to find information which explains this rare and incredible site to us. Getting there today is not so easy, but in the past, Chaco was the center of a large pueblo system that covered up to 60,000 miles. According to the Chaco Culture Complete Guide by Gian Mercurio and Maxymillian L. Peschel (Chaco Complete Guide),

“There are 400 miles of documented roads that connected Great Houses in the canyon with perhaps 150 large pueblos in all four directions. Eight roads lead out of the canyon…. The Great North Road is mainly aligned to true (celestial) north. Many road segments are aligned to the rising of stars or constellations. In some places there are two parallel pairs of roads, each thirty feet wide and the pairs separated by 50 feet, for no apparent reason…. Outliers, or great houses outside Chaco, are defined by a cluster of small unit pueblos around large public buildings and great kivas. Many are associated with roadways….Through these outliers there is line-of-sight communication between Chaco and Mesa Verde.”

A great kiva on the floor of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

A great kiva on the floor of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Archeologists have identified various construction styles by which they have labeled the phases of Chaco. Archaeologists use dendrochronology (using tree rings to date the construction) as well as noting the level of sophistication in building techniques in order to date the various structures. According to the Chaco Complete Guide, Chaco began as a sparsely populated area. In the beginning (ca. BC 9300) it was used as a hunting ground for mammoth and giant bison. Archaeologists use the term Paleo-Indians for this time up until about 5500 BC in which the pueblo peoples enter the Archaic period. As the hunting grounds changed, so did the peoples who used Chaco. They began to leave small camps filled with stone tools. The Chaco Complete Guide adds that, “Around 3000 BC, the size of camps increased, postholes are found, and the atlatl (spear thrower) came into use, as did cooking in large subsurface ovens. But the people still moved with the seasons.” As the community grew, they began to use caves, they developed basketry and grew maize. Between 800 and 400 BC, they cultivated squash.

From 400-700 AD, many changes began to take place. The bow and arrow was introduced as well as pottery. Beans became a staple diet and most importantly, pit houses allowed for full time residences. During this time, the community began to perfect the pit house model by digging down into the earth one or two feet to allow for better temperature regulation. They also added a center hole at the top of the structure for ventilation. Pit houses then became kivas, as the community built surface houses. These structures contain many levels, often with the lowest and darkest levels reserved for storage which might contain pottery, turquoise, food, baskets, etc.

The remnants of Kin Kletso, Chaco Canyon. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

The remnants of Kin Kletso, Chaco Canyon. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Chaco stands apart from other plateau pueblos in that during the massive constructions, it became a town. With large plazas, many kivas, and long apartment-style buildings, Chaco was able to support a large population. Those who lived here spoke many languages, but shared customs, traits and religious views. They also traveled between the various pueblos of Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. They traded with tribes from Latin and South America. They exchanged ideas which is demonstrated in the various types of construction styles, pottery styles and clothing. Unfortunately, weather finally forced the peoples to relocate. According to the Chaco Complete Guide, “A fifty year drought began in the mid-1100s. If people continued to live in the canyon there is little evidence of it.”

While they may have had to move to new fields and build new homes, however, many people continued to visit and rely upon the spiritual practices found at Chaco Canyon, which are still practiced today. The Hopi, which would have been one of the peoples present in Chaco’s heyday, incorporated a sipapu, or hole in the center of their floor to represent the “emerging hole.” In this tradition, it is said that “Grandmother Spider and two grandsons, the Hero Twins, led the animals and the people out of the dark land. They climbed a pine tree, moving up to a dimly lit world. Grandmother Spider led them on. As they climbed, it got lighter. At last they emerged from a hole in the floor of a canyon. They stepped out into brightness on the surface of the earth.”* At Chaco, too, they felt that “every tribe came into this world from their own ‘emerging place.’ They were each to migrate from place to place, learning what they needed, until it was time to return to their own center place. Chaco Canyon, for all of its magnificence, was just another stop in their migrations.” (Chaco Complete Guide)

Weather ranges greatly at Chaco. While mostly dry, it can quickly become a flood zone. Winds and breezes blow most days, and when they don’t, the air turns hot. At an elevation of over 6,000 feet, the Chacoans found a climate ideally suited to their needs and built one of the southwest’s first true towns. I wonder what they would be able to tell us about trade and immigration, about community and harvests. How long did they wait out the drought before moving on? How did they identify future communities? Was it difficult to leave the grand, bustling city for a quieter, less-trafficked and distant pueblo?

With over 4,000 archaeological sites, Chaco Canyon makes for an excellent research project, vacation destination, or picnic area. Also, each fall, the National Parks celebrate International Archaeology Day. Check back on their website in the upcoming months to find a celebration near you!

And finally, for teachers who need an archaeology-based lesson plan (for mid to high school), the park service has some resources. Here is one potential lesson plan.

* From The Hopis: A First Americans Book by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, 1995.

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