Annette and education
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(Left) February, 2018: West Pelzer Elementary (SC) Students Early in Their Reading of Don't Know Where, Don't Know When (Snipesville Chronicles, Book 1) (Right) May, 2018: Skype Visit with Author, Speaking from London.
I won't lie: I was worried.
The enterprising vice-principal of West Pelzer Elementary in rural South Carolina had hired me to speak to fifth graders, and ordered a class set of Don't Know Where, Don't Know When. But, of course, I had no idea whether she had classroom teachers on board, and that was essential.
When I turned up to present Could You Be A World War II Kid?, a program that serves simultaneously as historical background to the book and an introduction to it, I had a chance to speak to Jessica Johnson and her colleagues. They were concerned about it being perhaps too complex, especially in its vocabulary, for the kids' reading level.
And by this point, so was I. I have readers of all ages and backgrounds, including kids younger than these from underprivileged areas. But I also trust teachers to know their students' abilities.
Mrs. Johnson was willing to work with it. I offered to consult, and kept my fingers crossed.
The books are often used in schools as read-alouds. A rural middle school buys more than 100 copies every year to give to 6th graders. They're also on the summer reading list (and used in an economics classroom) for 7th graders in an elite private school. But an entire class of readers of varying ability in a Title I school in 5th grade? I hadn't seen that in person.
And then came the fantastic news: The kids loved the book. It was a hit.
I hoped Mrs. Johnson wasn't just being polite in telling me this, and offered to Skype with the kids from London, where I was researching future books. The reply was immediate and enthusiastic. Once I met with the kids, I knew this was the real deal.
But why was I surprised? This was, after all, my target audience when I began writing with several years experience of working with kids in the rural South under my belt, and, as I said, I have fans as young as nine, and even a few eight year olds. But I also have adult fans, among them several academic historians, and a professor of English Literature who holds degrees from Cambridge and Oxford. Suppose the younger kids were hugely exceptional?
I should have been more confident. I have never forgotten readers who struggle with reading, I have seldom compromised on my vocabulary, or knowingly talked down to my readers. What I have done, based on long experience teaching college freshmen, is made the meaning of complex words clear through context. And, of course, I have consciously kept the story moving. If kids want to know what happens next in a story, they will persist (as surely Beatrix Potter knew when she used "soporific" in Peter Rabbit), and they will, as a result, learn more vocabulary and become better readers. This isn't the philosophy of reading programs in schools, with their prescribed "reading levels". But most librarians consider those problematic at best, and increasingly, so do teachers.
That said, I owe much to Jessica Johnson. Mrs. Johnson is an impressive teacher, and I don't say that lightly. She recognizes the value of reading in opening up the world to kids in a struggling rural community, and she was willing to encourage the kids to stretch. That's key.
I asked Mrs. Johnson for a quote for my website. Here's what she wrote: "I accompanied my project based learning unit on WWII with Don't Know Where, Don't Know When for my 5th graders at West Pelzer Elementary in South Carolina. The book was a DELIGHTFUL addition to the unit and included a much needed child perspective of this major event in history. My class cannot wait to read the next book!"
Like many writers, and women, and women writers, I often doubt myself and my work. But once again, I've learned that optimism and confidence are a better approach. I should have known better.
Annette Laing, PhD, is an academic historian of early America and the Atlantic World. She was formerly a tenured professor at Georgia Southern University, where she was a member of the department of history and the Africana Studies program faculty. She is the author of The Snipesville Chronicles series of MG/YA time-travel novels.
Westerns are unfashionable, that much I do know. Hollywood isn't filming them, and the story of thousands of mostly white Americans storming west, usurping land from Indians and Mexicans in the process, is a fraught one in these divided times. But, despite all this, as you may note from an earlier blog entry, I have become fascinated by those who traveled west, and especially those women who went with the Gold Rush migration. More than that, westward migration is too big, too resonant, too American for me to believe that it's a story without 21st century appeal. What was it like to be an immigrant risking your life to cross a vast desert, and to knowingly trespass on others' lands? Were you truly a resilient individual, facing a perilous journey alone, or did your community, and even the federal government, have your back? What happened when your American dream met disappointment and death?
My husband and I have come to Kansas City to follow the wagon trains, almost 200 years too late. We begin at Independence, MO, from which traders left for New Mexico (and returned) on the Santa Fe trail, and migrants prepared for their wagon journey to Oregon or California, most never to head "back east" again.
Our wagon is a rented Toyota Corolla. Our tent is a series of comfortable hotels. Our food is whatever we can forage on the trail from a succession of cheap restaurants, although we have stocked up with supplies for the journey here in Missouri: trail mix, sparkling water, and chocolate.
We started with high expectations, but like the migrants--like America itself--we quickly began to "see the elephant". The phrase was used by the 19th century migrants to mean getting terribly excited about an experience (in the migrants' case, going west) only to suffer a reality check in the form of disappointment and disaster.
After excitedly anticipating museums and original sites leading us west, our elephant immediately appeared to us in the Kansas City area.
Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World by Eileen McNamara
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
At one time, there were many Eunice Shrivers, only without the money and clout that she possessed to get things done on a grand scale. Opinionated, forceful, unconcerned with appearance and other superficialities, and possessed of a moral voice and certitude, she steamrollered all who got in her way. I have never been particularly interested in the Kennedys, or Special Olympics, but I was intrigued by an NPR interview with the author. I'm glad I acted on it. This is an engaging biography, and given Eunice's reluctance to reveal her soul (typical of so many women of her generation) could not have been an easy project. Given how much she had to juggle, both context and subject material, McNamara does a deft job of keeping the reader engaged. Her book is a porthole into extraordinary privilege, and the good that can be done by those who, like Eunice Kennedy Shriver, do not take that privilege lightly. Her legacy is all around us, the recognition of the full humanity of those with intellectual disabilities.
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Some months ago, I brashly offered to write a blog piece for an Atlanta audience about fake news during World War I. I had referred very briefly to Great War propaganda in Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When, and had included a section on this topic in my new WWI program for schools. My interest had deepened with having learned recently that A.A. Milne (of Winnie the Pooh fame) was among the writers the British government had employed during World War I to concoct fake news, and feed it to American newspapers in an effort to draw American sympathies toward the Allies. I certainly included this fascinating bit of trivia in my program, followed by a rhetorical question for the kids and teachers: If propaganda was this sophisticated more than a century ago, what must it be like today?
And now we have an answer that took even the most cynical by surprise, in the form of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal.
Schools have been urged in recent years to shove aside other subjects in favor of STEM. There has already been a backlash against this educational trend, of course, from the passionate advocates of art, music, and theater, who saw their subjects sidelined in a rush to STEM. This prompted a hasty rewriting of the acronym, giving us STEAM (A for Arts, in the American sense).
I suggest that, in that case, we might as well add the humanities (English, history, and philosophy) which gives us SHTEAM or, to put it in more familiar language, education.
Wondering if SHTEAM is an initial too far? MIT requires its students to take humanities classes every semester. Unlike too many school administrators, MIT and other reputable tech schools understand that a single-minded focus on STEM is counter-productive and potentially disastrous: You cannot understand science without learning to think historically, since science changes over time, and the best book to understand that is historian Thomas Kuhn's classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Training future tech leaders without an education in ethics via history, English, and philosophy is a disturbing prospect in an age in which we move toward the ability to clone humans, and to replace their work with that of machines, while failing to provide for their continued ability to make a living, and a life.
To that end . . .
The War to End War, my newest program, available in various versions for 5th through 12th grades, is a riff on the meaning of World War One. It is not only as close to an actual college lecture as I deliver in schools, but rapidly becoming my most popular program.
Why? Because it's incredibly relevant, despite a century having passed. A historian is not an antiquarian: We're not just obsessed with all things old and past. We teach with one eye on the concerns of the present, and one of the concerns I address in this program is the unintended consequences of a mindless rush to adopt new technologies.
Oh, sure, I talk about how technological innovation made Britain the dominant power of the Victorian era. I also show students the cool gadgets of 1914, including a candlestick phone and a 3D stereoscope (an early Viewmaster, which to kids and teens is itself an antique).
But I also show that technology went wrong for the people of the early 20th century, and that the horrifying numbers of casualties of World War I is proof.
I'm not pandering to curriculum by discussing STEM in The War to End War. Rather, I am urging everyone to beware of the unthinking STEM bandwagon. An obsession with STEM encourages public school students to develop a narrow careerist focus: If the job for which you have trained vanishes, what then? I asked the high schoolers with whom I spoke this week. I asked what their interests were, and they looked at me in wonderment. "Do you mean what we plan to do for a career?" one young man asked. I assured him that if I had meant that, I would have said so. What I hoped to hear were what they cared about, their passions, some indication of their visions beyond their anticipated future jobs. Rest assured, students in America's elite prep schools are encouraged to have a broad view of life and education. There is no rush to replace books with Lego in their libraries. Our public school students deserve no less. And the arts and humanities are indispensable to that broad view.
As I show in The War to End War, the 20th century is one long cautionary tale. The Titanic (launched and sunk two years before World War I) and the machine guns and howitzers that made possible the deaths of 17 million (and wounding of millions more) in four short years should cause all of us to think twice before eagerly embracing an all-STEM, value-free future.
Does America need better science and tech education? Absolutely. Should that improvement be at the expense of improved education in the arts and humanities? Absolutely not. Not STEM. Not just STEAM. Think SHTEAM. Think Education.
Early in my grad school career, I mentioned to a fellow researcher that I had no idea why I was studying religion when I had set out to study immigration, except that this new subject was where the documents had led me. "It will be personal," she said. "It's always personal." I agreed that she must be right, but it took me a while to figure out why.
Of course we learn most avidly when we can connect what we learn about the past to our own lives today. But the connections aren't always obvious.
Charles Dickens knew poverty and child labor. He knew these things.
Raised in a middle-class home, Charles was educated, not merely schooled. In fact, his formal schooling was mediocre, like most of the limited formal education available in early 19th century England. He learned anyway, because of the learning that comes by osmosis from a family in a literate household. And above all, he learned because he read voraciously.
And then, before he had a chance to find his own voice, disaster.
Charles' father, a spendthrift clerk, is shut up in the Marshalsea, London's infamous debtors' prison. Young Charles has been sent out to work in a soul-destroying job, pasting labels and paper lids onto jars of shoe polish.
He pastes a paper lid. He sticks it on. It demands just enough attention to stop his mind from wandering. And too little to be stimulating. He takes another lid. He picks up the fishy-smelling pastebrush. Again. And again. And again. And again.
He is only 12 years old.
But Charles Dickens is old enough to understand the implications of this turn of events: His future is destroyed. His life of joyful learning has given way to ten hours a day in a crumbling, rat-infested warehouse, doing work that is precise enough to demand his full attention, and mind-numbing enough to stifle his imagination. There is no hope of escape. No place to go. Nothing to hope for.
And yet, as we know, escape he did.
Was Charles liberated from the boot-blacking factory because of his superior intelligence? No. Because of his superior education? No.
Because powerful Victorians saw the light, and freed children from exploitation and misery? No. Because he worked hard at his humble job? Emphatically, no. There is no reward for hard work, only punishment for falling behind, for any reason.
Charles is made free because his family is middle class: His father came into a large inheritance from Charles' great-grandmother. He is sprung from prison, and so is young Charles.
But the adult Charles Dickens knew that he was both fortunate and privileged. He knew that most people were not. His anger at selfishness, greed, and callousness shines through his novels: What more bitter a statement than Scrooge's vicious response to those who solicit a charitable donation from him: Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? When the Christmas spirits educate Scrooge by showing him historical context--past, present, future-- nobody is made more happy than the enlightened Ebenezer Scrooge himself. He's delirious. His excitement, interpreted so beautifully onscreen in 1951 by Alastair Sim in Scrooge (US: A Christmas Carol), in a performance that has never been bettered. But then Sim knew something or childhood misery himself. For the rest of his life, he tried to rescue other lads from it, starting with George Cole.
Charles Dickens needed no such liberation of the soul. His concern and compassion for others came through in his lifetime, not only in his fiction, but also in his cogent criticisms of mid-Victorian society, including education. He attacked as the heartless attitudes of the day evinced in the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which forced the poor to choose between destitution, and prison-like workhouses where their families were forced apart.
He also attacked soulless factory-like teaching methods. Dickens supported the efforts of working men to pursue a life of the mind, but he offered fewer prescriptions for good education than he did criticisms, perhaps sensing (as do those of us who follow in his footsteps today) that good teaching is really about caring and sharing one's own life of the literate mind, not obeying bureaucratic instructions.
In every way, Charles Dickens rose above his lower middle-class circumstances to embrace a generous vision of life, precisely because he had stared into the void of a miserable, meaningless existence at a vulnerable age. Perhaps because, even after the family's windfall came, his own mother, shockingly to us, pondered leaving him in the factory. A miserable youth and successful adulthood do not necessarily lead to empathy. But a good education should. Dickens believed in education because he did not want others to suffer as he had. Above all, as he knew, education ought to mean saving oneself and others from learning the hard way.
There is a reason his voice is still relevant today. Indeed, it is growing more relevant than at any time in the past century. Confronting Scrooge (and us) with ignorance and want in the guise of two wretched children, Dickens does not offer as a solution prisons and workhouses, joyless instruction and punishment by bureaucracy. He offers aid and education, not for the few, but for all. His message is both simple and complex, and it is urgent.
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Lady Bird, the new movie written and directed by Greta Gerwig, is getting fantastic reviews for its depiction of a teenage girl in her last year of high school, in the unpromising setting of Sacramento, CA. And so it should. But I am not an unbiased reviewer, and so this is not a review. This Brit, like the titular main character, came of age in Sacramento.
Sure, my story is different: I went to Sac High (mentioned in the film only as the place where Lady Bird's brother witnessed a stabbing, so triggering her parents' decision to send her to Catholic school). I arrived in Sacramento twenty years before the 2002 setting of the movie. And far from living with my family, I was five thousand miles from them, living with Californian host parents as an exchange student. While Lady Bird tests her incipient adulthood in her home city, most of my teenage wildness had already taken place in England. Now, I was in search of something else. But what? I wasn't sure.
I was starry-eyed but not stupid when I applied to go on exchange to America. "Where would you like to go?" asked the British interviewer. "Ohio," I said without hesitation. He gave me a curious look. "Why Ohio?"
I had thought it through: "Because that's the real America," I said. "The heartland."
"Is there anywhere you don't want to go?" he asked. Again, no hesitation. "California," I said. "They're so superficial."
The compromise, of course, is that I was sent to the city that the character of Lady Bird shrewdly describes as California's Midwest. And there, I found what I had what I had been looking for, without even knowing it: Sacramento.
Few of the people I met in the city, and especially teens, could understand my enthusiasm, flattered though they were because all their lives, they had believed Sacramento to be a "cow town", its chief attraction its position halfway between San Francisco (the real city) and the Sierra Nevada mountains. None of that mattered to me. For me, Sacramento was instant acceptance and understanding, as if this community had been waiting for me my entire life.
I had never felt quite that way about anywhere except my Scottish hometown, nor have I since. My family had left Dundee when I was four, for the "New Town" of Stevenage, the older part of which inspired "Balesworth" in my books. "New Stevenage", built as a sadly unsatisfying postwar working-class utopia had been a lonely place for me as a child: Not truly working class, not a Cockney descended from Londoners bombed from their homes, I was keenly aware that I didn't fit in, even among my playmates and nominal friends. This changed, happily, when I started my secondary school and met my wonderfully diverse group of best friends at the age of 11. Of Welsh, Indian, German, Scottish, and Norman English ancestry, my group was united by its middle class values, or, in my case, aspiration to them. The "Balesworth" parts of Don't Know Where, Don't Know When owe much to these friends and a couple of memorable adults, for they played Verity and Mrs. Devenish to my time-traveler Hannah and evacuee Eric.
But nothing compared with what I encountered now, at 16 years old. From the very first day in Sacramento, my life was absurdly happy. Wrapped in the huge blue skies and blazing heat of the Sacramento Valley, I lived a movie, cast not only with teenagers happy to include me in their lives, but with diverse, principled, and kind adult characters who liked me as they found me, and told me so. There are so many more than I can mention. My journalism teacher, an extroverted Japanese-American woman with an acerbic sense of humor, set about nurturing my interest in newspaper work, even quietly entering my weekly column into a state contest, in which it took first place. The kindly vice-principal tolerated the small Brit charging into his office every day to tell him of her latest idea or adventure. The retired neighbor, who took me to lunch with his World War II veteran buddies, and introduced me to his friend, an English war bride recently widowed after a long and happy marriage to a vet who had a lifelong obsession with Churchill. These people all expanded my historical awareness of America beyond my own generation.
They were a demonstrative lot, these Sacramentans, a revelation to someone who grew up in the emotionally austere Britain of the 70s. Theirs was a vastly different culture, but one in which I felt as though I fit perfectly. Thus the movie scenes of Lady Bird with wise and caring adults, even her friend's grandma whom she had just met, resonated fiercely with me.
I returned to England at the end of my year full of purpose and confidence. I would come back later to my beloved Sacramento for college, probably not the wisest decision intellectually, but a good one personally. I spent a few years enjoying 15 minutes of fame as a beg-a-thon host for the local PBS station, edited the campus newspaper, launched Doctor Who fever in Sacramento as one of the first members of the local fan club. I became a local celebrity, Sacramento's own Brit, even mentioned occasionally by a Sacramento Bee columnist. And then, still in my early twenties, I left Sacramento again, this time for good, in pursuit of dreams that my beloved city could not fulfill.
The Sacramento slide show through which the movie flits briefly but lovingly is full of places laden with meaning for me, a reminder of how much time has passed since that bucolic period in my life : Cookie's Drive-In, a burger joint in a shack near the levee bearing the railroad track at the top of H Street; The Tower Theatre (home of real butter on the popcorn, and once the home also of Tower Records, one of the city's few claims to international fame, and a favorite hangout, along with the less well-remembered Tower Books.)
But the movie's national success astonishes and delights me: The city is not remarkable to the uninitiated, and I have often said that Sacramento is a lovely place to live, you just wouldn't want to visit. I suppose it stands for every hometown that a young person has longed to leave behind, and hated to leave. But Greta Gerwig also writes a love letter to Sacramento that I would happily co-sign.
In the end, it was the people who made Sacramento the most magical place of my life. I saw Lady Bird the day after I returned from a visit "home" (where even the vice-principal and his wife, at 86, are still happy to see me), and the day before I had a delightful lunch in Atlanta with an old Sac State professor I hadn't spoken with in thirty years. The charm of the city that made me was and remains fresh in my mind, invisible to outsiders but warmly carried on in the lives of all who have known what it means to be from Sacramento. How thrilling to know that I am not alone in my love for the city, or in my nostalgia and regret.
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"Very well,” Mrs. Jenkins said, fetching a small hardbound book from a cupboard.
She began flipping through the pages. “Just remind me that we must stir
the soup that’s on the fire so it does not burn, and meanwhile we will make a
cake. Hmm. . .Let’s see. . .I rather fancy this one.” She pointed to a recipe, and
held open the book on the table, so they could both read it together:
To make a fine feed or faffron-cake.
You must take a quarter of a peck of fine flour, a pound and a half of butter,
three ounces of carraway seeds, six eggs beat well, a quarter of an ounce of cloves
and mace beat together very fine, a pennyworth of cinnamon beat, a pound of
sugar, a pennyworth of rose-water, a pennyworth of saffron, a pint and a half of
yeast, and a quart of milk; mix it all together lightly with your hands thus: first
boil your milk and butter, then skim off the butter, and mix with your flour,
and a little of the milk and stir the yeast into the rest and strain it, mix it with
the flour, put in your feed and spice, rose-water, tincture of saffron, sugar, and
eggs; beat it all up well with your hands lightly, and bake it in a hoop or pan,
but be sure to butter the pan well. It will take an hour and a half in a quick
oven. You may leave out the seed if you chuse it, and I think it rather better
without it, but that you may do as you like.
“What’s a feed or faffron-cake?” Hannah asked, pointing to the words with a
I was delighted to be interviewed last week for a blog run by the American Council of Learned Societies, an umbrella organization of humanities groups.
Academic & Public Historian, Middle-Grades Author (The Snipesville Chronicles), Practitioner of Non-Boring History, Mother. AnnetteLaing.com