Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Story of Charlotte's Web

I remember years ago when my friend Cheryl shared a photograph of E.B. White with me from her classroom calendar.  Famous writers writing in their favorite "writing spots" filled each month's pages, black and white photographs coupled with a quote by the featured author.  E.B. White sitting alone at a typewriter at a plain oak table in his barn was one of the images.  It was poignant.
      I've always loved E.B. White's writing.  It's charming.  It's simple.  It's often poignant.  And, sometimes strange subject matter aside, his writing is just brilliant.  And, like most of you, I think Charlotte's Web is his most endearing piece of work.  His description of the barn is, by all accounts, the most delicious, detailed, and delectable text I think I've ever read (of course, it helps that I spent summer's exploring the nooks and crannies of my sister's barn)!  I shudder when I read it!*
     When I was at The Tattered Cover a few weeks ago, The Story of Charlotte's Web caught my eye... perhaps because of the simplicity of the cover which includes the picture of E.B. White as a child.  It made it into my shopping basket.  And, I'm so glad it did!
     Michael Sims has paid humble homage to White in this book.  E.B. White, shy and unassuming, makes for delightful subject matter.  Sims explores White's life, his writing, and his connection to nature with depth and candor.  He spends most of the book exploring Charlotte's Web from both the point of view of a writer and a philosopher.  Michael Sims writes about White with utmost respect.  
     I love that White describes himself as a "writing fool" as a child and I think my students will love to hear that.  In today's program-oriented climate, I worry sometimes that we're not nurturing our students to become "writing fools" as much as we are nudging them into the realms of "foolish writing!"  Sometimes it takes a detailed account of a writer's life to remind us what that life can and should look like... full of words, poetry, essay, exploration, research, and writing!  Sometimes we have to be reminded of what a writer is... and, in turn, help define for our students what power writing brings to their young lives (and ourselves perhaps)!
  NPR did a wonderful story on this book.  Why not take a read and a listen"It's not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both" (White, 1952, p. 184).  In this case, both White and Sims are tremendous writers!

*White's description is a great cousin text to the beginning pages of The Winter Room by Gary Paulsen.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Me... Jane - Patrick McDonnell... Brilliant!

My daughter knows Patrick McDonnell because "Mutts" is one of her favorite comics (and she was happy to learn that there is the possibility of a Mutts movie).  I know Patrick McDonnell because he is a brilliant author and illustrator.  Together, we discovered Me... Jane (check out the video on Patrick McDonnell's site) on our recent shopping spree at The Tatter Cover here in Denver.
     We have enjoyed The Gift of Nothing and Wag! and Art... but we both fell head-over-heels in love with Me... Jane.  Perhaps because it tells the story of Dr. Jane Goodall from a different perspective, beginning with her stuffed chimpanzee named Jubilee and ending with a subtle "to awake one day... to her dream come true."  The text ends so softly and beautifully!  When we read it together, side-by-side at the bookstore, an audible gasp could be heard between us... my sixth grade daughter and I breathing in the brilliance of Me... Jane as we read it "once for our heads... and then again for our hearts." (Conferring, p. 52 - and, thanks to my friend Randi Allison for introducing me to this concept). 
     The book tells us the story of Jane Goodall as I've never read it before... and it's written with rhythm, simplicity, and gentleness.  When you open to the page with the drawing of Jane lying with Jubilee hand-in-hand, the words, "It was a magical world full of joy and wonder, and Jane felt very much a part of it," you, too, will gasp!  Patrick McDonnell takes us on a journey through Jane's childhood that I can't stop thinking about... and I keep wondering, "Are we instilling the same sense of wonder, passion, and inquisitiveness in our own children or students?" 
     I can't get this book out of my mind.  As I started school this week, looking into the faces of 29 different learners, I pondered this book and its message of hope.  Are we, as teachers, doing enough to nudge and encourage the future Janes of the world, given the fact that our world is so ever-changing?  Are we, as teachers, given the time, authentic resources, and freedom to let children explore their passions?  Are we, as teachers, providing enough choice in our classrooms for inquiry to flourish?  And, how can we, in a place called school, do more... esp. when more and more our teaching transactions are dictated by mandates, programs, and achievement pressure knocking on our doors daily telling us what's important and how exactly to teach.  Important to ponder, no?
     For me, it's books like Me... Jane that I need to keep in mind as I begin this school year.  It's the joy that my daughter and I felt when we read this book together that I have to keep in mind as I try to blend the "mandates" with my real purpose as a teacher.  I can't wait to read it to my students... it's going in my "Endurance" basket.  
     Check it out... it's lovely!  As you read it, like Jane, you will feel "your own heart beating, beating, beating."