Old Enough for Fairy Tales

The dedication at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe reads:

My Dear Lucy,

I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say, but I shall still be

your affectionate Godfather,
C.S. Lewis

Taking the University of Maryland Writing Project the summer before I teach a Literature for Adolescents class this fall was a happy accident. For the class I’m teaching, I’ve had to brush up on a lot of the YA (Young Adult) literature that I hadn’t read for years, or in some cases had never read- Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson; Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor; Monster, by Walter Dean Myers; Flight by Sherman Alexie; Stitches, by David Small; and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis. Having the excuse to wedge these novels into the heavy reading on education theory that I’ve been trying to cram in has been a relief in itself. But when I started the UMdWP, I realized that the benefit of reading books meant for young people gives me more than simple pleasure.

For one, Joseph, the sage leader of the Writing Project teaches by telling stories (in fact, I just discovered that he blogged on this same topic, and quoted one of my writings in his post! Talk about the circularity of narrative and modern technology…). And two, one day he brought in a stack of kids books for us to browse or borrow. And I mean little kids books– mostly image with only a sentence or two per page! Now, most grad students have had a professor or two bring in the seminal texts of their field and been told, “If you want a proper foundation in this discipline, then you’d better read this… .” Usually they are dusty old tomes containing the theory of history, or the history of formulas, or the formulas for research; and they are usually excellent for curing insomnia. But how many have had their professors recommending kids books?

Then of course C.S. Lewis’s dedication hit it home: “But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” Old enough? Though I loved the books of my childhood, I could not wait to get to the more advanced stuff. Books with pictures seemed baby-ish, and the smaller the print, the more “adult” the book seemed. And when I did finally start wolfing down novels for adults, I never looked back. Now, at age 31 (and no, I do not have kids of my own) I’m returning to the kind of literature that deals with image and color, fantasy and folklore. And I love it. C.S. Lewis is wickedly smart. Harper Lee has a dry sense of humor that I never picked up when I was 12. And Sherman Alexie… well, let’s just say he’s my hero. The coolest thing about these authors is that they are not worried about being baby-ish. What they know, and what most other adults forget, is that in a child’s world is wonder. Without that, how else do we learn?

My sister (in front) and me, as kids.


Religious Freedom, Revisited

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an organization of women that comprises 80% of the Catholic nuns in the US, is displeasing the Vatican for its “radical feminist” views (and by radical feminism, I mean a simple refusal to voice a stance on social issues like sexuality, abortion, and contraception). In response, three (male) bishops have been appointed by the Vatican to oversee the organization and modify its tenets to become more in line with the church’s beliefs. I hope the tragic irony of three men “editing” the views of over 1,500 women is not lost on my readers. The Fresh Air interview with the president of LCWR, Sister Pat Farrell, is fascinating. In it, Farrell talks about dialogue, belief, and listening in ways that reach far beyond religion. This woman epitomizes thoughtfulness about issues that are important to all, but especially to educators: how we know what we know, how we hear and honor the views of others, and how we support those that society has cast aside.

Pathways to a Common Consensus?

The Common Core State Standards are such an interesting sequel to No Child Left Behind. I’m really glad that the pendulum appears to be swinging away from high-stakes testing (with all its attending basal readers and other kinds of sterilized texts), and toward an emphasis on critical thinking and (yay!) writing, but it also makes me wonder. How many years or decades away are we from another extreme pendulum swing? NCLB was rolled out in 2004 with not much of a trial run, and Diane Ravitch expresses similar fears about the Common Core Standards. So when states roll out these standards too fast, without training or teacher buy-in, will we chuck them in a few years, chalking it up as another educational reform failure? I’ve spent relatively few years as an educator but I’ve learned a couple things about educational reform so far: it is confusing, inconsistent, and extreme.

For a well-written, engaging, and (thankfully) brief discussion about the CCSS, check out Pathways to the Common Core, by Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman. It’s a rosy and perhaps not entirely disinterested picture, but it’s well written enough that it’s one of the few education books that actually kept me up past my bed time.


Isle of Man

Thanks for checking out my new blog. I’ve been meaning to set up a professional/personal blog for some time now, and since I’ve committed to finally using blogs in one of the college courses I’m teaching this fall, I knew I had to practice what I’ll be preaching to my students. Another inspiration for getting this off the ground has been the University of Maryland Writing Project (part of the National Writing Project), which I’m in the thick of. All teachers should participate in their area’s Writing Project! I’m sure I’ll be gushing more about the experience later, but for my first post I thought I’d share one of my “Morning Pages,” a piece of daily writing we do in the course. I like this piece because it’s about my name– what better topic to introduce the online space that represents me? Also, I want to set the example for my students (and other teachers) that although publishing personal writing can feel like jumping into shark-infested waters, it’s something we all “need to get uncomfortable with” (thanks, Joseph!). There’s no other way to get better at writing. So here goes.

“I want to talk about my last name for a bit. When I was twenty, my dad took his parents and his daughters to Ireland. It was good timing because it turned out to be the last time that my grandparents could go abroad, and after a period of increasing infirmity, my Papa died a few years later. At one point on the trip we went to the Isle of Man, where Papa’s grandfather came from, and we found ourselves in a library where a genealogy librarian worked. Papa told the librarian his grandpa’s name—William Callow—hoping to find out more about his roots. As it turned out, the name alone was not enough to go on. The name William of course is common, and, who would have thought it, but so is the name Callow! Asking about William Callow in the Isle of Man is like trying to look up a John Smith in the United States. There were far too many possibilities. Did he have any other information? the librarian asked. Other family members? Dates? Towns of origin? No.

“My emotions were mixed. I was disappointed of course that we couldn’t find out more, and I’m sure Papa felt that disappointment even more keenly. I felt cut off, as if my known history only went back so far; that the end of my genealogical rope was just a frayed end dangling in space. But in another way, the librarian’s inability to tell us about William Callow was a kind of homecoming. Here on the Isle of Man—a British Isle that no one has ever heard of except for its tail-less cats and its annual auto race, the Tourist’s Trophy—the name Callow is as Manx as apple pie is American. Here on the Isle of Man, you can say your last name and no one has to ask you to repeat yourself. You aren’t the only Callow in the phone book. Hell, even a trained genealogist can’t help you find your ancestors! There was something about being a Callow among many generations of Callows that comforted me, even if I didn’t get to find out about their stories.

“Maybe if I were older on that trip I would have had the courage to wander into a few bars (emboldened by a pint or two along the way) to see if there were any Manx Callows around. Even if they weren’t knowingly related to William Callow, our paths would have had to cross at some point way back, right? Perhaps that’s something I’ll have to do one day.

“There is an English word, ‘callow,’ as in ‘callow youth’—naïve, inexperienced, unsophisticated. Every once in a while someone is pleased to point out the meaning of that word to me, as if to catch me with my pants down (“Are you a callow Callow?” They snicker). That’s fine. Anyway, as an English teacher I can’t help but be a little pleased when people improve their vocabularies. But now when I get ribbed for my name, I appreciate the reminder of that day. My name is a small island in the Irish Sea; it is a walk through the foggy Borough of Douglas, where we are looking for the past.”