Tuesday, November 29, 2016

"When Books Went to War" and my Dad went too

I read the book When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning last week. The topic is the efforts to provide books to the armed forces -- every soldier, sailor and marine -- in World War II. I had no idea about this aspect of WWII until I read the review in the New York Times and decided to get the book.

This book is extremely well researched and covers the beginning of the movement to provide books to the troops through book drives and then continues with the creation of the Armed Services Editions. The effort was partly in response to the Nazi book burnings in Germany and partly to provide entertainment and comfort to the U.S. troops. These were special editions that were designed to be lightweight and fit easily into a soldier's pocket. The list of titles that were printed is extensive and covers many genres. The books were distributed everywhere -- the battle fronts in Europe, hospitals, every Pacific island where servicemen were stationed, and even to prisoners of war.

The books were enormously popular, with men lined up to get new books when a shipment arrived. Soldiers wrote to authors to thank them and talk about how certain stories, like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, reminded them of home and why they were fighting. From the soldiers' own words, it is clear how essential they found the books.

World War II was, of course, a time before personal computers, smart phones, video games, streaming, and all the other distractions of modern life. When Books Went to War is a look into a different time when provided a personal space in a crowded barracks, ship, or foxhole. Many of the men wrote that they had never read much before the Armed Services Editions. Many of these soldiers took advantage of the GI Bill after the war to get an education and become professionals.

I thought about my dad, who served in World War II as a Navy officer, first in the Atlantic and then in the Pacific. He must have read some of these books. He never talked about the war or what he had done as a naval officer on a sub chaser. The little bit I know I learned after he died from my mother. In my experience it seems like veterans of WWII either never want to talk about their experiences or they want to talk at every opportunity. I think both responses are attempts to process a traumatic experience.

The more I thought about the book, the more I could imagine how my dad might have felt. Manning writes that after V-E day, the troops in Europe thought they were done and would be going home. Many of them had been fighting for three or four years already. Instead, they found they were either reassigned to the Pacific or would continue in Europe to assist in post-war rebuilding. I wonder if my dad had felt that way -- wishing to go home but instead being sent to the Pacific. I also learned how brutal the Pacific war was -- never-ending bombing, tropical heat, swarms of insects. How much of that would he have experienced on a ship? What would he have been reading? I imagine him choosing the nonfiction selections -- maybe reading history, and then towards the end of the war, reading some of the books that were intended to help soldiers transition in civilian life. I could imagine him reading Ernie Pyle, and books about political systems.

I will never know for sure, but I felt closer to my dad while reading When Books Went to War.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Energizing Writing

I have been trying, over the past two years or so, to change up the way I teach writing in order to engage students more. My school had purchased the Lucy Calkins Units of Study years ago and I used them to teach personal narrative and essay writing every year. I also teach poetry and research skills that end with a report.

As much as I liked the approach to writing in the Units of Study, it took such a long time to do one unit. I know they're supposed to take a month, but it always took me and my teaching partner much longer. And I didn't feel that my students were enthusiastic about writing, even though they were good at it.

So I started reading blogs about writing and teaching writing, like Two Writing teachers. I dipped into Teachers Write and the Facebook discussion group on Craft Moves. I took the March challenge from Two Writing Teachers to blog every day. I attended a seminar given by Kristina Smekens on teaching language arts. And I started to follow the plans in the Units of Study less.

As I became more relaxed, writing time became more enjoyable for the students AND me.

This year innovation is the goal at my school, not necessarily using technology, but using more technology is also a goal. We started off with personal narratives as usual, then my partner and I were told about the Scholastic writing contest just for 4th grade students, Flaunt Your Differences. That segued well with the personal narratives, so we both took some time with have our students write three-paragraph pieces explaining and celebrating what makes each of them different.

Next, we started class Twitter accounts and challenged students to write 140 character tweets documenting our social studies "voyage" on the Mayflower. (You can follow us here!)

Then a happy chance found an idea for creating a "Choose Your Own Adventure" story by using Google slides. Even before I showed my class the example, they were expressing their delight. "We get to write fiction?!" "I LOVE choose your own adventure!!" "We can put in pictures, too?!" "We can share these?!" Fourth graders are so much fun!

We got started by having each student decide on a genre of fiction, consider who the main character would be, keeping in mind that the main character is the reader, and think about a story arc. I asked them to make a simple flow chart to track where there would be choices for the reader to make and what the alternate strands of the story would be. We will work on craft moves as they write their stories -- engaging leads, dialogue, and satisfying endings (multiple!). They are excited, I am excited. You can find the sample and the directions we will be using here.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Election Memories

I was in elementary school when the Johnson-Goldwater presidential race occurred. My most vivid memory of this time is at recess when the older elementary kids would form two lines facing each other and shout, "Johnson!" "Goldwater!" "Johnson!" Goldwater!" at each other for most of recess.

I don't know how this started. None of us had a clue about the issues in the race. We knew who our parents were going to vote for, and that was enough to set us to shouting at each other.

I've thought a lot about this memory in recent weeks. One thing I thought is, what a waste of recess time. Of course, the reason this memory popped up in my mind is all the shouting that has been going on in this year's campaign for president. A lot of shouting, two very divided sides, not much listening.

After the election, though, things seemed to go on as usual. Johnson was accepted without questioning as president, whether or not you voted for him or agreed with him. I learned much later in life that Goldwater was considered a dangerous candidate by many. Would things have been different if he had been elected? Who knows. The election process was a given, and our president might be criticized, but he was also respected as our president.

It is my hope that we, the American people, will again embrace our election process and go forward with a new president. We are so lucky to have the right to vote.