Two weeks ago, I spoke for three days at elementary schools in Fairfax County, Virginia, and for the next five days I played unabashed tourist in Washington, DC. It was Spring Break for many school districts and, as far as I could tell, 25% of the nation’s school children were spending the week in the nation’s capital. Museums, monuments and other federal buildings were bursting at the pilasters. In some cases, queues for limited admission tickets began at 6:30 am. As a result I didn’t even cross the porticos of many of the sights on my list. Just the same, my visit had a clear highlight and I cannot imagine any other attraction having surpassed it.
I refer to our nation’s temple of learning, dedicated to the glorification of knowledge and exaltation of the printed word. I refer to the Library of Congress.
Esteemed non-fiction author Elizabeth Partridge recently wrote in her blog, Hot Tea and a Pencil, that she had just learned about an ancestor of the same name as herself who, in 1846, had been transported from England to Australia.
Contemporary Elizabeth asked,
“What did this Elizabeth Partridge do that got her ten years in jail, swapped off for being sent to Australia? What was it like for her once she got there?”
and a seed is planted. I don’t know that I would ever take this any further, but it is exhilarating to have my mind tumble in a new direction.
What kind of random things have been making you think ‘What if….?’”
Here is what I wrote as a comment:
Once again, a child at a school assembly asked me where I get my ideas. As usual, I said ideas are everywhere. This month I’ve been getting ideas from the newspaper, particularly coverage of the Tucson tragedy. It’s given me the idea that it’s high time to write a book that will go some small way to make our country a better place for people’s lives, not just a better place for people’s math. In fact, I’m thinking of a book that can do both because they just might be related.
We live in an era and a society where dogma trumps evidence and the drama of one trumps the experiences of many. The tendency to generalize from single examples Continue reading
UPDATE: One of the commenters on this post pointed out that Amanda Gignac was badly misquoted, or quoted out of context, by the New York Times in the article I refer to. Apparently, her misquote has been perpetuated widely on the internet and I am one of the perpetuators. I hereby offer my apology to Ms. Gignac and I will delete two somewhat sarcastic remarks I made in the original version of this post. Her account of what happened and her commentary, can be found on her book blog, The Zen Leaf, and I urge you to read it.
Despite the unfortunate aspects of this kerfuffle (Ms. Gignac’s appropriate word for it), and without meaning disrespect singled out at any individual, it does remain the case that the push for higher test scores and faster achievement in reading has taken a toll on the attitude toward picture books held by many schools, parents and even children. Many of us find that to be a disturbing and counterproductive trend.
Did you see the obituary for picture books that appeared earlier this month in the New York Times?
I think I did pretty well, but I’m not sure.
Several teachers told me that the presentations I had just given were the best they had ever seen. One said it was inspiring to her students and herself. Another said she didn’t want me to stop because the kids were learning so much. A third said I was explaining difficult concepts in ways she had never thought of, and the kids were getting it — and having fun to boot!
But the only evaluation that “counts” will be the one that comes in after the tests are graded. Yes, the Big Brother of testing is now watching over authors who speak at schools. I spent three days giving author presentations in central California, funded by a special state program for the children of migrant agricultural workers. It was explained to me that the state requires the children to be tested before and after the presentation so their learning (i.e., my teaching) can be assessed. It was a new experience for me. I had to write a test for each grade level, to be administered both before and after my presentations. Improved scores would be the ticket.
[singlepic id=2 w=189 h=299 float=left]A few years ago, after I finished a presentation at an elementary school in Norman, Oklahoma, a boy came up to tell me that his great grandpa also liked to make math fun. “Who’s your great grandpa?” I asked. “Martin Gardner,” he said.
Martin Gardner! He might as well have told me that his great grandpa was God. No doubt about it, Martin Gardner, creator of the witty and mind-bending “Mathematical Games” column that ran for 24 years in Scientific American, could be called the God of recreational math. And Gardner was more than that. He wrote more than 70 books on subjects as diverse as philosophy, magic and literature — The Annotated Alice, his definitive guide to Lewis Carroll’s classic, was perhaps his best selling title. He was also a leading debunker of pseudoscience: after retiring from Sci Am, he sicked his penetrating logical powers on purveyors of quackery, ESP, UFOs and the like in a column called “Notes of a Fringe Watcher,” published for 19 years in The Skeptical Inquirer.
Poet W.H. Auden, sci fi author Arthur C.Clarke, evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould and astronomer Carl Sagan were among his many admirers. Vladamir Nabokov named him in a novel. Astrophysicists named an asteroid after him.
I always enjoy outdoor activities and meals with Tom and Ellen but I had an ulterior motive this time. Ellen, aka Prof. Simms, is a botanist in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. I am writing a book on what happens to the jack-o’ lantern after Halloween — a Halloween book for November, you might say. My ulterior motive is that I wanted Ellen’s help in identifying some of the blotchy, fuzzy and moldy looking things growing on the pumpkin. Their portraits, captured by photographer Dwight Kuhn, were the perfect accompaniment to herb tea and ice cream.
When people think of what it means for a non-fiction author to do research, Continue reading
Remember the hit song by the Barenaked Ladies, a Canadian alternative rock band (whose members are neither ladies nor naked — it least in public)? Here’s how it starts:
If I had a million dollar
If I had a million dollars
Well I’d buy you a house
I would buy you a house
I’d buy you furniture for your house…
Hate to sound like a million dollar spoilsport, but I sure wouldn’t pay a million for those lyrics. Not even a hundred. Still, the tune is darn catchy, and the refrain is a bit touching:
If I had a million dollars,
I’d buy your love.
Whether or not that particular commodity can be purchased at any price will not be the subject of this post, although you may wish to pursue it elsewhere.
Since the 1989 publication of my second book, If You Made a Million, I have seen countless examples of student writing that begin with the prompt, “If I had a million dollars…” They fall into three categories of roughly equal size. I’ll call the them “fulfillment,” “greed” and “charity.”