Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Visit From Bryan Collier

On the final day of Fordham University's literacy institute I had the privilege of introducing children's author/illustrator Bryan Collier. In welcoming him I stated that it seemed only appropriate to close our sessions by celebrating rich and interesting children's literature (since for the past two weeks we had been investigating current research to help young readers meet the challenges inherent in learning to read).

Here we were given the opportunity to explore the very thing we wanted our students to have in their hands - authentic literature written with purpose.

There was studied silence as Bryan spoke to the crowd of educators seated in the Pope Auditorium. At first I thought "Oh, he is losing them" and I felt responsible for this somehow. After all, I was the one to suggest his presence as our closing speaker in the first place. I had just introduced him and now I thought "he is bombing. What should I do?" But as I looked around I slowly began to realize that the silence was not the result of a lack of interest. The silence was an indication that everyone was listening intently to his message.

Bryan Collier was taking us on a journey whose pace was deliberate and unfolded like a good novel. He became introspective at times as he searched for the perfect word to best describe his meaning. He spoke of passion and destiny. He spoke of purpose and fulfillment. He spoke of making connections and creating a legacy.

He began by asking who among us wanted to write or illustrate a children's book. A spattering of hands went up with varying degrees of enthusiasm. This was followed by his query

"What have you done about it?"

Oops, we weren't expecting that. Nobody had much to offer - although I did say that I had put a partial story up on my blog. He laughed and continued. He recalled a visit to an elementary school where, upon his arrival, he was greeted by a horde of children who told him they had been eagerly waiting for him. Then they added,

"We have been waiting for you all of our lives".

He shared this to encourage those of us who have a story in us or a message to relate that there are others out there who are waiting for it. And the longer we delay, the longer that someone will have to wait. We have no idea who we can touch with what we share. Many times we will never know. But, we have an obligation to put it out there. I thought that was a powerful message.

Bryan Collier has gained recognition and well deserved respect for his watercolor and collage illustrations in a wealth of children's books based on the lives of influential historical figures including John Lennon, Muhammad Ali, Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and the soon to be released Son of Promise, Child of Hope about Barack Obama. He told me he has 32 books already published or about to be published. Not bad for a man who spent 7 years receiving rejection notices before he caught a break with his first publication, the story of a young boy and his Harlem home titled Uptown.

Bryan's illustrations edify the words and provide a subtle, understated subtext all their own. As in the way he created silhouettes in the landscape of Rosa to indicate that "even the earth called out for justice".

We could have stayed thoroughly engrossed for much longer but we reluctantly gave way to the predetermined schedule of the day. For me this meant bringing the session to a close and announcing that Mr. Collier would be happy to autograph copies of his books in the front of the auditorium.

I was first in line with three books (more would have seemed greedy) and my camera - see picture on left.

So, I urge all of you would be writers (blogs count!) to continue to get your message out there and if you have not yet done so, get moving. You don't know who is waiting to receive what you have to offer.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

My Dreams Come True

My bedroom growing up was my sanctuary. My own 'private' oasis where I could be alone with my thoughts, my books and most of music.

I was forever putting on a 33 and getting lost in the world of heartbreak, courtesy of my favorite singer, Linda Ronstadt.

Linda Ronstadt was once called "Heartbreak on Wheels" in Rolling Stone magazine and didn't I know it. I was in love. Anyone entering my little piece of heaven could clearly see this. Posters of Linda (including the one on the left) were taped to every available wall.

In my adolescent innocence I would sing along to "Long Long Time" or "Different Drum" with my bedroom windows open and imagine that Linda would just happen to be driving by and hear me. She would cock her head and say to Peter Asher "That voice!" and slam on the brakes. She would hasten to my front door, whisk pass my befuddled parents and glide into my room with a huge smile on her gorgeous face. Our eyes would meet as she joined me for the final chorus "And I think I'm gonna love you for a long, long time". We would wipe the tears out of our eyes and hold hands. She'd ask me to join her on tour and I would kiss Long Island good-bye!

Well, that never happened. (Am I bitter? Absolutely!)

But this does not mean that Linda wasn't there for me as I explored freedom, love and sex. As I have written before, her music has been the soundtrack of my life. And I invited others join me in my adoration.

One year for her birthday I celebrated the occasion by asking my friends (including Joy) to dress up in Cub Scout uniforms (Linda used to wear one in concert) and go miniature golfing. Then back to my house for a round of "Happy Birthday" and some Carvel ice cream cake. Luckily, everyone was into it and I greatly appreciated that even my mom supported me in this bit of silliness.

Today Linda Ronstadt celebrates another birthday; her 62nd! And as she has grown older, I have grown up. I (probably) won't be buying a cake for her or dressing up but I'm pretty sure I'll be listening to her music - especially my favorite Linda song Blue Bayou.

It strikes me how the manifestations of celebrity change as we age. When I was young I looked up to rock stars as folks who lived glamorous, carefree lives full of joy and happiness. They saw things, went places, met people. They represented a world far removed from the confines of my bedroom. It is an innocent perspective. I'm glad I had that.

But now I view things differently. I have seen things, gone places and met people. I have experienced the world beyond my bedroom walls. I no longer crave discovery or confirmation from some outside source.

This is not to say that I have given up my dream of becoming friends with Linda. Oh, No! But at this stage of the game I want her to admire me as much as I admire her. And it had better happen soon as neither one of us are getting any younger!

So, Happy Birthday my talented, strong willed, opinionated, smart, beautiful crush.

I will leave you with a great mix of Linda's "You're No Good" and Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good". I would love to have this song so if you know how to add a video to iTunes from YouTube please let me know.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Summer Literacy Institute

There are just three days left of Fordham's annual summer institute on literacy, the completion of which marks the beginning of my summer vacation.  I certainly have no complaints about the delay however because each presenter has brought a plethora of the latest findings connected with literacy development and implications for the classroom.

In addition to Dr. Marilyn Jager Adams, who spoke about phonological awareness and phonics instruction, the speakers have been as follows:
  1. Dr. Margie Gillis from Haskins Laboratories whose talk was entitled Empowering Teachers: The Key to Early Reading Success.
  2. Dr. Margaret McKeown from the University of Pittsburgh speaking about Engaging Students with Effective Vocabulary Instruction.
  3. Dr Ken Pugh from Haskins Laboratories and Yale University Medical School with The Neurobiology of Language and Reading.
  4. Dr. Eileen Marzola, teacher emerita NYC Department of Education, presenting on The Fluency Factor: The Bridge to Skilled Reading.  
Although I found the discussion about neurobiology and the possibility of 'rewiring the circuitry' of the dyslexic brain intriguing, it was Dr. McKeown whose work I found particularly relevant to my area of interest.

My doctoral thesis intends to examine the reading processes of Deaf children.  Historically, being Deaf has been viewed as a striking deterrent impeding literacy achievement.  Debates have raged for centuries over the best method of instruction and how to bridge the gap between hearing and deaf readers.

Although the dispute has continued to rage on, there has been very little consensus on what actually works or concrete findings that point to successful instructional criteria.

Therefore, in this climate of negativity without results, it is my intention to view the issue through a positive lens.  I prefer to examine the aspects of a deaf reader that are advantageous to the reading task. This includes taking running records (which monitor online reading processes) and documenting the use of appropriate conceptual signs.

For example, when a hearing child reads the word 'like' the listener cannot distinguish if the child is reading for meaning.  The word 'like' will sound the same whether the child understands it to mean

'have a favorable opinion of'

or 'can be grouped with'.

This is not the case for a child using American Sign Language.  The sign for 'like' differs according to the meaning behind it. This means we can actually get inside the mind of the deaf reader in ways that are unavailable for the hearing reader.  You with me?

I knew that I wanted to build on this theory in my work but was still a tad bit unsure of where to go with it.  But Dr. McKeown's presentation made me realize the missing component could be vocabulary instruction.  I do not want to bore you (any further) with the details but when it came time for questions and answers I put her on the spot by asking her to work with me to develop my ideas.  She said "Sure" and I promised to get in touch.

It turns out that this institute is bringing me another step closer to becoming "Dr" rather than just "Mr".  How cool is that?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Book Signing

On June 12, 2008 I attended a "book signing" for my friend Lisa Burman to celebrate the publication of her first book Are You Listening? Fostering Conversations That Help Young Children Learn.

I put "book signing" in quotes (which would be much more effective if you could imagine me doing the air quotes thing with my hands) because we had the party before the actual release of the book.

Luckily, there were a few copies available to pass around and pose with, but mine didn't arrive until Lisa was already back in Australia. But she has promised to inscribe mine as instructed "To Gary, my constant inspiration" (or other such sentiments).

In the book, which I began reading today, Lisa documents the positive effects of engaging children in conversation. She shares that is was her "study tour to Reggio Emilia in northern Italy that transformed my wonderings about children's thinking into a passion".

The book is dedicated "To the staff and students of PS 347, The American Sign Language and English Lower School, where I learned to listen with more than my ears" and then proceeds to highlight many of her experiences and interactions at our school. (How cool is that?)

But even cooler things happen in Chapter 3 - Creating the Right Environments for Conversation. This is where I get my one and only mention. (I am told that the editors cut other mentions - darn it. But since this book is geared more towards the preschool/kindergarten classrooms I can't complain too much.)

Anyway, there I am on page 69 under the header 'Sense of Identity'. Lisa writes:
The first thing I see when I enter Lauren and Gary's first-grade classroom is a small bookcase facing the doorway. Plants on the top shelf bring softness and life into the old school building. On the shelves are simple wooden picture frames, bought at the dollar store across the street, containing delightful photographs of each child. There is no doubt what - or who - is important in this room.
As I read this chapter I thought about the commitment that Lauren and I made to have fresh flowers in our class each week. About the cozy spaces for one to one conversations or quite places to read a book. I was reminded that we valued each child by thoughtfully hanging their writing and art work, providing labels to indicate that 'this space belongs to me' and arranging materials in a way that is conducive to learning; free from clutter and disorganization.

I was reminded of the thought that has gone into creating a happy, welcoming environment and am thrilled that Lisa has provided new teachers (or experienced teachers who are looking for a new way to do things) a guide of sorts to achieve a more kid friendly classroom.

And I am also reminded that teaching is a gift. A gift that requires many things including being present, there in the moment.

And to answer your question Lisa, "Yes, I am listening".

Friday, July 4, 2008

Developing Literacy

The first three days of the summer institute on literacy at Fordham University have been geek heaven. If you are thrilled by discussions of effective practices that inspire students towards becoming life long readers and empowering teachers with the skills necessary to make that dream a reality, then Pope Auditorium at Fordham's Lincoln Center campus is the place to be.

The opening speaker was Dr. Marilyn Jager Adams from Brown University. Due to the fact that I am teaching at the institute I had the opportunity to speak briefly with her and when I said who I was she said he had heard of me (cue to geek smile).

During her talk she discussed her involvement with the PBS show Between the Lions and how it supports emerging literacy development in young children. (The title of the show refers to the two lions that adorn the entrance to the main branch of the NYC public library.) Among the shows many features is a decodable text short called "Fun with Chicken Jane" which of course is a twist on the old decodable "Fun with Dick and Jane" texts. You gotta appreciate this wacky sense of humor. At least I do as it is right up my alley ladies and germs.

In 1967 Jeanne Chall wrote of The Great Debate in this country about the controversy surrounding reading instruction. She wrote "Do children learn better with a beginning method that stresses meaning (which became a whole language approach) or with one that stresses learning the code? (a phonics based approach). We are finally realizing that there is no need to choose one or the other - children need both to become successful readers. And successful means comprehending what is read. For without meaning, reading is just stringing together a bunch of sounds. I may be able to do that when I 'read' Spanish but I have no idea of the meaning behind what I am saying.

Dr. Adams also stressed the importance of children learning their ABCs as early as possible. The foundation must be in place before it can be built upon. I am not 'sold' on everything that she advised but she was certainly inspiring.

I had planned to write about the first three speakers in this post but am sensing that they deserve their own posts. I am also sensing that you, gentle reader, are probably letting out a sigh of relief.

See, I told you - I am a geek when it comes to researching literacy.


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