Friday, February 26, 2010

The 19th Century Twitter


The Fox sisters had a clever little hoax, but it certainly would never have become a nationwide movement and a religion without the endorsement of some key, influential people. During my research, I was astounded to discover that intelligent, educated, and shrewd people such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Frederick Douglass fell for what was later confessed to be a fraud. No matter how surprising, however, their actions and opinions are recorded in history, and as I worked on writing my narrative, I searched for an explanation that made sense to me. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that – just like today – people endorse things that benefit them.

Abolition and Women’s Rights were sometimes called the “twin causes” of the mid-nineteenth century, and their membership circles largely intersected. Leaders in these movements wanted to get their message out to the public, and my “take” on their support of spiritualism is simply this: Seances were the 19th century version of Twitter.

Picture it -- People gathering together to receive brief, cryptic messages sent by faceless entities from a far away place. That pretty much describes both a séance and Twitter, doesn’t it? And just like with Twitter, one can never be really certain of the sender’s true identity. Senator John Calhoun was a staunch (even rabid!) advocate of slavery. Yet, after his death, spiritualists attending séances with the Fox sisters received messages from Calhoun which recanted his former position. His spirit (@johncalhoun if you please) claimed that he had been enlightened by the Truth in the afterlife. A feather in the cap of abolitionists – if you believed the message, which many people did.

Stanton, Mott, Douglass, and countless other reformers knew exactly what they were doing when they endorsed the Fox sisters. They had a message they wanted to spread, and the Fox sisters, abolitionists and fledgling feminists themselves, were more than happy to cooperate. As @benjaminfranklin said in one of their séances, “Great changes are on the horizon!”

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Dianne Gets Social


Okay, the photo to the right is a picture of my ARCs of We Hear the Dead. Aren’t they pretty? They don’t have a whole lot to do with this blog post, but I wanted to show them off anyway. I’ve already stopped every single person at work who would stand still to look at one, and I’ve come inches from displaying one on the mantel next to my daughters’ baby pictures.

I’ve been pretty busy this past week and a half. I’m working on the final proofing of the designed interior pages of WHTD, and while I was working on that, the ARCs arrived. Now I am reading both simultaneously. Meanwhile, I have a list of more revisions to make on the screenplay (possibly the final ones!), and although I am mulling them over in the back of my head, I don’t actually have time to draft them right now.

I also love spending time on Sourcebooks new teen network, Teen Fire, reading fresh new YA fiction in the author’s forum and checking up on other members’ blogs. I could spend hours reading blogs these days, and I probably would if I wasn’t already spending hours on Twitter. The other night, I saw a post about something called #scriptchat, and without knowing exactly what it was, I clicked on the link and found myself immersed in my first ever TweetChat. Good thing I’ve spent so many years watching LOST – I swear, following multiple timelines was just prep for following multiple conversations swimming by at warp speed. Later that night, I had trouble falling asleep because I could still see posts scrolling through my head! Yeah, I think I might be addicted to Twitter already, and I look forward to trying YAlitchat this week or next.

So suffice it to say that I’ve truly discovered the joy of social networks. It’s a plus, really. ‘Cause teaching and keeping up with my daughters’ activities and writing and reading left me with just too much time on my hands … lol …

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Process Writing Mirrors Publication


Anyone who is a teacher will be familiar with Process Writing as taught in the classroom. It consists of steps labeled Pre-Writing, Drafting, Conferencing, Revising, Editing, and Publishing. These steps are often recursive, as writers may conference several times, revise, and sometimes even go back to re-drafting before moving on to the next step. Teachers also know how difficult it is to get some students to buy into this process. Many of them want to toss their work into the teacher’s in-box after dotting the last period, without a backwards glance.

I gained a little credibility with some of these students when I was able to prove to them that the real process of publication does in fact follow this model.

Peer Conferencing: I shared my manuscript with family, friends, and fellow authors while I worked on it. The demand from certain people became great enough that I sent out each chapter by email as it was completed. My students laughed when I told them that my husband was my toughest critic. When Mr. Salerni says it’s no good, I scramble to revise!

Teacher Conferencing: I carefully consider all the feedback I get from my early readers, but I don’t necessarily address every single one of their comments. However, when my editors at Sourcebooks give me feedback – or when the producer collaborating with me on the screenplay wants changes – I definitely complete the revisions as required. “You might ignore some peer feedback,” I tell my students, “but when your teacher tells you something must be changed (insert stern teacher glare here), you’d better change it before handing in your work!”

Editing: This endless task is something that students just don’t want to do. “It doesn’t have any mistakes,” they tell me. I have explained to my class that I’ve read We Hear the Dead about fifty times, and I am still finding things to change. I recently received my final proof pages and noticed a paragraph where I used the word “all” four times within two sentences. “It’s not technically a mistake,” I explained to the students, “but it sounds bad, and I can improve it.”

One of my smart cookies challenged me at the end of my lesson, saying, “Yeah, Mrs. Salerni, but when we’re done, we have to turn our work in to you for grades. When your book gets published, you don’t get grades.”

“Yes, I do,” I answered him promptly. “They’re called reviews.”

Monday, February 15, 2010

Dr. Kane's Volcano


It’s probably time I explain the volcano picture at the top of this blog site. People who are familiar with the historical characters in We Hear the Dead have probably already guessed – that’s Dr. Elisha Kane’s volcano.

Not his personal volcano, of course, but the one he explored as a young, impulsive adventurer and the one which almost cost him his life.

On the island of Luzon in the Philippines, there is a freshwater lake called Taal Lake. The active Taal Volcano lies in the middle of that lake, and inside the volcano is a smaller lake (called Crater Lake) which contains its own tiny island, called Vulcan Point. That’s right: an island in a lake in a volcano in a lake on an island. Have you got it?

In 1844, while traveling in the Philippines, the impetuous young Kane descended by a vine rope into the gaping maw of Taal Volcano to investigate the chemical composition of the lake within. Once he reached the interior …

No, I’d better not tell you the story now. Elisha Kane tells it himself in We Hear the Dead, but I will let you know this much: Early readers have told me that this is the point in the story when they began to fall in love with the dashing explorer. Yeah, the same goes for my heroine Maggie Fox … and probably for me, too.

More importantly, this was also the point in my writing where the character of Elisha Kane developed his voice and his personality. Up until this point, I’d had trouble wrapping my head around this complex man. He was my romantic lead, and yet the real Kane had some traits that were going to be hard to portray sympathetically. Not to worry – Elisha burst onto stage, fixed his sights on Maggie Fox, and firmly took control of the story’s course, steering it in a direction I never intended to go.

He was a strong-willed young man in real life. His fictional version ended up no different.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Define Reading ... Part 2


Reading in today’s society tends to be a social activity. People share books, recommend them, discuss them, blog about them, and list them on virtual library sites. However, across the nation, NCLB requires states to test reading in isolation. Students must make sense of text without the support of peer readers and answer questions that are judged by someone far away – someone who will never meet the test-taker or listen to an explanation of his answer.

Sadly, a lot of schools have given up teaching novels in favor of more test practice. I find this a worrisome trend, considering the downward spiral of American interest in reading. A recent New Yorker article reported that in a survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2002 only 47% of the participants had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months. That’s over half the participants admitting to not a single book in a year. Perhaps this explains why parents at a community event this fall complained about my school’s summer reading assignments. “It’s supposed to be vacation!” one parent said to me indignantly, knowing I was a teacher at her child’s school. She was unashamed to complain about the burden of reading a book over the 10-week summer vacation.

Luckily, my school still values reading books for the joy of reading, and although we have to balance our reading instruction with rigorous test preparation, we do ask students to read over the summer. We also maintain a place in the classroom for the social discussion of books – rather than simply hammering the students with worksheets, multiple-choice questions, and essays written in isolation.

Again, I ask myself, what is the true definition of literacy?

Could it possibly include the look on the students’ faces when we come back from the Book Fair? Should the definition of reading mention the way in which kids hug their newly purchased books to their chests with joy and anticipation? Why doesn’t the state come in and assess the contented sigh and subsequent silence that descends upon the classroom when I toss my lesson plans out the window and say, “Let’s all read the books we bought at the Fair today, okay?”

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Little Ice Age


No, I’m not talking about the Blizzards of 2010!

I realize that I was supposed to post the second half of my reading/testing essay today, but I was diverted by a statement on the news last night. “A few more inches,” said John Bolaris, the Philly weather guy, with a smarmy grin, “and we will top the all-time record in the Philadelphia area!”

The all-time record? That’s a bit lofty, isn’t it? How long have we been keeping records anyway? Maybe a hundred and fifty years? If you want to take a look at a bad winter, take a gander at Leutze’s famous painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware.

This painting has been criticized for some historical inaccuracies – for example, it’s the wrong type of boat and that flag was not in use. The ice floes in the Delaware River have sometimes been cited as one of the mistakes, but historical accounts suggest that it may have looked just like this.

“The Little Ice Age” is a term used to describe a period between approximately 1300 and 1850 in which bizarre climactic shifts wreaked havoc in North America and Europe. It was not a true ice age, but a cycle of strange weather that included intensely cold winters, numerous Atlantic storms, and intense summer heat. The weather in 1812 was so severe it stopped Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia, reducing an army of 600,000 to 130,000. And yes, Washington’s army crossed an ice laden Delaware River to attack Trenton on December 25, 1776. (Philly residents: Have you ever seen the Delaware River choked with ice floes on Christmas Day?)

Washington didn’t make out much better the following year either. In 1777, his army was pounded by hurricanes in the fall, and of course the devastating winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge is well documented. Consider this: They didn’t have snowblowers; they didn’t have plows and salt trucks; heck, most of them didn’t even have shoes. And yet they still got up and went to war against the best trained army in the world to win our freedom.

So quit whining.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Define Reading (and Support Your Answer with 3 Examples from the Text)


I asked my students: “What did Natasha say about men walking on the moon?”

Chad had an answer. “She said it never happened. She told Toughboy that his teachers were lying, because it was impossible for men to walk on the moon.”

“Were you surprised by what she said?” This was the more important follow-up question, requiring inference and analysis.

“I wasn’t,” volunteered Carlotta. “Natasha always has something negative to say, especially when she doesn’t know the real answer.”

“Yeah,” added Loren, “and she really hates modern technology. I wasn’t surprised either.”

We were discussing Winter Camp by Kirkpatrick Hill. Elsewhere in my classroom, the other fifth grade students were preparing for their own reading group meetings. One boy, who was reading Call it Courage, had just Googled the longitude and latitude of the island Hikueru and was trying to locate it on our world map. Students with The Music of Dolphins were supposed to be reading independently, but Dallas and Andy had their heads together, whispering excitedly about the chapter where Mila breaks the TV with a chair. I should have been pleased with my students’ enthusiastic involvement with their literature. But instead, I was worried.

Were my current classroom activities adequately preparing students for the upcoming state test?

Every state in the country has its own set of assessments, mandated by the No Child Left Behind law. In Pennsylvania, we face the PSSAs, a daunting battery of tests composed of multiple choice and open-ended responses. The fifth grade test is disproportionately difficult, and more points are required to reach “proficiency” at this grade level than any other—including eleventh grade.

A person might think that any meaningful instruction provided in the classroom would help students score well on a test of reading skills. However, experience has shown me that children must practice with activities that greatly resemble the assessment in order to meet the testing standards. This is because the paper and pencil tasks do not really reflect what readers do with books on a daily basis. In real life we converse about books and learn from other readers -- witness the proliferation of community book clubs and social networking sites such as Goodreads, Shelfari, and LibraryThing.

Real readers rarely answer questions in isolation for an anonymous and distant judge who offers no appeal.

It all comes down to your definition of literacy.

Our repeated test practice turns up plenty of potential trouble spots. Many of my students have had trouble with a PSSA practice item which asks: Identify the turning point in this passage. Support your answer with three examples from the text. Since there is only one turning point, students can't fathom how to give three examples. In conversation, students can prove their understanding of "turning point," but they are confused by the written prompt and do not score well on this exercise.

I also observe students stumped by terms used on the PSSA that don’t match the ones they learned in class. One English Language Learner was lost when the test asked for “characteristics” instead of “character traits.” Another student didn’t realize that the word “passage” meant the text. Talking to these students could have cleared up these problems and enabled them to show off their abilities. Too bad it violates test validity for me to clarify a question.

English Language Learners especially have it rough in Pennsylvania. The state allows them only one year before requiring that they take the Reading PSSA -- and pass. Proficiency means being able to make inferences, identify text structure in a non-fiction passage, and distinguish between similes and metaphors. I’ve had the honor of teaching many highly intelligent, non-native English speakers, but none who could reach that level of expertise in a single year.

So, how do schools and teachers balance what we believe about reading with what gets tested? To be continued in Part Two …

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Haunting of Hydesville


The history of spiritualism in America began in 1848 with a house in Hydesville, New York that was supposedly haunted by the spirit of a murdered man. Instrumental in the spread of this story and the consequent spotlight of attention on two adolescent girls (Maggie and Kate Fox) was a pamphlet published by a lawyer and would-be journalist of a neighboring town.

A Report of the Mysterious Noises Heard in the House of Mr. John D. Fox in Hydesville, Arcadia, Wayne County by E.E. Lewis is a curious little document consisting of nearly 20 authenticated certificates relating the events which took place in April of 1848. In a series of repetitive and nearly identical accounts, the residents of Hydesville described how some unexplained rapping sounds gradually resolved themselves into a sort of coded communication with the spirit of a dead man buried in the cellar of John Fox’s house. The “ghost” revealed his story by answering yes-and-no questions, even going so far as to identify his killer as John Bell, a former tenant of the house.

In time, focus would shift from this house and its ghostly inhabitant to the living occupants, especially the two girls Maggie and Kate, who were later identified as gifted spirit mediums. However, it is interesting to note that the girls are never named in Mr. Lewis’s pamphlet, and, in fact, they are mentioned as having only a minor role in the entire affair. It is even difficult to tell, based on the narratives in the pamphlet, exactly how many girls were present on the night the rapping began. Margaret Fox reports, “The whole family slept in that room together, and all heard the noise. There was four of our family, and sometimes five.” The four people were most definitely Margaret and John Fox and their daughters Maggie and Kate. Historians have speculated that the fifth person may have been Margaret’s granddaughter, Lizzie Fish, but it is difficult to tell from this pamphlet whether Lizzie was present on the night of the first rappings or not. In my fictional retelling of the tale, I have chosen to include Lizzie in the night’s adventures.

In any case, the girls were considered of little importance to the incident. Reading the “authenticated certificates” of the Fox family and their neighbors requires wading through some extremely repetitive narrations, but one is definitely struck by the “snowballing” nature of the affair. Each individual wants his or her own moment in the limelight, and one can almost imagine them jostling each other out of the way to tell Mr. Lewis their stories. For the most part, their accounts agree, although every person brings a unique angle to the story. For example, Mrs. Mary Redfield claims that when asked to guess her age, the ghost rapped 33 times. “This is my age,” she proudly states. Considering the method by which the Fox sisters confessed making the rapping sounds later, this seems an extremely unlikely event. Plus, I was immediately struck by the oddness of any woman volunteering her age for publication—unless she was attempting to shed a few years by encouraging Mr. Lewis to print an age that was (ahem) slightly reduced.

The pamphlet concludes, oddly enough, with a certificate circulated by the residents of Hydesville testifying that none of the signers believed John Bell guilty of any crime. This testimony to Bell’s innocence is signed by over 40 people, including many of the same ones who submitted sworn accounts of the ghostly rapping that accused Bell of the crime in the first place. What are we to infer from this? Well, my conclusion was that people in 1848 were no different from people today: everybody wants to get in on the action until it looks like they might get in trouble. Then it’s time to pedal backwards.

Mr. E. E. Lewis’s pamphlet may be read online here.