philosophers_tableRegardless of age, you can feel it. As August days creep by, it’s time to get ready for school. A fresh start beckons.

Looking back at my college years and many more years as a college professor, memories almost always circle around food. A dinner bell brings people together as nothing else can. Happy college evenings spent lingering over coffee in the dining hall and more friends pulling up chairs and delaying their departures…students breaking bread over good conversation in faculty homes and forever changing the classroom dynamic…parents coming to visit and picnicking with a group that expands with every wave of a hand…  As a college professor, hearing the expected request after just a few weeks from students wanting to fix food for the class, thereby making a large group more intimate…study sessions congregating over potluck dinners and nervous pre-exam breakfasts…dinner parties celebrating semester’s end and contact information exchanging…

Today I glanced at some of my upcoming book events and once again plates are passing—in Maryland to meet with educators and parents, we picnic—at the University of Virginia, students and I have dinner before the evening’s discussion—local eateries in Charlottesville supply their specialties, and a philosophizing afternoon takes a festive turn.

Here’s what culinary guru Alice Waters knows: “Our full humanity is contingent on our hospitality; we can be complete only when we are giving something away; when we sit at the table and pass the peas to the person next to us we see that person in a whole new way” (In the Green Kitchen: Techniques to Learn By Heart). In contrast, I know far too well, from far too much student testimony and personal observation, about the damage done by reliance upon technological substitutes for genuine human interaction. Heads bowed as students walk down hallways, cell phones clutched…the discomfort when a text message sounds during our conversation, not because of the interruption but due to the mounting anxiety to check it immediately…earbuds tuning out the person in the adjacent desk, also waiting for class to begin…social media postings unraveling with unforeseen and unfortunate consequences…

The best college meal plan is to make one. Whether your field of study is engineering, business, chemistry, or philosophy, you can make the commitment to join with others and pass the peas. Be smart about the technological revolution that brings with it so many wondrous advances—don’t allow it to replay the isolation and loss of community that was wrought by the industrial revolution.

Some possible meal plans for you and old and brand new friends: Bring your lunches to a set place on campus at the same time, every week, and enjoy the familiar routine and camaraderie. Cook together one night a week.  Choose a setting and a time frame—and any morning know that there may well be friends there to share coffee or tea. Find a place in town, with prices that suit every pocket, and reserve a table twice a month. Get outside when possible—cookouts and picnics, complemented by walks, ball tossing, a board game. For the school year, set aside one night a month to assemble a feast from different cultures, with everyone contributing something.

What happens at dinner, among other things, is the sharpening of the art of conversation. When we are glued to things rather than to each other, we easily lose the ability to listen attentively, to reply thoughtfully, and to give discussions room to breathe. We need to practice—and chewing, swallowing, and passing the hot soba noodles and the yakitori naturally slows us down. Conversation finds its rhythm.

When your college years are memories, what will matter, after all? Forging relationships…belonging to the world and to each other…feeling part of life’s unfolding. I love the way renowned chef Yotam Ottolenghi, a native of Israel, reflects on his craft and his partnership with Palestinian-born Sami Tamimi: “It takes a giant leap of faith, but we are happy to take it—what have we got to lose—to imagine that hummus will eventually bring Jerusalemites together if nothing else will” (The New Yorker, December, 3, 2012: “The Philosopher Chef” by Jane Kramer).

Study, laugh, and eat. Pass the hummus, please.


Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailWhat makes for a good read-aloud experience?

The answer to that query can be found in two disparate read-aloud experiences. One is a long-term Congressman reading aloud (in the dry, mind-numbing monotone) a newspaper editorial into the Congressional Record before a hundred inattentive colleagues. The second is a 72-year-old grandfather reading aloud a fairy tale parody to twenty-two attentive and enthusiastic inmates at a minimum-security prison facility.

Why did the first read-aloud fail and the other succeed? A two part answer: subject matter and reader.

In the first instance, the politician was simply going through the motions to please some constituents and he read it accordingly. If he were being graded for the performance he might be indicted for attempted murder of the spoken word. The material (as with most editorials) was boring and so was he.

In the second instance (and I must admit to bringing a certain bias to the case with myself as the reader), the positive response came because of the narrative and the reader’s effort to bring it alive. The inmates in question were taking an in-house class on parenting skills, which included reasons for and methods of reading to their children.

Choosing the right material should always be a prime consideration but tempered by the intended audience. After much consideration, the book I chose was I Am So Strong by Mario Ramos (Gecko Press, 2011) Here is the synopsis I included for the book in the Treasury of Read-Alouds for the seventh edition of The Read-Aloud Handbook:

Give me a book with some good old-fashioned yelling in it, throw in a handful of familiar characters like that wolf and Red Riding Hood and those three pigs, add a couple of dwarfs, and then round it off with a baby dinosaur and his huge mother. The end result is one terrific read-aloud.

The main protagonist is a loud, boastful wolf who struts through the forest asking each fairy tale character he meets, “Who’s the strongest in the woods?” Each cowed response inflates his ego a little bit more until he encounters what he mistakes for a toad. That tiny creature names his mother—who suddenly appears as big as a dinosaur on the final page.

prison storytimeWhy that book choice for the inmates? Because the audience could easily identify with the subject matter: ego, bullying, shouting, comeuppance, surprise ending, and gentle humor. There wasn’t one listener that morning who could not identify with either the wolf or the creatures he was intimidating in the forest.

But just as important as the choice of material was the way I read it. Already familiar with the book from reading it to myself several times in the previous year, I still read it aloud twice in preparation for the class. I noted where I needed to lower my voice, where to make it boastful or sly (“Hello there, Sugar Bun,” the wolf says to a small rabbit. “Tell me, who do you think is the strongest around here?”), and where I needed to be ready for the wolf to lose his temper when the last little creature boasts his mother is the strongest.

It’s unrealistic to expect that every parent has the time to prepare ahead each book for reading aloud as I did the wolf story but they can certainly improve their performance with repeat readings on successive nights. But no classroom teacher should consider doing a read-aloud without rehearsing it the night before. (Just for job security alone, read the book or chapter ahead of time! The last thing you want is an unexpected word popping up in the text.)

So where does that leave the parent or teacher who isn’t Morgan Freeman or Meryl Streep with the spoken word? Children don’t expect Academy Award performances but they do expect fluency and effort. What they don’t deserve is a Congressman-reading-into-the-Congressional-Record performance. But what each of us can and will do, if we stay with it long enough, is improve because of the confidence we gain with repeated readings until we achieve the ultimate goal when a child or class exclaims, “Read it again!”

As for good read-aloud material, I try to make that easier than walking into a library and coldly making choices. Not every book is meant to be read aloud (some aren’t even worth reading to ourselves, never mind reading to others). The whole second half of my book is the Treasury of Read-Alouds with hundreds of titles and synopses, along with listening/grade levels for each book.

The usual criteria for selecting a book to my list is Plot, the wind beneath the story’s wings. Does anything happen that we care about? Do we want to turn the page to see what happens next? How long does it take to get things moving? Are we begging for more when the final page is read?

Conversely, the author who spends a whole page in a novel describing the butterfly on the pinewood plank on a spring morning by the lake may be a fine poet but the end result is not going to hold an audience for long unless the butterfly soon turns into a dangerous . . .

If plot is so important, where does that leave nonfiction? They’re usually not great read-alouds, unless the audience is especially interested in the subject. This means if you have a child who is very keen on one subject (Civil War, baseball, horses, etc.), he or she will usually be ripe for a read-aloud on that subject—but a whole class might not be.

On the other hand, today more than ever before there are excellent picture books that incorporate plot into nonfiction, focusing on singular events (plot) in a famous person’s life. My favorites include: My Brother Martin by Christine King Farris; Nurse, Soldier, Spy by Marissa Moss; Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein by Don Brown; POP! The Invention of Bubble Gum by Meghan McCarthy; Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving by Laurie Halse Anderson; and The Kid Who Invented the Popsicle by Don Wulffson.

They are entertaining, informative, and, unlike textbooks or Congressional Records, seldom dull.


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  • Despite the claims that the Internet has hurt reading, I say it’s the best thing that ever happened to used-bookstores. Between, Alibris, Amazon, and Bookfinder.com, it’s near impossible to come up empty when looking for a favorite.
  • When was the last time you saw anyone (young or old) reading a book by Maurice Sendak? On the other hand, parents and teachers will get ten times more mileage for kids’ hearts and souls from Patricia Polacco’s books than from Sendak’s. Just a personal opinion.
  • When I’m shopping or browsing, I’m always influenced first by the book’s cover, followed by the rest of the book. So what happens when we go all-digital and there are fewer and fewer physical covers to catch our eye?
  • I’ve always wondered why paperback covers are so much more attractive than hardcovers. It’s like public radio’s Saturday afternoon opera versus “Car Talk.”
  • I just got around to reading The Franchise by Michael MacCambridge, the history of Sports Illustrated’s first four decades. (My teen years were spent devouring the magazine’s first decade.) Along with much ado about editorial and office politics, the book documents the sad slide of popular American magazine writing from lengthy and complex sentences to shorter and shallower writing, accompanied by a plethora of photos—something like slo-mo TV with pages. Poor Mr. Luce must rotate in his grave weekly.
  • My favorite part of book promotion tours was meeting the tour escorts and quizzing them on their favorite touring authors as well as the ones they dreaded. Every year the escorts would “honor” the latter with an award called The Golden Dart. My favorite anecdote was the author who got off the plane, discovered her book wasn’t on display in the airport bookstore, and cancelled the city. A Dart-winner if there ever was one.
  • My favorite question at a dinner party is “What was your favorite book as a child?” It’s always sad when someone confesses, “I never had one,” but most people can come up with at least one. And then the debate starts.
  • An old newspaper colleague once observed wisely: “The age we read a particular classic is inverse to our present age. That is, when we are 40, we recall reading Little Women when we were ten. When we are 60, we read it when we were six.”
  • I believe the last decade of Dr. Seuss full-length movies has done nothing to enhance his legacy. Please, Mrs. Geisel, don’t let Hollywood mess up Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
  • Most authors who talk to me about their books-made-into-movies sheepishly confess to a single motive: CASH, the very subject that feeds most author insecurities.
  • Why is it that doctors, scientists, and judges never think of writing a children’s book but celebrities keep writing them?
  • It’s a shame English novelist Michael Morpurgo and Australian picture book artist Bob Graham are not better known in the U.S. They’re as good as our very best. I’d take Morpurgo’s Kensuke’s Kingdom over any Harry Potter book, and Graham’s A Bus Called Heaven is nothing short of great.
  • Can you remember why book-banners protested Trina Schart Hyman’s Caldecott-winning Little Red Riding Hood? Trina, who loved sneaking mischief into our illustrations, tucked away a bottle of wine in the basket headed for Grandma. Trina’s passing has left a painful void that is yet to be filled.
  • Speaking of censors, there’s a fascinating Webcast with E. B. White’s stepson about the time America’s most influential children’s librarian tried (and failed) to stop the publication of White’s first book, Stuart Little. Junie B. Jones would have given that librarian, Ann Carroll Moore, a good case of apoplexy or shingles.
  • I can name a dozen great dog novels but not a single cat book. How come?
  • You take Little House on the Prairie; I’ll take Caddie Woodlawn every time. As my son once observed when we were reading one of the Wilder books: “Dad, do we really need to know this much about hay?”
  • With 24/7 sports coverage on TV and the Web, someone ought to resurrect the out-of-print work of sports novelists Thomas J. Dygard and Alfred Slote.
  • Am I the only one who thinks we’ve reached the saturation point with apocalyptical novels for preteens and teens, to say nothing of the nasty-girl books. The slogan seems to be: If it sells, clone it. Is there an original thought in the house?
  • Kadir Nelson’s book illustrations are as close to fine art as you can get in kids’ books yet remain thoroughly accessible. He’s a treasure for our time!
  • After being missed for decades, Philomel has brought Doris Burn’s Andrew Henry’s Meadow back into print. If you’re unfamiliar with it, chase it down and revel in the glory that can be made from plain old black lines on white paper and a story that celebrates little kids who dare to find a life of their own. Oh, yes—Hollywood is preparing a film version, which means the children’s happy meadow probably will have wolverines and vampires lurking in the deep.
  • If you’re going to read Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, then you simply must follow it up with his Summer of the Monkeys.
  • It’s headed for the courts, so eventually publishers, authors, and e-tablet makers will allow us to digitally give away the e-books we’ve already purchased (probably if we first pay a little extra when we buy the book). But will they ever allow us to gift it to a public or school library, as we do with dead-tree books?
  • Who was the president that put James Bond on the bestseller list just when its publisher was about to retire the series? Jack Kennedy told Life magazine how much he loved reading the series and — bestseller list! Ah, for Presidents who share their reading.
  • How many famous “orphan” stories can you name, beginning with Harry Potter and going backward? For Dickens it was a magic ingredient. Still is.


real_talk_for_real_teachersFor many good teachers, the beginning of a new year can be depressing. It often seems that the new students are less prepared and surlier than those of the past. Many of us are tired of ineffective staff development sessions and the drudgery of spending too much time getting the students ready for a meaningless standardized test.

If you feel weary, imagine what a kid feels like walking into school these days. He is being taught that a series of worksheets or the regurgitation of some facts is supposed to demonstrate genuine scholarship.

Never forget that we teachers make the difference. No system or Common Core standard can look into a child’s eyes and recognize true understanding. A teacher does that. A teacher can look into a student’s eyes, read body language, offer a sympathetic ear to a kid having a bad day, or open a door that might change a life.

You, the teacher, have the power to do those things. You can be the turning point. Your skill and expertise are ready to be passed on, and the world will be a better place because of your wisdom, hard work, and dedication to the craft of teaching.

Students need us now more than ever. Let us all dedicate ourselves to having the best year we have ever had in the classroom. We can have a great year with our students not because of The System, but in spite of it.


read-aloud_handbookMost of us enjoy looking at the outtakes that frequently run with movie end credits these days, scenes that had to be cut but still were worthy of a tag-on performance. Every author has experienced the same dashed feelings when space or other considerations required him or her to slash a favorite scene or anecdote from a manuscript. Until blogs came along, there was no way for authors to attach them to the end pages.

So here, saved not by the bell but by the blog, is my favorite anecdote that didn’t make it to the finish line of my seventh edition of The Read-Aloud Handbook.

Recently the author-entrepreneur Seth Godin offered the following definition of the modern librarian: “The librarian isn’t a clerk who happens to work at a library. A librarian is a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher. The librarian is the interface between reams of data and the untrained but motivated user.”[i]

For the most part, Godin was on target, although secondary librarians working with students who want to do just “enough to get by” might demur over the last part. I personally would add two more qualifications to the definition: spy and people-reader. In support, I offer the following anecdote from NPR’s 2009 “Story Corps” files in which Arkansas Court of Appeals Judge Olly Neal told his daughter how he went from operating on the fringe of delinquency to college and law school. (”Story Corps”[is part of a national oral history project associated with the Library of Congress.)

Neal’s story began one day in the high school library in segregated Marianna, Arkansas. At this point in his life he was the epitome of “at-risk”: One of thirteen children in a home without electricity, daily tormentor of teachers (he loved calling them by their first names and reducing them to tears), with a history of shoplifting and using his mouth more than his brain. On this occasion, Neal was cutting class and hiding out in the library when he spotted a book on the shelf by Frank Yerby, at that time a little-known black author of adult novels. Between the risqué cover and text, Neal was intrigued enough to want more. There was a problem, however.

Frank_YerbyIf he took the book over to the library checkout counter, the girls attending it would notice and surely tell his peers that he was taking books out. “Then my reputation would be down, because I was reading books,” Neal explained to his daughter, Karama. “And I wanted them to know that all I could do was fight and cuss.”

In keeping with his established shoplifting talents, Neal stuffed the book under his coat and walked out. When he finished it, back he went to return it, only to find another Yerby novel in its place. “So I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll read that, too.’ So I took it under my jacket,” Neal said. “Later, I brought it back, and there was, by God — there was another book by Frank Yerby! So I took it.”

All together he read four Yerby novels that semester and a habit was formed that lead to newspapers and magazines and eventually to college, law school, and a judgeship. Lifetime readers often meet one book that towers above all others, a volume or author that “hooked” them so deeply they were pulled for life into the ocean of deep reading. Neal, an African American, had no idea Yerby was the first African-American to write an American bestseller, the first to sell a book to the movies, and the first to become a millionaire from his writings (55 million books sold). Langston Hughes got the attention and fame, but Yerby got the sales and money. All Neal knew was a good story when he met it, sometimes helped by a risque cover.

But Neal was ignorant of something else as well, something he wouldn’t discover until a high school class reunion years later when he chanced to meet his former teacher-librarian, Mildred Grady. To his surprise, she clearly remembered the Yerby incident. “She told me that she saw me take that book when I first took it. She said, ‘My first thought was to go over there and tell him, Boy, you don’t have to steal a book, you can check them out—they’re free!’” (Grady had established the school’s library a few years earlier.)

It’s here that the librarian-spy becomes a people-reader. Neal explained, “She realized what my situation was—that I could not let anybody know I was reading.” But she also recognized an open window of opportunity. “She and Mrs. Saunders would drive to Memphis and find another one [Yerby book] for me to read—and they would put it in the exact same place where the one I’d taken was. You’ve got to understand that this was not an easy matter then— because this is 1957 and ‘58,” Neal said. “And black authors were not especially available, No. 1. And No. 2, Frank Yerby was not such a widely known author. And No. 3, they had to drive all the way to Memphis [50 miles] to find it.”[iii] She also paid for the books out of her own pocket.

There are incalculable benefits from a librarian or teacher who knows what their students are reading, who knows Billy is crazy about the Alex Rider series and when she sees in the catalog that the next book is out, exclaims, “Hey, Billy—good news!” On such solid ground is built a lifetime reader. And as Olly Neal knows, it also creates a lifetime debt to that librarian or teacher. And one more thing: The reading seldom stops at one generation. Neal’s daughter Karama owns a doctorate in genetics.