Stacked in Our Favor

Thoughts about libraries, education, children's literature, writing, art and being connected

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Web – A Maze of Letters and Numbers

I’m still reading I’d rather be in the Studio!: The Artist’s No-Excuse Guide to Self-Promotion by Alyson B. Stanfield and probably will be for some time. It is one of those books you read and re-read. After reading a passage you digest, try your hand at it and come back to refine your thinking post-experience.

Something Stanfield wrote has me doing a lot of thinking. She mentions, in passing, that everything you do online is “text-based.” As teachers/librarians/parents/members of society we talk about, often bemoaning, children’s lack of attention these days. Often times the reason for this is attributed to digital media and the access to video games, television programming which caters to the rapid fire of visual stimulation. The internet is often thought of as a vast warehouse of multimedia which is dominated by visual and auditory stimulus. In truth, the dominant paradigm is actually text. Everything is linked through the use of text. Everything must be searched for using text – alpha numerically. The common way of searching does not involve drawing a shape on the screen and having the computer search for everything which shares that shape. It involves typing in words which will be used as search terms. Think of how difficult it would be to narrow down searches if they were done by shape, color or sound. Perhaps using SMARTPHONE technology would allow you to take a picture and search for iterations of that picture. That might be more successful. Still, it seems to me the tagging we do is more efficient than pictorial searching ever could be.

The old adage “a pictures is worth a thousand words” is alright as long as you do not expect my 1,000 words to be the same as yours. A picture of any celebrity will inspire admiration in some, loathing in others and a perplexed look in someone who has no context for the individual. We interpret visual stimuli based on our own experiences, values and needs. Let’s face it, when a teenage girl and her parent go shopping one of them will look at a skirt and think it is too long. The other will think it is a wash cloth. Visual images are not static in interpretation. Truth be told, neither are words.

I’m willing to be educated about the possibilities of visual search engines. My search on the web didn’t show me anything which I thought looked close to giving the kind of results we now get with text based search engines. I’m sure Steve Jobs is working on it.

Ultimately what this means is – writing really matters in a digital world. Content is the base, the backbone, the jumping spot. Years ago I was talking to a family member who is very tech saavy. He told me that he had thought about starting a website and then realized that a good website has to have more than cool stuff. A meaningful website needs to have a purpose. It needs to have content. So do we in creating one. Content is the stuff which holds all the glitter together. Without it even beautiful images are adrift. Looking on Bing’s Visual Search I was struck by this. The photograph of Queen Elizabeth II without the text “world leaders” could possibly be link to biographical information about the Queen, the royal family or great hats. The text clues us into the values that the designer used when the page was formed. In creating content critical thinking is imperative. Text sure helps.

Our efforts toward strengthening ELA skills in students should not waver in the face of the digital paradigm. No. Our resolve to maintain high expectations for reading and writing throughout this time of technological growth must not be shaken. The format for many of the things we take for granted will change. The degree to which this comes to pass is really anyone’s guess. However, whether interacting with bound books, ebooks or web content, students need the skills of reading for comprehension (not just decoding), writing and creating content using their critical thinking skills to be successful players in the digital arena.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Paula Yoo continues to inspire – My first Lit Trip column

I cannot adequately express my appreciation for the experience Paula Yoo put together this year for NaPiBoWriWee – National Picture Book Writing Week. During the month of April, Paula posted daily inspirational messages on her blog. These included plenty of recommendations for books to read, authors and illustrators who added their insights, and writing prompts. Paula did everything short of writing our books for us. I know I am not the only one who found I wanted to read the books of our fine leader. In April, I picked up a copy of Good Enough which had long been on my “to read” list. Once I started reading, I read all the way to the end. Several times people tried to ask me questions, but they desisted when all they got in response was “…huhhhhhhhhhh…..”

I loved Good Enough for so many reasons. If you look at Paula’s website and check out the reviews for the book you will see that there’s been plenty of positive talk surrounding the book.

So I won’t go there, except to say that this is a book that I am very enthusiastic about and would recommend to anyone. Actually, a young friend of mine is reading it now. At first she wasn’t too happy with me for giving it to her the weekend before she had to take the MCAS. There are far too many references to the necessity of getting good test scores for someone who was on the brink of standardized test taking. Later, she saw the humor in it. Yesterday when I asked her a question. She replied “…huhhhhhhhhhhhh…” Glad it has come out in paperback, Paula. Think I’ll be buying several copies.

Lit Trips

I have long wanted to start a regular column in my blog called Lit Trips. Paula has inspired my first one. Lit Trips will be columns which I dedicate to the places found in children’s literature. I find myself taking these little forays to see the actual places.

Good Enough takes place in my old stomping grounds. I grew up in Connecticut and the names of the schools and the places are ones which I am quite familiar with. Having just read the book and being on April vacation, I headed over to West Hartford, Connecticut and took a look around at Hartt School of Music which is part of the University of Hartford campus. Some of my friends took private lessons there when we were in high school. A relative got a degree from University of Hartford. As I drove around the campus many happy memories came flooding back to me. I remembered dropping a friend off at her lessons. I imagined the scenes of Good Enough playing out in the landscape around me. Groups of students were lying on blankets in the sun. Others walking together across campus looked like they could easily have been characters in Good Enough. The day was very warm, flowers were blooming (notice the dogwood out in front) and it was a beautiful day for strolling around. Here is the view:

I don’t know if Paula ever went to Elizabeth Park in Hartford, but after Hartt School of Music I headed over there to see the tulips. They were extraordinary.

I will have to go back in June for the Rose Festival. If you love roses and live in New England it is worth the trip. Here is what it looks like without the roses. Just imagine what it will be like when all those hoops are covered with pink, red, yellow, purple, and white buds.

I don’t think I’m done haunting the scene of Good Enough inspiration sites, but that’s all I have for this maiden Lit Trip post.

Friday, May 7, 2010


I’ve been writing this week, but none of it has gotten to my blog. I’ve just finished another writing challenge. This time it is NaPiBoWriWee (National Picture Book Writing Week) the brain child of Paula Yoo. The object is to write 7 picture books in 7 days. Not an easy task at all.

I found this challenge much more difficult than NaNoWriMo was for me. I have heard the recommendation that picture books be no more than 600 words. That translates to a total of 4,200 words or less in 7 days. Compared to writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days it should be simple, right? Wrong. Perhaps it is the very fact that instead of writing 1,600 words a day you can only write 600. Each day you tackle an entire story arc. With the month long challenge and one novel, you let it simmer. Your characters have time to develop, interact with your day (in your head of course), and you can work on the filler stuff. With NaPiBoWriWee you have to do it all each day. It’s exhausting. The nineteen ideas I had before the challenge started don’t all seem to appeal and I find I’m coming up with new ideas about half of the days.

So I have found out many things about myself.

• It is easier for me to write a middle grade or YA novel than a picture book.

• Coming up with an idea is not the same as coming up with a story.

• I’m wordy.

• Sitting down to write a story which you don’t think is going to work, works sometimes.

• Writing a picture book a day is exhausting and suddenly I’d rather do anything, but write one. Vacuuming starts to look like a leisure time pursuit.

• Everyone else has story ideas which sound great.

• My drafts make me think that the most I could hope for in a review is “…an additional purchase.”

• I’m sympathizing more with students when they whine “…but I don’t know what to write!”

• I haven’t found my pace writing picture books.

• My drafts are either too long or too short.

• Brain Drain was so severe that I put a “d” in the word onomatopoeia in class today.

• I’m teaching differently as a result of this challenge. I’m more talking with students about word choice, editing, writing, what works in a story and what doesn’t. Sometimes I suggest we change a detail of a story and ask them to reflect on whether they think the story will work just as well or whether it could be better/worse. These were not things I discussed with my young charges before.

• I’m choosing books differently. Haven’t quite figured out how to explain the difference, but I know there is one.

• I am now picking up picture books and saying “What were they thinking?” I guess I am becoming more selective.

I'm sure I'll think of something else once I finish the blog post.

Participating in a challenge like this is a great way to make yourself do the work. In reality, I could set myself this challenge any week I choose. It wouldn’t be the same, though. The group mentality of it, the camaraderie, the opportunity to become acquainted with many talented people, to offer and receive encouragement all added greatly to the experience. Thanks to everyone who encouraged me through Paula Yoo’s blog, Twitter or in my physical surroundings. You helped me to learn so much more.

To Paula Yoo, deepest thanks. Paula not only took on the monumental task of coordinating the event, but also of putting together a month of encouragement beforehand, daily words of encouragement during the event and put so much heart into the event.