Stacked in Our Favor

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

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Mock Caldecott, ambiguity and making decisions

On Monday, the participants in the adult version of the Mock Caldecott will meet to nominate their top three books. A list of these books will be compiled and we will all read these titles. I expect chaos to ensue. In fact, I’m looking forward to it.

Last week people kept saying to me “I’m still looking for THE ONE.” I can sympathize. They want one that blows them over, knocks them over the head and has a label that says “This is the one.” No one wants to be wrong.

This is part of a trend I’ve been seeing for a while. People want to know the right answer. They are afraid of getting it wrong. Standardized testing doesn’t do much to alleviate our fears. We are trained to pick “the right answer” from a group of four possibilities. Frankly, life isn’t much like that. There’s so much more ambiguity.

Just think about it. Making choices in health care is seldom a clear-cut experience. You have to weigh the pros and the cons and make your best guess. Even gathering reams of information won’t help you make a decision that is definitely the correct one. There is room for error. You have to make your best guess based on what you know. It’s a leap of faith.

Our current political and economic environment doesn’t help. There’s plenty of ambiguity facing people in personally significant ways. People who have lost jobs, homes, cars and hard cold cash in the economic downturn must feel the need for answers. There are certainly many, many questions. Finding a silver bullet remains elusive.

Choosing a career, a spouse, a home, even a vacation are all matters of weighing the pros and cons. The career may be the wrong one if a field dries up. Think about people who continued making buggy whips after the motorcar was invented. A spouse can have a mid-life crisis. A hurricane can whip through your vacation paradise. No one can be sure that the decision they are making is the only “right” choice. But we want to feel that there is, out there somewhere, a correct choice to choose.

Life just isn’t that certain.

So participating in an activity that is fraught with ambiguity is at times uncomfortable. Fear of inadequacy, incompetence and failure haunts us.  Sometimes we hope that the right answer is there, that we will somehow miraculously choose it. Then that feeling of discomfort will pass away.

To enjoy the process of the Mock Caldecott you have to let it go. It is much more enjoyable to me to listen to others and learn from them than to think I know the answer. Though it’s not something I’m proud of, I must admit it has taken some effort for me to get to that point. It hasn’t come naturally.

Naturally, I would like to pick the winner. I still remember what it felt like to tell students that I had chosen Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion and the Mouse as my pick for the medal. How glorious it felt to be right. My dear students applauded when they heard the news. They were so proud of me. Will I choose it again this year? Maybe, but maybe not. That’s not the point. This year, I’ve moved beyond that. It is not whether I am “right” or not. It’s really more about the process and who I become through the process. I’ll choose a contender – a really fine book.

I anticipate that there will be participants who come to the meeting on Monday who have not yet made their decisions as well as some who feel confident. No doubt about it, I’m anxious to experience this part of the process.

Am I going to tell you which books I choose? No way. I might be wrong.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Mock Caldecott for Students

As we were looking at so many great new books, I began to think it made sense to extend the project to our students. Naturally, they can read neither the number nor the range of books we are reading. They can, however, have a limited number read to them, discuss their relative merits and make a decision based on the criteria given to them.

So a couple weeks ago I started going through the selections I had read to pull out the titles I thought age appropriate. Ten books seemed like a reasonable number to have students be able to read and think about. So we are compromising between the many I’d like them to read and what I think optimal and going with 15 books.

Introducing the project to the kids was even more rewarding than I anticipated. They were very excited to have a chance to pretend in school and to have a chance to vote!

We reviewed what the medal is for, who awards it and who receives it, the shape and color of the medal, as well as the various elements of the design on the medal. Kindergarteners who had just learned about the medal last week proved to have impressive memories. First graders who had the lesson last year impressed me with their ability to recall the design elements.

Some people have questioned whether learning the elements on the medal is important. My response is a resounding YES! After students have learned about the Caldecott Medal they are very enthusiastic to find one in the library. In their excitement to find one, children will bring me copies of books with the Pura Belpre Medal, the Geisel Award, the Newbery Medal, Parent’s Choice Awards, The Golden Kite Award and even the spectacularly differently shaped Coretta Scott King Award. It seems as though as long as it glitters it is a Caldecott in their minds. I remind them to think about what is on the Caldecott Medal. Then they are instructed to compare what they are looking at with what they know to be elements of the Caldecott Medal.

I outlined some basic things we were looking for in the illustrations:

-       Do the illustrations match the story?
-       Did the illustrator use the kinds of colors that would make the story more understandable?
-       Did the shapes match the feeling of the story? (Sharp objects being scarier. Round objects being more comfy.)
-       Was the illustrator good at his/her job?

Students did a remarkable job of responding to these questions. They are challenged to evaluate whether they think a book will be happy or sad by looking at the cover. Then they are required to give an explanation.

The adult group found it very difficult to separate their feelings about the story and the illustrations. If the story was heartwarming they overlooked inconsistencies or lack of prowess with the artistic medium.  It took several weeks and plenty of coaching for the process to become more natural.

Interestingly enough children fall into two camps on this skill.

1.     Some students are completely unable to separate their thought about the book based on text, illustrations, theme, etc. One student thought the illustrator had done a very bad job on the book. When I asked why he stated that it was “because the book is sad.” This tendency is not likely to be a surprise as we are used to thinking of children as being less sophisticated than adults.
2.     Some students have little to no trouble separating the illustrations from the text. In fact, they treat them as two separate items. I would postulate that this is because they are used to experiencing books in this way. I am working with very young children who are in the process of learning to read. Some of them have very little ability to read a book on their own. These children primarily experience books by flipping through the pages and “reading” the pictures. Recently when I introduced the “5 finger rule” to a class I saw a student with his 5 fingers up “reading” the book making up his own story as he went. Not so amazingly, all five of his fingers were still up at the end of the book. This is how he envisions the reading experience.

Running the Mock-Caldecott, or the Fake-Caldecott as one student calls it, with students is well worth the effort. Students are really enjoying it and it' interesting to see the experience through a different lens.

Monday, November 8, 2010

PiBoIdMo and the Proliferation of Thinking Chairs

I am taking part in a writing challenge this month called PiBoIdMo or Picture Book Idea Month for those of you Acronym challenged folks. PiBoIdMo is the brainchild of Tara Lazar whose blog Tara Lazar: Writing for Kids (While Raising Them) is a place to visit if you are interested in children’s lit. The idea is that you come up with and file one idea for a picture book each day of the month of November. She has lined up an amazing set of guest bloggers to post inspirations for the journey and some pretty nifty prizes. 

The real value, though, is the chance to “meet” some inspiring fellow writers and bloggers. I am enjoying the communal aspect of it, the inspiration and the fact that I have at least one idea on file for each day.

Before the challenge began, children’s writer, artist and blogger Dana Cary posted her preparations for the month on her blog Up in the Attic Lately. In this post she shared her idea for the creation of a “thinking chair” including information about how she pulled it together. Check out her idea. 

I was not alone in reading the post and feeling a need deep in my heart to have a thinking chair of my own. So I pulled out the camp chair I usually take to Elizabeth Park, draped a floral quilt over it, plunked a silk flower arrangement in the drink holder and topped it with a fuzzy pink blanket with pom pons and VIOLA!, my thinking chair was born. Then I got the idea to add a pink fuzzy bean bag chair topping an exercise ball as a foot stool. The ideas come quickly when sitting in this very relaxing chair. Great ideas for picture books, ideas for school and relaxing thoughts which make the end of the day a pleasure.

Where do you do your best thinking? Will you be setting aside a corner to do your thinking?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Battle Fatigue - Mock Caldecott Group End of Week Six

A number of events converged to make this an interesting week for our participants. Our district had an in-service day which meant that few of us were in our regular spots. For many of us that meant one less day to get our reviews done.

Many of us have succumbed to the nasty chest cold we are sharing. That didn’t exactly help our ability to review this week’s quota of books.

But most difficult of all was the closing of grades for the semester. Correcting papers, calculating grades and posting them will take priority for the next week. That makes it really tough to stay on top of reviewing for all but the most die-hard children’s lit enthusiasts.

When we started the group people clustered together, sharing their thoughts as they went. Looking for inspiration, validation and ideas. This week I saw a big shift. A number of people sought to do their books in isolation. It seems that some people have gotten beyond the honeymoon stage of uncertainty and the need for approval. They now have built the confidence that their ability is up to the task. Blocking out distraction in order to get the task done with precision and speed is more the issue at this point.

Those who do stop by to swap opinions will never find me short of the interest in discussion. Still, I’m excited by how people who weren’t confident at first are quite able to do their own assessments and apologize to no one for their opinions.

Having said that, there are certainly feelings of overwhelm and panic. How will we meet the goal in the time we have? I don’t know, but it will all be learning. I continue to find new books I want to view. It’s all practice.

I think about next year and hope that I will be fortunate enough to do this again. If so, I think there are some things I can do to make this process easier.

1.     Start recording the books from which to select from the reviews from the first review source in January. That will make this process much easier to keep up with. I didn’t start a spreadsheet until August this year giving me too much to catch up with.
2.     Even if I am going to offer this in the fall season, I think it would be best for me to review as many as I can in the spring and (here comes the key point) eliminate the obvious books. I have more motivation for this project than my participants need to have and so I will review many more books. Give them the higher end of the scale. When some of the book arrived it was very obvious that they would not be contenders. Perfectly appropriate in another context, but not one we would need to review.
3.     Vet the books we will review more carefully to make sure that the illustrators of each book qualify for the medal.
4.     Be more clear about what the expectations on the review forms are. Some people felt they had to write volumes for each book. That was more than I would expect.
5.     Readjust the target for how long it takes to review a book. It takes longer than I believed it would.