Friday, January 28, 2011

Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia

I was very excited to start Alcatraz Versus The Knights Of Crystallia. I should have read the title more carefully. It gives the reader a very large hint of what Alcatraz faces in this book. I thought it referred to his support of his friend Bastille. I was wrong as was made clear by the end of the novel.

This book gave readers more information about the mysteries of the Librarian conspiracy. It also provided more information about Alcatraz's family history that was hinted at in the previous novel,Alcatraz Versus The Scrivener's Bones. Some of the jokes are getting tired which some of the diehard fans think defines the difference between real fans and casual fans. Some of us just think the author needed more ideas. The conflict between Alcatraz and both his parents looks like it is being established for later books.

The first two books did a great job of managing action, mystery, and foreshadowing. This book seemed to drop more chunks of story background, but the action was less smooth. While Bastille was allowed to redeem herself at the end, her character lacked definition for most of the third novel.

I am still looking forward to reading Alcatraz Versus The Shattered Lens. According to reviews I have read, there are supposed to be more plot solutions for interested readers. However, there are criticisms similar to ones I have made about the third book. There also does not seem to be a resolution with Scholastic regarding the last book.

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones

The library copy of Alcatraz Versus The Scrivener's Bones was available and I was finally able to finish it last night. The family reviews of the sequel were wonderful. Some of the online reviews more critical regarding the quality of the book. Therefore, I was unsure as I approached the novel what to think.

I have been listening to Alcatraz Versus The Evil Librarians on CD during my workouts. Charlie McWade brings Alcatraz alive and the story even more interesting than it was when I first read it. I have carried that voice into the reading of the second book.

There is definitely continuity between the first novel and the second. In fact, the main character is highly critical of those who skip the first novel and jump to the sequel. While the author reveals more information about the mystery surrounding the family and the mission, he presents new mysteries. The intentions of all the characters are not clear leading into the third book.

I was able to pick up the third novel from the library. The final novel needs to be reserved so I can pick it up. There still is no information available regarding the final novel. Talks seem to have broken down between Scholastic and the author. Perhaps if there is enough demand, talks will resume.

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Friday, January 14, 2011

Teaching the Language and the Historical Context for Shakespeare and Other Literature

In my previous post, I wrote about how wonderful my high school experience with English literature was and how I still find myself returning to books and plays I studied during that time. My college experience was equally bad.

One thing I discovered is that there does seem to be almost a fraternity approach by some to exploring English literature. Much as fraternity pledges are expected to suffer as previous generations have done, sadly many students experience the same approach to English literature. If others have suffered and survived, why should we make it easier for the next generation? Another equally harmful approach is the students are too stupid and therefore cannot handle the material. We will show them the movie and decide they are not intelligent enough to read the material for themselves. Perhaps they get the comic book versions if a teacher is feeling the students can handle the pictures.

Each approach is equally damaging. Students need appropriate tools to study English literature. We teach young children to decode and "break the code" so they can read Standard English. When we teach them foreign languages, we again go through the process of teaching them how to understand the structure and components of the language. Most foreign language programs even include some forms of cultural instruction to help students with comprehension, fluency, and interaction.

However, when it comes to understanding older forms of their own language we leave students to struggles as if it is some kind of coming of age ceremony. This is supposed to determine the children who can and cannot become English scholars.

I believe there are alternatives to what I call the fraternity approach. We do not need to force children to push their way through literature that might as well be a foreign language without a translation or teach them they are too stupid to handle it by not having them read the material.

First, teach the language. We give students Standard English dictionaries and foreign language dictionaries, but when it comes to older forms of our language we, somehow expect them to guess at the words and hope for the best. One of the things I was taught my special education trainers, as an elementary teacher was it was important to work on decoding skills and improve the comprehension skills of my struggling readers. So while my fourth grade student might only be able to decode at a second grade level it was important to work on their verbal comprehension skills which may be at a fourth grade level or higher. Teach the students where they are at and you will see improvements.

For older students this does mean teaching them to decode the literature you are expecting them to read. If you want them to spend all their time learning to decode what is essentially a new language, than you will get little comprehension, let alone high level thinking we expect of our older students. Stop watching them sink and teach the language. Provide them with a copy of Shakespeare's Words: A Glossary and Language Companion or something similar. Give them the tools for comprehension. Stop making them guess. Keep working on learning the vocabulary, but help them increase comprehension, too.

Whether it is Shakespeare or literature that is more modern, teach them the historical context when necessary. Even when teaching younger children I found that books that were categorized as realistic fiction have moved into historical fiction in the sense that the background material is no longer familiar to readers. There are technological, geographical, and historical contexts that my students needed education about to understand the stories assigned.

Understanding many pieces of English literature requires knowledge of the time period. The focus should not be on apologizing or demonstrating how much better things are today, but on what conditions were then. Students are capable of making the comparisons to modern life if given the chance. However, many of them may not understand the social orders, lifestyles, health issues, and other items written about in the books assigned to them to read. This lack of understanding can make comprehension questions impossible, especially ones at the higher level. If you do not understand a sacrifice was made, how do you discuss the sacrifice as a theme of the story?

I know I have been on a bit of a lecture tour today. However, it does bother me that we seem to have to polar extremes to teaching kids English literature. Neither respects the ability to challenge students with the demands of our language. We can provide opportunities for students to succeed if we give them the right tools to approach the learning exercise.

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Love Your Local Library

My local library came through again yesterday as the sequel Alcatraz Versus The Scrivener's Bones arrived only a day after I requested it.

The irony of all of this is this is a series about the evil librarians in our dimension suppressing all knowledge of the other dimension written about in this series. Yet, I find librarians seem to love the series. They also tell me they have Alcatraz Versus The Evil Librarians the audio CD in as well. Now I can listen to the audio version during my torture, rather workout sessions. I should be done with Salem's Lot by the end of next week. Since the Agatha Christie and the Alcatraz, books are much shorter I should have no trouble meeting my deadlines.

I am interested to see if this series lives up to the expectations my family has set.

As for the library, I love online reserve. It is so helpful in getting the books I am interested in with the least amount of hassles. In return, I try to support the library by dropping off books there for their book sales to support the services provided by the Friends of the Library. They have lost quite a few of their donations to the book bins in the area, not all of which go to charities.

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Using Theater to Encourage Learning

I am not sure I titled this correctly, but I was watching a special on Thoreau the other night and the narrator assumed the audience was basically ignorant of the life of Thoreau even if they were aware of his literary achievements. As he started ticking off the events in Thoreau's life I found I remembered most of the details he was mentioning and even more that he had not listed. Some of this did not surprise me. I was raised near Concord and even had my swimming lessons at Walden Pond as a child. It is hard not to find teachers who feel the need to impress the local history on to children. However, it was in fact not a class, but a play that did the deed for me.

As a student, I was fortunate to have some very gifted high school English teachers. They married during my sophomore year and became an amazing team. They worked quite often in conjunction with the Theater Department to help students make the connection between plays assigned in English to actual theater in production. I was a technical theater junkie from my freshman year forward. I loved seeing how things worked behind stage. I had no desire to leave the dark. One of the shows we produced was The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail: A Play. In order for the play to have meaning, it had to have context. First, one had to know who the transcendentalists were and what they believed. Then they had to know this helped to understand Thoreau, Emerson, and the Concord society of the time. The play uses Thoreau’s opposition the Mexican War, but understanding it is left to the student to research. Then there is the matter of what he was doing living on a pond in Concord in a cabin. Without the background knowledge, the play is about a strange hermit with ghostly visions.

When I was at college, I took a history course and one of my professors was surprised that I had studied transcendentalism in high school. I tried to explain the theater, history, English studies connection, but realized the professor was not buying my explanation. There is still major doubt that children learn more when their learning experiences are connected in activities they enjoy, not just constant repetition of material that they find difficult to connect with on any level.

I had a couple of high school friends who only passed English because of the Theater Department. They tried to focus as many of their English requirements around courses with theater ties because they could fulfill their production requirements with technical theater participation. With help from friends and by watching the show enough times, they finally started to understand what it was all about before being tested on the content.

After watching that TV program, I wondered if the play was as interesting as I remembered. I requested a copy through the library and finished it Tuesday. I realize now the benefits of having worked the show and being forced to focus on the dialogue in order to hit my lighting cues. If I had merely read this play, I might have missed some of the meaning. Seeing it produced made a difference. Having teachers who could put the show in context of who the man was, how the history of the time related to him, and who the other figures in the story were and the importance to him made this a play I still enjoy years later.
It is not a book I read, wrote a paper on, and have long since forgotten. The material I learned was obviously there to be retrieved and explored when this program prodded my interest. This is the one of the strengths of using children’s interests to teach them material we feel is important for them to learn. When we engage their natural love for doing something, we engage long-term memory for topics that might otherwise never be remembered.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians

I was amazed I had to do an extended interlibrary loan to find this book, but pleased by the time it came in to find my own library already has the sequels. Alcatraz Versus The Evil Librarianshad three generations of readers interested over Christmas vacation. My niece, her parents, and grandparents all were scrambling to finish the first novel before Grandma went back to Florida. By New Years, my niece was already working through the set I bought her for Christmas. I had preordered the last one released at the beginning of December to be sure it would be ready for Christmas.

My understanding is there are currently four books available.

Alcatraz Versus The Scrivener's Bones

Alcatraz Versus The Knights Of Crystallia

Alcatraz Versus The Shattered Lens

The rumor is Scholastic wants six books and the author only wants to write five. So readers who have finished the fourth are left waiting breathlessly while either the author finds another publisher or Scholastic gives in to angry readers who are demanding that the series be allowed to conclude. Scholastic is heavily dependent on loyal children reading their offerings so it is possible they could cave to pressure.

I am surprised more press has not been given to this series. I am not as current on children's literature as I was when I was in the classroom, but I still check around for good books for children. As a teacher, I was always looking for books that engaged kids. Series were a plus because when when a child finished one book, there was a desire to continue reading. This was a good thing. Sometimes it was hard to get them to break away and try new genres, but they were reading.

Another plus for this series is length. While many loved the doorstop quality of the Harry Potter novels, for challenged readers the length could be an obstacle. The Alcatraz novels are shorter making them more accessible and providing time for kids to read a variety of literature while still reading the whole series.

After polishing off my library copy, which is rather ironic if you have read the book, I have the second one on request. As I mentioned it is even available from my local library, which puts to test the author's theory that the librarians are suppressing the book as part of their evil plot to take over. You have to read the book to understand.

If you are looking for a fun fantasy series to check out for your classroom or your kids, Alcatraz might catch hold for you as it has in my family.

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Friday, January 7, 2011

Audio Books

I am a firm believer in reading aloud to kids. When I was a teacher I read both fiction and non-fiction books to my students. For students who were struggling readers, improving verbal reading comprehension skills and vocabulary often were ignored at the upper elementary level. Reading aloud did not prevent students from working on independent reading skills. Instead, it strengthened listening skills and gave them a chance to access material they might not have independently.

One long standing gift giving tradition has been buying books in combination with toys for presents for the kids in my family. I asked one relative for some book recommendations for his daughter. He credited me with buying, Alcatraz Versus The Evil Librarians on CD for his daughter. I have often lost track of which books I have bought for which kids. I come from a large family. My brothers and sisters now have kids and some even grandkids. Keeping track of which child has a certain book can be challenging. However, the CD was the key. I realized I rarely buy books on CD. Unless I know a parent is going to play them in the car, or the child will listen at home, the gift can be more of a burden than a help. If the parents request them, I will look. Normally however, I stick to print.

Sadly, this was the only book in the series that had been issued on CD. I bought the set that has been published to date in print for the child. It was a hit and by vacation's end, even Grandma had finished the first book before her flight back to Florida. It did get me rethinking the benefits of audio books.

Recently I started borrowing audio books from the library to listen to while exercising. I hate exercising and need distraction. I have tried music and TV, but they are not enough of a distraction to make me forget that I am torturing my body. After thinking about how excited the whole family got over listening to this book while traveling to and from school and errands, I got to wondering how distracted I might get while listening to a book and working out.

The first book I borrowed was Stephen King's The Colorado Kid from the library. I had been watching the TV series Haven that is loosely based on this book, but lacked the patience to wade through the book. My exercise times doubled as I found myself wanting to finish the disk. I am currently working on Salem's Lot . My exercise time is up to an hour and a half.

I have one of my favorite Agatha Christie novels and the book that started my interest in audio CD's on request from the library to keep my exercise routine going.

This could also be a great strategy to increase literacy time for families. Many spend a great deal of time in the car traveling. This time could be utilized to improve comprehension and listening skills by adding audio CD’s to the travel time. Libraries do carry a number of titles or these books can be great presents. Choose titles that make kids frustrated when the car stops. I had forgotten how useful audio books were during my MBTA commutes to work years ago. I would hate to turn off the story if I was at a good part when I arrived at work. It made me look forward to the trip home so I could return to the plot.

Choose stories for interest more than education. If you want to improve listening and comprehension skills, there are many good titles will keep kids coming back and improve those valuable skills. If they are bored, they will lose interest in the exercise.

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