Monday, August 31, 2015

Are You Up For The Tech Out Challenge?

Finish this sentence with the first thought that pops into your mind:  "You know you're living in a digital world when...."   Easy right?  It is not hard to come up with examples of how a digital world has changed life for the better or worse.  What is difficult is trying to come up with examples of if going back to the old ways would be better?   That is if the "old" ways can be remembered.  Let's be honest when social media posts up meme of old telephones, washboards or card catalogs and asks the question, "how many remember what this is?" ,  the first impulse is to blurt out what it is.  The second impulse is to remember how far back that object dates.  Ten, twenty or fifty years?  It doesn't seem that long ago dail-up modems were the only way to travel on the information highway.  Yet,  in 2015 the thought of having to wait a minute for a page to upload seems like FOREVER.   Is this an exaggeration?  Perhaps but there is truth in the statement.   There is also truth in that libraries, for better or for worse, have fallen in the trap of keeping up with technology.  What is being lost is the art of communication.  That's where the digital world has created the most havoc.

Due to the increase usage of the Internet,  social groups that once would meet face to face, now just "meet" and "converse" online.  What is even more irritating are the responses in happy faces or cartoons that express the emotions of the moment or reaction to what has been said.  Is this the slippery slope of trending away from reading, writing or speaking?  This may sound like someone ranting over something trivial but it has been the experience that these small changes in culture tend to have an impact on what technology will come  up with tomorrow.  Ah, the simpler days are gone, or are they?  Perhaps there is a way to recapture the experience of unplugging and recapturing the simple art of communication.   For a back-to-school/get-to -know-your-peers activities here are some ideas that can be effective in opening the door to communicating the old fashioned way.   It might just make the entire school year better as well.  Most importantly it will get students and parents to understand the huge role that technology plays in daily routines.

Some may call this idea similar to going cold turkey.  Others may call it going off the grid.   The best title to give this exercise is Tech Out Challenge.  In other words, how long can students do without their social media gadgets?  Give each student a manila envelope. Have them write on the outside of the envelope the date and time that they have last used the device.    Instruct them to place their phone in the envelope and seal it.  Once they do this, they are to place the device in a safe place and not retrieve it for three days.  In the event that the student "feels" the need to use their phone, they may retrieve the manilla envelope and rip it open.  At that time they will record the date and time they opened the envelope and the reason for retrieving the device.   Regardless of when a student opens his/her envelope,  all students will participate in a group discussion where the topic will be how well or badly the students did during Tech Out.  Some of the questions to consider asking:

How did you feel about not having your phone with you 24/7?

What did you enjoy the most during  this time?

What did you miss the most during this time?

Would you ever participate in a Tech Out Challenge again?

How has this changed your view about technology?

Remind the students that there are no right or wrong answers to these questions.  The best part of this program is to see how surprised students are out their findings.    It is amazing to see the reactions of teens when they find they can live without technology and still be connected with their social and family groups.

As for the adults who choose to participate alongside their younger counterpart, they too may find something interesting about themselves and technology.  One of the major drawbacks to technology is that it brings with it more distractions.   Has someone called?  Who's online ?  Was there an email missed?  Now bring all these distractions into a learning environment like a school or library.  Is it any wonder that students haven't become stark mad raving lunatics.    This type of constant fight for the students' attention can only lead to more stress and distraction  Not to mention, a loss of social skills.

Consider this an invitation to try this challenge at home, work, library teen programs  or church group.  As life gets more hectic, it is better to take a step back and unplug.  It may be the only way to connect with the real world again.  Or in the case of students,  the opportunity to connect in the "real" world.  

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Top Ten Books For College Bound ... and Beyond.

School is just about to start again.  The sounds of eager students who want nothing more than to get back into a normal routine can be heard in every neighborhood, city and state across this great nation.  Not.  Well, maybe some are eager to get back to school but for others not so much.   This is also the time of year that the questions come up, what books should a college prep student should read or should have read by now?  Love that question for a million reasons, but for the sake of time and space,  only one will be given here.  Asking this question  proves that books challenges the reader to consider another point of view.   It doesn't mean the reader will necessarily agree to the point of view.   It will however open their eyes that there are more than one viewpoint to every situation.  The reader's job is simply to consider the one presented before them.  Having said that,  these titles should be read by every student.  Not just the ones who will continue their academic endeavors after high school.

Everyone has a "'top ten" list of books students should read before college.  Each has its own unique twist and view of what makes good literature.  The list presented here is a mix of traditional and modern titles.  After all, the classics can not be ignored and a list containing only classical works is quite easy to do.  There are so many titles to choose from.  Having said that the modern titles are a little harder, some have been tested over time while others may not have passed the time test, it is  very likely that fifty years from now,  readers will still want to pour over the pages to find out what happens next.  Or at least be reminded of what happened next.

When suggesting a list of must reads for college bound students, it is important to provide a list that covers a wide range of ideas, cultures and points of view.  The following top ten list are titles that have left a lasting impression on readers of all ages.  The titles are timeless and they remain on librarian's must read list for years.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is without a doubt a classic example of  wit, wisdom and romantic story that even men can enjoy.  If reader's have not been introduced to Mr. Darcy, then life simple pleasures like laughter and love can not be experienced fully.

Everyone should know of William Shakespeare's Hamlet.  Plays are often difficult to read but this one is well worth it. If reading old English seems daunting by all means pick up one of the Everyday Shakespeare's paperback to help gain a better understanding of the plot.   The death of Hamlet's father brings to surface the lies,  greed and insecurities of each character in the play.  Specifically Hamlet who is determined to uncover the truth about his father's death.

There are two Russian novels that should not be overlooked but often are left off of lists similar to this.  Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago.  One of the best kept secrets of Russian literature which gives a realistic picture  of the Bolshevik Revolution from the point of view of a middle class doctor.  Another stunning view of Russian history from Stalin's gulag is A Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  Both of these novels provide an unforgettable glimpse of life in Communist Russia.

Staying on the theme of gulags and prison camps, which admittedly is very depressing, but necessary to read about.  Two books come to mind that should not be missed.  Ellie Wiesel's  Night is a tragically unforgettable account of life in the Nazi Germany's concentration camps.  Along side that another book that should be read is The Boy In The Stripped Pyjamas by John Boyne.  Both of these books are life changing reads.  That is not an overstatement either. Both books are that powerful!

Harper Lee's time-tested To Kill A Mockingbird introduced readers to a small town that is turned upside down due to a high profile  murder trial.  Mix into that, a bit of racism and standing up for what is right makes the story one of the best in American literature. Frankly, one of the few stories that show lawyers in a positive light.  Atticus Fitch is the lawyer that every person would want to have on their side should trouble come their way.

The list would be dull without Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.  The scary vision of what a world would be like if every moment, thought and breath were controlled by a government.  Scary yet eye opening   What is most powerful about this work is that it stirs up passionate debate about how far a government should or could go.

The Alchemist is a new classic favorite written by Paulo Coehlo.  that should be on every reader's list.  It is a wonderful story of a journey to find one's purpose in life.  This is definitely a book to read over and over again.

Autobiographies rarely make the list of must reads most likely because they are not fiction thus not classified as classic literature. However, this list attempts to change the definition slightly of classic literature to include this genre.  One of the most inspiring and well written biography  is The Story of My Life by Helen Keller.  After reading Keller's life story there is simply no excuse for not going out and conquering the world.  After reading this, one can only conclude  that if Helen can make a difference, we all can make a difference.

This is just a small list of the best of the best in literature.  As the school year goes on,  more titles will be suggested but for now,  one of these ten titles should be enough to get started on a literary path to a well rounded reader's life.

Monday, July 13, 2015

A Much Needed Victory for School Libraries: Senate Bill 1177

Every parent, student and teacher should be outraged if their school does not have a library.  Instead, there is a sense of  inevitability about the situation.  Well, we  all knew it was going to happen sooner or later, right?   That shouldn't be the case.   Unless people prefer WebMd to getting their medical diagnosis over getting the right information from a doctor.   Then by all means accept the inevitable and be prepared for a dumbed down school program.  A bit dramatic?  Perhaps but none the less true.

Studies after studies have proven that schools who have an established library program to assist students in their academic endeavors excel in their educational goals.  Students read more.  Comprehend their assignments easily and have better critical thinking skills then their peers who have no to libraries.   With so many studies making the critical case that libraries are needed then why are so many schools opting out of the library programs?   Why are there so many school librarians reassigned to the classrooms as aides?   It's mind blowing.  Yet there is a small glimmer of hope for school libraries and the students who need them.

On  July 8 the US Senate unanimously passed legislation  (Senate Bill 1177) to amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act/NCLB to include support for school library programs.    School districts are authorized to develop effective programs using certified school librarians at its core.   This is important because it is the first step in recognizing what the studies have been showing all along.  Librarians and libraries are valuable tools to have at students' disposal as they grow and learn.    It goes without saying that a huge applaud and pat on the back is due to the two senators who cosponsored the amendment Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and Thad Cochran (R-MS) .

While this is a huge leap in the right directions for schools and their libraries, there is still much to do to reclaim this vanishing education gem before they are all gone.  Quite frankly, it is imperative that anyone who has a stake in the education of children  should speak up and ask Congress to follow the Senate's lead.   This means that parents, grandparents, teachers, administrators and even students themselves should contact their local Congressional representative to ask for their support.  Consider this, if children are failing in schools, the community fails as well.   School libraries are important to the educational growth of each child.  To say that it weakens the educational outcomes is not an exaggeration, it's a fact.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Kate DiCamilo's Flora and Ulysses Are Hopeful Heroes

Kate DiCamillo is one of a kind storyteller.  If you have not yet read this author's books,  then it is either because you're not an avid reader or you live under a rock.  In either case, it is definitely a crying shame not have been touched by her stories.   As the Summer Reading programs progress, it is appropriate to mention the author who has been chosen as the 2015 National Summer Reading  Champion.  It's an inspired choice.

There are stories that stay with a reader long after they are read.  This is only true of stories that are well written.  Ms. DiCamillo has managed to create these stories not once but several times over.  Do the titles, Because of Winn Dixie or  The Tale of Despereaux ring a bell?  They should.  Not only because they were fabulous books but because they were made into blockbuster movies as well.  Her soft and soul stirring style in these stories contain a mix of magic and wonderment of what if's that truly belong in the world of children's stories and dreams.   The stories are timeless.  Her characters in spire readers to look beyond what they know and find a new reality  where a lonely girl finds a furry best friend in a grocery store,  a simple mouse can defend a princess,  a beloved toy find his way home again and a superhero squirrel can save the day.   Timeless, yes and special as well.

DiCamillo's latest book, Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures  is another exceptional tale that brightens the children's literature bookshelves.   It fits in with the theme, "Every hero has a story" and what a story she shares about Flora and Ulysses.  It is well worth the time to read.  Especially, out loud.  The reader and audience will enjoy the story that flows from the pages, dances softly in the air and drifts directly into the heart.    The cast of characters are quirky, lovable and strange but in a normal kind of way.  This is especially true of Ulysses,   your typical run of the mill, neighborhood squirrel who suddenly finds himself changed by a vacuum cleaner.   Changed how?   Some might say the vacuum cleaner changed him.  Others may say it could be something more deeper and wonderful.  Friendship. Love.  Acceptance.

The brilliant part of this tale of an unlikely superhero is that it is a reminder that hope comes in all shapes and sizes.   To be perfectly honest,  it's a nice reminder.  Which is why, this is a need-to-read book for this summer.  

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Firefighters Are Heroes too!

This years's Summer Reading Program theme  provides librarians lots of ideas to explore the world of Superheroes.  Of course, the first instinct is to search out books about superheroes that leap tall building,  get the bad guys and lives to fight another day.  All very well and good.  However,  here's a different spin on the theme.  Why not celebrate the heroes in our neighborhood who fight the good fight every day?  Yup,  talking about the firefighters who step up to help get a cat out of a tree or go into a burning building to put out a fire and save lives.

There are three wonderful titles for children that stick with theme of heroes and saving the day that can liven up a story time.  (As a personal note,  never begin a story time about firefighter without the proper firefighters hat. It just adds more flare and fun to the event! )   

The first title to take a look at  is  Firefighters to the Rescue by Kersten Hamilton.  This title is such fun to read because of it's invitation to audience to get into the story.  Children will quickly learn when to chime in "Firefighters to the rescue" during the story.   The illustration are vivid and bright to   catch and keep children's attention.   If this book is not a hit with the crowd, it just may be that the crowd is filled with boring three and four years olds.   

If the first title is not available or you have children begging for more exciting firefighter stories,  Patricia Hubbell's Firefighters: Speeding! Spraying! Saving!  is an excellent choice.  As the title suggests, this book is filled with action words that paint a clear picture of what firefighters do everyday.   Add to this Viviana Garofoli’s digital art that add to the simple, rhyming text that preschoolers take great delight in.

It goes without saying that Mark Teague's Firehouse! had to make the list.  Teague's humorous tale begins with Edward and his cousin's Judy trip to the firehouse.  Everything is fine from the slid down the fireman's pole to riding on the firetruck.   After a little excitement, Edward learns how it feels to  save the day.  It's every child's dream to be a fireman and through the eyes of Edward, they get a small taste of what's it's like.  It is great fun for everyone. Even for the librarians sharing the story.

Of course this is not a complete and final list of books for Firefighter heroes.  It is a great beginning.
Enjoy the stories with the little ones.and don't forget your hat!

Firefighters' helmets hung at the station!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Unmasked: Why Shakespeare Still Matters.

To teens, William Shakespeare is a really old dude that died thousands of years ago.   Not only that, he writes in foreign English.  Who even uses words like thou, doth and footlicker?   (Foot what?)  Yet, in almost every high school english class Shakespeare's works are still on the required reading list.  Some veteran high school teachers like Dana Dusbiber of Luther Burbank High School believes that Shakespeare is too "white and old"  to reach a diverse ethnic class.   Seriously,  how can a multi-racial teen relate to these works?  The answer is really simple.  They relate because all the emotions, trials and loves of Shakespeare's world go beyond race or time.  They speak to humanity as a whole.   There are compelling reasons  to unmask the beauty of Shakespeare then to put it out to the curb like an antique heirloom that has become trashy and outdated.

It is disturbing to say the least, that a English teacher would want her students to only read from others who are just like them.   What happened to the idea that readers  should be exposed to an array of authors  that tell their story from a different perspectives.   Ms. Dusbiber prefers that her ethnically diverse students read books from Hispanic, African and other minority authors.  Her reasoning is that the authors offer better opportunities for students to learn about their culture and themselves within the pages of their works.  In other words, hold up a mirror and see someone just like you.  Perhaps even more frightening is she may be implying that ethically diverse teens are not capable of learning the plays?    The only way to grow is to learn more about the world, not less.   Students should be required  to  read Shakespeare from the standpoint that at least they have an exposure to the plays.  If Shakespeare is not their cup of tea, so be it.  However, at least they will have a familiarity of  one of the famous plays.

 To be perfectly honest,  Shakespeare may be a white dude who died  450 years ago (not thousands)  but his works are timeless.  The characters are just as intriguing as when they were first introduced.  What bothersome about Ms. Dusbiber's blog is that she seems to be unfamiliar with the diverse characters of Shakespeare.   Here's a suggestion  for an ethical diverse class,  read Othello. Unmask the true nature of a black man so madly in love with Desdemona and so insecure of her love for him that he allows his closest confident Iago to convince him that Desdemona is unfaithful.   There are so many layers to go through here that one finds that in the end, regardless of race, as humans deep down we are the same.   We cry the same way.  We love passionately and sometimes jealousy gets the better of us.  Does one have to be a particular race to experience any of these emotions?  Not at all.

Let's not stop at Othello.  In, Merchant of Venice we find even more passion, jealousy, discrimination and yes, greed.  Oh what tangled webs were woven when Shylock feels that he has been cheated by a Christian community that has never welcomed him. He loans money to Antonio with the agreement that if the money is not paid back on time it will be paid back in a pound of flesh.  Secretly, Shylock wants only revenge.  The Christian community of Venice never welcomed him as a Jew, so Antonio must pay.   Alas, Shylock loses out on this demand in the Venetian Courts.  Add insult to injury he loses his beloved daughter Jessica in marriage to Lorenzo, a Christian.   Again, any teen of diverse ethnic background could sympathize with anyone of these characters.  If it is the language that is a barrier, then reveal the beauty of the language by using No Fear Shakespeare.

Suffice it to say, each of Shakespeare's play can be dissected and shown to be very useful in exploring raw human emotions.  Even if it is from an old, dead white guy.   This is not to say students couldn't learn from authors such as Maya Anglou.  However, why limit the students to just one voice?  Let them experience as many as they can.  From every corner of the world, not just the ones that are familiar to them.  Great literature lives on from age to age.  That is what makes them classic and timeless.  Keep Shakespeare in the classroom and in the libraries.  If a teacher or librarian takes Shakespeare away from students that would be a great tragedy.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Unlikely Heroes : The Best of the Best In Children's Literature

Who doesn't love a story about a hero who wins the day?  Superman flying in to stop the bad guy in his tracks.  Spiderman spinning a safety web to help a damsel in distress.  Batgirl racing in on her motorcycle to rid Gotham of one more bad guy. The comics have filled young minds (and adult minds as well) with images of good defeating evil.   These scenarios have led to discussion "If you were a superhero, what powers would you have?"  The possibilities are endless.  However, there are other heroes that are a little more down to earth.  They have no super "powers" to speak of yet they are able to do heroic things just by being themselves.  In children literature,  authors and publishers like to call them the unlikely heroes.  Children simply call  them their favorites.   Here are Librarian At Large's top five unlikely heroes.  If readers have not met them yet, this summer is the perfect time to get to know them.

1.  Roald Dahl's Matlida  is quite the intriguing character.  Everyone around her under estimates her, except for her observant teacher, Miss Trunchbull.  Matilda, who has been neglected by her mother and father, learns ways to get what she wants.  It isn't until meeting and befriending her teacher that she begins to want to help someone other than herself.

2.  Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux has a huge heart in a little mousy body.   Who needs a night in shinning armor when Despereaux Tilling is ready to take on a feat that no man, er, mouse has ever taken on before!  This is one mouse who reminds all readers that mighty things come n small packages.

3.  Percy Jackson of  Rick Rioridan's Percy Jackson Olympian series is the perfect example of a hero dealing with multiple challenges at once.  Not only does he find out that his dad was a greek god, but on top of that he has ADHD.  Percy goes from one adventure to the next with his trusty pals who see to it that the good conquers evil and Percy makes it back to camp in one piece.

4.  Never one to shrink away from a challenge, Katniss of Suzanne Collin's  Hunger Games has become a favorite female unlikely heroine.  With her skillful handling of her bow and arrow, Katniss proves that in a do or die situation, girls can be just a strong and tough as their male peers.   Collins brilliantly weaves a plot that has the reader sitting on the edge of their seat asking,  "What now?".  In every situation, Katniss does the unexpected and comes out the victor not the victim.

5. Gordon Korman has introduced readers to many wonderful characters.  However, in Schooled,  the unlikely hero is Cap (as in Capricorn) Anderson.   One has to admire a character that can beat the odds of growing up in a hippie commune and not only survive  middle school politics but breaks the stereotypes and wins the support of his peers.   Feel good story told in a very humorous way,  making readers wish they could unleash their power of humor to get out of sticky situations.

This is only a list of five. To be honest it was a very difficult list to put together because there are so many to choose from.  Perhaps the unlikely hero list should be expanded next time?