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Archive for October, 2009

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Sometime in the early Nineties, I started to write a book about a kid and a bicycle. At the beginning, I had only a vague idea of what the story was, and an even vaguer idea of how to write a book. I got rid of the parents in the early chapters (first rule in children’s literature – get rid of the parents so the children can become the lead actors in their own lives). The mother died in a horrible accident involving an umbrella, a can opener, and an English muffin; the father disappeared in a hot air balloon. I inserted some mean people (Aunt Inga, who makes our hero sleep in the basement of her home). Following my mentors’ leads (Dickens and Dahl) I gave people compound names that reflected their personalities (Dickens had Thomas Gradgrind, I had Anthony Gritbun).

The book had promise. I sent it out and it got rejected. People said they did like it but not enough to publish it. (Hmm, maybe just being nice…) I rewrote it again. And again. I let it sit, neglected, for three or four years. I picked it up again and had friends read it and be as brutal as they could in their comments. I threw out characters, created new ones, rewrote the biographies and back stories of major characters. A couple of publishers nibbled.

Then, success, of a sort. Tim Wadham at the Maricopa County Library in Phoenix decided to publish it as a serial novel online. Simultaneously, Peachtree Publishers took it on.

The editors at Peachtree challenged every weak link in the plot. I had to rewrite again and again. Another year of rewrites. We changed the title from “Flyboy” to “The Amazing Flight of Darius Frobisher.”

Darius came out in 2006 – over ten years after I wrote the first draft. Fame and fortune? Not quite. Relief and a sense of accomplishment. Yes, those things.

It’s had a pretty good life. At shows, I regularly run into kids who say, “This is the best book I ever read.” Children are given to hyperbole, but hey, it works for me. A number of teachers have told me it’s their favorite read-aloud book to their classes.

This fall, two new milestones – it’s out in paperback, and it’s printed in Japanese. I got the Japanese edition in the mail the other day. It is drop dead beautiful. Who knew my name could be written in kanji? The text is beautiful, it’s a wonderful size, and it has a ribbon book marker in the spine. I wonder what “Anthony Gritbun” and “Colonel Crapper” sound like in Japanese.

Darius in Japanese!

Darius in Japanese!

And as far as a paperback edition, one of my joys is seeing a kid scrape together enough dollar bills and quarters to buy a book on their own. Paperbacks make it more possible.

I am not an incredibly patient person. I write something and I want it to be in a book or on a recording the next day. And I’m not as brilliant as I’d wish. It takes me a long time to figure things out. I guess if I were smarter, and more diligent, things would happen faster and I wouldn’t have to be patient. But my experience with art (and life) is that things take a very long time to come to fruition, they sometimes ,can’t be hurried and they usually don’t look like what you thought they were going to look like when you started.

But Darius is alive and kicking. One of the questions I get regularly from teachers and parents and children about the book is, “What happened to Darius? Where is his father? When is the next book coming out?” I’ve put all those things off. But after all these years, Darius is reappearing regularly in my thoughts, and I think I know what happens to him.

I just hope it doesn’t take another ten years.

Like Hippocrates said, “Life is short, art is long”. I take that to mean it lasts, but it takes a long time to make it. You just hope that the art you’re making gets a chance to live.

Oh, and by the way, I’d love it if you’d read the book. You don’t have to get the Japanese edition.

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My friend David Holt gave me a recording by Danny Ellis, called “800 Voices”. It is truly gorgeous. Danny is an incredible songwriter and singer from Ireland, now living in the States, and the album documents his childhood growing up in the Artane Brothers Christian School, an infamous orphanage in Ireland and a very, very tough place to be a kid. The songs are both personal and universal, and prove how art is some kind of alchemical process, turning pain into something beautiful. Here’s a live performance of one of the songs, “Tommy Bonner”. I’m listening to his album everywhere I go. Like David told me, try to listen to the whole thing through at once.

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SIEHUNG, South Korea—Children smear paint around the room in this class to enhance creativity and expression, 2007. © Thomas Hoepker / Magnum Photos

SIEHUNG, South Korea—Children smear paint around the room in this class to enhance creativity and expression, 2007. © Thomas Hoepker / Magnum Photos

When I do workshop with teachers on stories and storytelling, I talk about how we perceive the infrastructure of education and teaching. What some would have us believe is that the structure of education and learning is: a state board of education, then a town board of ed, then a superintendent, then a bunch of principals, and then finally, the teachers. Teachers are dependent on the people above them for their work and their direction.

That’s true politically and economically, but when I take a long term view of learning and education, that’s not how I see it.

Instead, I see the teachers working. And I see the teachers who made them want to be teachers, and the teachers before them that made them want to be teachers. That structure, or lineage, goes back tens of thousands of years in an unbroken chain. And it stretches ahead to the people who will be touched by good teaching and want to teach. This is a very impressive structure. Long after whatever system we operate here to facilitate learning is gone, this other, more vertical, structure will continue – even if we end up in some kind of Blade Runner post-apocalyptic B movie script. Some teacher in rags with a few books or hard drives, or whatever is in their head, will teach a younger person because someone taught the teacher when she was young.

That’s true for any kind of teaching – reading teachers, guitar teachers, dance instructors, of after-school chess coaches. I find this thought comforting when I get frustrated with the current structures we have.

I was reminded of all this when Michele, our office manager and computer maven, sent me a link to a collection of photos on Slate called “Thanks Teach!” that shows teachers over the last fifty years working in a variety of settings. What comes through is the incredible humanity of the situation (as opposed to the fellow in my last post, “I Meet My Enemy”). My favorite is the teacher in Korea with the poster paint. So much for organization.

Happy teaching. When you get depressed, think about the kid in your class who is the next one in line to carry the torch.

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A little while ago I was doing school visits in a city in California – four or five schools in a week. It’s part of the itinerant traveling whatever-I-am that I never know what to expect when I show up at a school or library or theater.

That week I got it all.

One of the schools had kids’ drawings of my books, stories and songs hanging from the rafters and plastered on the walls. That’s enough to give anyone an overhealthy sense of themselves. Because they’d been listening and reading, I had something to offer – shows, workshop, even a stop in the teacher’s lounge for some high-end coffee.
What’s not to like?

Then I got to the last school of the week. It was just a reminder that I’m not the center of the universe. And that some people don’t get what I do. To them, I am just a distraction in an otherwise very well-ordered and planned educational project.

It was a large elementary school in a well-off part of town. When I got there, I found that despite the advance work, nothing was arranged as I had asked. One microphone on the cafeteria stage ( I need two, one for my guitar). The lunch tables were set up, which meant some kids were in the far corners of the cafeteria, seemingly miles from me, with kindergartner’s legs dangling down – an uncomfortable position for forty five minutes. I like them up close on the floor. The shows were scheduled by the office to mix fifth graders with kindergartners and pre-schoolers. That arrangement doesn’t recognize the difference in language, social, and cognitive skills. (Note: The difference between a four year old and a ten year old is greater that the difference between a twenty-five year old an a forty year old) I can do it, but I don’t like to. After twenty-five years, I know what works.

And I knew I was about to meet a principal that just didn’t care if I was there or not.

I hate to present someone so stereotypical, but I guess stereotypes are based on something. It’s enough to give m the hives, but there he was. Good looking, early forties, suit and tie; he had the smell of a future superintendent about him. I asked for things to be rearranged according to the information I’d sent in advance.

“This is the way I like to do things,” he informed me. “It works better. The schedule doesn’t allow the changes you suggested.”

Oh, I thought. This school is different from the other two thousand I’ve been in.

The shows were flat – the kids were far away. The teachers graded papers. The principal watched at one of the tables for ten minutes, and didn’t seem all that impressed. I didn’t feel impressive – this was in marked contrast to how I’d been feeling all week. DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM? I thought. And the unspoken answer was, “Well, no, and we don’t care!”

Oh well.

Believe me, I tried. It’s my job to entertain people, and I try to do that. If someone doesn’t smile a little in my performance, either their life is in crisis, or I’ve failed, or both.

Finished with the shows, I only wanted to escape, but I didn’t have a ride, so I was there until the last bus left. Boy, the school day is pretty long, and I’m not five years old. And then the principal, who I had studiously avoided, gave me a ride back to my favorite Hampton Inn.

On the way back, my curiosity got the better of me and I started asking him questions about the school. I mean – I spend so much time in schools, I’m actually interested in them. And I found myself sitting in a car with someone who I guessed looked at me like I was inconsequential. I was interested.

So I asked about the continuing move towards standards and testing.

“I’m a numbers guy,” he said. ‘I like to know where everyone is, and the testing helps us get an angle on that.”

I let this pass. I was gathering information. And by the way, I know testing has a place. But I suspected my understanding of its function was different from his.

So I pushed a little deeper. “Given we all want kids to learn a certain body of knowledge and particular processes,” I asked, “do you think there should be a wide range of methods used, according to the teacher’s approach and the kid’s needs?”

“No,” he said, “I think we’re better off if everyone is using the same approach. I don’t like people experimenting.” He paused, then went on. “I want to know what my teachers are doing. Oh, I know…some of the older teachers grumble about this, but we’re all better off being on the same page. We ought to use the same methods throughout the school, throughout the district. The school is for instruction. Between a puppet show and a language lesson, we should have another language lesson.”

I looked at him as he drove.

Holy cow, I thought. This is my enemy!

He didn’t really look like my enemy – he didn’t have three heads or anything. But he was – or I was his nightmare.

Because I, of course, am the puppet show he would rather not have – foisted upon his fiefdom by a school district or PTO mom.. I’m a frill. In his mind, I have nothing to do with language development or test scores. My approach, global in nature (and by that I mean all encompassing, holistic, and not delineated into separate tasks), is that if people develop a love of language – of words, and story, and naming things in the world – they will want to develop the skills to help them interact with the world and understand themselves.

That is, by the way, the approach that has been used by the human race for most of its existence.

The use of story and music in a learning environment is about the structure of language and the world (something he wants to teach, I believe) AND the content of the story and song, and the feelings that arrive in their expression. I assume this principal would acknowledge that those things are nice, but they are not what we’re here for.

Kill the puppet. Teach the lesson. I hate puppicide.

No wonder I’ve come to view my work as a guerilla attack on some schools. I hope they tell my stories in class, and in the lunchroom when no one is watching. I hope someone sings my songs walking down the hall. I want to write a song good enough that even my nemesis finds himself singing it . I want to tell a story that makes him think about something that happened in his own life – or even better, in the lives of the people he touches.

I want to be outside the curriculum and inside his life.

This will be my final revenge.

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