Sunday, January 25, 2009

Gray matter

We seem to be running into another problem of the well-meaning-teacher-doesn't-get-gifted-kid's-brain variety. AJ came home with a notebook marked "Reading Response Journal" on Friday, with a note inside stating that it would be due back each Monday. On the first page, a writing prompt had been pasted in: "If I were in this book I would..." and AJ had written a single sentence in response to a book called "Imogene's Antlers," which the class had read back in December. That was it. No other instructions. AJ said that in class she had asked for 2-3 sentences on each of 3 books each week, but he didn't know what he was supposed to write about. Was he supposed to do the same question for each book?

Now AJ is a daydreamer par excellence, so it is entirely possible that he missed the assignment given out in class, and that would be his fault. But since the teacher went through the trouble of printing out a piece of paper that had the deadlines on it, couldn't she have printed the assignment on it too? I have emailed her for further instructions which I'm sure she will provide and we'll have that part figured out.

But that's not the only problem here. There is also the issue of what books we're talking about. Imogene's Antlers is a good book, but not a good book for AJ. It is a good book for AJ four years ago. AJ could read three books like Imogene's Antlers in about five or ten minutes. The fact that he was reading it in school again this year ticks me off, but that is a problem for another day. The problem, for the moment, is the assignment: if this assignment is supposed to be based on for fun reading (which, since it seems to be taking the place of independent reading logs he's been doing since September, seems likely), then AJ's books will take a lot longer to read and three books a week would make this a huge assignment.

Common sense would dictate that he should write responses to what he's reading three times, whether it be three different books or not. But that is not what the admittedly vague assignment said, at least according to AJ. This worries him.

AJ has always been fixated on rules and following them to the letter of the law. It is, I think, a result of not fully understanding the world around him. If you are following the rules, you are doing the right thing. Gray areas are very confusing and unsettling to him. If anything, this trait has been increased this year by the way he and his teacher seem to misunderstand each other a lot of the time. He is worried about doing what he thinks is the right thing and then getting in trouble for it, which sometimes happens. To have an assignment this vague, particularly since it is made even more vague due to the difference of his reading from the rest of the class, causes him great anxiety.

AJ no longer accepts our suggestions for how to do vague assignments, so we are waiting to hear back from his teacher, which probably won't happen until tomorrow. In the mean time, we had him read a shorter book, one that offers him no challenge, but enables him to follow the letter of the law, as he understands it. And he followed the same prompt for Imogene's Antlers, because it was the only thing he had to go on and he was afraid of making a mistake.

I really do not like how AJ has become afraid of schoolwork, how much he balks at homework now. He used to love doing writing assignments. Now he dreads them. As for me, I'm dreading the upcoming parent-teacher conferences. Because there is a lot to talk about.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Book Review: Hate That Cat by Sharon Creech

It has been difficult to keep up with the posting over here at AJ's Clubhouse. There has been entirely too much snow and cold and not nearly enough school, which both reduces my choices of subject matter and also leave me with not enough time to write. But one thing snow and cold are good for are trips to the library. A lot of books we have picked up have been about magnets in preparation for AJ's science fair project. But he's also been trolling the new book shelves. This week, one of the books he came home with was Hate That Cat by Sharon Creech. I've never heard of the book or Creech before, but the cover informs me that she won a Newbery Medal for Walk Two Moons, so perhaps I should be more familiar.

AJ was attracted to the bright red cover with its surly line drawing of a cat by William Steig. But I'm the one who picked it up first. I read the whole thing in the car on the way home from the library (don't worry: I wasn't driving.)

Hate that Cat takes the form of a poetry journal written by a boy of indeterminate age (although I read fast and may have missed it) named Jack for Miss Stretchberry's class. There are a number of things I enjoyed about the book. The first is the way the story reveals itself, elliptically and with lots of holes that force the reader to read between the lines. This is fairly rare in the world of children's books, and I always like to see it.

Second, it is about poetry, both the reading and the writing of it. Miss Stretchberry's assignments are not belabored, only demonstrated. Mostly she seems to have had the class read famous poems and then try to write something in a similar veing. Readers of my other blog will be pleased to know that one of the poems used is William Carlos Williams' "This is Just to Say." Jack's engagement with the poetry he reads is lively and thoughtful and very realistically drawn. Hate That Cat could almost be used as a textbook for a poetry class, or, better yet, a class on the teaching of poetry. But it never feels excessively didactic or at all textbook-like, although it does include a collection of 12 poems mentioned in the book including four poems by Williams as well as works by Edgar Allan Poe, T. S. Eliot, Walter Dean Myers, Christopher Myers, Valerie Worth, Alfred Lord Tennyson as well as two by the fictional Jack. I was somewhat puzzled, however, by the fact that Eliot's poem "The Naming of Cats," from Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, prints the cat's name "Jellylorum" as "Jellyrum" in two different places. Jellyrum does not scan properly, nor does either of my two editions of Eliot make any mention of it as an alternate (it is also "Jellylorum" in the poem's adaptation as lyrics in the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical Cats, so I can only assume it is a mistake, which is a shame in a book that is likely to introduce many of these poems to children for the first time. In addition to the poems, there is a several page bibliography of poetry books labeled "Books on the Class Poetry Shelf," which will hopefully encourage further poetic explorations on the part of the reader.

Jack's journal includes not only his poetic efforts, but his philosophical wrestling with the assignments, something I identified with greatly (and I'm sure AJ will too), as well as his conflicted feelings about his writing, his parents, his feelings about the death of his dog, and, of course, cats. I won't give away the story, but its culmination in Jack's description of Parents' Night and the poem he wrote about going there with his mother brought tears to my eyes and is an excellent example of how children can make poetry their own. I give two big thumbs up for this book, which is probably suitable for a fairly wide range of ages, although its publisher recommends it for grades 3-7.

Sharon Creech, Hate That Cat (New York: HarperCollins, 2008)