Saturday, August 31, 2013

Archives in Literature: Teaching With the Example of Author Ransom Riggs

Ransom Riggs, the author of the popular book Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, built his original novel around orphaned images he found in flea markets and borrowed from other "collectors".  I have written in the past about the value of orphan photos to strike imagination. Riggs' work is a prime example of what one can do with these unique and curious materials. This past summer, I took a class on young adult and children's literature. The course was part of my path to achieving certification as a library media specialist. My final class paper focused on Ransom Riggs' unusual novel and the ways a teacher / librarian can use it to teach about information sources.

Though I have worked as a librarian and archivist for twenty years, my transition to school librarianship allows me the opportunity to share ideas about information with young people and I am very excited about it. An archivist is an unusual person to find in a high school library, but I see plenty of opportunity to inject a broad view of information into my students' learning opportunities.

My joy when discovering the book Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children relates to the book's melding of literature and archival sources. This book will serve as a standard for me to explain how archives and literature serve as compatible and balancing information sources. Information specialists exploring a wholistic view of information can use such diverse sources to explain how humans record, think about, and invent their world. The worlds of archivists, librarians, and museum professionals should not be separate and this is especially relevant for the library media specialist. (In fact, Ransom Riggs' book pivots on characters in a local museum. This can be used to the information educator's advantage, as well.)

My class paper argued that Ransom Riggs' novel serves as a breakthrough in the genre of fiction, allowing us to question the reality we know. Riggs' work focuses on imagery that on the surface is inexplicable when considered, as presented, without context. Riggs uses the unusual to  build a storythat offers us an alternate reality. The photographs in the book include subjects such as a boy covered in bees, a girl in a glass bottle, one child with two reflections, a girl hovering about the ground...when considered independently, one can conjecture about the reality of each photo's creation - double exposures, children working at unusual tasks (bee keeping?) and more can logically explain situations. Yet, when Riggs takes all of his images and puts them together, he molds a world of fantasy that we can easily get sucked into.

What is real? What is visually altered? Is any of what Riggs tells us truth? (He does base his story during World War II and one of the main characters is escaping from the Holocaust as a Jewish boy.) How can we adequately judge real from not-real?

As an educator, Riggs combination of archives and fiction gives me an opportunity to explore these ideas in a novel way with my students. And this week, as in last week's post about Local Archives in the Classroom: Supporting the Common Core, I am presenting some questions related to Riggs' book that can support the CCSS. I hope that archivists get a sense of how the materials in their care can support both fiction writing and teaching. Below is the handout I created for my class. I am seeking a proper venue to publish my paper on The Breakthrough of Ransom Riggs: Orphan Photographs as Illustration, as it is too academic for this media forum. Yet, I think that the handout may be useful to some of my blog readers, so I offer it here.

[My esteemed colleagues at the Library as Incubator Project have encouraged me to address Riggs' example in using primary sources to artistically influence his writing. Stay tuned for that posting, coming soon, over on their site. Thanks ladies!]
Teaching Critical Literacy with Ransom Riggs’ Orphan Photographs - Handout

What are “orphan images”? According to the Society of American Archivists,“‘Orphan works’ is a term used to describe the situation in which the owner of a copyrighted work cannot be identified and located by someone who wishes to make use of the work in a manner that requires permission of the copyright owner” (SAA, 2009). Images found at flea markets, like those that are used by Ransom Riggs are usually “orphaned.” They have no provenance and little, if any, identifying information.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children can be a useful tool for helping to teach critical literacy. Orphan images can be used on their own for close reading exercises or can be considered with the text to discuss the nature of information. The following is a list of some questions that can be considered when using Riggs’ work to align with English Language Arts Anchor Literacy standards of CCSS (Common Core State Standards Initiative).

·         Consider the title Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. What does the title tell us about the content of the book? How do the book’s photographs emphasize the tone first set by the title?
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.4 Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

·         Ransom Riggs uses his photographs to tell a rather “creepy” story. Examine two of the images from the book without their accompanying text. What other stories can you create to explain what is happening in the images?
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.6 Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

·         How do the images in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children add to the sense of the fantasy, horror, adventure, mystery and history in the story?
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words

·         How can we tell if the images in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children are “real”? (Hint: Consider this question beyond the images themselves. Examine the text of the whole book for information and research additional sources to back up your conclusions.)
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.8 Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

·         Compare how images are used in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children versus The Emigrants [Sebold, 1992].  Discuss how the use of images is similar and how it is different. Incorporate a discussion of how both texts use the Holocaust as a backbone to their stories.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.9 Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Local Archives in the Classroom: Supporting the Common Core

Local archives can play a unique role in supporting the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The Standards offer a wonderful opportunity for archivists and educators to collaborate. As I prepare to head back to school for my second year as an information specialist, I've got the Common Core on my mind. More specifically, I am thinking about how I can use my specialization as an archivist to help weave archival sources into the curriculum. The documentation of our communities has the power to expand the world known by our children. Study of the papers of local people allow students to see some of themselves in others' lives; to identify with the experiences and explore how others handled themselves. Archives provide a greater context for what students already know, allowing them to better understand the world and their place in it, as well as giving them materials for analysis.

What is the Common Core?

For my archives and library friends who may be less familiar with the initiative, here is the mission of CCSS:
The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.

CCSS provides a list of specific expectations in all subjects for students in grades K-12. Last year, during my first year as a high school information specialist, I spent time with our Freshman teacher team creating a research plan that aligns with the standards. This year, I will do the same with the Sophomore team. Additionally, I plan to more deeply explore all the standards to see what information sources I can recommend for lesson plans to meet expectations.

Specific Standards Explored - History

History is the most obvious place to start. Here is a sample letter from my personal collection that talks about home life on a farm in the 1920s.

English and language arts standards in history and social studies for grades 11-12 list the following skill areas for understanding key ideas and details:
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
    [How did I determine this letter was written by someone on a farm? Specific key words and the general idea of the text give clear evidence. As the teacher, I know this was written in the 1920s because I have the whole letter in my possession. The whole letter gives more insight and can be supplied after an analysis of this one page to show how we can apply close reading techniques to form some conclusions from textual evidence just from an excerpt. Adding a book about farm life can provide another angle. This letter can be used to show the lead up to the Depression, for example. A book such as Karen Hesse's "Out of the Dust" can be introduced later in in the lesson to show what may have happened to the family.]
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
    [This letter talks about a very specific time - the Fourth of July. It goes into detail about the condition of farm animals. We can imagine that late spring / early summer is a very busy time on the farm. The author is discussing the workings of the farm and even discusses monetary issues. The central idea here is farm life and all the details can be analyzed by teachers with their students.]  
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.3 Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.
    [I wonder whether 18 cents a pound was a good price for chicken. The text doesn't tell us. I also wonder how comfortably this farmer was living. Knowing of the struggles of many farmers around the time this letter was written, I wonder if the writer yet has an inkling of trouble on the horizon. We also know that factory work was a part of the life of someone close to this writer. She mentions that the factory is shutting down in 2 weeks. Is that a normal annual occurrence or is this a permanent shut down? Do any of these details help us better understand the Depression? Do we bring a different understanding to the letter when we realize the context of it? Is some of the information in this letter because of concerns about finances? Could be...]
(The letter, by the way, is good justification for teaching cursive in schools!)

Specific Standards Explored - English Language Arts Reading

History is not the only area where archival materials can be used to strengthen the teaching of Common Core State Standards. Anchor standards in English language arts include the following skill areas for high school students.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.4 Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
    [The imagination of this young diary writer is loud and clear. The writer's use of adjectives such as "rusty" to describe a bird, and "little" to describe a mouse, and "first" to describe the cherry blossoms give us a sense of springtime. The attention to the details of nature is outstanding and in fact, this "diary" is a nature diary written for a school project. How old do you think this student is? Would an older student choose different words to describe who he sees? When the writer describes plants, he mentions simple words such as "fern," would a high school student need to be more specific than that? Getting students to think of other children as writers with something important to say and analyzing the structure of children's writing can have a profound effect on many levels.]
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.5 Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
    [The point of this diary entry is to describe a nature walk. The author discusses specific things he has seen. Is the information presented chronologically? Can we tell? While the whole of the text is about the walk, specific paragraphs and sentences focus on individual animals. One of my favorite parts of this page is that the author has chosen to include feathers found during his nature walk. This reminds me of good illustrated fiction. The Common Core wants our students to understand visual as well as textual information and the two can be analyzed at the same time. (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.)]
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.6 Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
    [I determined that the purpose of this diary was a class assignment by examining the whole thing. Original local items can be brought into the classroom to give students a chance to analyze primary sources up close. The writer of this diary is being taught to pay attention to nature. Would he have written this nature diary on his own without the teacher's prompt? The content was certainly shaped by the purpose here. Yet, this diary was written at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. People were more likely to explore nature then. Texts by Emerson and Thoreau come immediately to my mind and can be incorporated into a lesson. If this were not a class assignment, would the author have described his walk in a different way. Maybe we wouldn't focus as much on the animals? Maybe we would describe the weather and how he felt? We usually expect people to describe how they feel in their diaries...]

Though I am focusing on high school, archival materials can be used similarly in lower grades to align lessons with the Common Core. local archives should explore their holdings with the Standards in mind to determine what materials may help teachers.  For my colleagues charged with caring for archives, I recommend that you network with teachers. Make your holdings accessible (through the Internet or otherwise.) Invite teachers to workshops where you can introduce them to materials that might assist their work.

Cultural heritage institutions have a great opportunity to reach out during this time of educational change. Cooperation across professions is the best way to improve the future of education and to strengthen the perceived value of the cultural heritage institution. Teachers, reach out to your local historical society and libraries. And, of course, school librarians, don't be afraid to be the catalyst for this kind of interaction!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Our Past

I have difficulty reading articles like this:
The Brink of Oblivion: Inside Nazi-Occupied Poland, 1939-1940

I wonder if the face that stares back at me in the article's photo is one of my family members.
Gone. Unknown. Unremembered by those who live after.

I am left only to remember the passed-down stories.

Those who could identify the faces of my unremembered family members are long gone.

I wonder if one of the color slides in Hugo Jaeger's leather satchel was a portrait of one of my great aunts, or great uncles, or my great-grandmother.

Stories buried in our archives can touch raw wounds that may never heal.

Our archives help define who we are and how we got here.

They help us remember that we are lucky to be here at all.

The grandchild of World War II Holocaust survivors,

who saves others' memories in part because she could not save the memories of those closest to her.

Her blood.

Her kin.

Our past.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Crocodiles in the Archives

Thank you to the Goffstown Historical Society for letting me copy this image
to use with my students.
This month, I spent some time helping the local historical society in the town in which I work. I surveyed their photographic collection to help them plan for future growth and exhibits. While working, this image in caught my eye. It is from a collection of images of Panama. One of the best things about survey work is discovering remarkable things in collections. One of the worst things is discovering remarkable things in collections and having no time to stop and explore their context. I think this is worth going back to because something so remarkable can spice up exhibits, programs, and education in a special way. I made a photocopy of the photograph and tucked it into my notes.

First off, is this an alligator or crocodile? With a quick Internet search I've learned that Panamanians claim that crocodiles are a major problem today. They tend to eat fishermen. I also learned that scientists recently discovered ancient alligator skulls in the Panama Canal and believe that alligators made their way to North America from the south. This is cool stuff worthy of science biology and sustainability classes.

I need to go back and learn about the person who donated the collection that contained this image. Did he visit Panama? Coincidently, this morning I was reading the biography of Betty Smith who wrote A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The book mentioned that Smith traveled to Panama with her grandchildren to visit her daughter who was staying there. Why was she staying there? How many American ex-pats lived in Panama in the mid-twentieth century? Was it common? Did the canal give them business opportunities? Here's a good opportunity for a history lesson.

Finally, I wonder why were the gentlemen in this picture hunting the alligator/crocodile? Is the hunting of these creatures a popular past time? I can imagine my hero T.R. pushing to get the Panama Canal built and doing a little crocodile/alligator hunting while he was there. I know that I have some boys in my high school who will just love this picture and perhaps I can get them to research the context of it with me.

Mysterious pictures hidden in our archives offer lots of opportunities for questions that give us more opportunities for exploration and tracking down answers. I think this image will take us far.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Hero's Story

What is a "hero" to you and where do you find one?

One of the most interesting ideas I've explored this summer is the idea of a hero in literature. My background is in history, not English, so my heroes were the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and Elizabeth I. Yet, I've realized this summer that the hero's journey to which I best relate, real-people who do incredible things, quite comfortably parallels the hero in tales of fantasy. The archivist, curator, genealogist and other history professionals, can relate to finding heroes in our research or collections Perhaps we should pull them out to give them more exposure.

Introducing students to fictional heroes in literature can increase their understanding of what a "hero" is, encouraging them to make their own decisions for personal growth and the greater good. Harry Potter is a hero to many. He has a strong moral compass and fights for the greater good. Others might relate to heroes in non-fiction, like I naturally do: Rosa Parks, Oscar Schindler, and other historical figures can feed our imaginations through biographies and historical texts.

How many of us seek heroes in our local archives to bring to the attention of our community and to young people? Finding local heroes from our past can more greatly influence people who are trying to find someone to whom they can relate and who can give them inspiration.

Last year, I was given a set of books written by a "hero" in the town in which I work. Mike MacAlary wrote a Pulitzer prize winning book exposing corruption in the New York police department in the 1990s. MacAlary was an alum of the local high school where I work as a librarian. I pulled his yearbook photo and sought news articles about him. From these I created a small permanent exhibit. NH Chronicle featured a story on MacAlary because Tom Hanks recently starred in a Broadway play called "Luck Guy" about the journalist. (MacAlary died shortly after receiving his prize.) The news program visited our school to check out our exhibit. A community member then donated a second set of books written by MacAlary to the high school; Another offered to get a Playbill signed for us to add to our display. And, thus, our archival collection about MacAlary is beginning to grow and to give our students a little something extra to think about.

Many times our archival heroes do not get special recognition or awards. One of my own personal favorite archival heroes whom I have encountered in my career is Ida Annah Ryan of Waltham, MA.  Ms. Ryan was a suffragette and the first one to be graduate from MIT with a Master's degree in Architecture.

But, in my opinion, there is a lot more to this hero stuff than just being a first or participating directly in something we consider historically noteworthy.

In archives (in institutions and outside of them) we can find stories like this:

and this:

and this:

When we uncover a hero's story in the archives, someone may turn it into a great article or book. The story, like Ballard's diary, may even be used for educational purposes. But consider how a local hero can more greatly affect lives. Local stories seem more real. People may identify with the places in the story. They may related to the trajectory of the person's life and realize that they too can do great things. Each individual can set out on his own hero's journey to find his way and make the world a better place.

Find a real person who pulled himself up by his bootstraps. Find someone who fixed something in his life. Find someone who took advantage of an opportunity to make things better. Find someone who influenced a group of people to make positive changes on a larger scale.  If you are looking for a way to attract young people to your institution or to the study of history, consider the hero angle. Find someone inspirational to whom we can relate. Your hero does not have to be a wizard to get attention.