I just finished reading a great and important book called “A Train Near Magdeburg” by Matthew A. Rozell. Using first-person accounts, for the most part, Mr. Rozell, a U.S. History teacher, describes the liberation of a train filled with starving, dying Jewish prisoners on their way to be executed by the Nazis toward the end of WWII. The photo on the front of the book was taken by a U.S. soldier who stumbled upon the train as he and his Unit chased the Germans back toward Berlin. The photo depicts the moment that these forlorn individuals realize that they have escaped death and are, in fact, going to be rescued. From Death to Life in the click of a camera’s shutter.
Mr. Rozell did a masterful job of stitching together the words of the survivors and provided an insider’s view of the Holocaust as it unfolded all around those who ended up on that train. He managed to tell their stories well and, in doing so, he brought dignity and a measure of humanity to each person.
When Mr. Rozell first became a teacher, he started a project aimed at documenting the experiences of U.S. soldiers while they were still young enough and mentally-alert enough to accurately tell their tales. He and his students conducted hundreds of personal interviews. They documented the results of their conversations in a website called TeachingHistoryMatters.com As luck would have it, one day Mr. Rozell was conducting an interview with a soldier who was now known as Judge Walsh. As the interview ended, Mr. Walsh’s daughter suggested he should tell Mr. Rozell “about the train”. As it turned out, Judge Walsh was one of the soldiers who liberated that train. He told Mr. Rozell his story. As it all turned out, Mr. Rozell helped co-ordinate a reunion of the remaining train survivors and the remaining U.S. soldiers who liberated them. This book describes the reunions (there were several). But, more than anything, it demonstrates the value of lives fully lived. For each survivor is accorded time to talk about the families that were raised because they got to live. They spoke of the careers they have had and the good they did for others because they became teachers or doctors or poets or artists. They talked about the good they have been able to do by talking about their experiences and warning of the dangers of fascism and genocide.
There were approximately 2, 500 Jewish prisoners on that train near Madgeburg, Germany. Each one a real person. Each one had a heart that beat. Each one had hopes and dreams for their future. Each person had a name and an identity that was uniquely theirs. None of them were “vermin”, as the Nazis called them. None of them were “cockroaches”, as the Rwandan Hutus called their Tutsi countryfolk before that slaughter began. None of them were “Base people” or “Depositees” as Pol Pot called those he sent to the Killing Fields of Cambodia in the 1970s. No, these 2,500 were all human beings in their own right and they deserved to live because of that fact.
Words matter. Who says them can matter even more. One of the first things a totalitarian regime does as it sets out to settle political or cultural scores is that it will begin a campaign of de-humanization. It is easier to incite violence against “enemies” if those enemies are portrayed as being sub-human. One way to tilt the playing field against a chosen person or group is to take away the individual identities of those involved and give the entire group a label. In Germany, the Nuremberg Laws set that process in motion, resulting in the creation of a sub-class of people with no rights and no worth. It is so much easier to do terrible things to those whose names you do not know and whose lives you firmly believe don’t matter.
Mr. Rozell believed it was important to preserve the history of those involved in WWII so that the lessons of that conflict could be shared with his students and with others in his sphere of influence. I am happy he did that because I enjoyed his book immensely. It is one of the best and most important books I have read in years. “A Train Near Magdeburg” was brought to my attention on Twitter by a man I follow there named McKay Smith. I, originally, came to know of Mr. Smith (@McKayMSmith) because he, too, is a storyteller. When I first encountered him, he was posting a comment thread about a family member who had landed behind enemy lines during the War. His story made for fascinating reading. But, more than that, Mr. Smith took great pains to pay tribute to those who had suffered along the way. He has told the stories of many people who died in the War, as well as those heroes who risked much to save others. In every case, Mr. Smith shows their photo and states their name. Words matter. Names are important.
After reading Mr. Smith’s tweets about “A Train Near Magdeburg”, I ordered the book the very next day. A decision over which I have no regrets. Thank you, McKay, for bringing dignity to those who suffered so many indignities during the War. You do right by them, just as Mr. Rozell did in his great book. There is a documentary slated to come out soon about this book and that train and those aboard it who got to see the light of another day. The trailer for that documentary is here. Hopefully, it will work for you.
As I type these words, it is less than 24 hours since there were two different mass shootings in the U.S. In both cases, the shooters were spurred on by words spoken by people of influence and/or authority. Words that acted to de-humanize a targeted group. Cataloguing History does no good for anyone if the lessons it contains go unheeded. We have seen leaders label citizens as “invaders” before. We have seen citizens labelled as “criminals” and “rapists” before. We have heard the words “rodents” and “infested” used before. And we are now seeing it again. President Trump’s use of these words is not by accident. His use of de-humanizing words that take away the worth of a targeted segment of his society is a trademark of those who practise in genocide. Now, it hasn’t come to genocide in the U.S. yet but, then again, Hitler had almost a decade to finalize his plans before the smokestacks belched and the mass graves filled with the bodies of real people known then, only as “vermin”.
“A Train Near Magdeburg” is a very impactful books. If you decide to read it for yourself, you will find yourself moved many times over. For me, I will end this post with the scene that most struck me. It was in the first hour or so after the U.S. soldiers had arrived and liberated the train. In that time, many of the Jewish prisoners were reluctant to leave the train cars or were too weak to do so. But, as the scene stabilized and the Jewish people began to realize that freedom might actually be at hand, they began to tidy themselves up as best they could and they lined up in as orderly a fashion as they could before the U.S. soldiers and then, one by one, they stated their names and where they had lived and, with that one act, they became real again.
Words matter. Names matter. I have a name. My name is Tom.
I was born in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. In my hometown, there are two museums of note. The first is called The Miners Museum. It is located at the edge of a tall cliff, with the waves of the Atlantic Ocean pounding below. For a few dollars, you can don the garb of a real coal miner and go under that ocean on a tour of an actual coal mine. My wife and I were married in the Miners Village Restaurant which is the greenish building you can see in the right side of this photo. We were serenaded afterwards by a Gospel Choir in the Museum theatre room. The Miners Museum holds a special place in our hearts. But, having said that, the Miners Museum is not the most famous museum in town.
On the other side of Glace Bay, at a part of town called Table Head, sits the Marconi Museum. This museum is dedicated to celebrating one of the greatest scientific and technological achievements of this past century. For it was at Table Head that Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi sent the first Trans-Atlantic wireless message in history.
I was thinking a lot about Marconi and about Glace Bay recently because I just finished reading, Thunderstruck, by author Erik Larson. Mr. Larson has written many books; most of which involve the connection between some infamous moment in History and some famous moment, too. In the case of Thunderstruck, Mr. Larson tells a tale of one of England’s most famous murder cases and how Marconi’s invention enabled authorities from Scotland Yard to apprehend the criminal involved.
In our modern times, it seems inconceivable that anyone could move freely about the planet. We are constantly monitored by surveillance cameras and satellites, our purchases tracked on-line and our social media feeds instantly updated to include stories and advertisements tailored to our lifestyles. Everything is immediate. Real privacy or anonymity is hard to come by.
But back in the early 1900s, when Marconi was conducting his experiments, news took time to travel. So, when the mild-mannered Dr. Crippen murdered his over-bearing wife and fled England with the woman he really loved, Dr. Crippen correctly believed that it was possible to travel abroad, incognito, with his lover and avoid detection and capture. But, as Mr. Larson so expertly details in his book, Marconi had invented a means of reducing the time it took for messages to travel across the Ocean to mere seconds. Not only that but, Marconi had fine-tuned the ability of ships to communicate quickly and accurately with receiving and transmitting stations on land. Thus, by the time Crippen and his lover had boarded a ship in Antwerp, Belgium, the Captain had already received a police bulletin from Scotland Yard with photos of the suspects on it. Furthermore, because the Captain was able to confirm the identities of the two criminals, he was able to quickly rely that information to Scotland Yard authorities who, in turn, were able to dispatch officers who sailed on a speedier ship and were able to make the arrest before Crippen’s ship ever made its destination of Quebec City.
I enjoyed reading Thunderstruck because I like reading about Historical events. An added bonus, for me, was that such a large portion of the book was set in Glace Bay. The photo on the right shows the original station that Marconi and his crew erected at Table Head. Much of today’s instantaneous communication can trace its roots back to this rocky spot on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.
I think that most of us take for granted the push-button world we live in. We complain if there is a delay of only a few seconds between the time we click our mouse and the arrival of our content. But, back in Marconi’s time, it took him and his team over a decade of trial and error in order to figure out how to do what he did. *That is Marconi sitting cross-legged, as his wireless operator attempts to ascertain whether or not his message has been received in England.
That Marconi’s invention helped catch a notorious criminal certainly captured the world’s attention in a tabloid kind of way. It was the first time in History that a police pursuit was reported on in, what amounted to, real time, a hundred years ago. Millions of people on both sides of the Ocean knew that Crippen and his accomplice were doomed well before the arrest was ever made. In fact, perhaps, the last person to realize the drama that had been unfolding around him as he sailed from Belgium to Canada was, Dr. Crippen, himself. Right up until the end of the voyage, as the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway came into view, Crippen thought he had escaped to a new life; first, in Canada and, eventually, in America. As Larson points out in his book, on the last evening before his arrest, Dr. Crippen stood outside the wireless office on board the ship, watching the electrical arcs colour the sky. He commented to the Captain about how magical this new wireless thing seemed to be. The Captain, to his credit, merely smiled and nodded.
As much as newspaper editors cheered the arrival of wireless communication, one of the real values of it came a few years later, when wireless communication played such a huge role in saving survivors of the Titanic sinking.
As with so much in our world, things are never simply black and white. Wireless communication started our world down a path where silence rarely exists anymore. Amid the noise comes wonderful things like tsunami warnings that save countless lives and astronauts who walk on the Moon and tell us about the giant leaps they are taking. There is wonder in all of that. But, lack of privacy is a very real concern and there are no easy answers to that. For a genius once sat on a windswept part of my hometown and let the genie out of the bottle, so to speak, with a few bits of morse code that transformed into electrical waves that sailed across the Ocean faster than any ship, obliterating national boundaries, making us all, simultaneously, citizens of the world. There is no such thing as a personal identity anymore. Thanks to Marconi, we are now all stitched together in a social-media fabric held together, not with wires and batteries but, with binary codes. Our world has become digitized.
And, that process began in my hometown of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. A town that has two museums; one that probably means more to those of us who were born there and one that we share with the world.
Have you ever had a book change your life? I did. This is the story of a book that gave me my favourite experience as a classroom teacher ever!!! Please enjoy. 🙂
Prologue: Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine, is an award-winning story that is actually two stories in one. The story begins by introducing us to the Brady Family and, in particular, the two Brady children; George and Hana. As we meet them, they are blissfully unaware that they are about to be swept up into one of modern history’s darkest chapters: the Holocaust. In the next chapter, we fast-forward sixty years and meet a Japanese teacher named Fumiko who has organized a peace club. In order to help her students understand the true nature of the Holocaust, Fumiko knows that children usually learn more deeply when they have actual materials and objects to hold rather than simply looking through photographs. So, she sends requests to Holocaust museums all over the world for any resources that they could spare to help her in her lessons. She received rejections from every museum except for one.
That museum sent a collection of artifacts that included a suitcase with the name Hana Brady on it. And so begins a detective story than ended up spanning the globe as Fumiko and her students attempt to discover who this “Hana Brady” really was.
Karen Levine constructed her book by alternating the story lines every other chapter. So, as Hana and her family move through the well-known stages of the Holocaust process culminating in being sent to the concentration camps, Fumiko and her students move closer and closer to discovering what eventually ended up happening to Hana and her family members by the end of the book.
As a father, I completely and wholeheartedly endorse the notion of surrounding young children with rich literature. In my home we have books about every conceivable topic imaginable on bookshelves in our living room, in both of my daughter’s bedrooms and in our basement playroom, too. My daughters are growing up surrounded by, literally, thousands of books. Not surprisingly, they are both growing up to have a love of reading and to view reading as an enjoyable way to spend time during their day.
As a teacher, I have attempted to create the same kind of literature-rich environment for my students. There were, again, thousands of books in my classroom; available for students to read for pleasure, to use for research purposes, to listen to being read aloud and much more. The books in our classroom spanned a wide range of reading levels and subject areas so, there was something for every student to successfully read and enjoy in our classroom. Having good books in a school classroom is important so that students can hear wonderful writing and fascinating stories; stories that may inspire anything from flights of fancy to calls for social justice and beyond. Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine is an excellent book and I highly recommend it. It is well-suited to students who are in the 8-11 age range. But, I thoroughly enjoyed it as an adult, too. However, my reason to singling this particular book out has nothing to do with remembering the Holocaust or giving a shout-out to Karen Levine. My reason for writing about this book is that Hana’s Suitcase was the book that helped me experience my favourite and most profound reading experience with a student in my entire career. Here is my Hana’s Suitcase story…..I hope that you enjoy it. 🙂
My classroom was loaded with books. I had them sorted into bins and baskets usually based upon topic or genre. For example, I had a bin of “dog” stories, bins of “outer space” books, bins of “Halloween” books and so on. My standard classroom practice was to set these book bins/baskets out and make them available for students to access all throughout the year as interest or need arose for them. However, whenever I started a new Unit of study in the classroom, I would pull those books out from wherever they were and place them in a location of prominence near where our class meeting place happened to be. As I pulled these books out, I would hold a book talk with the students and go over each book so that they became familiar with them.
My Hana’s Suitcase story starts as we approached the special Canadian day known as Remembrance Day. In Canada, Remembrance Day is used to honour our soldiers who have fought in wars all over the world, as well as, those who are presently involved in peacekeeping duties in such hotspots as Afghanistan. As you all can appreciate, war can be a very grisly topic when you explore it in detail so, as a general rule of thumb, when getting Remembrance Day Units of Study prepared for Primary students, keeping things on a very general, basic level is the preferred route to go. So, in this context, I began my book talk with my class of Grade 2 students in Bowmanville, Ontario. I pulled out books such as The Butter Battle by Dr. Seuss and proceeded with the book talk as planned.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t stop here to tell you that this class of Grade 2 students was one of “those” classes. When a teacher usually talks about their class being one of “those” classes, they often are referring to classes that are not that well-behaved. The old adage is that every teacher will have one of “those” classes before their career is over. I’ve had mine and I survived my trial by fire. But, this class was not one of “those” classes because it was a bad class. In fact, the exact opposite is true. This class was a class that was full of keeners who all got along well together and who were all very eager to learn. They loved sitting on our carpet meeting place and talking about everything under the sun. They particularly enjoyed book talks. So, as I went through all of the primary-level books that I had in my collection, a young girl put up her hand and said, “My mother told me a story once about a little girl who……….I’m not exactly sure if I remember it right but……the girl and her family had to live in a closet or a basement for two years during the War.” Although she couldn’t remember the exact details, I knew at once that she was referring to Anne Frank. So, as she spoke, I debated with myself as to whether or not I really wanted to go where she was leading me. In the end, I did, as I often do. I decided to listen to the students and follow their interests. So, I told the class that the young lady in question was Anne Frank and I told them the broad outline of her story. I had the actual Diary of a Young Girl book in a cupboard (where I kept books that I liked but that I didn’t feel Grade 2s were ready to handle). I took it out and showed it to the class. This sparked a whole new round of questions and, in the end, they asked me if I would leave the Anne Frank book out with the other Remembrance Day books. I said that I would.
And since they liked Anne Frank, I told myself that there was no reason to keep Hana’s Suitcase tucked away either. So, I pulled that out and talked about Hana’s story in basic terms, too. I stressed to the kids that I thought both books were too hard for Grade 2s to read but that if they wanted to look at the books during reading time, I would answer any questions that they had as a result of what they were able to read themselves or see in the pictures. I concluded the book talk and life went on in our room as it normally did.
Two days later, a young girl in my class named Kaicey, came up to me during our Language time with Hana’s Suitcase in her hand. She asked me if I would help her read the book because she was interested in finding out what happened to Hana. Now, at that moment, I had 26 other students engaged in a variety of reading, writing and spelling tasks. There was a lot of activity going on and, to be truthful, after having told the class that I thought this book was too difficult for Grade 2s to read, I really didn’t want to sit down and slog our way through this 102-page book about the Holocaust. But, Kaicey continued to stand there. ”Will you help me read this book, Mr. MacInnes. Will you help me, pleaseeee!” I truly didn’t want to go down that road but that tiny voice inside my head reminded me that I was a teacher and that helping kids learn to read is my job and that I should just get over myself and help this child who has had her interest sparked by a book. Soooo, I took a deep breath, sighed a little and told Kaicey that I would help her read the book. But, she needed to know that we would not be able to finish it in one day because it was over 100 pages long and that it wasn’t a happy story, either, that I expected her to do most of the reading, that I would only help her with the big words and be there to answer her questions about what she was reading. She looked at me and smiled and said that we had a deal. So, in the middle of a bustling Grade 2 classroom, Kaicey and I sat down on the carpet, with our backs against a wall of cupboards and we began to read Hana’s Suitcase.
That first day, she read three and a half pages. We talked about what she had read so far and what she thought was going to happen to the, then, carefree Hana Brady. She answered. I, then, asked her if she felt like this was a book that she wanted to continue to read. I half expected her to say that the book was too tough, thank me for my time and tell me that she would move on to something else. But, she said that she liked the book so far and was excited to read it again tomorrow. In my mind, I was still not convinced that she would still be as interested the next day but, come the next day, Kaicey was right there with the book in her hand, ready to continue to learn about a little girl named Hana Brady. So, in that fashion, reading 3-5 pages at a time, we started getting deeper into the book and I began to enjoy my time spent reading and talking about Hana with her. She read almost all of the words by herself, with me filling in with only words such as the names of the towns and cities, for example.
Well, we were about 20 pages in, when Remembrance Day came and went. Kaicey knew that my routine was to put the “theme” books back in their bin or basket once our Unit of Study was over and get new books out for the next Unit. So, she came to me of her initiative and said that she knew Remembrance Day was over and that the Remembrance Day books were going to be put away but, would it be ok if we continued to read Hana’s Suitcase. I told her that, of course it would be ok and that, perhaps, she would like to keep the book in her desk until we were through. She liked that idea.
So, over the next few weeks, reading a few pages here and a few pages there, amid the learning commotion in my classroom, we managed to reach the end of the book. Normally, under such circumstances, an event like this would be cause for celebration. It isn’t everyday that a grade 2 student can read a tough book like that, mostly on her own. But, as we discovered what happened to Hana and her family and to Fumiko and her students, neither of us felt like celebrating at all. In fact, we both felt somewhat sad that our experience had come to an end. While not as intense a bond as a father-daughter bond, we had shared a unique experience none-the-less and it brought us closer together in a way that normally doesn’t happen with a teacher and a student in the course of our academic affairs. So I said to her that, if she wanted, she could keep my copy of Hana’s Suitcase so that she could always remember Hana and remember our time together reading about her and learning about the Holocaust. I expected her to take the book. But instead, she gave me the book back and said that it was such a good story that she wanted to make sure that I would share it with other children in my other classes to come. So, reluctantly, I took the book back.
The story would have ended there if not for some fortuitous timing. Two weeks later, I attended the Ontario Library Association Annual Conference in Toronto. One of the workshops at this conference involved award winning children’s authors discussing their work and, as luck would have it, one of the authors was Karen Levine! I sat in the workshop, spellbound, as she regaled the audience with tales of how she came to be involved in this book project and how she felt as it came to its’ gorgeous conclusion. At the end of the presentation, the authors took questions from the audience. Someone asked Karen what the most satisfying consequence of writing the book was for her. Without missing a beat, she replied that she enjoyed the letters that she received; especially from young students who found Hana to be inspiring and her story to be important.
Now, I do have a brain and it normally functions well. But, the thought of writing to Karen Levine and telling her of my experience in the classroom with Kaicey and her book had never occurred to me until that very moment. So, my next immediate thought was that if Kaicey would’t accept my own copy of Hana’s Suitcase, perhaps she would accept a new copy if I got the actual author to autograph it for her. So I rushed out to the nearest bookstore and bought a brand new copy. However, Karen Levine had left by the time I got back to the conference hall. So immediately, I contacted her publishing company and explained what I wanted to do. Luckily, they were very understanding and were only too happy to help. I sent them the book and they said they would contact Karen Levine on my behalf and have her autograph the book.
About a month and a half later, a parcel arrived at school. It was the book. Karen Levine had, indeed, autographed the book but had gone one step better and wrote Kaicey a personalized note. The note read: ”Thank you for taking such an interest in someone that I have come to view as very special. Reading such a book at your age makes you very special, too. Keep up your interest in reading. Yours truly, Karen Levine.”
I contacted Kaicey’s mother and told her what I had done and that I wanted to give Kaicey the book as soon as possible and would she, Kaicey’s mother, like to be there. She was very pleased that I had done what I did. I gave Kaicey the book after school a few days later. Mom smiled. I smiled. Kaicey smiled and accepted the autographed book.
That experience happened many years ago, prior to the advent of social media. At the time, having message boards and chat rooms on my school network was as close to experiencing the interactivity that has come to characterize our use of social media nowadays. At that time, the following Fall, a teacher from another school posted a question asking for good book recommendations for our upcoming Remembrance Day. A good book recommendation!? Did I ever have one for her. So, I posted a letter describing the experience that Kaicey and I had with Hana’s Suitcase. I had never written anything for an audience before so I was unprepared for the avalanche of overwhelmingly positive feedback that poured in from all over the school board. One teacher even asked for permission to print our story off and give it to her mother who collected “Teacher stories”. I had never thought of writing about my experiences as a teacher before but, all of this feedback gave me food for thought.
So, I started my own blog and the first story I wrote was the one you are reading. Back in those days, I had only just joined Facebook and Twitter and was just learning how to link my blog posts up to social media and share them with the world. Before I did this though, I wondered about contacting Kaicey (and/or her family) and letting her know what I was hoping to do. Several years had passed by this point and I was able to find both Kaicey and her mother on Facebook. They were both delighted that this experience had meant as such to me as it did them and that I wanted others to know about it, too. They were enthusiastic in granting permission for me to go forward.
So, I linked my blog post up to Facebook and waited for another avalanche of glowing feedback. I waited. I waited some more. Eventually, a few friends chimed in and said it was a good story and thanks for sharing. But, that was it. I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed. So, I decided to give Twitter a try.
I was new to tweeting and using hash tags. So, I simply posted that I wanted people to know about an amazing experience I had had in class with a great book and an eager student. I hash-tagged it #teacherstories, #HanasSuitcase and sent it out into the world.
A day or two later, I received a reply………from Fumiko, herself! The same Fumiko who was profiled in the book. The same Fumiko who had discovered who Hana really was and who helped her family reclaim her suitcase. That same Fumiko had read my post and reached out to thank me for sharing the story of my experience with Kaicey and for helping to introduce Hana Brady to the world. Needless to say, I was star struck. Immediately, I contacted Kaicey via Facebook.
I told Kaicey what had happened. She was excited, too. Then she floored me by telling me that she still had ever single part of the package Karen Levine had sent. She had the book, the personalized letter, the book mark and, even, the original shipping envelop, too. Then she sent me the photo you can see to the left. Always Remember, Karen Levine had written and Kaicey said she remembered everything we experienced and shared and that she always would.
Thanks to sites such as Facebook, I have been able to maintain contact with Kaicey and her Mom. In fact, when I recently had my birthday in January, she was one of the first to send along birthday wishes “to my favourite teacher EVER!!!!!!!!!” A day or two later, her mother emailed me to say that her daughter’s birthday wish wasn’t mere flattery and that she still regards our experience reading Hana’s Suitcase as being her favourite moment in her whole school career.
Even though this experience happened many years ago now, it still touches my heart every time I think about it. Having opportunities to make an actual difference in the lives of our students is why teachers teach. It is my single-most favourite and treasured memory of a 30 year teaching career. Good books are important. A good book called Hana’s Suitcase helped to give me and a young Grade 2 student named Kaicey, a memory that we will cherish forever. Do you have a special memory of reading with a teacher or adult that you cherish? If so, do share. I’d love to hear your stories, too
If you ask most children to tell you what Christmas is all about, the vast majority will talk about Santa Claus and elves and the North Pole and, most importantly to them, getting lots of presents. Not too many children realize that Christmas is actually a religious holiday unless they go to Church. And, not too many children go to Church these days. I would say, the total number of children who knew the story of the birth of the Baby Jesus was never more than a quarter of the class, in any given year.
Christmas is just one example of how young children view the world around them. Most kids have an very ego-centric view of life and move through their days blissfully unaware of why things are the way they are. Why is the weather the way it is? Why do we eat certain foods and avoid other types of food? Why do we put a tree in the middle our living rooms in December and stick a star or angel on top? Who knows? Who cares? May I go and play now, Teacher?
Well, one of the philosophical pillars of my teaching career was to help children make sense of their world. So, we talked about why it is cold in the Winter, even on sunny days. We talked about the vitamins and minerals found in fruits and veggies, as opposed to the empty calories found in junk food and how that affects our bodies and minds. And, at Christmas time, we talked about why we have the traditions we do because, when you stop to think about it, we do a lot of weird things during the holidays.
So, this post is going to talk a little about how I did that in the classrooms I taught in and, more specifically, some of the books that helped me explain the traditions of Christmas to children; especially those who don’t go to Church.
In my day, I had several hundred holiday-themed books in my collection. Over time, some came to become more useful to me as a teaching tool than others and some came to become favourites with the kids. Sometimes, the two merged together and the books became essential parts of every Holiday Unit I taught. The Christmas Pageant by Jacqueline Rogers is one such book.
I usually set aside three weeks to go through my Holiday Unit. This book was always one of the first books I shared with the children. The book is very simple in its structure: it tells the story of the birth of the Baby Jesus by showing a school class rehearse for their Christmas pageant. What is really good about this book is that as the rehearsal moves through the various stages of the Christmas story, the words and music to the old classic Christmas carols are presented. So, for example, when Mary and Joseph first start out on their journey, the words and music to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” are given. When the angels first appear in the fields to the shepherds, the words and music to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” This happens all throughout the book.
The beauty of this is several fold. If you have ever seen A Charlie Brown Christmas and can remember the scene, close to the end, when Charlie Brown throws his hands up in frustration and cries, “Does anyone know the true meaning of Christmas?” and then, Linus goes to centre stage and says, “I do, Charlie Brown” and he proceeds to tell the story and Christmas suddenly becomes about something more than the greed and the glitz of commercialism well, The Christmas Pageant did the same for me with my students.
This book introduces the classic carols to kids. All of the kids know Jingle Bells and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. But, this book allowed me to take the carols, one per day, and write out beautiful lyrics such as,
“Angels we have heard on high,
Sweetly singing o’er the plains
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains
Glooooooooooooooria, In excelsis deo (X2)”
That is lovely language but, the story of the lyrics is told in context because of this book so, the language doesn’t end up being too lofty or intimidating, even for small children. In addition, it allowed me the chance to play these carols during craft times, as well as, Jingle Bells et al., and the songs would make sense to the kids and have a deeper meaning because they understood the story being told.
Furthermore, introducing the story of Jesus being born, along wth the carols that accompany the story helped my students in the same way that Linus helped the other Peanuts characters realize that there is more to this Christmas thing that they originally thought. Thus, because of this one book, I was able to open the door to exploring some of our Christmas traditions such as the importance of a star, of angels, of nativity scenes and so on.
I used to do this by using the Advent calendar format. Each day, we “opened” a new box or panel and revealed a new topic. For example, one day might be about candy canes and why they are shaped the way they are. The next day, might be why we bring trees inside our homes and the original German tradition of putting candles on the branches and how, for safety reasons, this has given way to electric lights. By the way, whenever I did the “lights on the trees” lesson, I always read The Nutcracker to the kids. It is the perfect story for illustrating how homes were decorated back then. It, also, introduces the concept of candy, including sugar plums. Once I have read this book to the kids, I can then read The Night Before Christmas and it will make more sense; especially the part when “the children all nestled snug in their beds, visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.” Getting back to the Nutcracker, for a second, reading that book, also, allowed me to go to YouTube and show the kids a clip of The Dance of The SugarPlum Fairy by The Bolshoi Ballet from Russia. *This comes up later in the list in another book, as well, called Olivia Saves Christmas.
I could talk all day about the Art and Science of teaching a Unit like the Holiday Unit to small children. But, for now, let me switch gears a little and tell you about some of our favourite books that always made an appearance during the course of the Unit. Some acted to help impart new knowledge of holiday traditions but, some others, were just fun read-alouds and some had other lessons incorporated into their storylines that appealed to the kids, as well. So, book talk time….here we go!!
James Herriot was a Veteranarian in Scotland. His stories of life as a Scottish vet became a TV series on PBS called All Creatures Great and Small. I really like this book, The Christmas Day Kitten because it allowed me to talk about two things that don’t normally get thought of at Christmas time. First of all, I got to say my piece about animals being given as gifts for Christmas and how pets aren’t gifts, like a doll or a toy truck. Pets are living creatures and for many kittens and puppies, the stimulation of Christmas can be frightening, as well as, the shock of being in new surroundings and, finally, knowing how much kids want to just go and play with all the new toys they just received, is it really the best time for them to learn to take care of a new pet? Secondly, there is a death in this story. The cat, in question, in this story dies giving birth to kittens. It is the only story that I had in my regular rotation of books that had a real death as part of the storyline. When the cat dies, the line in the book goes something like this…..the vet is talking……..”I placed my hand over her heart. Her heart beat no more.” The scene is an emotional gut punch and every single class always grew silent when I was done. With many classes, I would get asked if the cat was really dead. I would reply that it was and we would talk briefly about the Circle of Life. With other groups, the discussion would come up about pets who had died and, maybe, even family members who had passed away. When this came up, it allowed me to talk to the kids about how some people are sad at Christmas time and how we must truly think of others and show empathy. All in all, this book is important and was always handled in a sensitive manner. In the end, class after class, always thought it was special and, you know what? They were right. There are many James Herriot books and I recommend them all.
The Wild Christmas Reindeer by Jan Brett is awesome because Jan Brett is a wonderful author and illustrator. This book was always popular and helpful because, while the story of Tekka training Santa’s reindeer played out, one day at a time, there was always a separate story playing out in the border of the book that showed what was going on in the workshop as December rolled along. So, for example, on December 1st, the elves were busy making wooden blocks, Russian Stacking dolls and stuffing stuffed animals. The fact that each page was a calendar date, dove-tailed nicely with the Advent Calendar-style format I was using to introduce each day’s Christmas tradition.
TheLittleDrummer Mouse is written by Mercer Meyer who, if you are familiar with children’s literature, wrote the Little Critter series and is much beloved, as a result. This story is based on the carol, The Little Drummer Boy. The illustrations are gorgeous in this book and I would like it enough for that alone. But, the lessons in this book are noteworthy, as well. For example, the forest animals learn that “the Royal Family” will be passing by. They plan an elaborate feast, all the while showing little patience for the little drummer mouse who, they feel, has nothing to contribute and is in the way. Unbeknownst to the animals, as they flit about, madly preparing for royalty, quietly, in the background, a young couple silently pass by (Mary and Joseph). No one pays any attention to these poor folk. Eventually, while everyone is asleep, the mouse goes to an empty field to play his drum. Once there, he notices the bright star and feels compelled to follow it. He is in awe of what he sees in the stable and is asked to play the drums for the baby because the drumming is the only thing that calms the newborn. Suddenly, the mouse is very important. I like this story because it helps to drive home the point of how we judge others based upon their appearance and, as well, it allowed me to reinforce the notion that the smallest ones….just like my young students…..still have worth and still have value and can make a significant difference in the lives of others. It is a message than young children can never hear often enough.
Some stories are just fun reads and are super clever in their concept. The Gingerbread Pirates by Kristin Kladstrup is one such book. This book is about a boy who is making Christmas cookies with his Mom and decides he wants to turn his gingerbread men into a pirate crew, instead. Needless to say, the pirate cookies come to life during the night and end up fighting for their cookie lives as they attempt to avoid being eaten by the nasty giant all dressed in red. Lots of comedic turns throughout the story but, the best part of all is that, if you are so inclined….and why wouldn’t you be….you can read Captain Cookie’s character in a pirate voice all the way through. Every book is better when you can read it in a pirate voice! Arrrrrr, matey!
OMG!!! If there is any better character the world of Children’s literature than Olivia then, I don’t know who it is! Olivia Saves Christmas by Ian Falconer is the perfect melding of words and illustrations. There are fold out pages. There are cartoon illustrations plus, real photographs, too. Olivia, herself, is a diva. she loves fashion and art and, while having a heart of gold, always ends up exhausting her parents with her antics. Like every book in the Olivia series, there is a high degree of interactivity with this book. I highly recommend them all. If you are in a book store and see any of the Olivia books, pick it up and have a quick read. I guarantee that you will love what you see. Just as a teaser, when Christmas day is over, Olivia falls asleep. She dreams she is dancing the role of The Sugar Plum Fairy with Rudolph Nureyev in The Nutcracker; Nureyev and the stage in photograph form, Olivia is cartoon form, the perfect expression of happiness and contentment on her face.
Prolific adult author, James Patterson, wrote this book called Santa Kid. This book reads like a Hallmark Christmas movie. The illustrations are gorgeous but, the overall theme of a child saving Christmas is a message I always wanted to drive home to my kids. I never wanted them to feel helpless or as mere passengers in their own journey. I always sought ways to empower children and books like Santa Kid allowed me to give that message out. In short, this story is about a businessman who takes over Christmas and the North Pole because he claims that Santa isn’t as efficient as he should be when it comes to production and delivery and profit margins. Santa becomes too depressed to act, once things begin to go awry at the North Pole so, his daughter steps in a saves the day. I always like books that have female heroines, too and, this one does. Like I said, it reads like a movie so, kids always get caught up in the adventure of it all and they enjoy this book thoroughly. More of a book you would read to your child, as opposed to one they would read on their own but, just the same, a recommended Christmas choice.
Like Santa Kid, Auntie Claus by Elise Primavera, is a little more like a movie than most stories. It involves the spoiled Kringle children who live in a penthouse apartment in New York. They have a mysterious aunt who always goes away on “business trips” at this time of year. This is another story with a female lead. Sophie, the eldest sibling, decides to hide away in her aunt’s luggage as she prepares for her big trip. Not surprisingly, she ends up at The North Pole. Because she is small, she is mistaken for an elf and gets assigned various duties. Eventually, she goes down in the coal mines to get the list of naughty boys and girls and discovers that her brother’s name is on that list. Sophie has an epiphany and comes to realize the error of the way she and her brother have been acting and attempts to redeem her brother so that he will get gifts for Christmas, too. Eventually lessons are learned and identities revealed and secrets are shared. Over the years, the children I have shared this story with have enjoyed the detail and creativity given to the traditional Santa Claus tale that they are familiar with.
Berkley Breathed won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1987 for his comic strip, Bloom County. Much of the same high-calibre ability to combine illustrations with a strong storyline is evident in this book, A Wish For Wings That Work. This story is centred on one of his famous comic strip characters, Opus, who is a penguin who wishes to be able to fly. Obviously, as you know, penguins can’t do that in real life. Thus, Breathed tells a tale of a character who feels inadequate and defeated, “Imagine a bird whose wings sputter at those times when they should flutter”. Opus tries many different ways to fly such as ordering a Flap-o-matic from Ronco but, in the end, his dream never seems to be realized. But, as in all stories of this sort, redemption comes in the form of an emergency when his penguin swimming skills help to save Santa and, by extension, help to save Christmas. Earlier in the story, while sitting under a framed photo of Amelia Earhart, Opus had written to Santa, asking to be able to fly and, in a heart-warming way, Santa delivers the gift that Opus wanted in a way that makes Opus feel proud of himself in the process. Lots of depth and detail to the story and to the drawings in this book. One of my all-time favourite Christmas stories.
Sometimes, a book becomes a classic because of marketing and hype. But, sometimes, a book becomes a classic just because it is so good. There are two Christmas books that everyone should have and How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss is one of them. The second book is The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg.
I doubt that summaries are needed for either of these book so, I will spare you that. But, let me tell you why I have found these two books to be so very special.
First of all, short of Ebenezer Scrooge, the Grinch is, arguably, the most iconic character in Christmas literature. Dr. Seuss has done a masterful job of creating a character so repugnant and evil that you have to root against him. But, his redemption is so profound and complete that, you can’t help cheering for him in the end. The rhyming nature of Seuss’ prose makes this story a delight to read aloud or to listen to. And, just like reading a story in a pirate voice is fun, I cannot…..I mean, absolutely cannot read this story in any other voice than that of Boris Karloff, from the original cartoon movie. If I was tasked with having to read aloud one story over and over again, for all of eternity, it would be How The Grinch Stole Christmas in a Boris Karloff voice. Man, I love it so much!!! And, so do the kids.
As for The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg, this is my #1 book, and is the favourite choice, year after year, of the kids in my classrooms. The reason for this is simple….this story is all about the power of believing in something bigger and more profound than yourself. Believing in something is a powerful tonic for what ails all of our souls and what better thing to believe in with all your heart than the magic of Christmas. The way this book ends, with the ability of those who believe to hear the ringing of the bell, is as powerful a closing scene as almost any book ever written. I had the pleasure of working with children for thirty years and, believe me, the innocence of childhood hearts is as precious a gift as there is in this world; something that The Polar Express captures completely.
As I said waaaaaaay off of the top of this post, at one time, I owned hundreds and hundreds of Christmas books. The list I just gave to you is, by no means, exhaustive nor complete. There are countless other good books out there that help children understand the traditions, emotions and reasons for all that we do during the Holiday season. I hope that you enjoyed my list and that you all have a wonderful Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, etc., wherever you happen to be.
In Canada, on November 11, we pause and reflect upon those whose lives have been affected by War. We call this day, Remembrance Day. In schools all over the country, children will learn about how wars come about and how they are resolved. They will learn about famous battles and about the soldiers who fought and died in them. They will, also, learn about symbols of war, such as the poppy, that we wear over our hearts.
In my career as a teacher, I always welcomed the opportunity to explore the serious topic of conflict with my students. Coming as it does on the heels of Halloween, Remembrance Day serves to vividly highlight the distinction between dress up costumes from the world of monsters and a soldier’s military dress, from the world of war. My experience was that the kids were usually quite respectful during our Remembrance Day activities and that they wanted to do their best work and that they wanted to learn more about what War was really like. That’s where having access to good books helped a lot.
One of my first goals in my Remembrance Day Units was to impress upon the kids that War is not like a video game or a movie. It is not play time. It was very real and serious for those involved. However, it is important to remember that small children do not often have any personal experiences to draw upon during these initial discussions so, it was important for me to present battle scenes in ways that they could relate to. So, I showed them battle scene photos; especially of the trench warfare from Passchendale or Ypres; all mud and obliterated landscapes and I asked them simple questions like, “What do you think the soldiers did when they got hungry?”….there were no recess breaks during the battles where the soldiers could all have a snack. “Where did they go to the bathroom?”….there were no toilets or toilet paper. “Where did they sleep at night?”…..there were no beds or blankets, only cold, wet mud. It didn’t take many discussions like this for the kids to realize that they would not like to be in those conditions of battle at all. They quickly came to the conclusion that many soldiers were tired and hungry and cold and wished that they were anywhere else than where they were. In other words, the students started to develop a sense of empathy.
Once those discussions were had, I wanted to take their thoughts to the next level by talking about, not just the brave soldiers who fought in the battles but, those also affected by War…..the civilians. We would talk about what would happen to our school, our houses and our neighbourhoods if wartime battles took place there. This is when I would reach for one of the most important and valuable books I had in my personal library, Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti.
What a potent and powerful story this is! The main character, Rose Blanche, is a young German girl. The story is told from her perspective and unfolds over the course of the entire Second World War. As you know from History, Germany was quite successful in the first half of World War II. So, in the beginning of this book, Rose’s town is decorated with flags, it is clean, the buildings are sturdy and bright, the soldiers passing through are all well-dressed in clean uniforms, their tanks and other equipment are all shiny and new.
But, one day, while coming from school, Rose witnesses something that changes her life. She sees a young boy, her age, taken by police and put in the back of a closed truck that was filled with other people. She doesn’t understand why the boy was taken away and decides to follow the truck as it heads out of town. At this point, I always stopped and asked the kids why they thought the boy was taken away. Every class said that he must have been bad and broken a law or done something wrong. No one ever said that it was because he was Jewish.
Rose’s journey leads her to a prison camp. The sickly looking people on the other side of the barbed wire all have yellow stars on their clothes. Rose doesn’t understand why they are imprisoned but she knows they are starving so she starts smuggling food out of her own home and bringing it to the prisoners.
The illustrations in the second half of the story start to reflect the tide of the War as it turned against the Germans. Now, the buildings Rose walks past are damaged, the landscape is turning grey, soldiers are coming in the opposite direction from when we first saw them and they are injured and weary-looking. Without saying it in words, the illustrations show that the front lines of the War are approaching Rose’s town.
The book concludes with Rose walking, again, to the prison camp. But, this time, a battle is raging in the forest by the camp and in the chaos of that battle a shot rings out and Rose is killed. The final page of the book shows the battle field has regenerated and a poppy is growing where Rose had stood that fateful day. The first line on this page reads, “Rose Blanche’s mother wanted a long time for her little girl.” It is an emotional punch in the gut. The kids are usually all very sombre at this point so I would always pause slightly and then, in hushed tones, ask about their Mom waiting for them to come home that day and how she would feel if they didn’t come home as expected.
No one thinks War is fun or cool after this.
Rose Blanche is a serious book. But, there is a place in a classroom for serious books. The key to being able to successfully address serious topics in a classroom is having established a safe, trusting environment during those opening weeks of the school year. This is not a book to read on the first day of school. But, it is a book to read once you, as a teacher, reach the point when you can say to a class that we are safe in this space, we can talk about anything in this space and we can move forward together in this space. Books like Rose Blanche expedite this bonding process exponentially.
Rose Blanche is the sort of book that kids would look at thoughtfully and quietly on their own or with a trusted friend during our Reading time. I always kept the book out on display throughout our Remembrance Day Unit and then put it away afterwards. However, before putting it away, I always made sure to promise the kids that if they ever wanted to read it again then, I would happily share the book with them. That’s what you do with good books….you share them with your friends, as I am now with you.
Are there any “serious” books that you remember from school or from home that made a lasting impact on your life? If so, I would love to hear about it in the comments. Thanks, as always, for reading my words.
For as long as I have can remember, people have told me that I am a good writer. I have been advised to “get that published” more times than I can count. Right from my first original story written for a writing assignment in Grade Three, all the way through High School, into my professional role as a classroom teacher and now, in the golden glow of my retirement years, people have been very kind in their reactions to the words I write. Believe me, I am most appreciative of the positive feedback. If compliments were currency, you and I, Dear Reader, would be enjoying a wonderful meal at a fine restaurant, right now.
As I approached my retirement, one of the goals that I had set for myself was to give my writing a chance to grow into something more than social media posts and commentary. I wanted to rekindle my love of writing and of being creative. To do so meant devoting consistent periods of time each week to my craft. Being retired has been a wonderful tonic in that regard. The posts I have created for this blog have helped remind me of how it feels to be a writer. These posts have, also, caused me to have a more creative world view. Now, for example, when I am out for a stroll or mowing the lawn, my thoughts are not on the weeds in the grass but more, on how the shadows are being cast by the tree in my yard or the sound of the waves crashing on the shores of Lake Ontario. I used to think about work-related things, mere months ago. Now, I find myself thinking more like a writer would and that pleases me.
My last blog post was two and half weeks ago. Let me briefly explain my absence. I have not been idle. After I published my last post, I began renovations on the sunroom that sits at the back of our house. For any of you who have done your own renovations, you know there is no getting around the fact that you have to work hard. Demolition takes times, as does prepping for the rebuild. Nails have to be nailed, word sawed to measure, paint applied in colours, floors laid. The work time used to complete the renovations came out of the quiet time I had been setting aside in the mornings for writing.
However, while working on my own in the sunroom, I had time to think. My thoughts manifested themselves in the form of an idea for a story. An original story that, in my mind, I saw as a Picture Book. So, as the paint was drying on the sunroom walls, I sat down and spent several days fleshing the story out and coming up with a rough copy or first draft. I finished the story toward the middle of last week. At that point, I had some decisions to make.
The Children’s Literature market is a thriving segment of the Book Publishing Industry in North America. In my previous roles as a Teacher-Librarian or as a classroom educator, I have interacted with this market as a consumer. I have become familiar with publishing companies, with authors and with the process of marketing books. It is a big business; one that does not suffer fools lightly. Consequently, in order to be competitive with the tens of thousands of other authors seeking “to be published”, I knew that I had to treat this new story differently than I do for my blog posts, for instance.
I am in control of my blog posts. When I finish typing these words, I will not consult editors or illustrators or finance and marketing experts. Instead, I will simply click on the “Publish” button at the top of my screen and my words will be made available you in your home on your screen of choice. It costs me, as the author and you, as the reader, nothing but time to be involved in this creative transaction.
That is not the case in the real world of book publishing. Books don’t appear in book stores and at on-line retailers by magic. They are produced, marketed, distributed and promoted by people who all need to be paid for their services. For any publishing company to agree to publish my story, they would have to consider, not only the literary merits of my work but, also, the probability of my book being a revenue-producing investment for the owner and/or shareholders of the company. I get that. I understand and appreciate the business side of publishing my work. I cannot divorce the financial reality from wish to have my story see the light of day.
So, that having been said, I have decided to go ahead and initiate the publication process anyway and honour my original, pre-retirement goal of giving my writing a chance. Late last week, I sent a copy of my rough draft to two friends; one with experience in the world of kidlit and one with more experience in the craft of writing and creating memorable characters and scenes. I asked them both for feedback. I chose my two friends carefully because I knew that they would give targeted feedback that would help me polish the story for submission purposes. When I have received both critiques, I intend to let my eldest daughter, Leah, read my story. While slightly older than my intended audience, she will be a good judge as to the quality and reasonableness of my dialogue, for example. It is not easy having my writing critiqued because my story is my baby and, like most writers, I am very protective of it. But, to be the best story possible, I acknowledge the need for constructive advice. I feel fortunate to be part of a supportive community of writers. I know “my baby” is in good hands.
I will keep you all abreast of developments as they occur. I am happy that you are coming along for this part of my journey and invite you to see it through with me to fruition. Your support and encouragement is what has gotten me to this point in my writing career. Thanks for everything you do, in terms of reading my posts, sharing them with your friends, offering comments and so on. It all means the world to me.
Gotta love the New Yorker Magazine. Hopefully, my story won’t lay an egg!