Search This Blog


Friday, September 28, 2012

Book Review: The Children of Topaz

As Americans, we're used to being the heroes.  So when we're confronted with times where we've made mistakes, it can be hard to accept.  With the students I teach, it can be a struggle to help them understand the Japanese-American internment camps the U.S. set up during World War II.  These ten camps and relocation centers held thousands of Japanese-Americans as prisoners from 1942-1945.  One of the best tools I've found to help children (and adults) understand the daily life of these prisoners is The Children of Topaz: The Story of a Japanese-American Internment Camp.  The 1996 non-fiction book by Michael O. Tunnell and George W. Chilcoat is only 74 pages long, but provides invaluable insight into what the children of one internment camp were going through.

The first dozen pages of the book are the authors' introduction and background about the internment camps and the people being kept there.  Topaz was located in central Utah, in an alkali desert that was harsh then and today, and is some of the most desolate land in the United States.  The reaction of the United States government and citizens to the attack on Pearl Harbor is described, and the decision to start the internment camps is examined.  The heart of this book is the classroom diary of a third grade teacher, Lillian Yamauchi Hori.  She had her students keep a diary that they illustrated and wrote in.  The entire diary is 73 pages long; 20 of them are reproduced here.  

An example of an entry:

April 14, 1943
On Sunday evening at 7:30 o'clock, an old man, Mr. James H. Wakasa passed away. 
This morning some of our boys saw a dog balancing on a car as it drove by on the road.
Yesterday we started to build our "cookie house" for Hansel and Gretel.  Edwin, Bobby, Lynn and Kei were chosen to work on it. 
Today Kiku's mother and father left Topaz.  His father went to Idaho and his mother went to Salt Lake City.
There was a fire at the turkey farm last night.
We went to see the ant hills, scorpions and horned toad at Miss Ito's and Mr. Kusano's class.
From this entry alone, we learn some important things: the students were award of the outside world; they had extracurricular activities like school plays; they had pets of a sort to replace the ones they left behind; and some residents were able to leave the camp.  One of the most revealing things for my students is simply the names of the students; about three-fourths of the residents of Topaz had very American-sounding first names like Bobby, Mike, and Betty.  The journal page is illustrated with the "cookie house" the third-graders are building as scenery for their school play.  

The diary entries only cover from March to August 1943, but even in that time frame a lot happens in the camp.  Tunnell and Chilcoat provide enough commentary to explain each entry in the journal, and point out important events that have an impact on the students.  Dozens of residents are allowed to leave the camp to go work as migrant farm workers in the area around Provo, Utah.  Nineteen young men choose to serve in Nissei battalions as soldiers for the U.S. Army.  Many more refuse.  The journals give us glimpses of what life is like for the kids of Topaz.  With the exception of the barbed wire fences and the guard towers and the deplorable living conditions, this could be any third grade diary from the 1940s.  The kids are kids, and even in this conditions, their humor and vibrancy shines through.

The book is illustrated with photographs of what was happening before internment, dozens of photographs of the Topaz camp, and some after internment.  By 1945 only half of the population of Topaz was still in the camp--most had moved to other locations.  

A short Afterword explains the efforts of Americans to convince the United States government to apologize to the Japanese-Americans and their families, something that didn't happen until the presidency of the first George Bush.  This is now recognized as a gross injustice, a black mark on American History, but it took decades for that recognition to be official.  

If you're interested in World War II history or the Japanese-American internment, this book doesn't give you a complete picture of what it was like, but it does give you some great insight into the lives of the residents.  It's a quick read, but a powerful one.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Video: Death and the Civil War

Over the years, the PBS series American Experience has consistently delivered the best documentaries about U.S. History.  Often they'll narrow in on a previously overlooked aspect of a well-known historic event, shedding new light on topics we thought we already understood.  That was their approach to their latest broadcast, last week's Death and the Civil War.  Produced by Ric Burns (brother to famed documentarian Ken Burns), the two hour film looks at how the bloodiest war in America's history transformed the culture, religion, and very lives of Americans--not just in the 19th Century, but down to our present time. 

The full video is available at American Experience: Death and the Civil War through October 17, 2012.  At some point it will be released on DVD, but aside from a few clips, I wouldn't show the entire thing to a 5th or 8th Grade US History class.  There are graphic and disturbing images and ideas that would probably be inappropriate--aside from the class time that the two hour film would eat up.  However, the website that PBS built to support the site will be up long after the streaming video is taken down, and has incredible resources that would be a great asset in teaching the Civil War. 

The website includes a photo gallery including many photographs from Matthew Brady's studio; a tineline of major Civil War battles, a "Then and Now" comparison of how we care for the dead and wounded of war, a look at the numbers of Civil War wounded, dead, and participants compared to other wars, other suggested books and websites, and a Teacher's Guide that includes lesson plans and other suggestions for how to teach the Civil War in your classroom.  It's a great resource, and every American Experience documentary has a similar website for use by teachers.  PBS has great stuff--use it well. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Book Review: The Genius of Islam - How Muslims Made the Modern World

As a 21st Century American, my view of the world tends to marginalize the contributions of the Muslim citizens of history.  Part of that might be current events, but a bigger part of it is that most of us were never taught what Muslims brought to the encounters between East and West. Author and artist Bryn Barnard aims to fill some of that gap in our knowledge with the 2011 picture book The Genius of Islam: How Muslims Made the Modern World.  

The 36 page hardcover opens with a timeline that spans from 2575 BC and the founding of classical Egypt to 1924, when Ataturk abolishes the caliphate.  Most of that timeline happens between 570 (birth of the Prophet Muhammad) and 1492 (fall of the last Muslim state in Spain).  That's also when most of the events covered in the book happen, so it's a nice prologue to the book.

The first several pages explain the events of Muhammad's life and the early years of Islam as simply as possible, but it still makes for the most text-heavy passage of the book.  Even though it's filled with gorgeous large illustrations by Barnard, it's really written for middle grade readers--from about 5th-8th Grades.  The vocabulary, sentence structure and content is all more appropriate for those grades than younger readers, even if the pictures make it look like it's better for young grades.  

From that point in the book on, Barnard profiles key inventions and innovations of various Muslims, and gives short biographies of many Muslim inventors, scientists, and other leaders.  These include the influence of Arabic writing and calligraphy, the importance of books and libraries, and even the transition from using scrolls to using books to keep records and tell stories can all be attributed to Muslims.  

Barnard spends several pages talking about math, and applications of math.  That includes the transition to modern numerals, and a great page that compares Brahmi, Hindu, Eastern and Western Arabic, Byzantine and European numerals.  That visual is helpful and interesting, but more important is Barnard's explanation of how the use of Arabic numerals encouraged trade, accounting, and calculations of large numbers and equations, which were more difficult with Roman numerals.  That, and then the application of mathematical discoveries in geometry, architecture, and astronomy are all important advances as well.  

Medicine, agriculture, mechanics, music--it seems like there isn't any corner of our world that hasn't been influenced for the better by these innovators, most of whom have been left out of the history books.  If you're interested in learning more about how "Muslims Made the Modern World," check this book out.  I learned more than I thought I would, and enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Battle of New Orleans, LEGO-Style.

DVD Review: A&E Biography - Noah & the Ark

This 50 minute program was produced in 1996, and as a documentary, definitely has a 1990s feel to it. A lot of panning across still pictures and paintings, mostly narration, with a few experts interviewed here and there.

It starts with stories of Noah's birth and childhood, then skips ahead to his experiences as a prophet and leader, building the Ark, collecting the animals, and saving the world. Sort of. Because the account of Noah in Genesis is only a few chapters long, there's a lot of speculation and legend built up around Noah, and the various scholars they interview delve deep into it. Things like Noah being born pre-circumsized (lucky guy), and having skin and hair as white as snow; some legends say he was born already walking and talking. He was seen as a special child, consecrated to the service of God.

The producers of the program seemed to want to dwell on the salacious details of Noah's life--his troubled relationship with his son Ham, the what-just-happened-here situations with his family members after they got off the Ark. Right after inventing wine, Noah ends up "uncovered in his tent," and something happens between him and either his daughters or Ham or Satan...but the producers don't ever come down on any single interpretation. It's not disturbing as much as it seems sloppy. They do give Noah props as an inventor, a sailor, and a man who chose right in the face of insurmountable odds, but this is definitely a video that is more for the scholars than the faithful.

There are a few omissions that I found curious--they spend all the time talking about Noah and the Deluge, but they don't ever touch on the idea that there are other flood myths in almost every ancient culture--Gilgamesh is the most famous, but there are others as well. I thought that with all the other controversy the producers were courting, they'd impugn the Noah tale as a myth too, but they didn't go there.

I did like the ending of the program, which connected Noah and his story to the lives of Moses, Jesus Christ, and Mohammed, and how his influence, name and story have been known for generations. I think it might be time to update this program, but overall, it was an interesting look at the life of an Old Testament prophet.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Book Review: I Love Dirt! 52 Projects to Help You and Your Kids Discover the Wonders of Nature

One of the books that's affected me the most as a father and as an educator over the last few years is Richard Louv's groundbreaking Last Child in the Woods. His premise is that children should be spending more time outdoors, and that this seemingly simple step could help our society free our children from the shackles of obesity, ADHD, and other ailments that are robbing our nation of its future. He doesn't go so far as to say this is the only way to fix our kids, but says that children and families in touch with nature are more well-rounded, more creative, and more ready to accept change.

Let's say you're new to nature yourself, but you want to help your kids experience the best of the outdoors...and you're not quite sure how to do it. Jennifer Ward's 2008 handbook I Love Dirt! 52 Projects to Help You and Your Kids Discover the Wonders of Nature is a great way to start.

The book is a simple collection of 52 easy-to-do activities that you can adapt whether you're using your backyard, a city park, or acres of forest as your "nature" realm. All of the activities are intended to help parents and children explore the outdoors together, and introduce concepts of science and conservation that would help them in the classroom as well as making them a better observer of the world around them. Many of them also invite journeys of the imagination, asking children to create stories about plants or animals they encounter. There are "Help Me Understand" questions for each activity that will extend your child's knowledge of what they're experiencing...and usually extended mine as well. They're generally questions to answers every kid asks, like "why are clouds white?" or "why is the sky blue?" ...and I swear I remember learning these things once, but when it comes down to explaining them to my own sons, I'll stammer and say, "uh....refraction?"

The activities are divided into sections that correspond to the seasons. Or, if you live in a part of the world that doesn't enjoy four seasons, into "Warm Days and Rainy Weather," "Hot Days and Warm Nights," "Cool Days and Cloudy Weather," or "Cold Days and Snowy Weather."

Since it's autumn here in Utah, and we just took a trip down to our family's cabin in Southern Utah, I grabbed this book to see what it suggested for Fall activities. Some of them would be appropriate for any time of year--the first one is simply "Time Out" and is about spending time outdoors. Taking a favorite book to read with your kids, but outside instead of indoors; having a picnic lunch; taking toys outside; even something as simple as rolling down the car windows and letting your kids feel the wind can be a novelty, and let them experience something beyond their television or computer screen. Many of the activities also promote exercise, balanced diets and healthy living--that they go hand in hand is just a bonus. The next activity is called "Zoom In," and has you and your child looking carefully and closely at a patch of ground the size of their footprint. What plants live there? What animals live there? What would it be like to live in a world that tiny?

These activities are common sense for those of us who grew up spending more time outdoors than we did inside--and I remember doing most of those things. How is it that, with adulthood, we've forgotten the simplest things? Ward helps us remember with this great little book. If you're looking for ways to help your kids discover the beauty (if not the taste) of dirt, check out I Love Dirt.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Book Review: April 1865 - The Month That Saved America

I'm a history teacher, but I have a curricular confession to make:  I don't like the Civil War.  Partially because of geography--in the Western U.S., I don't think we have the best understanding of what the Civil War was all about.  Additionally, because the Civil War is taught at the end of the same course that teaches everything up to 1877, many teachers skim through it around Memorial Day.  As a consequence, I feel like I made it through my secondary and college education without ever having an adequate course on the Civil War.  As a teacher, I teach a different course (20th Century History), which means any learnin' on the Civil War is on my own time.  

I just finished a book that I was assigned to read to help me out with that, Jay Winik's April 1865: The Month that Saved America.  I picked it up with reluctance, but the 2001 bestseller is well-written and soon had me hooked. Winik opens with a beautiful metaphor, comparing Jefferson's Monticello, crumbling by 1860, to the state of the United States.  One of Winik's main arguments is that the country, although technically united since 1787, was still a collection of shifting confederacies of states.  Various states and regions had threatened to secede several times over different issues; it was only when the South succeeded in 1861 that a civil war finally commenced.

The author focuses on April 1865 as the month that was able to finally begin the unification of the country, and a new destiny as the "real" United States of America.  April was the end of the Civil War, the month of Lincoln's assassination, and the beginning of the peace that would shape our country's future.  Winik's 460-page book is chronological, with a long introduction that places the month in a historical context with the "big picture" of American history.

Being new to Civil War histories, just about everything in the book was new to me.  The sections I liked best were short biographies of key leaders of the war--people I'd heard of, but knew woefully little about.  These biographies include Robert E. LeeUlysses S. GrantAbraham LincolnNathan Bedford ForrestWilliam T. Sherman,Jefferson Davis and John Wilkes Booth.  Each gets four-to-six pages about their lives up until their entry into Winik's narrative.  I knew most about Lincoln and Booth, but the others were all quite revelatory.  I came away with more respect for the leaders of the Confederacy than I thought I'd have.  

Winik spends more time on the military campaigns winding up the Civil War than I was prepared for, and although he makes the terminology accessible and includes maps that make things more clear, for newcomers to this conflict, it can be overwhelming.  The part that was most surprising and disturbing for me was the description of the guerrilla tactics used, mostly by the South.  Winik provides a short history of guerrilla warfare, and then provides a few horrific examples of what Mosby, Quantrill and others did to Union soldiers, but also to civilians, women, and children. These actions were officially sanctioned by the Confederacy, but were also disdained by much of the southern leadership.  

The descriptions of the events leading up to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln are well-described, and the other issues that came because of the death of Lincoln are examined.  Things like the issue of presidential succession after a death, which wasn't clearly established in the Constitution; the questionable fitness of Andrew Johnson to become president; and the change in leadership and how it would impact the peace growing out of April 1865.

More than anything, this book changed my understanding and appreciation of Robert E. Lee in the war, but more importantly in the peace.  Considering all I knew about General Lee before reading this is that Bo and Luke Duke's car was named after him, it was all new to me.  Instead of considering him an enemy, like I have my entire life, I see him now as an honorable leader.  I enjoyed Winik's use of anecdotes about Lee after Appomattox Courthouse; instead of continuing a war he couldn't hope to win, Lee encourages his own soldiers and the other Confederate generals to go home.  He doesn't dwell on the past or perceived injustices; he goes toward a future that's uncertain, but one that will move forward instead of back.

Whether you know much about the Civil War or not, there's a lot to enjoy in Winik's book.  His thesis comes across as solid, and his evidence backs it up well.  It's an engaging, interesting book with personal stories and examples, and is a quick read.  If you're interested in the Civil War, its causes and consequences, read April 1865

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Face to Faith

Yesterday we were pleased to be invited to a Face 2 Faith demonstration at Brighton High School in Canyons School District.  The event was an impressive affair, with representatives from the state school board, the state office of education, and due to some serendipitous timing, even people from the U. S. Department of Education were there. 

Face to Faith is an intiative of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, an organization established by the former United Kingdom Prime Minister to build bridges of understanding between people of different belief systems.  It's a relatively new program, operating in Utah for two years now. Canyons School District had the pilot program for Utah, then last year it expanded to Granite School District.  The combination of thoughtful pedagogy, lofty goals, and technological integration have made it successful with students and teachers, and last night was a great example of how it can work.

An exciting part of Face to Faith is a teleconference that connects students from Utah with students from around the world.  Last year I saw students from Bennion Junior High in Granite School District meet with students from Mexico, India, and Dubai; last night the students from Brighton High School met up with their counterparts at a Jesuit school in the Philippines.  This happens after the respective schools have done research into the life, faith, religion and customs of the students they'll be conferencing with, and the meeting is moderated by a neutral adult who has been trained by Face to Faith to guide the conversation. 

Among topics discussed last night:

  • Relationship between Church and State
  • Religious Holidays
  • Visibility of Faith in Community
  • Mass / Prayer in School
  • Charity and Service
  • Similarities and Differences between Mormonism and Catholicism
  • How Values are Shaped by Communities
  • Teen Culture
  • Schooling Opportunities

The amazing thing is that, even with two dozen adults in the room observing the interaction, no adults stepped in to "fix" what the students were saying, no one made suggestions about things the kids should say--they were coming up with their answers on their own.  And what started as a shy, tentative teleconference eventually became one filled with laughter and warmth--to the point that one of our students said (after the mic was turned off), "Wow--Jaime and I are friends!"  It was an impressive moment, and you could see the bridge being built before our eyes.

Our students are already plugged in to the world.  Through Facebook or Twitter or just browsing the internet, they see opportunities to connect that our generation didn't have growing up.  Programs like Face to Faith take that connection and elevate the conversation.  They can talk about movies and music and video games--but they can also use those connections to talk about faith and service and humanity, and ways to help each other.  There are many ways to build the future--Face to Faith is a great tool to do that. 

Constitution Day is Monday -- Are You Ready?

Next Monday is September 17, which means it's Constitution Day.  And all schools that receive federal monies must "hold an educational program pertaining to the United States Constitution on September 17 of each year."  That means that we need to include something about the Constitution in our classes on Monday.  For some of your classes, that's a natural fit with your content--for others, it might be more of a stretch.  If you're still wondering what you're going to do with the Constitution Monday, here are some websites with some ideas to help you out:

The National Archives has a special site just about Constitution Day, with seven different activities and an online Constitution Workshop that will help you as a teacher, but also benefit students with helping them understand primary sources. 

Scholastic Teachers has three lessons that build on each other to help students understand the Constitution--any one of them stands well alone, but they interconnect to build a great unit. 

The Center for Civic Education has 21 different lessons, ranging from Kindergarten through 12th Grade, touching on a variety of topics.  Of the lessons I'm recommending here, this has some of my personal favorites. 

Education World has about a dozen lesson plans and links to other websites and activities to help you understand the importance of teaching the Constitution, and hands-on activities to use in your classroom.  Most of them are relatively simple to implement, too. 

If you have a favorite website, book, resource or activity that you like to use on Constitution Day, let us know in the comments--make sure your students know that Monday is a special day. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

UCSS Conference Saturday October 13

Save the Date!

Saturday, October 13, UCSS Fall Conference

Where: South Jordan Middle School

Time: 8:30-2:30

What: breakout sessions for secondary teachers including the 2012 Election, Germany and the Printing Press, The Jazz Age, Utah History, and Modern Europe, along with pedagogy utilizing primary sources, technology, and other hands-on activities. Day-long sessions for individual grades for elementary teachers (elementary must register for specific grade)

Cost: $25 or membership in Utah Council for the Social Studies

Credit. .5 USOE credit

How to register? Go to ON TRACK and register for Social Studies Saturday Seminar - Fall 2012, Course 35256


Friday, September 7, 2012

Book Review: Walden Then and Now

This month I get to visit Massachusetts, and among the sites I'll be seeing is Walden, the famous setting for Henry David Thoreau's book by the same name.  Walden was published in the 1850s, and is a tribute to the natural world.  It's also a tribute of sorts to simplicity, and a sort of proto-environmentalism.  

I've read several children's books that introduce Thoreau and his ideas, but the most recent one is also one of the best.  Walden Then and Now: An Alphabetical Tour of Henry Thoreau's Pond is an ABC book of sorts, but clearly intended for readers a bit older than your average primer targets.  Michael McCurdy's style of woodcuts that he's used to illustrate other children's books seems to fit in perfectly with the period and theme of Walden Pond.

A is for the angry ants that Henry once saw battling;
B is for the bean field in which noisy crows were prattling.
C is for the cabin Henry built with his own hands;
D is for the dogs that roamed the winter woods in bands.
Each page has a lovely woodcut in stark black and white, and a paragraph or so of information explaining how the ABCs verses represent Thoreau and his experiences, and makes comparisons to the world of Walden Pond today.  So the page about the ants also compares the populations of Concord in 1847 and today, the page about beans compares farming by hand to buying beans in the supermarket, etc..  The pages examine many parts of Thoreau's world, from his opinions on people and the crowding of the Eastern seaboard to the advent of new technologies like the railroad.  Of all those things, my favorite page might be how McCurdy handles the letter X:

X is for the unknown word we'd need for a good rhyme.  There was nothing at Walden Pond beginning with the rare letter X.  Perhaps if Henry had known that there would someday be an alphabet book based on his days at Walden...
It's silly, but it's clever, and made me laugh out loud.  McCurdy's verses flow well, and the prose explains enough of Thoreau that even young readers will learn the basics about him and his life.  

I love McCurdy's style of woodcut illustrations; I've been a fan of woodcut prints for a long time, and seeing how he's handled this book makes me want to read more of his books.  From the fine ripples on Walden Pond to the soft fur of a field mouse, I'm impressed with the amount of detail that he works into his stylized artwork. Some readers might be turned off at the lack of color in the black and white illustrations, but I think they're lovely.

Walden Then and Now is a fine introduction to the basics of environmentalism and simplicity. McCurdy is never preachy, but has a message for kids and adults reading the book.  If you're able to find a copy, read it with your own children and see if they get it before you do.  It's a good message, and a fine book.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

DVD Review: Food, Inc.

Food, Inc. is one of those documentaries that I've been meaning to watch for almost a year, and finally got around to watching this morning. Insomnia does have its privileges. The 94 minute movie about America's corporate farming is an eye-opener, but is less incendiary and offensive than a Michael Moore movie on the same topic would be. That accessibility might make it more radical, because more people are likely to watch and listen than would give Moore's shlubby self a chance.

The movie follows typical documentary format, with filmed spots on location in various farms and "farm factories," and interviews with people on both sides of the corporate farming issues. Food, Inc. looks at beef, chicken, corn and pig raising operations in several different states, and examines how our current system of agribusiness could be hurting animals, employees, and consumers, all in the name of a larger profit for the ones running these corporate giants.

The big push behind this documentary isn't to turn every one into vegetarians, although the inhumane treatment of the animals seen in this movie will turn your stomach and break your heart. Rather, it's to help us decide to move toward more local, sustainable agriculture. There are horror stories in Food, Inc., like the reminder that the problems behind the E.Coli and salmonella outbreaks in recent decades haven't been solved, they've just had "Band-Aids" put on them.

The link between the government (FDA and USDA) and the agribusiness giants (Monsanto, Tyson, others) is made clear, with many of the top government officials with oversight over the companies being picked from the company management itself. That, with the drop in the number of FDA food inspections (over 50,000 in 1970, down to 9,000 in recent years) makes eating local not just smart, but safer than getting food that's gone through several processes and states before it reaches your table.

This documentary does a better job than other similar movies of exposing the human suffering that comes as a result of these business practices. Whether it's the families of undocumented workers beig torn apart, or a mother who lost her two year old son to E.Coli, or a family weighing the price of fast food versus fresh fruits and vegetables, it's compelling to see the real face of America in this movie.

Interviews with experts in their fields, including Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma), Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), farmers, lobbyists, lawmakers and organic boosters, all have a great impact in this movie. One of the most interesting moments is that, in a movie that bashes Wal-Mart several times in different ways, they end up praising the megastore for getting rid of hormone-treated milk in their stores, and putting more organic foods on the shelf.

The end result of the movie is optimistic, but with a warning note. Take more interest in what you eat. Find out where it comes from. Make choices that are better for your family, your economy, and your life...or suffer the consequences. It was a good movie that was entertaining and informative. If you want to know more, check out Food, Inc.