Friday, November 13, 2009

Letters...We Get Letters

This week many of us have been writing about the questions kids ask. Maybe you are tired of the subject, but frankly, I can’t help myself. To add a little variety, I’ll change up and talk about some of the letters and emails I’ve received from students.

Furthermore I’ll begin by quoting my favorite email from a kid, one which wasn’t even sent to me. I’ve asked Lois Lowry if I could borrow it for this blog entry and she graciously sent me the exact wording. It read:

I am working on a research paper and in my thesis statement I have to identify you. Would you be considered a 19th century author? Please let me know ASAP.

Okay, on to me. I love the thank you notes that teachers assign after I’ve made a school visit. Certainly my mother would have approved. Here’s an excerpt from one letter that came from a school where I talked about Ultimate Field Trip 1: Adventures in the Amazon Rain Forest, illustrated by my frequent collaborator, photographer Michael J. Doolittle.

Dear Susan Goodman, I’m one of the many people who were in your second grade group. Here’s one question I wanted to ask you: Is your photographer Michel Dolittle related to Dr. Dolittle?

Here’s another note that asked a question (name changed, mistakes included).


Dear Susan, Will you please dedicate a story to my bear Oatmeal and me. My name is Mary Jones. I am very happy to meet you. I admiare you a very lot. I have read 4 of your books. I am a big fan on yours. It would be a great honor to have one of your books dedicated to me. Please word it like this. I dedicate this book to Mary Jones and her bear Oatmeal because she admiars me so very much. Sinserly Mary


I couldn’t resist. I had a book going to press and my husband ended up sharing his dedication, although I did invoke poetic license and changed her suggested wording.

Last one for this post, although I keep going. One Sunday evening, I happened to be online and received a desperate email from a young lady with an assignment due the next morning. She asked me if my underlying reason for writing Ultimate Field Trip 4: A Week in the 1800s was…and then gave me two alternatives. I immediately wrote back saying that neither answer was right and then explained the message I was hoping to convey with the book.

Moments later I got another email, this time from her mother. She explained that her daughter was filling out a multiple-choice assignment created by the textbook company that had excerpted my book. And she provided me with all four possible explanations for my motivation. I studied them and decided the answer was E, none of the above. I wrote back and suggested her daughter bring this email chain between her and the author who explained her real intent to class. Who knows, maybe she’d get extra credit for taking some initiative.

HA! A week later I received an email from the mother who thought I might be interested in the upshot. Her daughter didn’t get any credit for the question, the answer was B.

As a lover of irony, I suppose this email exchange should be my favorite. But it’s just so wrong on so many levels. We can talk about: A) the issue of textbooks in general (although I’m grateful that this one used my writing as a good example). We can talk about: B) making children limit or reduce their interpretations of what they read to previously digested categories (which may well be wrong). We can talk about: C) the fact that assignments should help kids learn to think on their own rather than letting others tell them what they think (perhaps wrongly). We can talk about: D) not rewarding initiative and imagination.

Which do you think wins the “most wrong” award—A, B, C, or D? Give me your answer. But don’t forget that there’s always E, none of the above.

9 comments:

Lael said...

This is why when I was in school I learned to "study for the test" rather than try to learn the material :eyeroll: Gave me a good laugh this morning though :D

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Wow - what an interesting post. As a high school English teacher, my vote goes to "B" as the most wrong answer.

I hate it when we pigeon-hole reponses to literature. I believe that we react to all forms of literature on a deeply personal level - as we should. Literature is meant to teach us what it means to be human. Humanity has no easy or pre-set answers; we are all individual and unique.

The best way to convince kids that reading books or poetry is painful is to convince them the text is "hiding" only one "right answer".

Shannon O'Donnell
www.shannonkodonnell.blogspot.com

Melody said...

What about F, "All of the above"? That's annoying on so many levels. Ugh. But kudos to the girl for actually trying to get the answer from a primary source. : )

The Book Chook said...

What a wonderful post! I am still chuckling over you not knowing the "right" answer. It could perhaps be because you too belong to that 19thC era? And bless you for taking care of Oatmeal.

Emily B said...

My reaction is a little different.
Is one question so important that it justifies contacting the author the night before the assignment was due?
And should a parent be that involved in a student's homework that she would intervene on her daughter's behalf at such a late hour? I'm a reading teacher and I find this rather shameful. I would not expect an answer from an author under these circumstances. It would be more appropriate to ask the question in a polite letter or email that reflected a genuine interest in the book's material, theme, author's craft, etc. My opinion.

Susan E. Goodman said...

Well, perhaps all these comments prove the point. Stories are springboards for discussion--and interpretation. Everyone's comment here has a valid point, even though they contradict each other in some ways.

Dorothy Patent said...

Stories like this are one of the reasons we I.N.K authors created our database at InkThinkTank.com in hopes it would help teachers get the ammunition to use nonfiction trade books in their classrooms, books that kids can enjoy reading in their entirety to gain information and insight about subjects they are studying, instead of textbooks that use snippets from our books and then ask limiting questions like this one.
I once took the Accelerated Reading test on one of my books and missed at least one answer, which was for a silly question that queried a picky detail in the text!

Anonymous said...

You can always count on the grade curve too.

B.
headlight cleaner and restorer

School for Us said...

I wonder what the little girl with the "wrong answer" learned from this assigment? Not to trust teachers? or textbooks? That she can be "right" and still be counted "wrong"? That some things are just hopeless? That you can go the extra mile... go above and beyond... and it isn't worth it?