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Myth of the Month Club: Krampus

Brom's Krampus
Brom’s Krampus

Krampus is the dark companion of St. Nicholas, the traditional European winter gift-bringer who rewards good children each year on December 6. The kindly old Saint leaves the task of punishing bad children to a hell-bound counterpart known by many names across the continent — Knecht Ruprecht, Certa, Perchten, Black Peter, Schmutzli, Pelznickel, Klaubauf, and Krampus. Usually seen as a classic devil with horns, cloven hooves and monstrous tongue, but can also be spotted as a sinister gentleman dressed in black, or a hairy man-beast. Krampus punishes the naughty children, swatting them with switches and rusty chains before dragging them, in baskets, to a fiery place below.


Just when you thought stuff couldn’t get any weirder: ‘t round out the week before Winter Break, prevent the need to scrape kids off the ceiling, and harmlessly, innocently, integrate some technology skills I created this prompt:

There are a lot of strange and wonderful ways to celebrate in December around the world. Now’s it’s time for you to come up with your own! This is a group project contest for the best, new, weirdest plausible holiday!”

And they were off! They were given a list of items they might include:

  • Food served
  • Special clothes or costumes
  • Mascot or Character
  • Tradition/ritual
  • Activities

And while none came up with a variation on Festivus, we did have a “Wishing Day” and a “Squidmas.” The students worked with Power Point on-line through their Office 365 software, and had a ball. They only had one block class to consider, create, and design their presentations.  They were all winners in my book! This proved to be a great way to introduce Power Point on line, collaborative creativity, and a low-risk activity that was accessible and funny. The ones who didn’t quite get it at first were those who thought this was a simple regurgitation of researched holidays: once they saw others with their original ideas it helped to model. The truth is, as much as a teacher can model something, middle school students look to their peers to see what else is happening in a creative crunch.


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…the unbearable lightness of knowledge…

My dining room table will be spotless by day's end. This is phase three of the GREAT BINDERING of '15
My dining room table will be spotless by day’s end. This is phase three of the GREAT BINDERING of ’15

There is a popular how-to book going around the ‘net now titled The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. Since I have invested a lot of time and energy in breeding and care of dust bunnies, this topic doesn’t interest me. When the dust bunny farm goes south, perhaps I’ll give it another look. I kid, I kid. A synopsis spiraled around, and the one thing that stood out for me is the concept is don’t clean by area, clean by topic. For teachers, this is huge, and something I’ve always practiced: when moving or cleaning out a classroom, things go in categories: book genres to supplies, etc. It tends to work. Only when cleaning out the BOOK ROOM (this is a big deal) over my years as curriculum leader (aka department head in some academic circles) did I ever trash a few titles that were truly pulp, and not worth the paper they were printed on. I would have like to have gotten ride of Jackie’s Wild Seattle (ugh), but kept it in case it was anyone’s pet book. So far it has about as much charm as a dust bunny with fleas.

But here is something I did not expect: a debate about a classic title such as Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

And do NOT comment on this full disclosure: I haven’t read the book (yet). Bet I’ve read a few books you haven’t. This one missed me because of my age and place in school–and that is the moral of this post.

This isn’t about my life as a reader, but our students’ lives.

I know this book meant a lot to a colleague of mine, and shaped her thinking about science. She is one of the exemplary science teachers I know. She introduced me to Ray Bradbury’s story, The Veldt, one of my new favorites to use with students.

To share the conversation, consider your own practices of purging through the mindset of “decluttering” —

book discussion 1 book discussion 2


I found one commenter’s remark curious, about ‘supporting’ my friend’s decision to purge this title. It ignited so many thoughts:

  • I’ve had six new administration teams and this will be my tenth year of teaching. Each admin team has a vision and new ideas, and we as a staff have had to adjust to the new ‘house rules’ every time, layered with change of guards in professional development focuses, and all the other changes inherent in modern teaching practices. This is my clutter I purge every year. Not books. Yours may be books, or dried up markers, etc. 
  • I have my own ideas about ‘reading lives,’ and considering a time-line of my own reading life. Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, Blubber, and Forever by Judy Blume were transformative texts for me; their relevance to students now may seem laughable. But that’s not the point: when I share Harriet the Spy to students, explaining what happened to me, more than one student would ask if I had a copy of it.
  • We all worry about stamina, that students do not pick up books. If we don’t open them for them, they never will. They will see them as traps. How do we break this notion that time spent with a book is wasted, that they have something ‘better to do?’ 
  • Do you know that movies now have a different frame rate than in years past? So much digital and media noise comes at our students constantly, no wonder they can’t sit and read a book. By the time many of my students are in 8th grade, they are not embarrassed at all by stating they do NOT want to read a ‘chapter book’ –and where are the pictures.

What went wrong?!

Nothing, really. Many students DO read, ask me about books, will not only finish a novel, but read it again (talk to me about Ready Player One by Ernest Cline). The trick is not to purge all the reading from all the students: like the Japanese decluttering books, look at readers as topics -help them craft their reading life, and recognize not every reader will be a reader of novels. Offer interest surveys, genre options, and let the book fit the reader, not force the reader to the book. Those are ideas that are timeless and sustaining.

And thank God for Judy Blume.

Postscript: I’m moving classrooms this year. More floor space, but no cupboard space, and there are no existing whiteboards. I’m going to have to change a lot to make it work.

*no whiteboards*



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Questioning Authority: How to use questions/discussions in reading


I will stay married to my husband for as long as we both shall live. Yes, we made altar-born promises, but what gives us the stamina is really this:  no one is as interesting or as insightful as I find him to be. He is inquisitive, and questions/seeks answers. I have learned more about the core of teaching , the heart, of Language Arts from him than just about any resource or expert. If we are watching a movie, even it’s a silly ‘no brainer’ like Point Break, we have so much fun dissecting and anaylyzing the antagonist friendship between Johnny Utah and Bodhi. We were flipping through trailers the other night, and when it came to the final two Harry Potter movies, I must admit I got a little misty–my son asked why, and I said it’s because I read the books. (He and my husband were reading those together, but time got away from them. Probably because we were watching Point Break.) Here’s where it gels: we need each other to talk about what we’re seeing, and feel safe to question/discuss our world around us. Questioning texts/media is not an adjunct to critical thinking; it is critical thinking.

One of the more successful lessons a few years back was having students write their own questions about the books they were reading. But teaching the art of ‘questioning’ comes first. It’s all part of Bloom’s, Costa’s, and a myriad of other resources. A caution: try not to dismiss the foundational ‘knowledge’ step while climbing up the taxonomic mountain. Students will adjust the pace of their critical thinking climb, but knowledge is an important step.


“The main character of this novel is named Hannah.”


“Okay, now you’ve defined the word — now explain it in your own words, and develop some comparing words and some contrasting words. Remember our ‘cupcake’ versus ‘brocoli’ comparison.”


“Mom, do you know how straws work?” Well, we learned in Science class about air pressure…”


“Cinderella was really kind of a doormat, I mean, why did she take that kind of abuse from her stepmother and stepsisters?”


“A fable’s purpose is really to use personification to describe common, universal human traits, while a fairy tale really uses magic and human wishes/desires to empower children.”


“Let’s combine what we heard in the newspaper story and our novel–what would our perspective be, combining these main ideas, in an original story?”


“I really love this painting you created based on that poem; it really speaks to me.”

Questioning Resources

Finding a variety of questioning resources is as easy as stubbing your toe on a coffee table; it’s the pain afterward that’s bothersome. Students who begin to have those enlightened moments while questioning texts are the reason I teach, to stay with for the long haul, because someday they and their partners in life may be analyzing Point Break. No need for marriage counseling.

Some on-line resources: (What I don’t like about this one is its connotation that knowledge is “basement” or “low level.” All knowledge is a good, but it is a handy chart.)

This one helps with integration of content areas:

I have so many questioning resources: if you would like to share yours, or talk about questioning specific texts, please e-mail me! You can send a comment to this blog, too!

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My Huckleberry Friend.

From the Writer’s Almanac, February 18, 2010:

In the summer of 1883, Mark Twain wrote in a letter: “I am piling up manuscript in a really astonishing way. I believe I shall complete, in two months, a book which I have been fooling over for seven years. This summer it is no more trouble to me to write than it is to lie.” And on this day in 1885, Mark Twain published that manuscript, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Almost a decade earlier, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) had been a huge success, and the public was enthusiastically awaiting Twain’s newest installment, a sequel to the escapades of Tom and his friend Huck.

It was set to be published in time for Christmas in 1884. But in late November, someone in the publishing house of Charles L. Webster and Company realized something that had escaped the notice of Webster, the writer William Dean Howells, and Twain himself when they looked over the proofs: Somewhere along the way, someone had tinkered with the illustration of Uncle Silas on page 283, making it look like he was indecently exposing himself. Two hundred and fifty copies of the book had already been sent out, as advance reader’s copies; but 30,000 more were printed and ready for people who had ordered the book on subscription. The publishing house had to make a new plate, then go through every printed copy, cutting out the offending picture and replacing it with a cleaned-up illustration.

But eventually it was printed, and for readers who had pre-ordered a book, there were several editions available. There was a regular cloth-bound book in either olive green or blue, there was a sheepskin leather binding, or a sumac-tanned goatskin with marbled edges. Prices ranged from $2.75 to $4.25.

Although it was a big seller and got great reviews in England, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn got poor reviews in America. A San Francisco paper said that it was dreary, and “nor is it [a book] that most parents who want a future of promise for their young folks would select without some hesitation.” A Boston paper said that it was “so flat, as well as coarse, that nobody wants to read it”; another that it was “pitched in one key, and that is the key of a vulgar and abhorrent life”; and a New York paper that it was “cheap and pernicious stuff.” In 1885, it was banned by the public library of Concord, Massachusetts, and Louisa May Alcott explained, “If Mr. Clemens cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses, he had best stop writing for them.”

But Twain said, “The public is the only critic whose judgment is worth anything at all.” Three months after Huck Finn was published, in early May of 1864, Webster had sold 51,000 copies of the book, and as of today, an estimated 20 million copies have been sold.


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has also been on the list of top ‘banned books’ in the U.S. (meaning, people won’t allow other people access to reading it, it’s forbidden):

(I even made some revisions here, because I’m not ready to teach some of these difficult concepts yet – we need time and discussion):

In 1885, the Concord Public Library in Massachusetts banned the year-old book for its “coarse language” — critics deemed Mark Twain’s use of common vernacular (slang) as demeaning and damaging. A reviewer dubbed it “the veriest trash … more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.” Little Women author Louisa May Alcott lashed out publicly at Twain, saying, “If Mr. Clemens [Twain’s original name] cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses he had best stop writing for them.” (That the word [sic] appears more than 200 times throughout the book did not initially cause much controversy.) In 1905, the Brooklyn Public Library in New York followed Concord’s lead, banishing the book from the building’s juvenile section with this explanation: “Huck not only itched but scratched, and that he said sweat when he should have said perspiration.” Twain enthusiastically fired back, and once said of his detractors: “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.” Luckily for him, the book’s fans would eventually outnumber its critics. “It’s the best book we’ve had,” Ernest Hemingway proclaimed. “All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

Despite Hemingway’s assurances, Huckleberry Finn remains one of the most challenged books in the U.S. In an attempt to avoid controversy, CBS produced a made-for-TV adaptation of the book in 1955 that lacked a single mention of slavery and did not have an African-American portray the character of Jim. In 1998, parents in Tempe, Ariz., sued the local high school over the book’s inclusion on a required reading list. The case went as far as a federal appeals court; the parents lost.

Read more:,28804,1842832_1842838_1844945,00.html#ixzz0fzd0r1L8

I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school. It’s one of those novels that I was proud to have  “slogged through; ” remember, back in the day, teachers gave us book lists to read, and we answered tests or wrote book reports. There was no Internet, no “readers’ workshop” or book groups, no Oprah, no way of knowing if I was interpreting the themes and the author’s purposes except to buy Cliff Notes, which teachers back then considered cheating. I’m still not sure what was “cheating” about it–if I didn’t understand a concept, I was made to feel like a criminal and cheat. Not a great way to learn to love literature. We (students) read in isolation, and were made to feel ashamed when we were book worms or illiterate. There was no middle ground. What I was left with was a bad taste in my mouth for novels I didn’t immediately grasp or connect to. I didn’t even know the term “connecting” with literature. (Note to Mr. Spenser: Maybe that’s why I have an abiding love for To Kill A  Mockingbird – I got it, sans Cliff Notes.) 

Now that I think about it, we didn’t even have STICKY NOTES! Gasp! How did we EVER SURVIVE?

I will say, looking back, I’m glad that I had the chance to read Huckleberry Finn without the distraction of it being a ‘banned book,’ at least at my high school.  That meant I could work my way through it, and gain my own understanding, instead of being a rebel without a clue. I remember really liking the book. Did I love it? Not sure love had anything to do with it. Now that over twenty-five years have passed since I first read it, I think it’s time for a second read. The old saying of ‘you never step in the same river twice’ holds doubly true for reading classics. Our life experiences have taken us on a journey, and much like Huck and Jim, the journey isn’t idle, pleasant, or relaxing. There’s a shadow, a threat, constantly waiting to disrupt one’s peace and destiny.

On another note, I suspect the good people back in the 1880s were expecting another light-hearted tale of boyhood charm and mischief, like Tom Sawyer, from Mr. Twain, but instead, they got a mirror held up to their faces showing them as the racists they were (and still are, perhaps). It made them uncomfortable. They didn’t want to think about a friendship between a runaway slave and a white boy, both on equal footing and stature. (And it is a complicated friendship-no question about it. The examination of the friendship, however it’s defined, is fodder for much debate about race, class, and freedom.) Later, they didn’t want to think about young boyhood not being idyllic. Humanity is stinky, dirty, grubby, and unwashed. And yet further down the river, they (the book- banners) didn’t, and don’t, want to think about a time when the United States was ugly, racist, and deadly. Many consider that downright unpatriotic. To me, what’s unpatriotic is not learning how to have a civil discourse about tough issues.

 Falling from grace

And what’s even more unpatriotic is for our children not to learn how to read. I think I’m really most upset by the fact that I know many of my students aren’t ready to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn yet, though they’re almost in high school. They are working on the skills to understand dialect, setting, time periods, political and social influences, and develop the stamina to read a novel as long as Huckleberry. But many are not there yet, and I don’t know if I can push them harder. I try to provide as many contemporary, new titles for them, new classics that I think rock on ice, such as The Hunger Gamesby Suzanne Collins. I would be horrified if anyone tried to ban that book because it deals with tough issues, like putting children in mortal danger. Those stories and deeds have been done since the beginning of time. Heck, even Huck had an alcoholic father who beat him, didn’t feed him, so Huck had to learn to think by his wits. If we placed Huckleberrry in the Hunger Games along with Katniss, I’m sure he’d have given her a run for her money.

What are you ready to read?

What do you think about censorship and banning books?

One last thought (and I make no promises):

By Shelley Fisher Fishkin

By the time he wrote Huckleberry Finn, Samuel Clemens had come to believe not only that slavery was a horrendous wrong, but that white Americans owed black Americans some form of “reparations” for it. One graphic way to demonstrate this fact to your students is to share with them the letter Twain wrote to the Dean of the Yale Law School in 1885, in which he explained why he wanted to pay the expenses of Warner McGuinn, one of the first black law students at Yale. “We have ground the manhood out of them,” Twain wrote Dean Wayland on Christmas Eve, 1885, “and the shame is ours, not theirs, & we should pay for it.”

Ask your students: why does a writer who holds these views create a narrator who is too innocent and ignorant to challenge the topsy-turvy moral universe that surrounds him? “All right, then, I’ll go to Hell,” Huck says when he decides not to return Jim to slavery. Samuel Clemens might be convinced that slavery itself and its legacy are filled with shame, but Huck is convinced that his reward for defying the moral norms of his society will be eternal damnation.

Something new happened in Huck Finn that had never happened in American literature before. It was a book, as many critics have observed, that served as a Declaration of Independence from the genteel English novel tradition. Huckleberry Finn allowed a different kind of writing to happen: a clean, crisp, no-nonsense, earthy vernacular kind of writing that jumped off the printed page with unprecedented immediacy and energy; it was a book that talked. Huck’s voice, combined with Twain’s satiric genius, changed the shape of fiction in America, and African-American voices had a great deal to do with making it what it was. Expose your students to the work of some of Twain’s African-American contemporaries, such as Frederick Douglass, Charles Chesnutt, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Those voices can greatly enrich students’ understanding of both the issues Huckleberry Finn raises and the vernacular style in which it raises them.

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Wannabes, posers, and the real deal.

This is something that’s been nagging at me a little bit–have you ever noticed that a hit book will come out, and then there comes a slew of wannabes? For example, when the Harry Potter series was published, and J.K. Rowling made more money than the Queen, publishers would have sold their own mothers to publish titles that were very similar genres and plots. Twilight has bitten millions of readers, and now anyone with a keyboard is dreaming up other traditional monsters to transform into anti-heroes with ripped abs and swooning heroines.

Well, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Like plots, readers are, more or less, individuals. And even in a vat of vanilla ice cream, there are nuances to be found. (There’s French vanilla, homemade, Mexican vanilla, and birthday cake vanilla.) So, just because one kind of vanilla isn’t to your liking, perhaps another will be. And maybe you can have your cake and eat it, too–meaning, you can find novels that entertain, and add a little more to your life than before you read.

No matter what anyone tries to convince me otherwise, I still go back to Harry. I will defend the Potter series–no amount of sparkling vampires can compare. Sorry, Ms. Meyer–I know you’re secure enough in your belief in your talents and your bank account to take a little criticism. But it’s a flick of the wrist and a know-it-all bookworm witch, and jester/joker twins who enchant me.

the ring

However, if you really want to go back to some authors who influenced the fantasy genre the most, you’ll have to go to the kings: Tolkien and Lewis. My grandmother was a fan of CS Lewis, but I never really delved into his works as much as I should; but Tolkien…oh yeah. The Hobbit, and the Lord of  the Rings trilogy was my first taste of being transported to another time and place, completely and wholly, in my mind.

From the Writer’s Almanac, January 3, 2010:


It’s the birthday of J.R.R. Tolkien, (books by this author) born John Ronald Reuel Tolkien in Bloemfontein, South Africa (1892). His father, a banker, had moved to South Africa for work, but he died when Tolkien was four years old, and his mother moved the family back to England. They lived in a rural village outside the city of Birmingham. Train tracks went right beyond their house and young Tolkien was drawn to the Welsh names on the sides of coal cars, names like Nantyglo and Senghenydd. And his mom tutored him in Latin, and as a young child he was fascinated by the way that language worked. When he was eight years old, his mom converted to Catholicism, and her family was so upset that they disowned her. Now the family, which hadn’t had much money anyway, had even less.

And then, when Tolkien was 12 years old, his mother died from complications of diabetes, and he and his younger brother were put in the care of a Catholic priest. He went to a good school, started inventing his own languages, and formed a literary group called the T.C.B.S., friends who exchanged ideas and critiqued each other’s work. He graduated, got into Oxford. But before he started, he took a summer trip with friends hiking in the Swiss Alps, and much later when he wrote about Bilbo Baggins hiking the Misty Mountains, he used his memory of that summer in the Alps.

But as a teenager starting at Oxford, he had no desire to write fantasy novels. Instead, he was interested in language. He studied Classics, Old English, Finnish, Welsh, and the Germanic languages. He went to fight in WWI, spent four months on the Western Front and then got trench fever and was sent home to recover. All but one of his friends from the T.C.B.S. literary group were killed in the war, and to honor them and also to help work through his own awful war experiences, he decided to write down some stories. They were stories about elves and gnomes, but they were not cheery fairy tales — they were filled with war and violence and trenches dug under battlefields.

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