July 12: Thoreau Day

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of American writer, philosopher, and naturalist Henry David Thoreau. Born in 1817, Thoreau graduated from Harvard in 1837, where he studied classics and languages.

After college, he taught and traveled, but he eventually returned to his home in Concord, Massachusetts, to live with his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, the founder and leader of the Transcendental movement.

In 1845, Henry bought a small patch of land from Emerson on Walden Pond and built a cabin. On July 4, 1845 he declared his own independence and began living there in the woods; he stayed for two years, two months, and two days.

In his classic work Walden (1854), Thoreau recounts his life in the wild and his observations about nature and about simple living:

I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life . . . .

In 1847 Thoreau spend one night in jail after refusing to pay his poll tax in protest against the war with Mexico (1846-1848). Based on this experience, he wrote his essay “Civil Disobedience” where he explains that individual conscience must trump governmental dictates: “Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

Clearly Thoreau’s thoughts and words were way ahead of his time; both Walden and “Civil Disobedience” influenced future generations in both the conservation and civil rights movements. For example, in his autobiography Martin Luther King credits Thoreau:

I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest.

Another disciple of Thoreau was Gandhi, who put Thoreau’s ideas regarding nonviolent resistance into action as he led India to independence (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Thorough Thinking with Thoreau
One of the prominent themes of Thoreau’s writing is the individual’s role in society.  What would you say is the key to maintaining your individuality and unique character, while at the same time living productively as a member of a society made up of groups – family, friends, and co-workers? Write your own statement on this question; then, reflect on the statements below by Thoreau.  Pick the one you agree with or disagree with the most, and explain how Thoreau’s words align or conflict with your personal philosophy:

  • Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.
  • You cannot dream yourself into a character: you must hammer and forge yourself into one.
  • . . . if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours
  • The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.
  • If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

Quotation of the Day:  It still seems to me the best youth’s companion yet written by an American, for it carries a solemn warning against the loss of one’s valuables, it advances a good argument for traveling light and trying new adventures, it rings with the power of positive adoration, it contains religious feelings without religious images, and it steadfastly refused to record bad news. –E. B. White on Walden

1 – Seymour-Smith, Martin. The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 1998.

 

 

July 7:  Utopia Day

On this date in 1535, Sir Thomas More, English statesman and author, was executed for treason.

More was caught in the middle of religious and governmental conflict when Henry VIII established the Church of England, separating from the Catholic Church.  Because More disagreed with the King’s decision, he resigned his office in the English Parliament and refused to take a loyalty oath. As a result, he was imprisoned and eventually beheaded.

The 1966 film A Man for All Seasons portrays the events surrounding More’s execution.

More is best known for his 1516 satirical novel Utopia, in which he envisioned a perfect island state with universal education, common land ownership, religious tolerance, and shared labor (1).

Because of the sharp contrast between the less than perfect island of England and More’s idyllic island of Utopia, the satirical aspect of the novel was clear to 16th century readers. Today utopia and utopian have become a part of the English lexicon, describing any ideal or perfect condition or place. Of course this is an idea that exists purely in the imagination since establishing any perfect society is impossible. More certainly understood this, since he used Greek roots to generate a name for his island that translates literally as “no place,” [ou, not + topos, place].

More is not the first writer to envision an idyllic place in literature. The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions has an entire chapter devoted to these utopias:

Albion:  In Arthurian legend, this was the place to which Arthur was conveyed after his death.

Arcadia:  An idealized region in classical poetry found in the mountainous district in the Peloponnese of southern Greece.

Avalon:  In poetry and literature this name is sometimes used to refer to Britain as a green paradise.

Eden:  The garden home of Adam and Eve where the Tree of Knowledge was found.

El Dorado: The fabled city of gold sought in the 16th century by Spanish conquistadors.

Shangri-la:  A Tibetan utopia depicted in James Hilton’s novel ‘Lost Horizon.’

Valhalla:  A great banqueting hall from Norse mythology where heroes, slain in battle, feasted with Odin eternally.  

Xanadu:  The name of a dreamlike place of beauty and luxury in Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” (2).

Today’s Challenge: Go To Your Happy Place
What is the most idyllic place you have ever been? Describe it so that your reader can experience it vicariously.  Try to capture its idyllic nature in both your tone and your imagery. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day: Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious, discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. -Helen Keller

1 – Raftery, Miriam. 100 Books That Shaped World History. San Mateo, CA: Bluewood Books, 2002.

2 – Delahunty, Andrew, Sheila Dignen, and Penny Stock (Editors). The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

 

June 30:  One-Book Author Day

On this day in 1936, Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) published her first and only novel Gone with the Wind.  The book became a blockbuster, mesmerizing readers with its story, set in the Old South, and its fascinating characters, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler.

Gone with the Wind cover.jpgMitchell worked as a reporter for The Atlanta Journal until 1926 when complications from an ankle injury prevented her from walking. To occupy herself, she began to read.

Mitchell read voraciously, so voraciously that her husband John Marsh became tired of carting books back and forth from Atlanta’s Carnegie Library.  One day instead of a pile of books, he arrived with something else to keep her occupied, and announced, “. . . here is a typewriter.  Here is some copy paper.  Write your own book to amuse yourself” (1).

Although her experience as a writer was in journalism, she began to write fiction, turning to the stories she had heard from her family about the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Because she always struggled to write the openings of her newspaper stories, Mitchell got in the habit of writing the last part first.  She followed this same pattern with Gone With the Wind, beginning with the last chapter, Chapter 63.

Mitchell wrote for nine years without any real ambition to publish, until she had a chance meeting with a publishing representative in 1935.  Bashful about sharing her work, Mitchell was at first reluctant to show anyone her book.  Fortunately, she reconsidered.  Pulling together her manuscript of over one thousand pages, she placed it in a suitcase and delivered it to the publisher.  A few days later Mitchell received a wire announcing that her book had been accepted for publication.

When the book went on sale on June 30, 1936, Mitchell hoped it would sell 5,000 copies.  The book sold one million copies in its first six months, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937.  Two years later the film version of the book premiered in Atlanta on December 15, 1939.

Although Gone With the Wind became the most successful book ever published by an unknown author of a first novel, Mitchell never wrote another book.  Besieged by admiring readers, the press, and fan mail, Mitchell found little time to write fiction.  Mitchell died in 1949 after being struck by a speeding car near her home in Atlanta (2).

Margaret Mitchell is not the only author to write only one book. Other one hit wonders include J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye), Emile Bronte (Wuthering Heights), Anna Sewell (Black Beauty), and Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar).  The 2003 documentary The Stone Reader traces one reader’s quest for one-book author Dow Mossman, who published The Stones of Summer in 1976.

Today’s Challenge:  One Book, One City
Many communities across the United States have participated in One Book, One City projects where a single book is chosen to be read and discussed by everyone in that community.  The first such program began in Seattle in 1998 with Russell Banks’ 1991 novel The Sweet Hereafter (3).  What one book would you argue would be worth reading by your entire hometown?  What makes this one book something special?  Write the pitch for the book that you think would be a good fit for your hometown, explaining why it is a book that would appeal to all ages and interests. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day: The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.  -Samuel Johnson

1-http://www.npr.org/2011/06/30/137476187/margaret-mitchells-gone-with-the-wind-turns-75

2-http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/1108.html

3-http://read.gov/resources/

June 25:  Dead Metaphor Day

Today is the birthday of British journalist, essayist, and novelist George Orwell (1903-1950). His birth name was Eric Arthur Blair, and he was born in Motihari, India, where his father was serving as an official in the British colonial government. Orwell left India to get his education in British schools, but he returned to Asia in 1922 to work with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. He decided to devote himself to writing full time in 1928, and in 1933 he published his first novel Down and Out in Paris and London under his pen name, George Orwell.

A photo showing the head and shoulders of a middle-aged man with black hair and a slim moustache.Orwell’s best known and most widely read novels are Animal Farm and 1984. Both novels are potent warnings against big government, totalitarianism, and fascism.

In Animal Farm, a political allegory, Mr. Jones’ animals take over his farm, and in events that parallel the Russian Revolution, they learn that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Nineteen Eighty-Four tells the story of a future dystopia called Oceania. The one-party government is in a perpetual state of war and is led by the all-seeing but unseen leader called Big Brother. From the very beginning of the book, the novel’s main character, a party worker named Winston Smith, is doing something that is both radical and unlawful: he is questioning his government, and he is writing his thoughts in a journal.

Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948 (reversing the numbers 4 and 8), but he probably should have called it 2084 since questions about big government, privacy, and the role of technology make this novel even more relevant in the 21st century than it was in the 20th.

Two words created by Orwell in 1984, doublethink and newspeak have been melded in our modern lexicon to become doublespeak, meaning language that is deliberately constructed to disguise rather than clarify meaning. William Lunz, author of the 1989 book Doublespeak, keeps Orwell’s memory alive in his annual Doublespeak Awards, which call attention to language from government, business, and the military that is “grossly deceptive, evasive and euphemistic.” (See December 12:  Doublespeak Day)

Orwell’s use of the suffix -speak in 1984, for words such as newspeak, duckspeak, and oldspeak, popularized the use of the suffix -speak to refer to any specific variety of spoken English, such as Haigspeak, Bushspeak, or soccer-speak.

The 1946 essay Politics and the English Language is George Orwell’s plea for writing that is clear, concise, and thoughtful. In a famous example, he presents the following passage from Ecclesiastes as a model of clarity:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

He then translates the passage into modern gobbledygook:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

Also in Politics and the English Language, Orwell practices what he preaches when he presents the following concise list of rules for writers:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive [voice] where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. (2)

In order to elaborate on his first rule, Orwell discusses dead metaphors, which are figures of speech that once evoked images, but because they have been used and recycled so often by writers, they have lost their luster.  Today the most common term for a trite and overused figure of speech is cliche.  Orwell’s goal is to get writers to eschew cliches and instead create fresh figures of speech that will bring their writing to life.  

In the following 170 words, Orwell explains the writing process meticulously, showing how fresh figures bridge the gap between the abstract and the concrete and how good writing must be intentional and thoughtful:

When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualising you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally.

Today’s Challenge:  I See Dead Metaphors

What are some examples of dead metaphors that you might read in the writing of others or use in your own writing?  A dead metaphor is a word or expression that once evoked a visual image, but because it has been used and recycled so much and for so long, it is now just an ordinary word, evoking meaning but no specific imagery.  For example, people today use the expression “a red letter day” to mean a day that is special or especially memorable. Few people realize, however, that the expression evolved from an age-old practice of using red to mark holy days on church calendars.

The words and expressions below are additional dead metaphors.  Each one has a dictionary definition, but also a backstory that originally evoked imagery as well as meaning.  Investigate the backstory of at least two dead metaphors. Identify what the words mean today, but also tell the words’ backstories so that your reader can add a picture along with the words’ meanings.

aftermath, bedlam, canard, decimate, eavesdrop, feet of clay, gadfly, honeymoon, iconoclast, jeopardy, know the ropes, labyrinth, mercurial, nitpick, ostracize, procrustean, quixotic, red herring, scapegoat, shibboleth, sour grapes, tantalize, Uncle Tom, vandal, white elephant, yahoo, zealot

(Common Core Language 4 – Knowledge of Language)

Quotation of the Day:  Effective metaphor does more than shed light on the two things being compared. It actually brings to the mind’s eye something that has never before been seen. It’s not just the marriage ceremony linking two things; it’s the child born from the union. An original and imaginative metaphor brings something fresh into the world. -Rebecca McClanahan

1 – Lunz, William. Doublespeak. New York: Random House, 1989.

2 – Orwell, George. Politics and the English Language. http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit/

 

June 24:  Devil’s Dictionary Day  

Today is the birthday of Ambrose Bierce, American journalist and short-story writer. He was born in Ohio in 1842, and after serving in the Civil War, he traveled west, where he worked as a journalist in San Francisco. His best-known work of fiction is a short story called An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, a war story about the last thoughts of man before his execution.

Abierce.jpgBierce’s best-known work though is his Devil’s Dictionary, a satirical work featuring definitions that display Bierce’s sardonic, piercing wit. Bierce began publishing his definitions as a part of his newspaper column in 1875 and continued until 1906. A complete collection of words and definitions was first published in 1911.

Here are some samples of the definitions:

Bigot: n. One who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain.

Cynic: n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic’s eyes to improve his vision.

Dictionary: n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work (1).

Year: n. A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.

The Devil Made Me Define It

Given the definitions below from Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, see if you can come up with the appropriate word.

  1. n. An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.
  2. Adj. Able to pick with equal skill a right-hand pocket or a left.
  3. n. The salt with which the American humorist spoils his intellectual cookery by leaving it out.
  4. n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage . . . .
  5. n. One to whom the interests of a part seem superior to those of the whole. The dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors.
  6. n. A place where the wicked cease from troubling you with talk of their personal affairs, and the good listen with attention while you expound your own.
  7. n. A rich thief.
  8. n. In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.
  9. n. A prestidigitator who, putting metal into your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket.
  10. n. A despot whom the wise ridicule and obey (1).

Today’s Challenge:  The Glass is Half Full and Half Empty

What are some examples of nouns that you would find in a book called ‘The ABCs of Life’?  Select five nouns that represent universal aspects of human experience, such as school, walking, breakfast, parents, and job.  Next, generate two contrasting creative definitions for each of your words.  For the first, follow Bierce’s example from the Devil’s Dictionary and write a definition that reflects a cynical, pessimistic mindset.  For the second definition, put yourself in a positive, optimistic frame of mind.

JOB:

Half Empty Definition:  A tedious way to spend one third of each day in exchange for a few greenbacks.

Half Full Definition:  A daily opportunity to transform your passion into a livelihood.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day: There is nothing either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so. -William Shakespeare

Answers: 1. telephone 2. ambidextrous 3. wit 4. love 5. patriot 6. heaven 7. kleptomaniac 8. peace 9. dentist 10. fashion

1 – Bierce, Ambrose. The Devil’s Dictionary. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1993.

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/972/972-h/972-h.htm#link2H_4_0001

June 19:  Create a Monster Day

Today marks the anniversary of one history’s most remarkable meeting of literary minds. On the night of June 19, 1816, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Byron’s doctor and travel companion Dr. John Polidori met in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland.

Frankenstein 1818 edition title page.jpgInspired no doubt by the unseasonably stormy weather of that summer, caused by the eruption of Tambora, a volcano in Indonesia, the group gathered to read aloud from a collection of German ghost stories, called The Fantasmagoriana. These stories inspired Lord Byron to challenge each person in the group to compose a ghost story (1).

One might guess that the two established poets Byron and Shelley would battle for first place in the contest; however, it was the two members of the party without literary reputation who rose to the challenge, each creating a monster that would change literature forever.

The English Doctor, John Polidori, wrote what has come to be called the first vampire tale, a short story called “The Vampyre,” published in 1819. Although his story is not widely read today, it predates other stories in the vampire genre and is seen as the inspiration of the masters of the form: Sheridan le Fanu, Edgar Allen Poe, and, of course, Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula (2).

As far as the overall winner of the contest, based on the criteria of both influence and creativity, the award must go to Mary Shelley, whose contribution to the contest later became her novel Frankenstein (1818). In her introduction to Frankenstein, Mary credits a conversation between Byron and her husband, Shelley, as the inspiration for her story. She listened attentively as the two poets discussed Darwin’s discoveries and as they speculated about whether or not the secret of life could be found and whether or not a human corpse could be reanimated.

That evening the seeds of the poets’ conversation germinated in Mary’s mind, producing a vivid nightmare that gave her the story that would captivate readers and moviegoers for generations. In her introduction to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley describes what she saw in her nightmare:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to make the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade, that this thing which had received such imperfect animation would subside into dead matter, and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench forever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.

As a result of Byron’s challenge, on this one fateful day, two unique literary monsters were born.

Famous Monsters of Book Land

Long before Shelley and Polidori created their monsters, other monsters filled the pages of ancient myth. See if you can match up each monster below with its appropriate description. Then, challenge your family or a group of friends to create their own horror stories and monsters.

  1. Grendal
  2. Cyclopes
  3. Minotaur
  4. Cerberus
  5. Hydra
  6. Sphinx
  7. Harpies
  8. Medusa

A. The many-headed snake that Hercules defeated in one of his labors.

B. The monster that Beowulf fought and killed in the Old English epic.

C. The creature with a bull’s head and a man’s body that was confined in the Labyrinth until it was killed by Theseus.

D. The Gorgon who had snakes for hair and turned anyone who looked at her into stone. She was killed by Perseus.

E. The monster with the wings and claws of a vulture and the head and body of a woman.

F. The winged monster with a woman’s head and a lion’s body. It challenged travelers with a riddle and killed them when they failed to solve it. It killed itself when Oedipus finally solved its riddle.

G. The three-headed dog who guards the entrance to Hades.

H. The race of one-eyed giants who made thunderbolts for Zeus.

Today’s Challenge:  A Dark and Stormy Story

What would make a good setting for a horror story?  How might you create tension and suspense at the very beginning of a scary story?  Write the opening paragraph of a tale of horror.  Start your tale with a specific setting, and use the kind of specific description that creates a mood that is appropriate to a horror story.  For inspiration, read the first paragraph of a Stephen King story or novel. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day: Everyone thinks I’m a horrible person, but I’m really not. In fact, I have the heart of a child, and I keep it in a jar on my desk. -Stephen King

Answer: 1. B 2. H 3. C 4. G 5. A 6. F 7. E 8. D

1 – Woodbridge, Kim. “The Summer of 1816.” http://www.kimwoodbridge.com/maryshel/summer.shtml

2 – John Polidori & The Vampyre Byron http://www.angelfire.com/jazz/louxsie/polidori.html

 

June 18:  Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary Day

On this date in 1746, Dr. Samuel Johnson, poet and critic, signed a contract with bookseller Robert Dodsley to write the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language. Johnson thought he would complete the project in three years, but the dictionary was not completed and published until April 15, 1755.

JohnsonDictionary.pngAlthough it took six years longer than he first estimated, it was worth the wait. The dictionary contained 40,000 words and definitions, along with 114,000 supporting quotations, and is written with precision, clarity, and wit. Johnson did for English in nine years what it had taken 40 French lexicographers 40 years to complete for the French language (1).

Here are few examples of words and definition from Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language:

Amulet: An appended remedy, or preservative: a thing hung about the neck, or any other part of the body, for preventing or curing some particular diseases.

Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words.

Microscope: An optick instrument, contrived various ways to give to the eye a large appearance of many objects which could not otherwise be seen.

Zootomy: Dissection of the bodies of beasts.

In his Preface, Johnson talks about the challenges he faced in trying to harness the recalcitrant words of English:

When I took the first survey of my undertaking, I found our speech copious without order, and energetick without rules: wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated; choice was to be made out of boundless variety, without any established principle of selection; adulterations were to be detected, without a settled test of purity, and modes of expression to be rejected or received, without the suffrages of any writers of classical reputation or acknowledged authority.

Having therefore no assistance but from general grammar, I applied myself to the perusal of our writers; and noting whatever might be of use to ascertain or illustrate any word or phrase, accumulated in time the materials of a dictionary, which, by degrees, I reduced to method, establishing to myself, in the progress of the work, such rules as experience and analogy suggested to me; experience, which practice and observation were continually increasing; and analogy, which, though in some words obscure, was evident in others.

Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language set the standard for future dictionaries. Unlike other languages like French and Italian that established academies to fix the language and prescribe how words should be used, Johnson’s approach was not to prescribe but rather to describe the language. In this way, instead of fixing the language, Johnson registered the English language by basing his definitions not solely upon his own whims, but upon the written record of centuries of writers in English. In the words of author Simon Winchester, Johnson’s method created “a whole new way of dictionary making, and an entirely new intellectual approach to the language, had been inaugurated” (2).

Johnson’s process inspired the writers of the Oxford English Dictionary, whose 10 volumes were completed in 1928. And still today English lexicographers take the descriptive approach to dictionary writing by reading all kinds of published words and recording how the meaning of words are changing and what new words are appearing.

Today’s Challenge: The Only Constant is Change

If you were writing a dictionary, what are ten words — all starting with the same letter — that you would define?  New editions of dictionaries in English are published every year because the language is constantly changing. Because of this change, some of the words from Johnson’s Dictionary have very different definitions today than they did in 1755. Visit the online edition of Johnson’s Dictionary, and select five unfamiliar words.  Record the parts of speech and definitions of the words.  (Common Core Language – 4)

Quotation of the Day: At painful times, when composition is impossible and reading is not enough, grammars and dictionaries are excellent for distraction. -Elizabeth Barrett Browning

1 – McCrum, Robert, Wiliam Cran, and Robert MacNeil. The Story of English. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.

2 -Winchester, Simon. The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

3 – Hitchings, Henry. Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.

June 12:  Daily Diary Day

On this day in 1942, a 13-year-old girl received a birthday gift — a red and white checkered autograph book.  Instead of collecting the signatures of others in the book, the girl decided to use it as a diary to record her own thoughts.  

AnneFrank1940 crop.jpgThe young girl was Anne Frank, the German-Jewish girl who went into hiding with her family during World War II. She spent 25 months hiding in an annex above her father’s office in Amsterdam before she and her family were betrayed, arrested, and transported to Nazi concentration camps.

While Anne died of typhus in 1945 at the age of fifteen at Bergen-Belsen, the diary that she received for her thirteenth birthday in 1942 was saved and published by her father in 1947. Over five million Jews died in the Holocaust, but through her diary, one voice lives on to remind us that in times of humiliation, degradation, and even during the horrors of war, the human spirit can be triumphant.

In her diary, Anne’s remarkable courage and vivid insights into the human condition live on. Anne’s diary has inspired millions of readers around the world and has been translated into 67 languages (1).

From the very beginning Anne wrote in her diary as if she were talking to an intimate friend; in fact, she even gave it a name, Kitty, and throughout her entries, she addresses it by name.

One of her last diary entries in July 1944, shows the maturity, wisdom, and honesty of Anne’s voice:

“For in its innermost depths youth is lonelier than old age.” I read this saying in some book and I’ve always remembered it, and found it to be true. It is true then that grownups have a more difficult time here than we do? No. I know it isn’t. Older people have formed their opinions about everything, and don’t waver before they act. It’s twice as hard for us young ones to hold our ground, and maintain our opinions, in a time when all ideals are being shattered and destroyed, when people are showing their worst side, and do not know whether to believe in truth and right and God (2).

The word diary comes from Latin diarium, “daily allowance, daily journal” a derivation of dies, “day .”

Today’s Challenge: Today is the First Day of the Diary of Your Life

What would you say in the first entry of a daily diary that you started today?  You don’t need to wait until your birthday to start a diary. At the end of your day today, take a moment and reflect on what you did, what you said, and what you heard. Write down anything that you think might be worth remembering, what might be worth a second thought, or what might be noteworthy ten years from now.  If you can’t think of anything to write about, follow Anne’s example and record your reaction to what someone else has said or written.

Here are a few of Anne’s thoughts as examples:

-We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same.

-No one has ever become poor by giving.

-Laziness may appear attractive, but work gives satisfaction.

-Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.

(Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quote of the Day: How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world. –Anne Frank

1- Anne Frank Center, USA. http://www.annefrank.com/1_life.htm

2- Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl. New York: Bantam Books, 1993.

June 5:  Bedtime Story Day

Today is the birthday of Rick Riordan, the bestselling author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.  An award-winning author of mysteries for adults, Riordan’s great success as a children’s author began at the bedside of his son.  When his son requested a bedtime story from Greek Mythology, Riordan, a former middle school teacher, was more than willing to share some stories about gods and heroes.  Riordan’s major breakthrough happened when he ran out of material. His son asked him to make up some new stories with the same characters.

The Lightning Thief cover.jpgIn addition to the familiar characters from Greek mythology, there is one conspicuously new character:  Percy Jackson, a 12-year old demigod with dyslexia and ADHD.

A 2007 study entitled “Reading Across the Nation” found that under half of parents surveyed in the U.S. read every day to their children.  The study tracked results by state. The highest scoring state was Vermont, where 67% of respondents claimed to read to children daily; the lowest scoring state was Mississippi with 38%.

The results of the “Reading Across the Nation” study are distressing.  The nightly bedtime story ritual is more than just a time for preparing children to sleep; it’s an essential part of preparing them for a lifetime of literacy.  The study’s authors state the following:

Reading aloud is the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading. Early language skills, the foundation for later reading ability, are based primarily on language exposure and human interaction – parents and other adults talking to young children. The more words parents use when speaking to an eight-month-old infant, the greater the size of the child’s vocabulary at age three (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Tell Me a Story

Which mythological characters do you think have the most dramatic stories?  Brainstorm some memorable characters from mythology.  Research their background and stories. Then, using your own words, tell a single story about your featured character aimed at a young audience.  Remember to include the essential story elements, such as dialogue, setting, conflict, climax, and resolution. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quote of the Day:  A nation that does not read much does not know much. And a nation that does not know much is more likely to make poor choices in the home, the marketplace, the jury box, and the voting booth. And those decisions ultimately affect the entire nation…the literate and illiterate. -Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook

1 -Biography – Rick Riordan.  https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/authors/rick-riordan/

2 –http://www.reachoutandread.org/FileRepository/RORChartbook.pdf

 

May 31:  Barbaric Yawp Day

Today is the birthday of American poet Walt Whitman, born in 1819. Like many American writers, Whitman began his career as a printer and journalist, but we know him today because of his poetry. Because he was so revolutionary in his approach to verse, he had trouble finding a publisher for his poetry. He finally published his first book of poetry himself in 1855. It’s this book Leaves of Grass that Whitman edited and expanded throughout his life. Several critics lambasted Leaves of Grass, but Ralph Waldo Emerson celebrated it: “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed” (1).

Walt Whitman - George Collins Cox.jpgOne of the great contributions that Whitman made to poetry was his experimentation with free verse. Without regular meter or rhyme, free verse combines rhythm, repetition, and parallelism to create music for the reader’s ears. Whitman’s verses with their optimistic, robust tones, celebrated the individual, painted images of democratic America, and reveled in the colloquial language of its common people.

Characteristic of his break with traditional verse, Whitman begins his epic Leaves of Grass with no mention or invocation of a muse; instead, he audaciously focuses on himself:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Who can forget the scene in the movie Dead Poet’s Society (1989), where Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, writes one of Whitman’s lines on the blackboard to inspire his students to leave their self-consciousness behind and to embrace their individual creativity?

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

Whitman died in 1892, but his poetry lived on, inspiring the unique voices of American poets of the 20th century.

Today’s Challenge:   Get in Your Yawping Stance

What are key questions that you can ask to help you comprehend a poem?  In one memorable scene from the film Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating explains to his students that the greatness of poetry cannot be plotted on a graph by rating a poem’s perfection and its importance; instead, poetry is about a higher purpose:

We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer. That you are here — that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

Certain essential questions can be asked by any reader of any poem.  These questions don’t promise to unearth a poem’s entire meaning, but they are a good starting place for beginning your comprehension of a poem’s sound and sense:

Who is the speaker in the poem?

What is the situation or subject that the poem is addressing?

What is the speaker’s tone or attitude toward the situation or subject?

What are some universal ideas or themes that are addressed in the poem?

Read the Whitman poem below.  Before you begin asking questions, read it a number of times, and read it out loud.  Then, answer the four questions above. If you’re working with a partner or a group, discuss your answers and compare what you said to what others said.

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

(Common Core Reading 1-3:  Ideas and Details)

Quotation of the Day: Language is not an abstract construction of the learned or of dictionary makers, but something arising out of the work, needs, joys, tears, affections, tastes of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground. -Walt Whitman

1-https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/walt-whitman