Redesign and the Ugly Website

I’ve been pondering a website redesign project I’ve got coming up. Ugly websites bother me just about as much as ugly fonts. (If you have never heard me rant about Comic Sans, I have a barrage of articles I have collected in my case against Comic Sans to share with you.) For my class this semester, we are collecting and sharing articles on information architecture and web design strategies on the discussion board–a professional learning community in action! Here is my latest contribution:

Krasny, J. (2014, July 14). Ugly Website? 4 Reasons to Skip a Redesign. Inc. Retrieved from: http://www.inc.com/jill-krasny/when-it-pays-to-have-an-ugly-website.html.

In this article, Krasny takes a look at reasons why an “ugly” website maybe shouldn’t change. She suggests that the old classics, like Craigslist and Wikipedia who haven’t really changed at all since their origins, are better off because:

  • users love them the way they are (think of how upset people get when Facebook changes how their feed looks)
  • they simply work (great UX + practical layout)
  • they have flexible systems enough to accommodate content changes
  • they reflect your brand (maintain the “feel” of your product/service)

In a way, these tips protect the aesthetically simple, yet productive websites: nothing flashy, just the facts. We can learn from this as we design by recycling the things they do right. That said, there are plenty truly ugly websites with elements that should NOT be repeated. I really loved this infographic too and the lessons it offers, especially on color schemes and layouts. These are probably the easiest, data-driven fixes we can make for a redesign!

The New Job

I’ve refrained from saying a lot, but the news is out. About three weeks ago, I resigned as a high school/middle school ESL teacher. About two weeks ago, I started as the high school library media specialist in a new district. Many have shared their congratulations, which is sweet, but congratulations have been hard for me to accept. While I ultimately have been looking forward to making this change eventually, I ethically have a problem with breaking a contract (that’s why it’s a contract, you know–because you make a commitment), but the circumstances were such that I did it anyway.

As I considered the possibility, I ultimately landed on a dating analogy about how sometimes you spend too much time with someone who is good enough, but ultimately you know it’s probably not what you want for yourself.

For the record, the political climate here in Wisconsin in regards to public education has made this an even more difficult–and expensive–feat. For example, the fine was five percent of my salary. Do the math in your own life; who has that kind of money to throw around? Not me. The adage that “if you don’t like it, find something else to do” is a pretty tall order. But trapped animal that I was in this situation, I chose my happiness. That is all I will say.

It has been wild trying to properly wrap up one job that I was deeply invested in and learn a new one at the same time. The position was empty for the first week of school (and the teacher prep-time the week before), so there was also a bit of catch up to do. It is also very peculiar to go into a job not as an expert, but as a rookie again. This is my first real experience in a school library. (So far, I am so thankful for everything I’ve learned working with children’s literature at the CCBC! What a life-changer!)

So the new job… well, I find myself looking forward to going to work on Monday morning. (By Thursday and Friday morning, I feel exhausted as usual when I get up, but at least it’s not dread!) I was starting to forget that feeling! The school is a one-to-one school, actually the district grades 4-12 is one-to-one–this means that every student has their own school-issued Chromebook. (They lease every three years. Outside of that, I don’t know how they pay.) Every teacher has a MacBook Air and they teach on an A-B block (four periods that meet every other day). Also there is a homeroom/flex period for enrichment/support/remediation that teachers personally schedule the kids in. Every staff member–including the principal, counselor, librarian, etc. participates in the scheduling and teaching of the flex period.

A large part of my responsibilities now is to manage the flow of broken and repaired Chromebooks and our loaners. Lots of cracked screens and charger port problems (this is year 3 of the lease). A big perk I’m noticing about all the kids having a uniform device like a Chromebook is that we can pass along a lot of our messages to students through email or chat–thus eliminating the constant overhead announcements like “Will so-and-so please report to the attendance office? So-and-so to the attendance office” that kill your ears all day long. It is just so much calmer without that. Also, it is sooooooo cool to look around at students productively working on their devices–not just Facebook and YouTube.

My new school has a great reading culture going on, and it seems like a lot of kids approach me looking for “a good book” (dream come true!). I am also trying to wrap my head around the budget money I have available and getting some orders pushed through. I am also working on setting up a MinecraftEDU server because I have this tremendous pile of teenage boys who come in during “breakfast break” and sit on my library couches playing Minecraft on their respective personal mobile devices. What an opportunity! My principal is really hoping to re-work a back room in the library and have me create a Makerspace area in there too. What an even bigger opportunity!

Wish me luck, clarity and grace as I travel down this road. I feel like it was the right, err, a good, umm, a solid decision. I pray that I look back on this tumultuous August someday with affection and relief.

The Transplant

So, I kind of gave up. My jelly jar herbs didn’t work out so well. Leaves were yellowing or falling off. The rocks at the bottom of the jars were growing algae. I just didn’t know what to do. Plus, I don’t think they ever would have grown big enough in the jars for me to harvest the two tablespoons of cilantro or whatever that my recipes always seem to call for–without stripping/killing the entire plant!

Nearly 3 months after I started with the jars, I made the trip to Home Depot for some bigger pots and new Miracle Grow soil. I also made a stop at the grocery store and picked up four of the potted herb plants they had outside on clearance.

My plan was to give each herb a little more space and either use the store-bought starter plant and my home-grown ones, plus another round of seeds to bulk up the foliage. I selected window boxes that I should be able to find a place for indoors and maybe keep them going through the winter (that will be the test!) I’m hoping that I’ll also get permission to use a certain fancy coral reef lamp from the abandoned saltwater aquarium in our living room…

On August 6, 2014, I “gardened” on the deck in the afternoon heat and got all sweaty and dirty. I transplanted seven herbs, plus a little jalapeño plant, into two 24-inch long garden boxes. I added a little more dirt the next day, but here’s how they looked that afternoon:

garden boxes leftgarden boxes right

chives (mine + help), parsley (mine + help), oregano (yeah, not mine), jalapeño (all mine)

chives (mine + help), parsley (mine + help), oregano (yeah, not mine), jalapeño (all mine)

dill (sadly, mine), basil (also, mine), cilantro (c'mon lil buddy!), mint (mine + help--guess which)

dill (sadly, mine), basil (also, mine), cilantro (c’mon lil buddy!), mint (mine + help–guess which)

I’m hoping they make it and I will have earned my pale green thumb. The sickly yellow one I’ve got going now is a little embarrassing!

Jelly Jar Herbs: Week 5

It’s like I’ve stunted my oregano’s growth! What am I doing wrong?!

This week, my darlings moved out[side] and they got an extra drink mid-week because I was worried they might be dehydrated. But… this is the kind of behavior that brings out the self-fulfilling prophecy side of me. (In case you didn’t know, I am a confessed plant-killer.) So, what do I do?

basil5chives5cilantro5dill5jalepeno5oregano5parsley5spearmint5

Plants for a Plant Killer

Photo credit: http://www.pinerytree.com/product_detail.aspx?p=1&pid=58

Photo credit: http://www.pinerytree.com/product_detail.aspx?p=1&pid=58

Admittedly, I am a plant-killer. Some of my friends might remember my experiments with rosemary Christmas trees back in my 20s. (They smell soooooooooo good!)

Three of these beauties had to die before I hung up my gardener’s gloves. There obviously were no green thumbs inside those gloves anyway. It took me less than a week to kill the third plant.

So I gave up. Horticulture is not one of my strengths.

Recently, I saw a kit for herbs that you could grow in jelly jars for sale. The best part: you only were supposed to water them once a week to a predetermined level (the rock line). I thought, “Now this, I could do!”

Heck, even though it costs me less than a dollar a pop when I buy fresh herbs at the grocery store, it might be sort of nice to waste less and just have them handy when I want them. Jelly jars means they are portable and I can keep them on my deck if I want. Plus, there is a slightly smaller chance of mess or insects–which is important to me, since I don’t like bugs or getting dirty.

After a trip to Home Depot and Walmart, I came home with seeds, potting soil, pea gravel, perlite and half-pint jelly jars. Total cost: $27.53.

seedsI planted basil, dill, oregano, cilantro, parsley, spearmint and chives. (I also did a jar and a planter of jalepeños because I thought that might be fun–I have no idea if a jalepeño plant could be constrained to a small jar though, thus the planter.)

On May 7, the experiment began:

Jars 5-7-14

 

 

 

The Cay: A Critical Analysis

The CayWritten in 1969 by Theodore Taylor, The Cay is the story of a white boy, Phillip, who gets stranded on a cay with an elderly, black West Indian stranger named Timothy after German submarines in the Caribbean torpedo their ship. Phillip is initially weary of Timothy due to prejudice instilled in him by his mother, but has to depend on Timothy and his survival experience, especially since Phillip has no vision due to a nasty head injury sustained during the shipwreck. As Timothy provides for them and teaches Phillip independence and survival skills, Phillip has a change of heart and grows to care for Timothy, despite their racial differences. When a hurricane ravishes the island, Timothy physically shields Phillip from the wrath of the storm. Timothy is severely weakened by the injuries and unable to recover. It is then up to Phillip, alone and still sightless, to orchestrate his own rescue. The book is a simple coming-of-age story, exploring prejudice and acceptance. In the fight for survival against the elements, the friendship between the characters grows and we see a transformation in Phillip as he realizes the sacrifice and selflessness that Timothy has offered.

Controversy and Racism in the Book

When Theodore Taylor wrote this novel, it was well-intentioned and initially well-received. The following year, it received the 1970 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, which is awarded annually to “children’s books published the preceding year that effectively promote the cause of peace, social justice, world community, and the equality of the sexes and all races as well as meeting conventional standards for excellence” (Jane Addams Peace Association). In the years that followed, however, it drew criticism for being a racist novel, especially from the Council on Interracial Books for Children (also known as the CIBC), leading to Taylor’s decision in 1975 to return the prize.

Jane Addams book awardTaylor wrote the book from the perspective of a “racially programmed” 11 year-old white boy. He states that he very intentionally wrote Phillip’s racist descriptions and reactions to Timothy in order to drive the theme of change (Taylor, “In the Mailbag” 286). Even Timothy’s use of the expression, “young bahss” for the first 40 pages of their relationship (Taylor, The Cay 30-72) is a deliberate use of dialect to show the social relationships between white and black people during this time period. The CIBC claims that Timothy’s characterization is harmful to children and “conforms to the traditional stereotype of the faithful slave or retainer who is happy to serve and even sacrifice his life for his ‘young bahss’” (CIBC 283). However, to be considered historically and regionally accurate, from Timothy’s Calypso dialect, taken from Taylor’s first-hand experiences in the Caribbean to the initial relationship between Phillip and Timothy, The Cay needed to unfold as written. Taylor felt that Timothy was compassionate and could patiently “cope with the mindless mouthings of a child” (Taylor, “In the Mailbag, 287). Marianne (57) cites the explanation in Pearson Education’s “Teacher Notes” on the book,

It is important in the novel that Timothy is black, and Phillip white… Like black people in many parts of the world at that time, [Timothy] would still have felt any white person to be his social superior… This is why he calls Phillip ‘young boss’ [sic]. Yet despite this, the friendship that grows between Timothy and Phillip is simply that between an old man and a young boy, not between ‘master’ and ‘servant’ or even black and white.

It would not have been realistic for Timothy to speak or act differently, even if critics think that his character is negatively stereotyped.

Instead, there are several places in the novel that we see evidence of Phillip’s growing acceptance, one being on page 72 when he asks Timothy to shed the title of “young bahss”. Taylor wanted Phillip to reach the point of symbolic color-blindness, in addition to his literal blindness (Taylor, “In the Mailbag” 287). At first we hear it in Phillip’s thoughts (76): “I moved close to Timothy’s big body before I went to sleep. I remember smiling in the darkness. He felt neither white nor black” and then in his words (100): “Timothy, are you still black?” Though perhaps a perspective of a white person wishing whiteness on a person of color, the receding of Phillip’s prejudice is still a dramatic change.

Place in School Libraries and Curriculum

From an intellectual freedom standpoint, I believe that it is important to provide access to titles that might be considered to be controversial so that readers can compare and critically review them if they wish. Knowing that there has been some controversy surrounding The Cay and that readers continue to seem interested in the book (according to my “nonscientific” analysis of demand at my high school library), I would consider purchasing it for a school library. That said, I would be cautious in my recommendation for elementary school libraries because I believe the book is meant for a middle level audience.

The protagonist may only be a couple years older than some elementary students and the reading level may also be a fit—elements that can indicate age-appropriateness. Many librarians and teachers are comfortable with encouraging readers to shoot high and read books meant for older readers as a way to increase reading skill. However, when a book is challenged and criticized for racial stereotyping, for example, as in the case of The Cay, it is important to consider the critical thinking abilities of the readers. Without guidance, younger children may not identify content as problematic and it would be a disservice to include such titles as multicultural literature for recreational reading. This is not to say that elementary readers couldn’t handle this text in language arts or social studies curriculum under the tutelage of an experience teacher. Placement in middle school and high school libraries makes more sense to me. These readers are more likely to be able to identify critical material outside of classroom instruction. Though high school students will be slightly older than the main character, the plot is still engaging.

In the case of curriculum, elementary teachers might find ways to pair this book with another book, perhaps something more contemporary, written about similar themes such as cross-cultural acceptance or personal transformation. In this way, teachers can provide students with another reference point and discourage the acceptance of a text at face value without using a critical lens to examine its weaknesses. Ideally, however, this book fits better in the curriculum of older students. High schoolers may find The Cay to be a quality specimen of multicultural work that came out of the 1960s and interesting in the context of that social climate. For example, Taylor’s book dedication to Dr. Martin Luther King is an example of evidence that students might consider in their analysis. A unit associated with a 10th grade U.S. History course (perhaps collaboratively with a 10th grade English Language Arts course) would work really well with The Cay, given the abilities and course content involved. I could see middle school language arts and social studies curriculum approaching this book with either (or both) of my elementary and high school suggestions. Similar to several of the Common Core College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading (60), the primary goals of including The Cay in curriculum would be to use the text in a critical way that asks students to analyze how themes develop and assess how the author’s background shapes the content.

Informing My Recommendations

In my analysis, I looked for critical reviews of The Cay from the period when it was published, as well as more contemporary reviews. I found primary sources written by Theodore Taylor and a main detractor, the CIBC, in the “In the Mailbag” column of the American Library Association’s Top of the News publication. It was important to me to hear the author explain his rationale and defend his work in his own words. I also needed to find alternative views that conflicted with my own so that I was confident in my rationale.

I tried to only consult sources by those considered to be authorities in the field of multicultural and children’s literature. For example, Horn Book and its writers have a well-respected reputation among librarians. A blog article I found was also written by a former contributor to Horn Book and in the comments section of the post, I noticed that Kathleen T. Horning, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (and someone whom I respect very much), had participated in the discussion.

It was useful to examine the historical context of the book and our country at the time it was published (and criticized). By referencing the Common Core State Standards, the criteria for the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, and the Materials Selection Policy of the school district where I work, I was able to consider core values common to teachers and librarians choosing books and driving curriculum.

Place in Multicultural Literature

Multicultural literature includes books that serve as windows into and mirrors of parallel cultures. The reading experience should provide enlightenment for cultural outsiders but not reinforce stereotypes; this is a “window.” Cultural insiders should be able to see themselves, as if in a mirror, in characters experiencing real life adventures, triumphs, and failures. We need multicultural literature because all children in a democratic society deserve representation in the social and academic culture of that society. If we expect to grow as a society, we need to hear everyone’s voice. It is difficult to hear those who cannot be heard on a larger scale and are absent from our media. Multicultural books can be that equalizer though.

It is perhaps not as simple as Taylor suggests—that the example of Phillip’s change of heart might inspire a white audience to be more accepting of racial differences. However, the CIBC’s attempts to keep this book out of recommended lists, schools, and libraries could actually be considered censorship (Bader 663). Instead, as Susan Griffith suggests in her article, ““So the Very Young Understand”: Reframing Discussion of The Cay” (31) that these criticisms brought up in the 1970s can push readers to evaluate what we can learn from the racism in the book. Even Beryle Banfield, former President of the CIBC, suggests that controversial portrayals of African Americans in literature is likely a long-term dilemma that is best handled by creating an education that develops understandings between people and cultures (22).

By teaching students how to read critically and consistently providing multicultural texts written by cultural insiders and outsiders, we as educators and librarians can promote positive change in the identity formation and understanding of our youth. Books such as The Cay were formative in helping the dominant culture see multiple perspectives. The discussion and controversy around books like this can also have the positive effect of challenging the status quo and encouraging analytical thinking.

 

References

Bader, Barbara. “How the Little House Gave Ground: The Beginnings of Multiculturalism in a New, Black Children’s Literature.” The Horn Book Magazine 78, no. 6 (November 2002): 657-673.

Banfield, Beryle. “Commitment to Change: The Council on Interracial Books for Children and the World of Children’s Books.” African American Review 32, no. 1 (Spring 1998): 17-22.

Council on Interracial Books for Children. “In the Mailbag.” Top of the News 31, no. 3 (April 1975): 282-284.

Griffith, Susan C. ““So the Very Young Know and Understand”: Reframing Discussion of the Cay.” The Horn Book Magazine 88, no. 5 (September 2012): 27-31.

Jane Addams Peace Association. “What are the Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards?” Jane Addams Peace Association. Accessed May 11, 2014. http://www.janeaddamspeace.org/jacba/about.shtml

Marianne. “A Comparative Analysis of Racism in the Original and Modified Texts of The Cay.” Reading in a Foreign Language 19, no. 1 (April 2007): 56-68.

Sieruta, Peter D. “Collecting Children’s Books: This One Really Did Happen.” Collecting Children’s Books (blog), April 7, 2009, http://collectingchildrensbooks.blogspot.com/2009/04/this-one-really-did-happen.html

Taylor, Theodore. “In the Mailbag.” Top of the News 31, no. 3(April 1975): 284-288.

Taylor, Theodore. The Cay. 1969. Reprint. New York: Random House, 2002.

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. “College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading.” Common Core State Standards for Literacy in All Subjects. Last modified September 2011. http://standards.dpi.wi.gov/files/cal/pdf/las-stds.pdf

Much Ado About Me?!

Herb KohlOn a personal note, if you hadn’t heard, I was named one of 100 educators in the state of Wisconsin to be honored as a 2014 Kohl Excellence in Education fellow. (These are the teachers that are then considered for the Wisconsin Teacher of the Year Award… I actually met our winner at a Read On Wisconsin Advisory Committee meeting a few weeks back. She is an 8th grade language arts teacher from Baraboo and is far more worthy than me!)

Kohl FellowThe Kohl Award is a big deal and a big honor. They printed a wonderful article about me in the local newspaper last week. I am so very humbled!

WIABE awardAlso, back in April I was honored at the Wisconsin Association of Bilingual Education as one of 13 “Educators of the Year.” Talk about a humbling experience! I was presented with a beautiful glass award and congratulated by all sorts of bilingual educators and supporters.

Now, I am proud of the work I do, but when in such company, I definitely don’t feel worthy. I am a long ways from being qualified enough to be a licensed bilingual teacher. It was the second time I had attended this conference, and I was reminded of how far I have to go.

The reason I bring it up, though, is because it really made me think. If you have ever seen a bilingual or dual-language classroom, it is remarkable. These are people who are truly bilingual (whereas I am “good enough” with Spanish) working with little kids, teaching them to be fully biliterate. These are the people who NEED quality bilingual books and Spanish-language books to be published, because these children depend on them!

Bilingual Educators of the Year

Photo Credit: https://www.facebook.com/wisconsinassociationforbilingualeducation

One of my high school students was honored at the same conference yesterday for winning the essay contest at the high school level. I work with a lot of bilingual kids, but the bilterate piece (reading and writing, not just oral/aural proficiency) is much more elusive. His winning essay was about how he doesn’t feel like he is bilingual or biliterate yet but can see the value in it and wants to keep working on it. It’s easy to get swept up in the language of the dominant culture, and let heritage languages go.

Melvin got to read his essay in front of the group gathered at the Wisconsin Association for Bilingual Education on April 12, 2014. He did an amazing job. Here is a video of his “performance”:

It’s kids like him who deserve the recognition… I’m just along for the ride!

(P.S. One of my teacher friends is a big proponent of “Things come in 3s”… and she insists that I’ve got another thing coming. I’m hoping that if she’s right that the hail-damage to my car last week wasn’t it–I’d much prefer an engagement ring or winning the lottery. Heck, I’d even take some free tuition money!)

Yaqui Delgado Kicks Ass

A Book Talk: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

Latino and More: Realistic Contemporary Adolescent Literature for Hispanic Americans

Here is a screencast of my presentation of my annotated bibliography and a featured book: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina. (I used Screencast-o-Matic, because it’s an alternative to Jing I’ve been meaning to try. Decent results! It doesn’t have the 5-minute time limit–which I didn’t need to worry about this time. Generally it doesn’t have to be installed either because it’s web-based, though its Java doesn’t cooperate with Chrome on a Mac.)

P.S. Sorry about my yet-again congested voice. (I was on something like round 8-gazillion of 2013-2014 illnesses when this was recorded!)

This “book-talk” is a highlighted in my annotated bibliography entitled, “Latino and More: Realistic Contemporary Adolescent Literature for Hispanic Americans.” (Also, see my Bibliographic Essay and Rationale here.) I was looking for YA books whose primary theme was the teen experience (like “life drama”), inside of focusing only on the Latino experience. I also wanted a relatively equal representation of the Latino groups in the U.S.