Looking Back at the Newbery Winners: The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle

I’m enrolled in an online course through ALSC that studies the Newbery winners through the decades.  I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid, so I am using this class to keep myself informed about the children’s literature classics and to do some improved Readers Advisory for students who want to try something new in their reading.

 

Reading children’s classics isn’t always easy.  My 2017 brain has a hard time adjusting back to some of what appears today to be casual racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism.  Sometimes the books present a moral universe that’s a little too clear-cut to be real or true to kids.  But at the same time, there’s a reason these books are classics and their potential to resonate with readers is high.

 

The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle is that kind of book. We have a child main character, Tommy Stubbins, who has conveniently absent parents and no true emotional life other than the thirst for adventure.  And we have a Dr. Dolittle, who also appears to have no emotional life, but an exceptional talent to speak to animals.   Lots of my readers get stuck on reading for emotions, and this book’s setup conveniently avoids reader struggle points like inner dialogue, voice, and character development.

 

As far as the story goes, I appreciate how there’s an overall story arc about traveling to the Spider Islands to find the missing naturalist Long Arrow.  But this book is mostly about its tales, which vary between 3-5 pages long and serve as episodic amusements that are silly, funny, and resolve themselves (mostly) within the chapter.  This setup is perfect for my students who struggle to attend to a slow-developing story.

 

Will the language and style be accessible?  Maybe for some readers and maybe not for others.  My guess is that the desirability with this one will depend on what my readers have already experienced.  If my readers can do weird and enjoy animal stories, which some of them still do, I think they’ll go on board with Dr. Dolittle.  

 

I hold some reservations about this book as a model for its attitudes towards nonwhite races and ethnicities, but rather than discourage readers to read it for those reasons, I’d much rather they read it and see if those issues emerge for them the way they emerged for me. As young teens, I believe they can learn about the world around them through non-examples and misguided examples as much as examples, especially when they continue to read books that treat race and ethnicity in different ways.

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Getting student writers to read our comments

When I first started teaching, I saw hours of my work tossed casually in the recycling bin when students got their graded papers back.

Over the years, though, I learned how to grade in a way that kids would read what I wrote.

 

 

  • I don’t comment on everything.  I try to choose one or two things I’m noticing and put my emphasis there.  That is both for my sake and for the students — if I want them to focus on something, whether it be praise or constructive feedback, it needs to be simple and short.
  • Comment on drafts over finished pieces.  Once a piece is turned in, a piece feels done to a kid, even if there is tons more work to do.  A comment on a draft allows me as a teacher to move the ball back into the student’s court and allows the student to take action on the feedback right away for a real grade improvement.

 

  • I make personal connections and jokes where I can.  Students share a lot with me, so each notebook grading session I try to share one small thing about me with them, whether it’s our shared admiration of the video game Skyrim or a comment about a pet.
  • I write a mini-letter with students in their notebooks and I end with a sticker.  Every letter looks a little different, but it gives me a chance to just write to the student.  I include a sticker (yes, they’re 12 and 13 but nobody has ever declined a sticker from me, especially if it’s an emoji or a Finding Dory sticker.)   Yes, the mini-letters can be a drudge on my hand at times, but students. Sit.  And.  Read.  Their.  Letters.  There’s nothing like writing as an ongoing conversation.  And then some kids take the stickers off of their pages and proudly replace them on their notebook covers.  Because yes, stickers do hard work as currency in my classroom, and it’s the rite of passage for getting the notebook grade.
  • I place the grade in a discreet location.  I’m still working out all of the mechanics of this one, but the grade and the feedback should feel different.  The grade can go on a separate sheet or tucked away on a post-it in the back of a student notebook.  It’s all too easy for us to slap a grade right where we put feedback, and that can be discouraging to students.