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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Courage Has No Color

What is courage? What is strength? Perhaps it is being ready to fight for your nation even when your nation isn't ready to fight for you.

It is 1943. Americans are overseas fighting World War II to help keep the world safe from Hitler's tyranny, safe from injustice, safe from discrimination. Yet right here at home, people with white skin have rights that people with black skin do not. 

~ from Courage Has No Color

We've all heard some variation of the saying that "respect isn't given; respect is earned." That adage rings resoundingly true in Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles. This engrossing story of America's first black paratroopers knits together interviews, images, and countless source references to create a you-are-there chronicle of one battalion's struggle to win equality and opportunity, a struggle that black soldiers would wage as tenaciously on the homefront as any struggle fought on a foreign battlefield.

When Tanya Lee Stone states in a wonderful example of chiasmus, "Perhaps it is being ready to fight for your nation even when your nation isn't ready to fight for you," she encapsulates the frustration felt by black servicemen who wanted to serve their country in positions other than "building roads, driving trucks, sweeping up, unloading cargo, cooking, doing laundry, serving meals, or guarding facilities."

When the opportunity to contribute meaningfully finally came, many black servicemen jumped at the chance. Clarence Beavers, one of the original Triple Nickles, voices the sentiment of many when he states, "I had a grandfather who ran away from his master as a slave and joined the Union Army and fought as a soldier... And here I am coming down almost a hundred years later and I cannot even fight in a war that's about to eat up our whole world."

The apparent misspelling of the word "Nickles" above is explained on the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion's Official Site:

The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion was nicknamed the "Triple Nickles" because of its numerical designation and the selection of 17 of the original 20-member "colored test platoon" from the 92nd Infantry (Buffalo) Division. Hence, the origin of the term Buffalo Nickles; the spelling derives from old English. Three buffalo nickels joined in a triangle or pyramid is the identifying symbol.

Author Tanya Stone's writing reads like pure storytelling, from the engrossing second-person point of view that opens the book (read that entire preview chapter here) to later third person exposition, such as this excerpt which describes one black unit's forays into battle, and its effect upon white troops:

On March 13, 1945, a company from the 99th Infantry Division was in serious trouble. The Germans surrounded them. Casualties were high. The number of living dropped every hour. The wounded - including their commander - lay bleeding, unable to be evacuated. Ceaseless gunfire had trapped them all. Then, in the distance, the company heard men coming. Cautiously they looked and listened for signs that the approaching men were American and not the enemy. But even when they saw the telltale American uniforms, the faces they saw confused them for a moment. Only two were white. The reaction that came next stuck in the mind of one of the black soldiers walking toward them, Harold Robinson: "They were all Southern boys, but they sure were glad to see us." Although the trapped white soldiers couldn't risk giving away their exact location by shouting, they couldn't contain themselves completely. They cheered and waved anyway, as quietly as they could.

Did such encounters between races change perspectives on integration of the armed forces? It seems so, as the author reports:

Before the Battle of the Bulge, only 33 percent of white soldiers had a positive response to including blacks in their companies. Afterward, a whopping 77 percent felt favorably about the idea.

Unfortunately, the 555th would never see the combat action they so desperately desired, but would instead fulfill a crucial role in combating a little known attack on America's West Coast by Japanese balloon bombs. The American press was asked to keep all the incidents quiet, in an attempt to fool the Japanese into thinking that the balloons weren't reaching America. The dangerous jumps made into remote wooded areas to battle fires earned the 555th another nickname: Smokejumpers. The video below shows the smokejumpers in training exercises.

In addition to her faithful chronicle of the 555th, Tanya Lee Stone includes fascinating background pieces on racial tensions in the civilian sector, stereotypes in movies and advertising, ignored photographs of black units in action, and finally, integration in action.

Courage Has No Color brings long-overdue recognition to a victory which was at least as important as any other of World War II:

The 555th had a double burden to shoulder. They had to prove to the world that they had the bravery and skill it took to succeed, and they had to do it while reacting to the prejudice they ran into around every corner..."We fought segregation and discrimination and intolerance. They tried to burn us out...It made us stronger. It made us angry. It made us persevere."

At the Candlewick companion site for Courage Has No Color, you can view an inside spread, download a teacher's guide in pdf format (complete with CCSS alignments), listen to an audio book sample and more.

Additional Recommended Reading:

In response to my War Stories post, some readers (okay, two readers) asked for recommendations for nonfiction texts on World War II that would be appropriate for middle graders. So happy to comply! Providing students with historical trade books is an excellent way to encourage independent exploration into nonfiction reading, a much-discussed area of focus in our new Standards.

My first recommendation for middle schoolers and up, World War II by Sean Callery, comes from the Scholastic Discover More series of books which provide a multimedia "bonus" digital book to accompany each nonfiction title.

These digital books aren't simply online versions of the print book in hand; instead, each supplemental digital text contains audio, video, and in-depth topics that compliment the print book. The introductory video below illustrates the concept.

Scholastic Discover More World War II includes a bonus digital book detailing WWII Heroes and Heroines. By visiting the Scholastic Discover More site, you can download and sample complete chapters of this or any other book in series.

The sample World War II chapters include Child Heroes and Animals Heroes. Four chapters available through the book's code include Secrets and Spies, On the Front Line, Heroes at Home, and Everyday Heroes and Heroines. In all, the digital book contains 67 additional pages of text, images, and video, perfect for sharing on laptops, devices, or even a projection screen.

Both texts include a fantastic assortment of nonfiction text features including headings, subheadings, photos, diagrams, timelines, maps, captions, pull quotes, sidebars, tables, infographics, glossary, index, and more. Fast facts, anecdotes, and oversized data bits help to make this book exciting to browse. Chapters are constructed in a Q and A format, priming readers with thought-provoking questions.

For readers seeking to learn more about those who played important roles in World War II, I'd recommend World War II: Ten Greatest Heroes from Scholastic's America at War series (available through Scholastic).

This simpler 32 page book features full spread profiles of Doolittle, Patton, and Nimitz, in addition to those of lesser known heroes such as British commando Major Tony Macpherson (who armed and trained French resistance fighters) and Lt. Colonel Henry Mucci (who rescued 500 U.S. and Filipino POWs, the sole survivors of a Japanese death marches which had killed over 53,000 of their their fellow prisoners).

Easy to understand text accompanied by photographs, maps, and biographical data combine to make this a winner with your younger history buffs.

For general background materials and teaching units appropriate for the two books above, see the World War II and Holocaust Resources at the Scholastic site.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

War Stories: Examining World War II Through the Lens of the Novel

So often when we study conflicts in history class, we learn only of the victors and the vanquished. But what happens to those innocents who get caught in between?

Alan Gratz provides an answer in Prisoner B-3087, an awesome and awful new Holocaust title based on the life of Jack Gruener, born Yanek Gruener in Kraków, Poland. 

In the novel's afterword, Gratz explains that the book is a work of fiction, but based upon the true life story of Gruener. Although the author takes "liberties with time and events to paint a fuller and more representative picture of the Holocaust as a whole," the reader is amazed to discover that the most incredible parts of the narrative are, in fact, true. Jack did survive the deprivation of the Kraków ghetto by living in a roof-top pigeon coop with his family, and he also incredibly withstood the brutality of ten different concentration camps (including Birkenau, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Dachau) before liberation by the Allies.

The novel is incredibly readable, and although disturbing and distressing, would make an excellent addition to any upper middle or high school level library. My own sixth grade class is reading The Devil's Arithmetic, and I discovered that Prisoner B-3087 makes an excellent companion to that book. 

Gratz, for example, is able to illustrate with incredible understatement the sense of loss and regret experience by so many who were subjected to the Holocaust:

If I had known what the next six years of life were going to be like, I would have eaten more.

I wouldn’t have complained about brushing my teeth, or taking a bath, or going to bed at eight o’clock every night. I would have played more. Laughed more. I would have told my parents and told them I loved them.

~Prisoner B-3087 (p. 2)

And again, that same regret, and a feeling of helplessness in the face of the enormity of the situation:

It was too late. The Germans were here. If I had only known then what I know now, I would have run. I wouldn’t have stopped to pack a bag, or say good-bye to my friends, or to even unplug my projector. None of us would have. We would have run for the woods outside of town and never looked back.

But we didn’t. We just sat there in my family’s flat, listening to the radio and watching the sky over Krakow turn black as the Germans came to kill us.

~Prisoner B-3087 (p. 6)

One of the concepts which most students find difficult to comprehend is illustrated dramatically. Every year in every one of my classes, my students will ask, "But why didn't they fight back?" and they learn that some Jews did. Still they ask, "But why didn't they all fight back?"

While at Trzebina Concentration Camp, Gruener witnesses a fellow prisoner who dares to grab an officer's club rather than be beaten. "Yes! Yes,..." thinks Gruener. "It all begins here. Together we can take them all!" But as he looks on, no one (not even Gruener himself) steps forward to help. But even their stillness and silence can't save them. After the rebellious prisoner is killed, the camp commandant begins selecting others who will be punished for this "plot to escape."

“I’m innocent!” the boy my age sobbed as they dragged him to the gallows and put the hangman’s noose around his neck. “I never tried to escape! I promise! I’ve done everything you’ve asked!”

I shook with helplessness and rage, but also with fear, This is what fighting back earned you. More abuse. More death. Half a dozen Jews would be murdered today because one man refused to die without a fight. To fight back was to die quickly and to take others with you.

This is why prisoners went meekly to their deaths. I had been so resolved to fight back, but I knew then that I wouldn’t. To suffer quietly hurt only you. To suffer loudly, violently, angrily - to fight back - was to bring hurt and pain to others.

~Prisoner B-3087 (p.111)

Only by witnessing such horrific acts can we be inspired by Gruener's stubborn will to survive. Witness Gruener as he embarks upon a Death March to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp:

Under the whips and clubs of kapos and SS officers, we marched out through the front of Auschwitz. 

You come in through the front gate, but the only way you leave is through the chimney, the guards had told us when we arrived. Ha! Look at me now, I wanted to shout, walking out through the front gate, the way I came in! I had survived the ghetto. I had survived Plaszów, and Wieliczka, and Trzebinia, and Birkenau, and now Auschwitz. I was going to survive it all. I was going to be alive when the Allies liberated us. This I swore.

~Prisoner B-3087 (p.168)

I read Prisoner B-3087 in one sitting, which would be my only reason for not recommending its use as a classroom novel; your students simply will not choose to read it piecemeal if doled out over several weeks. It's that compelling! For those students seeking a broader understanding of life in the ghettos and the camps that followed, this book provides them with that context, driven by a powerful and personal survival tale.

  • If your students are unfamiliar with even the most basic facts of the Holocaust, I recommend laying a foundation with nonfiction picture books (see my annotated list). This nonthreatening approach is effective for elementary students and up, although the reading level I'd personally recommend for Prisoner B-3087 is middle school and up.
  • For an interactive and highly visual examination of the Holocaust, check out Glencoe's Holocaust Remembrance Day Interactive, along with its teaching guide.
  • As suggested earlier, I recommend you read this book as a companion novel to The Devil's Arithmetic or another Holocaust title. Many issues concerning camp conduct which arise in Jane Yolen's Newbery winner are elaborated upon in this one.
  • Each year I challenge my students with this essay topic: "Should Sixth Graders Study the Holocaust?" The fact is, many parents and educators believe they should not. Students consult many online sources for support, including a speech by Jane Yolen which includes the "Alphabet of Evil," and a collection of quotes I've compiled (after viewing many sources which turned out to be inappropriate, hateful, or biased, I chose to provide students with some excerpts which I had personally vetted).
  • Upon his return to Krakow, Gruener discovers that a cousin was able to hide during the war and survive in that way. Discuss with students what they know about Jews who were able to go into hiding. Many students have likely heard of Anne Frank, and they can learn more about her experiences at The Secret Annex Online.
  • As much as I loved the book, I disliked the cover. The wall and the boy's apparel are too modern, and to me the book looks Dystopian. For this book (and some others I know) I'd recommend that students create their own book covers to better represent the historical period, characters, and themes of the book.
  • Help students picture Gruener's incredible journey by examining maps showing the locations of the camps. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum features a variety of animated maps related to the Holocaust.
Additional Recommended Reading

Hero on a Bicycle by Shirley Hughes provides another fascinating glimpse into World War II. Thirteen year-old Paolo finds daily life mundane and tedious in Nazi occupied Florence. Caught between the Nazis and the equally terrifying Partisans who defy them, Paolo seeks a way to play a meaningful role in the conflict that ranges all around him. When his family reluctantly agrees to hide downed Allied pilots, the tension rises as threats begin to close in from all sides.

A perfect read for middle school and up, Hero on a Bicycle reveals the courage of ordinary citizens when subjected to extraordinary circumstances. Conflicting interests and divided loyalties on both sides keep the reader hooked throughout. 

The website for the book provides background information, maps, and wonderful illustrations by the author. You'll also find wonderful videos depicting the history, music, and popular culture of the times which are mentioned throughout the book.

Fans of graphic novels will enjoy Lily Renée, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer by Trina Robbins, illustrated by Anne Timmons and Mo Oh. Lily Renée, Escape Artist is the exciting biography of a young Austrian Jew who escaped the Nazis via Kindertransport. Her life story is truly a series of escapes, leading finally to her emergence as one of America’s most successful and influential comic book artists.
Students will be interested to learn that antisemitism was strongly felt in England during the war, and that many Jews who sought refuge there were considered “enemy aliens.” 

The book contains additional notes on Kindertransport program, concentration camps, internment camps, and English culture, as well as a photo album of Lily Renée.

For younger students seeking to learn more about those who escaped Nazi persecution, I recommend you investigate The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey by Louise Borden and Allan Drummond. In this large format book full of wonderful "artifacts," husband and wife team Hans and Margret Rey flee Paris of 1940 as the German army approaches. Their manuscripts depicting a curious little monkey save them more than once, allowing them to reach safety in a new home. 

Check out the New York Times write-up titled How Curious George Escaped the Nazis.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Chess Rumble: Life Lessons through Chess

The English language is peppered with chess idioms: stalemate (a position of impasse), gambit (a risky tactic, often involving a sacrifice), checkmate (a measured response, leaving your opponent with no way out), rank and file (literally, the rows and columns on a chess board; often used to name the "lesser players" in an organization), pawns in a game (bit players), and endgame (the final phase of an operation or story). Movies, television shows, theater, literature, and even video games widely use chess as a metaphor for human interactions.

In The Lord Of The Rings, for example, Gandalf describes the coming conflict in chess terms:
The board is set, and the pieces are moving [...] But the Enemy has the move, and he is about to open his full game. And pawns are likely to see as much of it as any, Peregrin son of Paladin, soldier of Gondor. Sharpen your blade!
Chess as a metaphor for critical thinking and decision making is the central theme of Chess Rumble, written by G. Neri and illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson.

From the book jacket: "Inspired by inner-city school chess enrichment programs, Chess Rumble explores the ways this strategic game empowers young people with the skills they need to anticipate and calculate their moves through life." Told in free verse, this book has a rich, authentic voice and a truly plausible story line.

Here G. Neri and Jesse Joshua Watson reflect upon their respective roles as author and illustrator, and the phenomenon that is chess:

As an educator once faced with designing an academic curriculum for inner-city youth at a Salvation Army summer camp, I chose chess as a center piece for that program (center piece is also a chess derived idiom). Sixth and seventh graders who otherwise had difficulty following directions and sitting still suddenly found motivation to immerse themselves for hours in tabletop warfare!

In one memorable game, a student made a reckless attack which cost him a rook (a valuable piece, outranked only by the Queen). He slammed a fist against his leg, but said nothing.

My counselor sagely responded to the student's dismay by saying, "You made a move from anger. When I took your piece two moves ago, your first thought was to get revenge. But if you had looked a move or two ahead, you would have seen a bettter way."

That exchange was just one of many that came from our games. Students took a cue from this, relating our teaching topics in other areas of the curriculum to chess. We even used the idea of the point system in chess (each playing piece is designated with a point value) to help students better understand the concept of algebra as they interacted with Hands-On Equations in their math course. By the end of just four weeks, students had progressed from using manipulatives to solving quite complex algebra equations on paper and even mentally, using the Hands-On Equations method and chess.

Chess Rumble is a fabulous book for your classroom library or as a read-aloud. The authentic voice and plentiful black and white illustrations make it a stand out for the middle school group.