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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Archive | Nonfictionary

Getting Inside the Head of the Long Dead

Samurai RisingDon’t be alarmed by the ghoulishness of my title. Trying to resurrect the life of someone who turned to dust centuries ago is a challenge, especially if the person left behind no personal writings such as letters or diaries. But it can be done. In preparation for writing Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune, I read all the academic and primary sources I could find about late-twelfth-century Japan. And while what-happened-when is the basis of biography, you can challenge students (or adults) to dig deeper. If you really want to try to get into the head of the long dead, go beyond the obvious. Try answering these questions.

What did this person believe was going to happen after they died?

No, I don’t mean what they thought might happen to their kingdom or their reputation. I mean: did they believe in an afterlife? How would such a belief (or lack of belief) color their perception of the world? Twelfth-century Japanese of Yoshitsune’s social class were Buddhists. In all likelihood, at the very end of his life Yoshitsune accepted that his fate was determined by karma (the sum of good and bad deeds during his current and past lives). He hoped that his next life would be kinder and he would be reunited with his friends and family.

What assumptions did this person have about their place in society?

In other words … there was probably something about this person’s role or status that they never questioned. What was it?

We are all members of human society. Each society, in each time period, has some underlying assumptions that are rarely (if ever) questioned. Nobody in Yoshitsune’s time questioned the notion that the Emperor was semi-divine … or that some people were better than others because of their imperial descent … or that loyalty should be based on bloodlines. I think it’s safe to say that Yoshitsune enthusiastically believed in his own superiority. If you insisted to him that “all human beings are equal” he would’ve thought you were nuts.

(Extra credit if you can articulate an assumption from contemporary culture that may seem really bonkers to your great-great-great-great grandchildren.)

How was this person impacted by technology (or lack of it)?

Here’s an example. The technology of warfare in twelfth-century Japan demanded that samurai leaders display personal bravery and credible martial skills. In those days you had to get up close and personal to kill your enemy—within ten yards to be really accurate in horseback archery, and much closer with spear or sword. There were no guns, no cannons, no sitting in HQ and phoning orders to your troops. To be an effective leader Yoshitsune had to be willing to risk his life.

What’s underneath all that armor?

What kind of underpants did this person wear?

What’s underneath all that armor?

Someone actually asked me this about Yoshitsune. Amusingly trivial? Well, as it turns out, you can’t answer the question without an understanding of the material culture specific to the society and time period. So here we go.

When Yoshitsune was an apprentice monk, he would have worn a loincloth (a strip of cloth wrapped and tied around his privates). It would’ve been made of hemp cloth because that’s what poor people used as fabric in twelfth-century Japan. (Cotton wasn’t introduced until centuries later.) When Yoshitsune was older and living in Hiraizumi, Kamakura, and Kyoto, he would have had clothes benefitting his status, and high-status Japanese wore silk. However, I strongly suspect that when dressed in full armor, wearing a loincloth under his hakama (wide-legged trousers) would’ve made relieving himself quite a hassle. In that case I think Yoshitsune would’ve gone commando.

See how much fun biographical research is?

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Why Students Copy Their Research Sources,
and How to Break the Habit

ResearchBy third grade, nearly all students know what plagiarism is and understand that it’s both immoral and illegal, and yet, again and again, we catch them copying their sources.

Why don’t students express ideas and information in their own words? Because they haven’t taken the time or don’t have the skills to analyze and synthesize the material they’ve collected so that they can make their own meaning. In other words, they haven’t found a personal connection to the content, and that’s a critical step in the nonfiction pre-writing process.

Here are some ideas to help students break the habit:

Nix the All-About Books

The best nonfiction writing happens when students have to dig deep and think critically, so asking them to write All-About books, which present a broad overview of a topic, is just setting them up for failure. When students choose a narrow topic that they find fascinating, they’ll have to mine their sources, collecting tiny nuggets of gold here and there. This fun quest will fuel their passion for the topic and result in engaging writing that presents ideas and information in fresh ways.

QuestionsStart with a Question

Suggest that students develop wonder questions and use them to guide their research. Not only does this guarantee that students will have some “skin in the game,” a specific query will lead to more targeted note taking and require students to make connections between information they find in a variety of sources.

Dual Notetaking

Julie Harmatz, a fifth grade teacher in San Pedro, California, has had great success with collaborative notetaking in a Google doc. Not only do students enjoy the technological novelty of this activity, they gain access to the thought processes of their partner(s). Pairing an adept notetaker with a student who’s struggling with this skill can be a powerful experience. After all, students often learn better from peer modeling than adult instruction.

Journaling

Encourage students to review the information they’ve gathered and journal about it. This will help many children take ownership of the material and identify what fascinates them most about what they’ve discovered. When students approach writing with a clear mission in mind, they’re more likely to present ideas through their own personal lens.

Thought PromptsUse Thought Prompts

Ryan Scala, a fifth grade teacher in East Hampton, New York, recommends inviting students to synthesize their research and make personal connections by using one of the following thought prompts:

  • The idea this gives me . . .
  • I was surprised to learn . . .
  • This makes me think . . .
  • This is important because . . . 

Can’t Copy

Encourage students to use source materials that they can’t copy, such as a documentary film or personal observations outdoors or via a webcam.

WowFocus on the “Oh, wow!”

Award-winning children’s book author Deborah Heiligman advises young writers to only write down information that makes them say, “Oh wow!” Then she suggests that they write their first draft without looking at their notes, using just what they remember. Of course, they can always go back and add details, dates, etc., later, but when kids are forced to write from their memories, they write in their own voices, and they focus on the ideas and information that interest them most.

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