John F. Baker, Jr.

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“In all, Sgt. Baker was credited with recovering eight fallen U.S. soldiers, destroying six bunkers and killing at least 10 enemies.”

When Sergeant John F. Baker, Jr. received the Medal of Honor, President Lyndon Johnson remarked that he and his fellow recipient, a former West Point basketball player, looked like Mutt and Jeff:

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It probably wasn’t the first joke Sergeant Baker ever heard about his height. But the real joke was on the Marines, who had refused him for being an inch too short.

Baker’s heroism extended beyond one terrible day in 1966. For the remainder of his tour he scouted Viet Cong tunnels, and, after receiving his Medal of Honor, sought to return to combat duty. Although his requests were denied, Baker devoted the rest of his life, both in and out of uniform, to serving fellow soldiers and veterans.

His obituary, from the Washington Post, gave us the opportunity to learn about different medals and ranks, as well as the military’s custom of saluting Medal of Honor recipients first.

Sergeant Baker’s obituary also taught us the following vocabulary: diminutive, disparate, mortally, evacuate, valor, indomitable, and gallantry.

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Sergeant Baker’s father was a trapeze artist. Oddly enough, so was the father of the mathematical genius whose obituary we read last week.

Shakuntala Devi

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My instruction has, I’d like to think, a reasonable degree of academic rigor. If pressed, however, I might concede that it’s not daily I transport students to the boundaries of human mental ability. Shakuntala Devi’s Telegraph obituary gives us a glimpse.

Known as “the human computer,” she could, upon hearing your date of birth, tell you its day. In about the time it takes to fish out your phone and find the right app, she mentally calculated 7,686,369,774,870 x 2,465,099,745,779.

Ms. Devi, for whom the term “gifted” seems dissatisfyingly vague, had no conventional schooling, and attributed her powers to divine endowment. Still, she sought to share what she could: “I cannot transfer my abilities to anyone, but I can think of quicker ways with which to help people develop numerical aptitude.”

The obituary mentioned “mnemonic devices in her brain,” so, after sharing the mnemonics in ours,* we created one for those words forbidden to start sentences (because, but, when, and, and so).** One girl coined this one, my favorite:

Bees, Bugs, Worms, And Slugs

Her obituary also taught us the vocabulary prodigy, prowess, aptitudeinnate, and cognitive. 

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To explain what a cognitive test was, I showed them the above problem, allowing that I hadn’t yet figured out the solution. Most students got it very quickly, thereby offering a glimpse of their mental abilities, and mine.

*I’d never heard “Never Eat Soggy Waffles” before. The kids all knew it. It’s for the cardinal directions.

**Yes, I know “FANBOYS” already exists, but the day I see a student start a sentence with nor will probably be the day I mentally calculate the product of two 13-digit numbers.

 

Grace Cyr

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In her 94 years, Grace Cyr was a foster mother to 98 children.

According to her Boston Globe obituary,

Ms. Cyr often cared for multiple children, including many with complicated medical needs. They joined whoever of Ms. Cyr’s daughters were living at home, along with grandchildren. For a time, she fostered three children under age 6, all of whom required wheelchairs.

Ms. Cyr, a stylish dresser, kept her chandeliers sparkling and was “never boring, ever.” A lovely 2010 profile contains this example of her ingenuity and devotion:

A boy born without a brain stem could neither speak nor see. Grace put his bassinet near her grandfather clock, whose ticking seemed to soothe him, and took care of him until he died.

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More happily, the profile also includes the tale of a bag lunch gone awry:

Grace still laughs at the story of sending one of her foster sons to school on St. Patrick’s Day. She had dressed him in green and carefully packed his lunch for the occasion, including green Jell-O and a green can of ginger ale. Then she got a call from his teacher… Mistakenly, Grace had thrown in a can of Heineken instead of Canada Dry.

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Grace Cyr’s obituary taught us the following vocabulary: foster, neglect, complexityand respite. She also gave us the opportunity to learn the word altruism.

 

Vo Phien

Vo Phien

“What he created – it’s incredible and valuable.”

Our classroom is across from the school library. I put this unhappy question to students: “If you could take only a handful of books to start a new library in a new country, which would you choose?”

To give them some historical perspective, we read brief accounts of the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, and of the fall of Saigon. Then we learned about Vo Phien, a refugee who strove to preserve Vietnam’s literary heritage. As his Los Angeles Times obituary describes, he began his mission in the final days of the Vietnam War:

Fearful of what to come, he resolved to collect and preserve literary treasures, essays that had appeared in newspapers and magazines, books that might soon be banned, even diaries…

His success in doing so is all the more remarkable because for years this was his side gig: by day he was a benefits specialist for the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Association.

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Crunching numbers (which he did “with such speed”) was among the vocabulary Vo Phien’s obituary taught us, along with bannedscourrefugeementorprolificdiaspora, and expatriate.

Also, since “Vo Phien” was his pen name, we all invented ours. (My favorite was “Liam Lemon Lime.”)

And the books students were most likely to preserve? The Harry Potter series made many lists, as did the Divergent trilogy, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, and The Fault in Our Stars. The Day the Crayons Quit also appeared more than once.

 

Augusta Chiwy

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“I would have done it for anyone. We are all children of God.”

Christmas of 1944 was memorable for Augusta Chiwy because her visit to Bastogne, Belgium coincided with an attack by 200,000 German soldiers.

This would have troubled anyone’s holiday, especially someone’s whose mother was from Central Africa. But this did not stop Ms. Chiwy, a nurse, from heroically tending wounded Americans during the Battle of the Bulge.

As her Washington Post obituary recounts, not all patients shared her grace:

One man… suffered from severe frostbite and asked [U.S. Army physician Dr. Jack] Prior not to allow the black nurse to touch him.

“Fine,” Prior replied… “Die, then.”

Ms. Chiwy’s extraordinary service was almost lost to legend until it received recognition late in her life. The commander of the 101st Airborne Division’s “Bastogne Brigade” told her in 2011:

Ma’am, you embody what is best and most kind in all of us… There are men and women in America who would never have a father or grandfather if you hadn’t been there to provide them basic medical care.

After their first Christmas together, she and Dr. Prior would regularly exchange Yuletide greetings, with which Ms. Chiwy would include Belgian chocolates.

Belgian chocolates

Vocabulary we learn from this obituary includes:

to minister, unremittingbesiegedbeleagueredtrauma, and intimate.

 

Esther Earl

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“She has been a beacon of hope for so many people… It’s because she’s so utterly human and so utterly graceful.’’

My students and I looked at the dedication pages of the books we’re reading, and agreed that we – myself included – usually don’t bother to notice them.

Sharing the dedications with each other, we found two commonalities:

  1. Whether clear or cryptic, simple or elaborate, earnest or irreverent, each dedication was heartfelt.

2. We didn’t know any of the dedicatees.

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The dedication of The Fault In Our Stars reads:

To Esther Earl.

Many of my students have read this book, and most have seen the movie, but none knew who Esther Earl was. So today we honored her by reading her Boston Globe obituary. Esther’s sixteen years teach us that, as John Green says, “a short life can also be a good and rich life.”

Vocabulary we learned from the obituary includes demeanor, muse, vibrant, terminal, domain, precocious, and beacon. I asked each student to pick one and use it in a sentence Esther would declare awesome. Here’s my pick (yes, it’s two sentences, but neither is it unawesome):

Yesterday I had a vibrant taco. It grew legs and walked out of my hands.

Yoel Camayd-Freixas

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“Yoel was a brilliant man.” – Michael Dukakis

Despite the legend, Fidel Castro never ran for Senator; there were, however, two presidents named George Bush. Such are the complexities of American history, as my 6th graders learned reading the obituary of Yoel Camayd-Freixas.

Mr. Camayd-Freixas, “a distinguished academic dedicated to making life fuller for the Latino and underserved populations,” lived to tackle complex challenges. He created the Boston Public Schools’ research and evaluation office, engineered the election of Massachusetts’ first Latino representative, and – at Jimmy Carter’s request – helped convince Fidel Castro to allow family reunification visits to Cuba.

His talents extended beyond, too:

He was “a great cook of Cuban food,’’ said José Massó, a longtime friend who has the “Con Salsa’’ program on WBUR. At family urging, he recently wrote a cookbook.

Our classroom, alas, lacks a kitchen. But we did learn from his obituary what “advocate” and “viable” mean, examining their roots and discovering how the Latin words “vox” and “via” give us a complex array of words in both English and Mr. Camayd-Freixas’ mother tongue.

 

Mary-Margaret Almonte

"Coloured Scarves" by Tony Hisgett
“Coloured Scarves” by Tony Hisgett

“She saw so many people struggling, people who had to choose between groceries and medications… She’d walked in their shoes with cancer, and she wanted to help.”

Friday we paid tribute to a local award-winning teacher who founded a charity to pay for the medications of fellow cancer patients.

Mary-Margaret Almonte’s Boston Globe obituary taught us what it means to have a flair for something (she “had a flair for accessorizing, particularly with colorful scarves”), as well as what walking in someone else’s shoes means. My students also learned from it “earnest” and “exude.”

One theme we explore this year is how protagonists – whether Joey Pigza, Cassie Logan, or Ulysses – face dilemmas. It’s inspiring to see the grace with which Ms. Almonte faced hers. One student recalled that a heroic trait of Ulysses was his flair for strategy, and noted the similarity in how Ms. Almonte prepared for her son’s life without her:

“She had the foresight to plan what was best for him,” [her sister] said. “It was so hard for her to let him leave. You could see that it broke her heart, but she knew it was the best thing for him.”

Brother Blue

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[E]qual parts entertainer, shaman, motivational speaker and, as he liked to say, “holy fool.”

Brother Blue would think it sacrilegious foolishness for my 6th graders to sit quietly for his obituary, so we had some fun.

It taught us “idiosyncratic,” which I defined as a polite way of saying “strange.” I instructed them to imagine they were at a fancy party: “Go around and introduce yourselves to each other in an idiosyncratic way.” I’ll leave you to imagine what ensued.

His obituary also taught us “persona,” so students invented their own. My favorite was “Too Face,” created by a boy with a less than enthusiastic attitude to school. While invisibly munching on snacks and playing video games, his persona is outwardly scholarly.

We also wrote epitaphs for Brother Blue. This one seemed about right to me: “A Very Original Man.”

And now my Mr. Sipe persona will make these observations about Brother Blue’s obituary: Continue reading “Brother Blue”

Leonard Zakim

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“Mr. Zakim started a black-Jewish Passover seder in the early 1980’s as relations between the two groups deteriorated. Six people showed up… This year, 650 attended.”

If you drive in Boston, you learn certain names by rote, e.g. Sumner, CallahanTobin, or Logan. But if you’re like me, you can’t identify these transportation namesakes without looking them up. (OK, fine, Ted Williams. But you see my point.)

I drive over the Zakim Bridge at least eight times a week. I’m sorry to say I hadn’t known whom it was named for until I received this suggestion: “Kids today should learn about Lenny.”

In class we’ve been reading about strife in Baltimore, so it’s timely we’re learning about Lenny today. His New York Times obituary describes a man who made a life of uniting people for good.

Zakim’s obituary teaches my students the words “anti-Semitism,” “defamation,” and “bigotry;” more happily, we also learn from it “tolerance” and “reconciliation.” One of the literary devices we’ve been studying this year is metaphor, and today we consider why this magnificent, illuminating bridge is a well-suited tribute.

 

Samantha Sadd

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One man “drove so far, from God knows where, just to tell me how she turned his life around… And he kept saying, ‘She got me to ski.'”

Samantha Sadd taught generations of children “about the city and beyond” with field trips, subway rides, and salad-making lessons. She led the Hawthorne Youth and Community Center, which several of my students frequent.

Sadd was not the surname she was born with; she declined to offer explanations for the change. My students came up with their own theories, including this one, which I think is pretty good: “Maybe she wanted to take in all the sadness and give out happiness.”

They also came up with their own allegorical surnames, including this one, which I think is unimprovable: Nate Reflex.

Ms. Sadd’s obituary describes, of course, a remarkable and admirable woman, the sort for whom the designation “pillar of the community” is exactly suitable. This teacher also likes her obituary because it demonstrates why background knowledge is essential to reading comprehension. For example, a 6th grader might understand each of the following words, yet risk alarmed confusion:

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“[S]he was a whiz at handicapping racehorses,” her sister said.

Crispus Attucks’ Obituary

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With Patriots’ Day this Monday, I thought we should write Crispus Attucks’ obituary. No, he’s not exactly unsung*, but neither did he have a proper obituary: newspapers got his name wrong, and even when they didn’t, they refused to dignify it with “Mr.” And they called him a “Stranger.” My 6th graders can do better than that.

We’ve read lots of obituaries this year, but today is our first time writing one. At the start of our project – whose goal is to honor unsung but admirable citizens – I’d ask students to list the reasons each person merited an obituary. Standard main idea stuff. More recently, however, they’ve been been working to develop what we in the business call “higher-order thinking skills.”

Here are a few examples of HOTS in action: Continue reading “Crispus Attucks’ Obituary”

Mark Fidrych

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It was rough becoming a Red Sox fan in the 1980s. I sought solace in literature, namely baseball biographies. This was how I learned of Mark Fidrych.

Even to a child it was obvious that Fidrych was singular. But it was by reading posthumous tribute – he died six years ago today – that I learned how much so. Paul Auster calls Fidrych “perhaps the most lovable person ever to play the game.” Continue reading “Mark Fidrych”

Alex

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“You be good,” said Alex. “I love you.”

Alex, who found a home at Brandeis University, also claimed a perch on some of the more exclusive real estate in print: the obituary page of the Economist. “Science’s best known parrot,” they called him. Today my 6th graders read another one of his many obituaries.

Lest this sound like a belated April Fools joke, let me assure you that Alex was a real, and indeed rare, bird. He had the intelligence of a (human) five-year-old and a vocabulary of over one hundred words. According to his Wikipedia entry, “[h]e was the first and only non-human animal to have ever asked an existential question.” His death at age thirty-one was especially tragic: the typical African Grey parrot’s lifespan is twice that.

We read Alex’s obituary on the final day of the new state English tests, which take 225 minutes over three days. I expect my students have his sympathy: “After repeating some learning trials dozens of times, Alex would become tired and throw objects off the trays with his beak.”

 

Kip Tiernan

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“This is the way Kip thought it should be… they are our sisters.”

Kip Tiernan founded America’s first homeless shelter for women. She named it Rosie’s Place, believing everyone needs a rose.

Mary Moon Wilson taught my students “maternal,” Edward Walsh and Michael Kennedy taught us “fraternal,” and with Ms. Tiernan’s obituary we learn sorority. Her purview, however, was humanity: she also helped found the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, the Greater Boston Food Bank, and Boston’s Emergency Shelter Commission.

“The lives she saved were untold,” Mayor Tom Menino said.

 

Michael Kennedy & Edward Walsh

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A couple months after the September 11th attacks, I saw two firefighters, in dress uniforms on a street corner, soliciting donations for the families of fallen New York City firefighters. This is particularly memorable to me because it was in British Columbia.

“Fraternal,” “camaraderie,” and “public service” are some of the vocabulary words we’re learning as we read about Edward Walsh and Michael Kennedy, who died fighting a fire one year ago. Mr. Walsh was a devoted family man and youth athletics coach; Mr. Kennedy was an Iraq veteran and Big Brother mentor. The term “public service” doesn’t just indicate their employment, it describes how they chose to live.

Mr. Walsh’s sister said, “Eddie lived more in 43 years than many of us will do in 80.” Mr. Kennedy’s 33 years are brimming with life as well. And I can only imagine his grin – “Michael never met a high school he couldn’t be expelled from,” according to his own mother – at knowing schoolchildren are learning about him.

Mary Moon Wilson

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“Well, why don’t we take in some of these girls and see if we can’t give them a better home and turn them around.”

Mary Moon Wilson’s is one of the more heartwarming obituaries we’ve read this year. She founded and ran two group homes in Boston: one for runaway teenage girls, the other for mentally challenged adults.

According to her Boston Globe obituary, she “rescued and raised maybe 1,000 children.” One of them – using one of the literary techniques we learn, understatement – said, “They don’t make too many folks like Mary Wilson.”

Vocabulary we learned included commendation, maternal, and haven. And savvy, too, which Ms. Wilson demonstrates in this tribute:

“She was able to get employment at the Pentagon as a cryptographer by inflating her resume, saying she was able to speak several different languages (knowing only the English language) but the interviewer did not ask her to speak any of the languages she claimed to know and eventually got the job.”

 

Harry Parker

Trireme

Usually the only time I ever wish I followed sports is when I have to make small talk or sit in a barber’s chair. But I do wish now I had sufficient knowledge to fittingly present Harry Parker’s feats.

He coached rowing at Harvard for over half a century. He had twenty-two unbeaten seasons, as well as multiple national titles and Olympic medals. Quotes from his New York Times obituary use terms like “unparalleled” and “unrivaled success.”

Like Rockne and Wooden, he became legendary in his sport and something of a cult figure on campus.

Highlights of reading Coach Parker’s obituary in class included seeing our vocabulary word “venerable” for the second week in a row, and trying to ascertain what it takes to qualify as a cult figure.

Adolphous Bullock

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Last Friday we read the obituary of Adolphous Bullock, an inspiration for The Passed Made Present project. Normally I have students list reasons the subject of an obituary merits one, but in this case, I tried something different.

Since we’re reading The Adventures of Ulysses, I asked them to explain what Mr. Bullock and Ulysses had in common. They both went to war, obviously; everyone got that. Many students said that both were venerable (much as I’d like to tell you this is how we go around talking, it’s one of our vocabulary words). Others noted that they both led by example, which is one of “Ulysses’ Rules.”*

One word we – and that’s we, not they – learned in Mr. Bullock’s obituary was “mentor.” I was very surprised to find out** that Mentor was the name of the man who looked after Ulysses’ son, Telemachus, during the Trojan War.

*along with: Never anger a god; Play chess, not checkers; Mortals can’t change their fates; Don’t have too much pride. (This plays off a rule list from Bud, Not Buddy, which they read last year. I’d say it’s a decent enough list for modern life, too.)

**Yup. I’ve taught this book for seven years and still haven’t read The Iliad or The Odyssey. I Googled “Homer + Odyssey + quotes” and the first one listed seems to sum this up.

Phyllis Jen

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Yesterday we read the obituary of Phyllis Jen, a beloved family doctor who trained hundreds of future family doctors. She was also renowned for treating all of her patients with skill and warmth.

Given what I’ve learned of her, I expect she wouldn’t mind at all that we had a bit of fun reading her obituary. It mentioned a sabbatical, which got us all talking about what we’d do if we could take sabbaticals. (Warm locations were prevalent among locales proposed, perhaps because snowdrifts are approaching students’ heights.)

I’ve seen firsthand the astonishing amount of knowledge family doctors acquire, and how hard they work to do so. And how hard they work. To Dr. Jen, and to family doctors everywhere: blessings upon you.

And Happy Valentine’s Day!

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