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An Interview with Kalli Dakos
On the release of her book
Our Principal Promised to Kiss a Pig
Principals never kissed pigs when I was in school. Do they really do crazy things like this now?
I met one principal who refused to do things that made him look silly, but most principals will do just about anything to bring joy and life into their school programs.
If you use the key words "principal" and "pig" on the internet, you will discover that hundreds of principals have actually kissed pigs in front of audiences of children.
The principals are usually encouraging children to read large numbers of books, or to meet another school goal that requires special motivation. The day of the actual kiss is a celebration of the students' success in reaching the goal.
Where did you get the idea to name the pig, Hamlet?
My daughter has always been my best editor. After I wrote the original version of this story, I asked her to read it and to give me feedback. She loved the idea of turning the pig into Hamlet, and having him speak Shakespearean verse. We stayed up that entire night and began looking for Shakespearean references that would fit the text of the story.
Isn't Shakespeare difficult for children who are at the picture book level?
Children love to play with language, and Shakespeare is a great writer to build on this love. Even kindergarten children love to chant our pig's lines, and the fact that the words are different and a bit difficult make it all the more challenging.
Elaine Flood of Oswego BOCES says, "Kids have always loved the nursery rhymes and they certainly don't understand every word." This book builds on the same philosophy that children don't have to understand every word, and that they respond to the rhythm and the melody of the language.
I've always used Shakespeare in my elementary school reading programs, and if the plays are taught properly, the kids have a natural love for the Bard's work.
I think this book can be used at all grade levels. In high schools students can take on the challenge of identifying the plays and the passages that we have adapted from Shakespeare. The answers are at the end of the book.
I've come to realize how we can use Shakespeare's work to help students, at all grade levels, with their writing skills. On the night before the big kiss, Hamlet is so worried that he can't sleep. Now, he could say something very boring like:
I can't sleep tonight because I have to kiss the principal
tomorrow and I don't want to.
Or he could use fiery language to really get his feelings across:
Oh heavy heart, do not weep,
This kiss has murdered sleep.
I tell the kids that the next time they can't sleep because they have a big test, they should tell their parents:
This test has murdered sleep!
Would you tell us about Carl DiRocco, the illustrator of the book?
Yes, Carl is a graduate of the New England School of Art & Design in Boston. He is a graphic designer during the day, and an illustrator on weekends and evenings. Our Principal Promised to Kiss a Pig is his second children's book. He lives in Reading, PA with his wife and three sons, and they are all excited about this book.
Alicia and I loved Carl's illustrations right from the beginning! It's hard enough for an illustrator to please one author, but in this case both authors fell in love with his artistic vision of Hamlet.
Kirkus reviews says, "DiRocco's artwork is fittingly busy and possesses good Elizabethan costumery and lots of funny detail."
You'll have to look carefully at the artwork because the funny details surprised and delighted the authors as well.
Was it hard to find someone to publish this book?
Yes, it was. I had several companies that said they would publish the book, if I took the Shakespearean references out of it. But, Alicia and I felt that the book's magic was in those very references.
It was my years of teaching Shakespeare at the elementary school level that helped me believe that children were capable of taking on the challenges of this book.
Abby Levine, a senior editor at Albert Whitman & Co in Morton Grove, Illinois, felt the same way. Rather than fearing the Shakespearean component, she embraced it, and did a splendid job, helping us to make this wonderful verse available to children of all ages.
What do you hope to accomplish with this book?
I think we're going to have children chanting our adaptations of Shakespearean verse and having lots of fun with it. By the time they get to high school, they will be familiar with the language and rhythms of the Bard himself.
I hope teachers, parents, and children will put on stage productions of this story. I turn teachers into actors on my school visits, and I give them about three minutes to learn their parts. Somehow we pull off the productions and the kids especially love the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.
Like Shakespeare's plays, this book was meant to be read out loud and performed.
On a more general note, how do you feel about education today?
I visit schools all over the United States and Canada, and I see the work of dedicated, hard-working teachers everywhere. I do feel that they are operating under severe pressures because of the emphasis on testing, and I hope that this will change over the course of the next few years.
What Other Books Have You Written?
I have written over two thousands poems about life in our elementary school classrooms, and they have been published in my many anthologies of poetry with titles like: If You're Not Here, Please Raise Your Hand, The Bug in Teacher's Coffee, The Goof Who Invented Homework, Mrs. Cole on an Onion Roll, Don't Read This Book, Whatever You Do!, Get Out of the Alphabet, Number 2, The Greatest Magic (Poems for Teachers)
What is the most important lesson you have learned from your books and your school visits about educating children?
I have one statement that I truly believe is the most important one I have ever made in all my writings. It goes like this:
When we operate from within the spirit of childhood, we have our greatest power as educators.
I think the next step in education has little to do with technology and testing. We need to really look at how young children learn best, and then we need to implement programs that support this learning.
I use a lot of toys and props in my presentations with teachers and students, and have found that "magic" happens when we play our way to love of reading and writing.
I have a little toilet that flushes, and I use it with some of my bathroom poems. A child is picked from the audience to plunge the toilet with a small toy plunger. There is something magical that happens here, and it becomes a part of the literacy experience. The children are pulled into the poem through play, and afterwards they want to read and write poetry.
I think that when a principal kisses a pig, he is "playing" with the children, and they respond whole-heartedly. It's as if "play" is the language of childhood, and most adults have forgotten the basic vocabulary. How can we teach children if we don't even speak the same language?
Will you have a toy to go with your new book?
I have an adorable little plush toy, Hamlet, sitting on my desk. He looks exactly like the illustration in the book with his arms crossed over his chest, and a look on his face that says:
I won't do it!
We're still trying to decide how to make the best use of this very special toy.
We've also performed the story with masks of the characters, and this is a lot of fun too.
Are you writing any new books?
Yes! Yes! There are always more writing projects than time to do them. I lived in small Inuit community above the Arctic Circle one year, and the children had RECESS IN THE DARK, during the long winter months. I've always wanted to write an anthology of poetry on this topic, and I'm working on it now.
I'm also finishing up a manuscript titled; Jeremy's Rooster Laid an Egg. During my first year of teaching, Carlos brought his pet rooster for sharing time. It laid an egg at school that day, and we all found out that Carlos' rooster was really a hen.
Schools are filled with crazy stories like this, and I wove many of them together into one hectic day in a child's life. Carlos goes out for a fire drill in his underwear, gets in trouble for saying the B word, brings ants to school in his book bag, and chases Jeremy's rooster all over the school.
I'm also working on a selection of Bathroom Poems to go with my small, flushing toilets. This book has surprised me because so many of the poems are very sad. In our elementary schools, the only place for some children to go and hide with their tears is the bathroom.
Do you have any concluding remarks about your new book?
I remember a statement made to me by an old Inuit woman many years ago. She said, "I cannot read and I feel as if I am blind."
More than ever our children need to find vision, hope, inspiration and joy in the printed word. There are so many evil forces in our society today ready to devour the attention of even our youngest children.
I hope parents, grandparents, and teachers will take the time to read this book with both feeling and expression to the special children in their lives. In this age of technology, I am still convinced that a comfortable chair, a special book, and the enthusiasm of an adult who loves language and literature can make all the difference in a child's life.
An Interview with Alicia DesMarteau
On the release of her book,
Our Principal Promised to Kiss a Pig
How long have you been a writer?
I’ve been editing for my mom (Kalli Dakos) since I was about two years old.
Are you in university now?
I graduated last year, after studying theatre and English at four different universities in three different countries on two continents (Ithaca College, Cornell University, The University of Toronto, and The University of Hong Kong). And that was just for my bachelor's degree!
I understand that you did a lot of the work on the Shakespearean input it this book. Can you tell us about this?
I’ve always enjoyed a good pun, and Shakespeare's Hamlet has always prompted me to picture a porcine poet. I am thrilled that the bard has finally come to the barnyard in Our Principal Promised to Kiss a Pig.
Although I did have some trepidation about placing Shakespeare's most famous lines in the mouth - er - snout of a pig, my mind was set at ease when I remembered that Shakespeare himself already scraped the bottom of that barrel when he featured a talking donkey (of sorts) in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
I scoured Shakespeare's plays for lines that would be suitable to introduce elementary students to Shakespeare. Hamlet emerged as an endearing mishmash of Shakespearean heroes.
What do you hope this book will do for children?
An early introduction to Shakespeare in such an outrageous guise may inspire youngsters to pursue the rich rewards of further Shakespearean study.
And for once, these young scholars will be correct when they say that Shakespeare is a boar.
Friends, Parents, Teachers, Lend Me Your Ears
New book Delights Kids with Shakespearean Language
Our Principal Promised to Kiss a Pig is a one-of-a-kind picture book that has the characteristics of a Shakespearean drama -- unrequited passion, tragic love, and a hero who expresses himself in fiery poetic verse.
With one small difference. The hero is a pig. A pig named Hamlet.
Nineteen references to Shakespeare’s plays introduce children to the language of one our greatest writers, all within the context of a hilarious tale that takes place in a typical elementary school.
"My mother heard this true story about a principal who promises to kiss a pig if the students read thousands of books,” says co-author DesMarteau, who was studying theater at the time. "I thought it would be fun to turn the pig into a Shakespearean character for children," she adds.
"The artwork possesses good Shakespearean costumery and lots of funny details," writes Kirkus Reviews. The full-color pictures reveal the inner turmoil of Hamlet the pig as he contemplates the humiliation of being kissed by Ms. Juliet, the principal.
"Even kindergarten students are entranced by the spell of the language, and chant Hamlet’s lines with great passion," says Dakos.
|All the world's a stage,
And one pig in his time
plays many parts.
|I must be a soldier|
In this kissing war --
The battle starts.
"Most children have little knowledge of Shakespeare," says Dakos. "For many of them, this book will be an introduction to one of the greatest writers of all time," she adds.
But is all well that ends well for Hamlet? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
Most Important Teaching Method Explored in Kalli's New Book for Teachers and Students
New York, September 1, 2003
After writing two thousand poems about life in elementary school classrooms and twenty years of research in North American schools, Kalli Dakos believes she has discovered the most dynamic teaching method of all time.
"We spend a fortune on technology, textbooks, and testing," says Dakos, "but none of these have the power of old-fashioned imaginative play to pull children into reading, writing, and other academic subjects."
"When we operate from within the spirit of childhood," says Dakos, "we have our greatest power as educators."
Dakos is a reading specialist and the author of the best-selling children’s books If You’re Not Here, Please Raise Your Hand, The Goof Who Invented Homework, and The Bug in Teacher’s Coffee, all Children’s Choice Selections from the International Reading Association.
Dakos’ new book with Simon and Schuster outlines her educational theories in a surprising way. "Put Your Eyes Up Here and Other School Poems" is a fictional journey through one year in a very unusual classroom. The teacher, Ms. Roys, portrays the heart of Dakos’ teaching theories. Through imaginative play and a wide selection of unusual toys that include inflatable hands, small toilets that really flush, and flying pencils, she pulls even the most reluctant children into academic work.
This collection of short poems and plays is largely autobiographical, as Ms. Roys clearly represents Dakos herself. The positive impact of Dakos’ theories appears in the transformation experienced by the book’s leading character, a student named Penny. Penny’s learning capacity and creativity have been stunted by years of dull classroom work, but Ms. Roys’ teaching methods draw her back to the imaginative life that Dakos believes is the essence of childhood – and of effective education.
Ms. Roys has a pencil cemetery in her classroom, and the children write good-bye poems to their pencils. Hand-in-hand with writing practice, students learn life skills that will help them articulate and deal with the good-byes in their own lives.
Your Resting Place
Once you were bright, fiery and sleek,
But a million numbers made you weak.
A zillion letters on the page,
Were enough to make you age.
I lay you in this inch of space,
Forevermore your resting place.
"I visit schools all over North America to share my poems," says Dakos, "and I realize that good teachers incorporate play in their curriculum. But, in our achievement-oriented society, play is looked upon as frivolous, and it is increasingly difficult for teachers to include it in an overloaded curriculum that does not realize its value. Yet it is the most important teaching method for inspiring children to want to learn. It works with gifted and remedial students and has the capacity to revive the most discouraged learners," Dakos says. "Ms. Roys’ teaching methods show how this spirit of imaginative play and childhood itself can be used in the service of education."
Meet the Author: Kalli Dakos
|Kalli appeared on the Fairfax Network's Meet the Author series to encourage students to keep reading, writing and dreaming. The Fairfax Network is an award-winning producer of distance learning programming that originates in Fairfax County Public Schools.
Articles by Kalli
Here are a few of my published articles.
Just for Fun, The Reading Teacher, September 2005
I Was Sitting At Lunch, Seeing the Blue Between Letters to a Young Poet, Candlewick Press, 2002. Compiled by Paul Janeczk
Poetry Feeds The Spirit, The importance of Poetry and play for students and teachers, Instructor Magazine, April 2001
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