Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"Men Explain Things to Me" by Rebecca Solnit [Review]: This Book Really is Applicable to Teaching English

Rebecca Solnit's 2014 essay collection Men Explain Things to Me appeared on a best books list, which is how I discovered it, although I don't recall which list included the title. I ordered the book because I've been disillusioned by the backlash against feminism that seems to have gained momentum this year. 

Additionally, songs such as Taylor Swift's "Blank Space," Meghan Trainor's "All About that Bass," and Hurray for the Riff Raff's "The Body Electric" shine a light on various ways females are silenced in our culture. Thus, Solnit's collection fit into my current thinking. 

The title essay, "Men Explain Things to Me," responds to an incident in which Solnit found herself the captive audience of a party host who schooled her on the subject of Edweard Muybridge, about whom Solnit had written a book, River of Shadows: Edweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, a book her host knew about but had not read. He described the book as "very important." Additionally, the host did not realize his guest was the author of the "very important" book and seemed not to care even after learning the fact. 

Solnit penned "Men Explain Things to Me" to make the point that even when confronted with female expertise, "Men explain things to me , and other women, whether or not they know what they're talking about. Some men" (4).

My brother-in-law is like that. My husband is not. Perhaps that's why I've been a bit shielded from the slow pace of change. 

Every woman knows what I'm talking about. It's the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation, just as it emphasizes men's unsupported over-confidence. (4-5)

Throughout the book, Solnit takes care to avoid hasty generalizations, but her larger thesis is that despite much progress, women still face objectification and silencing and exclusion in both western as well as eastern cultures. 

Among the essays, "The Longest War" (2013) stands as the most important and the most poignant. Solnit packs the essay with statistical evidence about the violence against women and the ways in which our social structures put both the blame for such violence and the responsibility for ending it on women. "Violence doesn't have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender" (21).

Solnit tells readers that there's much that we don't talk about when we don't talk about gender, and one thing we should talk about is violence against women as a civil and human rights issue. Solnit peppers the statistics with stories, such as the rape of a 73-year old in Central Park in 2012 to the stories of high school and college athletes gang raping young women. 

She extends her criticism of cultural response to those who suggest women on college campuses stay locked-in rather than exercise their right to freedom of movement if they want to stay safe. 

And it isn't just the violence strangers perpetrate against women that Solnit documents: 

Never mind workplace violence , let's go home. So many men murder their partners and former partners that we have well over a thousand homicides of that kind a year--meaning that every three years the death toll tops 9/11's casualties, though no one declares a war on this particular kind of terror. (24)

Violence against women worldwide trumps cancer, traffic fatalities, and malaria as a leading cause of death, yet we don't have a Susan B. Koman for the cure campaign replete with pink ribbons to show our support for funding this egregious social justice crisis. 

It's this epidemic of violence against women on college campuses that prompted Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff to compose "The Body Electric." Writing for NPR, Ann Powers explains:
Horrified by the rapes that have made tragic news from India to America's college campuses, the singer-songwriter noticed that her own people--music makers and music lovers--would regularly sing along with choruses about killing women, comfortably accepting gender-based violence as part of the ballad tradition. No more, she said. 'The Body Electric" was her intervention.

There's much more in "The Longest War," including an indictment of politicians who seek to exert control over women's autonomy, and those states, 31, that give rapists who father children with their victims parental rights. 

"In Praise of the Threat" (2013) offers a perspective on marriage equality I had not considered by suggesting that its opposition is really about maintaining patriarchal power structures more than about protecting traditional marriage. 

A marriage between two people of the same gender is inherently egalitarian--one partner may happen to have more power in any number of ways, but for the most part it's a relationship between people who have equal standing and so are free to define their roles themselves. (63)

This goes against the grain of many marriages, which historically have placed women in weaker power positions. Indeed, this idea of women having no property rights and no legal standing is a theme Jane Austin explores in such novels as Sense and Sensibility.

Solnit argues that as marriage equality becomes normalized, women in traditional marriages will experience unions that are inherently more egalitarian. 

In the title to this post, I claim that Men Explain Things to Me is applicable to teaching English. To that end, I've pondered how the essay "The Longest War" will work with "The Wife of Bath's Tale" and Prologue in The Canterbury Tales.

Additionally, I've considered how I might use one or more of the essays with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In "Woolf's Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable" (2009) Solnit discusses her relationship to Susan Sontag and Virginia Wolfe, for whom gender played a defining role in Orlando. 

Woolf once wrote, "The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think." It's an idea worth pondering both for its implication that the present state of women in society is challenging and in its hopefulness that we don't know the future but can work to make it a more open and peaceful place for all. 

In the final essay, "Pandora's Box and the Volunteer Police Force," Solnit takes readers back to Susan Faludi's 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, which I read when it was first publishedto remind readers that, as Faludi argues, "And yet, for all the forces the backlash mustered. . . women never really surrendered." As much as some want to push women back through the door Nora threw open at the end of Ibsen's A Doll's House, there really is no disappearing back into the attic, the kitchen, the closet, the genie bottle, invisibility, silence. 

Finally, as a teacher, Solnit makes me think about criticism, specifically literary criticism. She does this in the essay "Woolf's Darkness":

We often think the purpose of criticism is to nail things down. . . . Literary criticism, like criticism of art, embodies a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate, to classify and contain.

There is a kind of counter-criticism that seeks o expand the work of art, by connecting it, opening up its meaning, inviting in the possibilities. A great work of criticism can liberate a work of art to be seen fully, to remain alive, to engage in a conversation that will not ever end but will instead keep feeding the imagination. Not against interpretation, but against confinement, against the killing of the spirit. Such criticism is itself great art. (100-101)

Having grown up and attended college at a time when professors bludgeoned my writing with notes about all I did wrong in an essay, this binary approach to critiquing student writing is what I took into the classroom and what I have worked to move beyond in my reflections on student work, especially during the past dozen years. 

Isn't my job as a teacher to help liberate student writing so that the student can develop ideas fully? To engage in conversations about both reading and writing with my students? To begin never-ending conversations with students, dialogues that empower and feed their imaginations? To free their spirits to read, write, discuss, and in turn learn more? Isn't this what makes teaching art and craft? 

These are things I'd like to explain to so many if only those who explain to me would listen.

Monday, December 22, 2014

'Tis the Season to "Pay It Forward" with a Book

Just before I left for the NCTE Annual Convention, I shared with seniors my excitement about getting to meet many fabulous authors whose books I admire and whose generosity touches me.

Among those authors I mentioned, one student expressed excitement about David Levithan. Elizabeth, my student, asked me to take her copy of Two Boys Kissing and get it signed. I said, "No. I'm not taking books with me. I'm bringing new books home."

At the ALAN breakfast, I met David Levithan and told him about my student's request, and he generously offered to sign the book. Alas, I did not have it, so I did the next best thing: I took a selfie with David.

Fast forward to the exhibit hall later that afternoon.

As I stood in line awaiting a signature from Chris Crutcher, I chatted with a teacher from Louisville, Kentucky. I told her about my student's request. Much to my delight and surprise, she retrieved a signed copy of Two Boys Kissing from her bag and handed it to me to give to my student. How exciting!

Back at school the following Monday:

When my class entered the room, I had the selfie with David Levithan on the screen and the signed copy of Two Boys Kissing in my hand. I book talked the book and told the class about meeting the author and sharing Elizabeth's request with him.

For dramatic effect, I elaborated a bit about standing in line with the teacher from Louisville. Then I opened the book and revealed David Levithan's signature. "Elizabeth," I said, "this is for you." The class broke out in applause as we celebrated the gift of reading and of sharing books.

I captured the moment in a selfie, of course, so that Elizabeth, too, could sort of have her picture w/ David Levithan.

A couple of months ago my colleague Kyle Jenkins asked to borrow my copy of Stanley Fish's How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, Too.  While at NCTE I acquired a free copy of the book for Kyle.

In her lovely homage to reading, How Reading Changed My Life, Anna Quindlen writes, "Reading has always been my home, my sustenance, my great invincible companion. 'Book love,' Trollope called it. 'It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.' Yet of all the many things in which we recognize some universal comfort...reading seems to be the one in which the comfort is most undersung..."

So instead of browsing the book aisle for a gift of words, too often we look to trends and choose shiny baubles that soon break and tarnish, whose new lasts a moment, whose luster fades until the next trend takes its place. 

This season we can wrap ourselves in worlds real and imagined and "read forward" by giving books. 

Happy Holidays and Happy Reading! May all your reading dreams come true and may you be blessed with the bounty of books in 2015. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

NCTE 2014 Annual Convention: Experiencing the Conference and Making Memories My Way

Last week I traveled to Washington D.C. for the 2004 NCTE Annual Convention at the Gaylord Resort. I have now attended the NCTE Annual Convention six times and participated as a program participant five times. My first opportunity to present was with the Folger Shakespeare Library in a session titled "Teaching Teachers to Teach Shakespeare." Since my first convention experience and first time presenting, I've learned much about making the convention valuable to my professional growth and nurturing. 

Last year my time in Boston felt out of sync with my needs. I worried about networking and spending time with people  whom, in retrospect, I'm not sure had the same goals. I left Boston sad and a little depressed. Things just had not gone as I'd envisioned. My experience and expectations took different paths.

Nevertheless, I forged ahead and wrote a proposal for the 2014 convention, an overview of which I wrote about here. 

This year I traveled to Washington D.C. determined not to worry about whether or not I networked, determined not to feel hurt if I wasn't included on others' lists of people to hang out with, determined not to worry about whether or not those whose sessions I have attended in the past reciprocated by attending mine, intent on not allowing the cliques inherent in most organizational structures to define my experience. 

In short, I decided to experience the convention my way with only my professional and social expectations in mind. That meant I didn't worry about whether or not I had arranged to sit with people I know at the ALAN breakfast and the Secondary Section Luncheon. I had not. I didn't worry about being alone or having someone to hang out w/ during sessions and events. Consequently, I had a very organic and gratifying convention experience, and I was rarely alone. I was never lonely. 

I captured many of my favorite convention experiences in photos. 

Attending NCTE is about meeting and hearing authors. I kicked off the convention in a session featuring Jacqueline Woodson speaking about and reading from Brown Girl Dreaming, and I scored a free copy of the book! 
Jacqueline Woodson, NBA Winner for Brown Girl Dreaming

Two of my professional heroes dropped by our session. Kylene Beers and Bob Probst push us to think about the ways we teach fiction and nonfiction. Kylene is quite the selfie-taker and inspired me to embrace the selfie throughout the convention.
Bob, me, Cherylanne, Kylene, Debbie.

I met David Levithan at the ALAN breakfast and shared the story of my student who asked me to take her copy of Two Boys Kissing to NCTE and get it signed. I did not. But I did get a selfie!
Selfie w/ David Levithan at the ALAN breakfast.

Later in the exhibit hall, I was awaiting a signature from Chris Crutcher and shared the story about my student with a teacher in line with me. She had a copy of Two Boys Kissing and gave it to me to give to my student. 
Rebecca from Louisville, Kentucky
I also snagged a photo with Andrew Smith. I would love to be in his class! 
Andrew Smith indulging my giddiness resulting from meeting fabulous authors.
Chris Crutcher signed a copy of Period 8 to my students. I asked him to sign it to teens in Pocatello, Idaho, where he gets all his best ideas, which references a comment he made on Facebook a while back. 
Chris Crutcher signing Period 8.
I am a huge fan of Cory Doctorow and had a chance to chat with him twice. He makes me rethink my use of social networking and other issues relating to privacy.
Cory Doctorow during his signing of Little Brother.
English teachers know how to have fun, regardless of what others may say, and the exhibit hall is a fabulous place to meet people one does not expect to meet!

Shakespeare and me!
A highlight of the convention was attending a TSI reunion at the Folger Shakespeare Library and seeing a production of Julius Caesar. We had a follow-up Q & A with the cast; they made me love Julius Caesar, and that's saying something as the play has never been my favorite. 
A selfie w/ Dana Huff in the Folger Shakespeare Library Reading Room!
Reunited in the Reading Room w/ Mari O'Meara, my friend from TSI 2008!
My friend Michael Klein, also a TSI 2008 alum.
The cast of Julius Caesar during the Q &A
I attended some fabulous and inspiring sessions that stretch my imagination about collaboration, about technology, about student choice in reading, and about teaching as art and the relationship of artifacts to reading and writing and speaking. 

Additionally, I met some wonderful people in my session, at events, and in others' sessions. 

Of course, the NCTE Annual Convention wouldn't be complete without the books. I purchased some from many genres, including professional, picture, MG, and YA. I also snagged some ARCs to share with students, and acquired a pile of books for my granddaughter. I managed to arrive home needing to purchase two new suitcases that finally went to that big baggage claim in the great beyond. 
Books for my students.
Books for my granddaughter, Kayla
In the mayhem and excitement of the convention, I still managed to greet and briefly chat with fabulous virtual colleagues from around the country and meet some whom I'd previously only met online. Their warmth and kindnesses embrace me, and I look forward to keeping up with them throughout the next year until we converge in Minneapolis and do it all again! 

I encourage others to join me for NCTE 2015 in Minneapolis and to consider writing a proposal for the convention program, which I'm planning to blog about later.  I was more than 20 years into my career before attending the NCTE annual convention. I wish I had known what I was missing years ago.  

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Giving Thanks and Telling Stories

This Thanksgiving my heart is full. I returned from NCTE 2014 brimming with stories, but I'll be sharing about that experience in a separate post in a few days. 

For now, I'm thinking about my grandmother, Phoebe Cowen, and giving thanks for the stories I inherited from her, one of which I shared over on Facebook Wednesday, along with this photo of a Cranberry Orange Mold I've been making since 1982. I always put the salad in the green bowl, which belonged to my grandmother and which my grandfather gave to me when grandma died during my freshman year of college.
My grandmother and I often had a rocky relationship. She wanted me to quit school when I was in seventh grade and take care of my father, who had lost his sight the previous year from complications from juvenile diabetes. 

I kept grandma's request from my father for a year. 

Having just read Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming empowers me to see the poetry in the stories from my own childhood. They, too, are best expressed as free verse. Such is the rhythm of life; it has no set meter, no constant form. 

One of my favorite pastimes when visiting grandma was dusting the furniture. As I sprayed Pledge onto the coffee table or buffet, I pledged to myself that I would one day own matching furniture, that I would have a comfy couch to sit on. I dusted away my childhood poverty as I polished grandma's furniture and dreamed of a more prosperous future for myself. 

After I learned to drive, I hauled grandma around town. She never acquired a driver's license but freely dispensed advice about driving. Her nagging made me nervous, and one time I pulled to the side of the road and scolded her: "Grandma, you have to stop nagging me about my driving. You make me nervous, and if you don't stop, I'm taking you home." She crossed her arms, scowled, and closed her mouth. 

When my niece saw the Facebook post featuring grandma's bowl, she, too, began reminiscing. "Loved grandma Cowen and her purple bathroom." I shared that I hadn't thought about that bathroom in a long time. It had a purple tub, a purple, toilet with a padded purple seat, and a purple sink. I reminded my niece that the wallpaper was actually contact paper grandma had stuck on the wall. I didn't remind her that grandma died in that bathroom. 

This Thanksgiving we'll tell stories and create new memories with family. We may not realize the significance of these stories to ourselves and to our relationships with others for many years. Jacqueline Woodson wrote Brown Girl Dreaming after turning 50, even though it's the story of her early life. 

I turned 56 last week and am only now beginning to understand the complicated relationship I had with my paternal grandmother. Only now am I beginning to understand her role in a poor white girl's dreaming and in the symbolism of a green bowl filled with those dreams. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

NCTE 2014 "Story as the Landscape of Knowing" [Preview] Session A:09 "Blurred Lines: Landscapes of Truth and Fiction in Imaginary and Informational Texts"

For an English teacher, what excites more than a good story? We know ourselves and our world through stories. As Carol Jago says, "Literature is a mirror of ourselves and a window into other worlds." 

I'll be teaming up, once again, with my convention colleagues Ami Szerence, who teaches at Schurr H.S. in Montebello, CA; Cherylann Schmidt, who teaches at J. P. Case M.S. in Flemington, N.J.; and Debbie Greco, my colleague at Highland H.S. in Pocatello, ID to explore the ways narrative lines cross boundaries in texts of various genres. 

To start our session, I'll present a Pecha Kucha that focuses on how we define, and construct our ideas about imaginary and informational texts. I'll challenge the privilege granted informational texts and argue that truth resides in imaginary texts, too, often in ways inadequate to informational texts. 

The second part of my presentation will showcase the journey my seniors have taken this past trimester as we've examined narrative forms and frames on our way to creating digital stories that seniors may use as the starting point for their senior projects. I'll showcase at least one of the digital stories. We laughed and cried together last week as we celebrated one another's lives in story. This was a rewarding community-building experience. 

Included in my part of our session is a twelve page document w/ many of the activities students completed as part of our emphasis on telling our stories and reading the stories of others, both classic and contemporary, including YA. I've uploaded the materials to the NCTE portal but it's available on Google Drive: "Contributing a Verse: Digital Storytelling for Research-Based Writing"

My Co-Presenters' Plans:

Over on Google Drive, my co-presenters have shared their plans. Here's what those attending our session can look forward to hearing in Ami's, Cherylann's, and Debbie's own words:

I am focusing on how I create text sets that blend fiction and imaginative literature around a central question or idea.  I plan to share my Racial Profiling unit and either my Brave New World or 1984 unit.  I will focus on how I use imaginative literature to gather evidence to support argumentative writing.  I hope to have time to have one or two participants share a novel or story they teach and create a text set on the spot.  I will upload my handouts soon.  

"Blending Imaginative and Informative Texts in Argumentative Writing" (Ami's presentation doc).

Multiple Genres, Multiple Voices - How do different genres (informational text, poetry, autobiography, and photographs) tell the story of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. I will walk participants through an abbreviated version of a lesson I do with my students when we study the Holocaust. My piece of the session will explore how each genre impacts readers differently and shapes their overall understanding of a historical event. (I’m doing an extended version of this talk at the Philadelphia Writing Project’s Fall Conference in October, so I’ll have worksheets uploaded within the next few weeks.)

My main focus will be the Heroic journey using a Document Based Inquiry approach connecting to The Odyssey and A Tale of Two Cities. I will upload the documents I will be using as well as the DBI Note catcher form. Depending on time availability (which is unlikely) I will do a side note on the use of census reports for A Tale of Two Cities pre-reading activity.  
1. Stage 1 - images and video… observations and wonders
2. Stage 2 - primary documents
3. Stage 3 - secondary synthesis documents
4. Stage 4 - Thesis statement with evidence based on observations and wonders from
stages 1-3
5. How much Odyssey & Tale of Two Cities fits fact versus fiction discussion
6. a side-by-side comparison of census reports - one from a wealthy neighborhood in
New York and one from a poor neighborhood in New York. What’s the narrative these

census records tell us?

*As Ami, Cherylann, and Debbie complete and share their materials w/ me, I'll update this post to link to their resources.

**Update: 1:14 MST.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

"A Map of the World: The World According to Illustrators and Storytellers" [Review] w/ Teaching Ideas

Maps tell stories. Sometimes those stories pretend to present objective ideas; sometimes those stories are strictly imaginative, as in maps created for novels such as "We Were Liars." 

A Map of the World: The World According to Illustrators and Storytellers conflates the worlds of traditional cartographers with imaginative storytellers and sellers of ideas to offer a collection of unique maps that help us understand and construct myriad worlds.  

Maps help us understand and navigate the world...Contemporary maps have evolved into platforms for cutting-edge illustration, experimental data visualization, and personal visual storytelling. 

It's this idea of "personal visual storytelling" that interests me most as a teacher. I first taught students to create neighborhood maps back in the 1990s, but these were generally literal rather than symbolic representations of their neighborhoods. 

Although the book is a beautiful collection, including maps created for ad campaigns, maps that guide tourists, and maps that present histories, as well as many other types of maps, it is also a subjective collection of visual interpretations. For example, on p 104 one finds maps from the Cosmographies, described as mapping "locations using personal experiences as a way to contribute to the understanding of place." The New Littles map on p 141 maps New York City's boroughs based on ethnicity. 

The landscapes cartographers create have me thinking about how mapping can promote creativity and knowledge acquisition among my students. Many of he maps offer inspiration for students mapping their school, their town, their activities, their vision for their future, their fears for their futures, their concerns about current issues that touch their lives. 

Maps function in a dimension beyond infographics. A map presents more than images and information, maps depict geography, and that geography is open to interpretation and shrouded in narrative. 

The map below depicts the ways Germans view countries from around the world. Note the dominant Facebook logo that defines the U.S.A. What meaning should we or our students construct from this image? What story about the U.S.A. does the map tell? How would our students map the world if they were to replicate the map envisioned in Germany?
"We the Bavarian and the Rest of the Earth" (132-133)
Judith Schalansky creates "atlases as works of poetry, interpretations of reality, and attempts to see the world as a whole." Schalansky's book of maps "is a book for the armchair explorer, describing places that exist in reality but only come to life in the imagination" (89) The map below is one such poetic cartographic creation: 
Isn't this true for stories as well? The reader experiences stories, and maps, and informational texts primarily through the imagination rather than in "real life." We explore our world through our senses, and, thus, map our world in our imagination.

I'm still thinking about its many implications for discussion, argument, and reading texts and plan to share more ideas as I find inspiration in the landscapes in A Map of the World.

This is a stunning collection that offers another way to bring visual literacy into the classroom. 

*Are you attending NCTE? If so, please add session A:09 to your program. I'll have more to say and share about A Map of the World: The World According to Illustrators and Storytellers as part of my panel.  In my next post, I'll preview session A:09, including my co-presenters' offerings. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

VOTE: We Have a Choice in Lesson Plans--Jana Jones vs. Sherri Ybarra

I get a little sentimental around election day as I recall my first time voting. It was 1972; I was 14. Richard Nixon won in a landslide over over George McGovern

Nixon won 508 electoral votes to McGovern's 17. I marked the ballot for McGovern. 

I didn't want to vote for McGovern, but since the ballot belonged to my father, my role as his proxy required me to mark the ballot based on his choice. We walked to the polling place after school. On our way to Mark Twain Elementary in Webb City, Missouri, my father and I discussed the merits of both candidates. 

Mark Twain Elementary, the polling place where my father voted in 1972.
"I'm choosing the lesser of two evils," my father explained. I don't remember any of the issues we talked about, but I do hear my father's words echo in my memory as I contemplate my choices. 

My husband voted early this year as he will be out of town on business. "I didn't like three of the uncontested candidates," he explained last week, "so I put my name in as a write-in candidate in three slots." 

I suspect Ken won't get additional support for his write-in candidacy, but that three seats for state offices are uncontested this election cycle suggests we need a revival of civic involvement. 

This election day the two races that interest me most are the governor's race and the Superintendent of Public Instruction contest. 

The latter race will determine the lesson plan, the direction, Idaho takes in education policy. Our current education "leader" has embraced such wrong-headed accountability plans as Value-Added Measurements to assess teachers. 

The two candidates represent polar opposite spectrums. Jana Jones is a respected, ethical educator and candidate who understands the needs of Idaho's rural districts and the importance of building relationships with beleaguered teachers. 

*The video is the debate between Jana and Sherri in Idaho Falls.

In contrast, Sherri Ybarra is among the most unethical candidates I've seen. In addition to not having voted in an election since she moved to Idaho in 1996, she plagiarized Jana Jones's website, lied about her marriages, and, worse of all, is in our current superintendent's back pocket. She will be a puppet to Tom Luna, and Idaho students and teachers will suffer if she is elected. 

As I have told many, I don't know how I, an English teacher, am supposed to instill a sense of ethical behavior among students when the state education leader is a plagiarist. The hypocrisy is mind-boggling. 

Casting my father's vote as a 14-year old I began to understand how jaded the common person can become in an imperfect system. Sometimes I feel as though I'm left with "the lesser of two evils" when casing my ballot. Not this year. For me, the choice is clear. 

I'm choosing right over wrong, ethical over unethical, good over evil when I cast my ballot. I'm choosing Jana Jones's lesson plan for Idaho schools.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"I Am Now a Reader": At 18 a Reader is Born #SundaySeries #SummerReading #BookTalkaDay

Knowing today is the final week of Lee Ann Spillane's #SundaySeries on #SummerReading, I began planning this entry a couple of weeks ago after reading comments from students on the rights of readers in their writing notebooks. 

From the moment I greet my seniors, I know getting them to read will be a challenge. It's a nine month gestation that my district allots six months to develop. We're on trimesters, and the only students who take English all year are AP lang and comp and AP lit students. Indeed, many seniors only take English one trimester. 

Since September I've been thinking about how to keep students reading from late November until I see them in late February. Some of my current students will have a different teacher next trimester, so I only have three months with them. Others won't return to me until third trimester because I don't teach the last half of the class until then. 

If this all sounds messed up. It is. 

About those Rights of the Reader entries in the writing notebooks: 

I asked students to write about the right of readers they most value after we talked about Daniel Pennac's The Rights of the Reader poster. 

Among my favorite student responses: 

"But sometimes adults try to take away some of the books we love and by doing that they take away some of our happiness as well." --Dillon

Adults as book thieves? Yes. This is what censors and those who try to ban books from classrooms and school libraries do: They steal happiness from children. 

"Sometimes I think to myself, someone out there is living this book. And it gets me thinking about things like that." --Amanda

As does Amanda, we have the right to mistake a book as real. Imaginative literature often speaks the truth in ways informational texts can only dream of doing. For Amanda, and the other seven Native American students in her class, a novel may be the only window into their own stories these students experience in a day. What better reason to let a student read than to get them thinking? 

Other students wrote about rediscovering a love of reading after losing it by being forced to read only assigned books. 

My favorite response came from Braedon. 

"The most important thing to me as a reader is that I connect with the book, that I connect with the story. In the past it has been very hard for me to read books because they were always being forced on me and I did not connect with them...To be able to choose our own books with our own interests and thoughts in mind has made me excited to read. I never thought myself a reader until Mrs. Funk showed me that I can enjoy reading. I have the right to mistake a book for real life. . . .When I read Divergent, I didn't want it to end. I wanted it to be real. It felt real. I connected with it. . . I am now a reader." --Braedon

As Lee Ann envisioned this series, teachers would reflect on summer reading with which they task students. I'm thinking about the summer reading students choose on their own. This thinking can't begin in late May or early June. A fetus needs nine months gestation before entering the world. Raising readers requires nurturing throughout the year, throughout a child's schooling. 

As I bid my students farewell in May, the graduation gift I hope to impart is that they'll see themselves as readers and that they'll see books as windows into the world. 


Yikes, I only presented three book talks this week. Wednesday we administered the PSAT to all sophomores in our school. The seniors attended a "Major and Minor Fair" at Idaho State University. We had an assembly Friday. I misread the times and chose to skip the #BookTalkaDay Thursday. That was a mistake. 

This week's book talks:

Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce
Why I Fight by J. Adams Oaks

*All three books are part of the generous gift Brian Beech, my former student, recently sent to my students and to me. Brian gave us 50 books!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Writing ALAN Style Mini-Reviews for Independent Reading #Sunday Series #BookTalkaDay

*This post is part of Lee Ann Spilane's blogging challenge on the Portable Teacher blog, although I have taken great liberty w/ Lee's plan to write about summer reading! 

In my utopian classroom, students would read and write about their reading without prodding by me. We'd live in a world of books and book discussions. 

I don't work in a utopia. I searched for an inspiring way for students to write critically about their reading and decided to share the ALAN Journal mini-review template as I submitted a mini-review to the ALAN Journal earlier this summer for the novel SEKRET by Lindsay Smith

Since I didn't want students to view the free reading time as leading to an assignment, but since I wanted them to think about their reading in an on-going way so that they would be prepared for the writing when they finished their books. 

Here's the procedure I followed:

1. Each day students write one-sentence essays based on their daily reading. We follow the reading and writing by sharing a couple of examples. 

2. I gave students a completion date for their first free reading selection of the year. 

3. Two weeks before the review due date, I gave students a handout explaining the assignment for writing an ALAN Book Review.

The two screenshots show the first and second halves of the handout. We spent time in class discussing the assignment. Using the document camera allowed me to show students the requirements and teach them how to annotate the handout in a way that supports their learning the task. 

Before looking at the text of the review, I walked students through the heading and showed them examples from the ALAN Review journal. I explained that since they were writing their reviews "for publication," they needed to adhere to the formula ALAN mandates.

As students reviewed the example I wrote, we discussed the importance of giving just the right details from the plot, an overview of the characters, some information about theme, and ways to use brief quotes.

Then we turned our attention to the second part, which is the criticism. I walked students through my thought processes and reminded them that reviewers express their opinions about a book, talk about the target audience, and offer insights about concerns readers might have.

4. As students prepared their reviews, I checked their progress and answered questions during lab time. Some had confusion about their reviews in terms of where to put their names. I let them put a traditional heading on their papers or add their names at the bottom of the paper, as we see in the ALAN Review.

Most students embraced my vision, although the newness of the formatting confused them somewhat. Still, I love the way students felt free to quote from their books and share the way their reading choices resonate with them. Here is an example from one of my more reserved students who read and reviewed Winger by Andrew Smith: 

As a teacher who values reading the classics and student choice, finding ways to show students their preferences matter challenges me to find new approaches to teaching literary criticism. As Kelly Gallagher reminds us: Our students typically won't grow up to be literary critics or college English professors, but they will review products on Amazon in on other online venues. It behooves us to teach them responsible ways to remember their reading from high school and to teach them to critique in responsible, thoughtful ways. 

Maybe some will one day write reviews that will be published in the ALAN Journal. What better way to to connect young adults with one another.

#BookTalkaDay: This week was homecoming, but we still had our daily book talks, some to bring awareness to October as Bully Awareness Month. 

Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson (YA novel, male narrator)
Tomboy by Liz Prince (graphic memoir)
The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore (nonfiction)
Countdown by Deborah Wiles (juxtaposition of historic documents and fictional narrative)
October Morning: A Song for Mathew Shepard by Leslea Newman (poetry)

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Gift of Words: Thank You, Brian #SundaySeries #BookTalkaDay

"You can give words, but you can't take them. And when words are given and received, that is when they are shared. . . . The sharing of the words becomes as important as the words themselves. The sensation stays with you, attaches you to the world." 

                                                                    ---David Levithan in Two Boys Kissing

Brian Beech, a former student, recently gave my students and me a huge gift of words. Brian has graciously replaced many books in my classroom library that had disappeared. Among those books is Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan's lyrical novel about gay teens breaking the world record for the longest kiss. 

My students and I have been kissed by Levithan's and many other authors' words through Brian's generosity. And it all started with a Facebook status update during Banned Books Week. I posted a note about challenged books that have disappeared from my classroom library and lamented that while I hoped these books found homes with loving readers, I suspect many had been taken by students who think the subject matter is inappropriate for teens. 

Next, I received a message from Brian: 

The disappearing books make me smile. And feel nostalgic. Please send me a list of books I can send. Queer or other. . . What a great destiny for a book. To be stolen. Every day I walk by books in huddled masses on the curb that would be so jealous. . . I''ll include a couple of books that changed my life, or at least touched it. You can add them to your disappearing library.

Brian put Two Boys Kissing at the top of his list, and I sent him six titles I had on my wish list of books. 

Then Brian sent a follow-up note: 

New York has so many amazing book stores with gently used and reasonably priced books. Are gently read books a problem? That list was only 6 books. Can you send me 6 more titles. Then another 6. I'm going hunting tomorrow and I want a big target.

With the original list of six titles, I had tried not to be greedy, but Brian's request for "a big target" tempted me too much. I sent a follow-up list of almost 50 titles that had disappeared from my classroom. 

To date, Brian has sent 25 brand new books. I have also received a copy of Fangirl by Rainbow Row that must have been read once. It looks spanking new. 

Some of the books Brian has gifted my students and me.
After his day of book shopping, Brian updated me on his adventure. I'm sharing his note because I'm hoping to promote the organization he's supporting: 

I started my day at The Housing Works bookstore. Housing Works is an amazing organization that supports a variety of queer causes. Vital causes that don't get much attention. They provide housing and medical care to gay men living with HIV, support the Gay Men's Health Crisis which provides free medical care, STD testing in mobile units throughout the city, condoms, Sex Ed, etc. They also have great programs for at risk LGBT youth. Mentoring, safe havens throughout the city, counseling, literacy programs. The list goes on and on. All this is supported by their 20 thrift stores in Manhattan and the bookstore. And of course private donors. 

The books Brian has provided my students comprise only part of the gift of words. The notes and reflections on his time in my class have touched me deeply. We teachers set our students free when a class ends or a student transfers, as Brian did during his junior year. My heart broke when he left, but I understood why he chose to transfer to a high school across town where he could study among fewer bullies. During Brian's high school years, my school was far less tolerant than it is now. We haven't arrived where we need to be, but we're better now than we were and will get even better. Brian's gift of words will help in our progression. 

I had hoped to get each book tagged with a note thanking Brian before checking them out, but who can say "not yet" to students eager to open a gift, eager to read a book? I have a list and will add the labels later as the books return and await regifting to the next reader. For now, I tell each student who checks out one of the books Brian sent a little about the donor. 

We are giving, and receiving, and sharing words. We are bound to one another through these words whether in books or through memories. Thank you, Brian. I <3 You. Always have. Always will. 


We had a short week this week, so I have only four rather than five book talks to share: 

I am Nuchu by Brenda Stanley (a local author)
Into Thin Air by John Krakaur
The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson
Reality Boy by A.S. King

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Reading: My Old Crush, so Why Am I so Fickle? #SundaySeries #SummerReading #BookTalkaDay

This post is part of the #SundaySeries blogging challenge on Lee Ann Spillane's blog, Portable Teacher.

I love reading and read every day, but I am in a reading slump and have been for quite some time. As do many teachers, I look forward to summer when I can read to my heart's content. That didn't happen this summer. Yes, I read but not as much as I normally read during the summer.

My reading slump runs deep and wide. That is, it endures, clinging to me like a recurring toe fungus. I know what has impacted my reading life--the same things that often keep students from reading. I began thinking about the reasons we find ourselves in a reading slump after a a couple of students dropped by my room and told me that this year 

I've rediscovered a love of reading. 

One added:

I loved reading when I was a kid but then I started hating reading.

Seeing students develop a love of reading and rekindling their relationship with an old reading flame encourages and drives me to work to overcome my reading slump. Simply, I must read if I am to share books with students. Right now, I'm not keeping up. 

Why do we find ourselves in a reading slump? Some of the reasons for my reading slump follow: 

  • Overworked: Last school year (2013-14) I spent nearly all my free time writing curriculum for the NEA Better Lesson Master Teacher Project. At the beginning of the school year, I asked my husband how I managed to do all that work. He responded: "I don't know. You came home, put your head down, and wrote for three or four hours nearly every day." I also spent at least one day each weekend working on the project and even devoted much of my vacation time to the work. 
  • Choice Overload: Believing that readers have books int he "on deck" circle, I encourage students to keep a TBR (To Be Read) list in their writing journals. However, w/ so many fabulous books available, I'm overwhelmed by choices. I start reading one book and find my attention diverted to another. A glimpse of my goodreads account reveals a list of 200 books on my "Want to Read" list, even though I add books sparingly. Simply, I rarely look back at this list and opt for a more recent book.
  • Social Networking: A paradox of social networking exists. Simply, I love seeing what others read and engaging in conversations w/ them about books, but I need to step away from the many platforms that keep me informed so that I can read for pleasure. That said, both goodreads and this blog have enticed me into committing to reading two books that might otherwise not register on my reading radar. I received both books free, one via a drawing that necessitated a commitment to read and discuss the book, the other via an email request for a review. 
  • Bogged Down in a Book: I rarely check books out of the library; however, I couple of months ago I requested a book not in the library's collection. The library purchased the book, which I have and have partially read. Had the book arrived before school started, I'd probably have it completed, but now I am bogged down in this book. Even though I like the writing style, the subject matter, the genre, I just can't get into it and feel guilty for having requested the book because my local library, as are most others, strapped for funds. The book is now long overdue, and I'll pay a hefty fine for my inability to finish the book in a timely manner. 
  • Priorities and Physical Factors: Dare I say it, but at times I'd prefer other forms of entertainment to reading. As sacrilegious as that sounds, it's true. I have poor eyesight. As I get older, my eyestrain has become more severe. By the end of the day, my vision blurs even w/ my glasses. At home I typically remove my glasses to read. I must hold the book very close to my face to see the words. This use to frustrate my parents and still confuses others. We typically don't think it's healthy for someone to hold a book two inches from one's face, but that's what I must do to read most books. Even at school, I must sometimes remove my glasses to read a passage with small typeface. 
  • Fickleness and Distractions: I'm a fickle reader. Simply, I cheat on books all the time but beginning a new one before finishing the one I committed to. I have 29 books in my "Currently Reading" folder on goodreads, but I actually have more than that going. I haven't added all the books into the list. I'm particularly easily distracted when reading professional books. These books often function more as reference books, but guilt consumes me when I haven't finished the hot new professional book du jour. I love professional literature by and for teachers. Currently, I have several recently published professional books awaiting my attention; I have begun reading them all. I just need to finish, but there's always another book I want to hang out with. Hence, my fickleness.
In time will overcome/recover from my reading slump. I began reading a lovely YA book this week and will soon finish it. It's a short text that will give me a sense of success and may pave the way to my finishing other books, perhaps even those with which I once had a crush that needs a little rekindling. 

#BookTalkaDay As this past week was Banned Book Week, I chose frequently challenged books for my daily book talks. Here's the list: 

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

*I'm happy to report that all these books have been checked out and are now enjoying reading time w/ some of my seniors.