Category Archives: Reading Lives

Leaving Teaching: Who Gets the Books?

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So MANY Books…going to a good home!

After nearly 16 years of teaching and learning with young people, I’m leaving the classroom at the end of the school year.

I am not leaving entirely; rather, I’ll be working in a program that prepares pre-service teachers, a pursuit I’ve wanted to dedicate much more time to doing.

Now, though, is the hard part of leaving. My first thought after accepting my new position was: what is going to happen to my books?  I knew I wanted them to go to someone who knows why a robust, diverse classroom library matters–for all kids, but, in the case of my work, particularly for underserved kids. I also wanted to be able to give the library to someone who might not have the resources to acquire this treasure for him/her/themself.

And while I’ve worked to create a school-wide culture of independent reading at my current school, I’m not so sure it will continue in ways that I’m comfortable.

So, this was a wonderful opportunity to look backwards–something I’m not that fond of doing because, well, when that happens we can see the good and the bad.

Hindsight, certainly.

I have a beloved colleague that used to teach down the hall from me about 10 or 12 years ago. We have continued to be critical, thoughtful friends for each other over the years. He’s wanted to gain a foothold with independent reading with his kids. He knows it matters. He has made smaller achievements with them. He could make leaps and bounds, I think, if he had more resources. His school’s budget has been trimmed even more.

Supplies, particularly books, are usually the first line item to be cut.

He is taking all of the books. All nearly 900 of them that kids WANT to read. He and a colleague are driving across town and will load them all and take them back to their school. 

This colleague sent me an email asking for money for the library.

Is he kidding? But that’s how Chris is. I told him that the fact that I know the books are going to be read and re-read and that that library is going to be used is all the peace of mind I could ever want, and a small step towards giving kids access to all the books they want and need.

But yes, he could take me to dinner and we can catch up as thanks, for sure. Always. I’m also reminded of how ideas leave us connected and believing in the power of literacy and kids’ rights to have literate lives, reminding us to work like heck to realize those ideas.

 

 

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#kal Kids Are Loving #3: Books My Students are Currently Reading and Loving

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Image from New York Times

Welcome to the latest in the occasional series I call Kids Are Loving. Here, I briefly note books that my sophomores and seniors have loved. (Previous lists can be found here and here). [Note: My classes are comprised of mostly underserved young people (i.e., students of color, ones with learning challenges, boys, etc.) who usually have not had enough positive experiences with reading before starting my class.] Happy reading!

Humor

Zits: Chillax, Jerry Scott, Jim Borgman: This book has captured all types of kids. They say it’s funny and enjoy the comic strip aspect of the book (and even stop and sketch while they’re reading).

Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir, Eddie Huang: Before it became a hit TV show, it was a book. This one resonates for students from a broad range: language learners, different races and ethnicities, etc. All say Eddie is irreverent and hilarious.

Swim the Fly, Don Calame (from Amazon):  three 15-year-old buddies make a pact to see a naked girl before the summer is over and in the process mire themselves in increasing trouble and constant humiliation. All three are on the summer swim team, and, in a desperate attempt to impress the superhot new girl, Matt agrees to swim the dreaded butterfly at championships, despite the fact that he can barely tread water. At the same time, he’s dealing with his horny grandpa, a sadistic swim instructor, and his pals’ wacky schemes to catch a glimpse of bare skin, which includes dressing up like girls and entering a women’s locker room. That would’ve worked if it weren’t for the accidental dose of laxative . . . well, you get the idea. My note: BOYS LOVE THIS BOOK.

Noggin, John Corley Whaley: (from Amazon): Five years ago, Travis Coates died at the age of 16 after a long, hard battle with leukemia. However, Travis was offered a chance to become the 17th test subject in a very unorthodox medical experiment, which involved cryogenically freezing his head and eventually bringing him back to life once science becomes more advanced. Science moves faster than either the doctors or Travis and his family ever imagined, and soon he is back with a healthy 16-year-old body thanks to a generous young donor. Kirby Heyborne fills Travis’s voice with a realistic mix of pain, confusion, and the joy of being given a second chance, as he highers and lowers his pitch and volume. He also tackles the many people in Travis’s life who had to grieve his loss and must now deal with his return from the dead—albeit with a different body.

Hodge Podge

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, Max Brooks: zombies, zombies, zombies. This book got passed around so often I purchased a few more copies. Kids found it spooky, amazing, and couldn’t put it down.

Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible, Suzanne Kamata: I found this book while doing some reading for a chapter I’m writing on multicultural kid lit. Aiko, the 15-year old protagonist has cerebral palsy and creates Gadget Girl, a graphic novel featuring a fearless, creative heroine who solves problems through her ingenuity with kitchen gadgets. Aiko is biracial (Japanese and white), also. I’ve added this one to my classroom library because 1) there aren’t enough books about disability and 2) those books tend to not feature characters of color.

Everything, Everything, Nicola Yoon: A good-old love story that was in frequent rotation. The main character is a young woman in a bubble, content to live there until…Ollie, a cute boy, moves in next door. Things suddenly get WAY too complicated, in those ways that make you love teenage romance and identity development. There are lots of delicious sentences, too, in case you’re looking for mentor texts.

A Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, Misty Copeland: many students have been captivated by Misty Copeland’s story. They find her persistence and ultimate triumph inspirational and profound. That they can also find her on social media is an additional element that makes her life come alive for them.

And One to Grow On: A Great Read Aloud

Blackbird Fly, Erin Entrada Kelly. Kids love being read to. I need to remember that. I found this middle grade gem while doing some reading for the chapter I wrote. Essentially, it makes the reader cringe about middle school and all the reasons why it is a terrible place for many folks, particularly if that life resembles that of main character Apple, a Filipina American living in Louisiana. Yet, there is so much hope here and reminders about the power of parents, and music, and good friends. I read some excerpts to my kids and they ate it up.

 

 

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How Penny Kittle Made My Day (for the second time)

I’m featured in the Teacher Learning Sessions Podcast chatting with Penny Kittle (OMG!!!) about how to get young people reading. Please listen (it’s less than a half hour) and send some coins to the Book Love Foundation. Teachers need books and Penny Kittle is, essentially, the fairy book mother by giving teachers classroom libraries. She is a gem and my kids are better readers because I received one of these grants. All the money raised goes to teachers to buy books. If anyone has ever purchased books for you or for your students, it’s time to pay it forward. Book love is contagious!booklovelogov2020416

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#kal Kids Are Loving #2: Books My Students Are Currently Reading & Loving

Welcome to another Kids Are Loving (#kal), where I offer up texts my students are reading and loving. In case you missed KAL #1, you can catch up here. These texts are ones young people choose to read. [Note: My classes are comprised of mostly underserved young people (i.e., students of color, ones with learning challenges, boys, etc.) who usually have not had enough positive experiences with reading before starting my class.] Kids are currently reading, chatting up, and passing around a lot of nonfiction. Enjoy!

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Image from Amazon.com

Nonfiction

Columbine, Dave Cullen: none of my students were alive when this school shooting happened on April 20, 1999. Cullen’s account of the shooters, the environment, and the aftermath holds them spellbound through the entire account. Plus, Cullen’s writing is riveting and makes for great modeling about powerful writing.

Laughing at My Nightmare, Shane Burcaw: Burcaw is a 21-year-old living with spinal muscular atrophy. It’s Burcaw’s use of humor that students love as they read about his triumphs and travails. What kids realize is that having a challenge doesn’t mean someone is so different after all.

Lost Girls:An Unsolved American Mystery, Robert Kolker: I picked this book up after reading a review in the New York Times. Essentially, this book attempts to find out what happened to four murdered women whose bodies were found in New York. That these young women were, essentially, forgotten because they lived lives of survival makes their fates and the inattention paid them, even more troubling. This book has resonated with many students and has topped a number of Best Of lists for them.

Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America, Nathan McCall: Nathan McCall came to my college when I was a sophomore (I vaguely remember). At that time, his book had just been published. I remember him as being warm, strident, and of having my peers note that they felt he was talking about their own experiences. Now, nearly 20 decades later, that same feeling of personal address by McCall continues to resonate with readers, particularly ones of color, but McCall’s message holds true for any young person going through difficult times and encouraging them to keep pushin.

Fiction

The Coldest Winter Ever, Sister Souljah: I can’t keep this book in my library and have multiple copies. This is a fast-paced, drama-filled story of a young woman who navigates elements of urban life. Winter is street smart, in love with a bad boy, has a complicated relationship with her father…kids love it (and so do I). There are two sequels, BTW.

Spanking Shakespeare, Jake Wizner: A senior in high school has to write his memoirs as part of a graduation requirement. As you might imagine, the details are hilarious. This book has been popular with boys who want to laugh. A lot.

What are your kids loving lately? Share their faves (and yours) in the comments!

 

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#kal Kids Are Loving #1: Books My Students Are Currently Reading & Loving

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Boy21 image from Matthew Quick’s website

Welcome to what I hope is a regular series I’m calling “Kids Are Loving” #kal. Here, I’m aiming to note what is popular with my teenage readers in hopes of having a record for future recommendations, to also serve as suggestions for those of us working with young people, and to remember what they enjoyed at that particular moment. These books are all ones students selected on their own and read as part of their independent reading lives.

Boy 21, Matthew Quick: boys love this book! I can’t keep our multiple copies in the library. From Matthew Quick’s website: Basketball has always been an escape for Finley. He lives in broken-down Bellmont, a town ruled by the Irish mob, drugs, violence, and racially charged rivalries. At home, his dad works nights and Finley is left alone to take care of his disabled grandfather. He’s always dreamed of somehow getting out, but until he can, putting on that number 21 jersey makes everything seem okay…

Rule of the Bone, Russell Banks: another one that is always checked out. Review here from the New York Times.

Monster, Graphic Novel, adapted by Guy Sims from original by Walter Dean Myers: a graphic novel of the popular story of WDM’s Steve. Tackles timely questions in a gripping, accessible way. Students who loved the original Monster also like this version.  More info here. 

Redefining Realness, Janet Mock: another popular selection that is informative and inspirational as well as a great example of how literacy can save us. Plus, Mock has a fantastic online presence that encourages follow-up and further reading.

The Death of Bees, Lisa O’Donnell: a student explained why she loved this book: alternating narrators and a mystery that isn’t resolved until the last few pages. Great for kids who love mysteries, young adults as protagonists (and I found them portrayed accurately, though it took me a moment to get used to the narrators because they talk just like…well, like teenagers!), and a well-told, sentimental story. (The link takes you to an NPR story about the book).

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Rereading My High School Classics: Killing Mr. Griffin

I received this amazing grant from Penny Kittle’s Book Love Foundation, allowing me to stock my classroom library with an awe-inspiring number of books my kids will actually enjoy reading. While perusing the catalogue, I noticed that Lois Duncan’s Killing Mr. Griffin was among the options. KMG is one of those books that evokes an instant reaction for me: flashback to early high school (or maybe late middle school). I was a binge reader, so I probably was in the process of reading every book Duncan had ever written by that point. I was most likely splayed out on my bed while my grandmother was most likely telling me to do something (most likely to wash the dishes or pour the food up after dinner) and I was unable to tear myself away from the book. I passed much of my youth like that.

During this particular time of year, when life threatens to speed up and have its way with me, I start to read for comfort as a way to reorient

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Killing Mr. Griffin: Nearly As Good Now as It Was Then

myself. This type of reading is my self-care, I reckon. I might reread a book or two that I’ve enjoyed (cue Tiny, Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed), a lot of young adult literature, some poetry…I don’t want to veer too far outside of the familiar because I need a place to stand (or read, if you will), that is comforting. That’s why I wanted to reread KMG. Would time stand still the same way? Would I feel those little creepy thrills at the mystery? Would I be as enmeshed with a text in the ways I was when I was a teenager?

Essentially, yes. The quick premise of the book: Mr. Griffin is a high school English teacher who pushes his students to be excellent. He doesn’t take late work, doesn’t accept mediocrity, insists that students think critically. Wait. Am I Mr. Griffin?! I hope not, because four particular students decide to play a prank on him and scare Mr. Griffin into becoming a nicer teacher. Of course, given that Duncan wrote I Know What You Did Last Summer, this intention was going to go awry, and it did. The kids kill Mr. Griffin.

I’m relatively sure that when I read it as a teenager, I would have been all caught up in the social structure of the killer kids: they lure in a nerdy junior (the majority of them are seniors), they make her feel that she belongs, they complain about the teacher being too demanding. I would have totally gotten behind their cause (well, up to a point), allowing myself to get caught up with the momentum of the story. I would not have paid any attention to Duncan’s attempts at Mr. Griffin’s backstory, choosing instead to consume myself with how Murder Inc. was going to either hold or fold as more people began to find out what they’d done. I did feel some anxiety at moments around the actions of the one kid at the center who orchestrated everything. But, yeah. I would have spent all night reading it, going back to wherever I got that book the next day (be that the public library if it were a Saturday or the Thrifty Bookworm if I could get a ride there to trade it in) to keep reading something along those lines.

Fast forward to nearly 25 years later. Here’s what I noticed reading KMG this time:

  • Lois Duncan had some great lines of prose, particularly when it came to description. A line I wrote down to use as a mentor sentence: Susan turned to see David Ruggles running toward her, the slightness and delicacy of his bone structure giving him the framework of a kite with his blue Windbreaker billowing out beneath his arms, the wind seeming to lift and carry him (3).
  • All I could think about this time was how similar my teaching philosophy was to Mr. Griffin and how, IRL, if you’re a tough teacher, you’re often not considered a “good” teacher by students until years down the road. I also thought it was so sad that he truly loved his students and working with them and all they were concerned about was their grades. So, they killed him. Yipes. And he and his wife were expecting a baby?! NOPE.
  • I was less forgiving of plot holes. Characters came and went, then reappeared (or didn’t) with little rhyme or reason. Again, I notice this now but then? Such discrepancies wouldn’t have bothered me much. I was also not satisfied with the (relatively) tidy ending.
  • There are some fantastic allusions to Macbeth (the Murder Inc. kids make a reference to the line about the old man “having so much blood in him”) and there are several to Hamlet. The English teacher in me cheered.

In sum: Grade then: A; Grade now: B+

Reading one of my classics was a delightful experience. While I’m sad about how things ended for Mr. Griffin, I do think the experience of reading the book was as positive now as it was then. I also have had a series of great conversations with colleagues about rereading the books that mattered to them as young people and if they held up to our grown up eyes. Wouldn’t that be a wonder to share with our students? But, oh, it was simply joyful to sit in a restaurant this afternoon and read, and read, and read and not care what time it was, or who needed me. For those moments, it was me and my book. And that was all that mattered.

 

 

 

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Summer, Summer, Summer: READING

Re Jane by Patrica Park is on my list

One of my favorite questions is always about what I’m reading. A dear friend passed along some books she’s reading this summer and then came the reciprocal question. It’s my favorite question, but it’s also one that has become laden with a bit of anxiety. I simply do not have as much time to read as I wanted.

Now, with summer nearly here, so close I can conjure up early mornings with time to read, and to read and to read, I turn to making lists. As of this moment, on this day, these are the books I’m looking forward to reading this summer. Some are annotated with reasons while others are not. All of them, however, are ones that I hope will allow me to remember, yet again, why the best summers are the ones where there are endless numbers of books to read and time to read them…

  • A Window Opens, Elisabeth Egan (doesn’t come out until September, but one of my favorite bloggers reviewed it and it sounds lovely)
  • Saint Anything, Sarah Dessen; summer means Sarah Dessen. If you loved Dawson’s Creek (and the opening song “I Don’t Wanna Wait” just started playing in my head), then you’ll love everything she writes. Easy, breezy, YA
  • Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, Jesse Andrews: one of the books that I couldn’t keep on the shelves of my classroom library. I want to read it before the movie comes out this summer (which, BTW, the kids said is also quite hilarious). It’s good because my students are always after me to have more funny books for them. This one fits their requests.
  • Loving Day, Mat Johnson (Roxane Gay said it’s good. That’s enough for me).
  • In the Country, Mia Alvar (another Roxane Gay rec; I want to read beyond single stories and haven’t read much about Filipino folks; this collection of short stories looks delicious)
  • Make Your Home Among Strangers, Jennine Capo Crucet: Cuban American, immigration, elitism (I’ve now devolved into keywords; my shorthand helps me be able to write faster)
  • The Other Side of Bird Hill, Naomi Jackson: from Brooklyn to Barbados, sisters, sent to live with grandmother, obeah
  • Re: Jane, Patricia Park: Korean American orphan, au pair, Seoul, romantic wonderings
  • The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander: memoir, poetry
  • God Help the Child, Toni Morrison; let me give Toni Morrison ONE MORE SHOT
  • Jam on the Vine, LaShonda Barnett
  • Ordinary Light, Tracy K. Smith: memoir, poetry
  • Balm, Dolen Perkins-Valdez (maybe; I remember enjoying Wench, but I don’t know if I can take the emotional gut punch another time)

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Guest Blogging for MA Literacy

Photo: MA Literacy

I’m doing a few guest posts about why we need diverse books for the wonderful Mass Literacy, the foundation that named me one of five literacy champions last year.

Read my first post, Why We Need Diverse Books, here. Stay tuned for future posts about books for middle school and high school readers. Also, feel free to check the previous post where I’m tallying my progress towards reading 100 Diverse Books in 2015. Still time for you to join me!

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Taking the Diverse Books Pledge: Keep It 100

We Need Diverse Books has issued a challenge for all readers:twitter-100-pledge (1)

From the website:

By pledging to read, 5, 10, 15, 25, or even 100 DIVERSE books.

Books where people of color can be first-page HEROES rather than second-class citizens. Books in which LGBTQIA characters can represent social CHANGE rather than social problems. And books where people with disabilities can be just…people.

This is a challenge I can get behind! I’ll list and link to the books I and my darling boy read (and provide some brief annotations) in hopes that folks will read along with us.

Books Read:

  1. Joshua By the Sea, Angela Johnson: makes me long for summer; an African American family spends a wonderful day at the beach; Joshua explores; board book, beautiful illustrations
  2. Whose Toes are Those? Jabari Asim, board book, great way for babies to play along while they find their toes
  3. Whose Knees are These? Jabari Asim, board book, similar to Toes, funny and affirming
  4. Goodnight Baby, Cheryl Willis Hudson, board book, cute illustrations, short and great for trying to get a baby into some sort of bedtime routine
  5. Pretty Brown Face, Andrea Davis Pinkney, another affirming book, though illustrations remind me of something that came out of the 70s (the father has an Afro that’s pretty dope, lol), board book; there’s a mirror on the last page so the baby can look at him/herself. I love that.
  6. The Boy Who Didn’t Believe in Spring, Lucille Clifton: one of my all-time favorite books. Hands down. Two boys, one of whom is named King Shabazz, go out in search of spring. Their quest leads them through their urban neighborhood. Wonderful illustrations, great interracial boy friendship. Delightful.

    The Boy Who Didn’t Believe in Spring

  7. Shades of Black: A Celebration of Our Children, Sandra L. Pinkney, Photographs by Myles C. Pinkney: a board book that describes shades of black and brown in creative, empowering language (my favorite “I am the midnight blue in a licorice stick”) that all kids need, black and brown kids, particularly. With photographs of actual children, some words you’re probably going to need to look up (well, I looked up Unakite, which is one of the words used as a descriptor), and the repeated phrase “I am Black. I am unique” this is a great book that depicts various shades of Blackness.
  8. So Much, Trish Cooke and Helen Oxenbury: A raucous celebration of family members who all come over to see the baby–well, so it seems. From uncle, to aunties, to others, this book is such fun to read. The language is reminiscent of, I’m thinking, Cooke’s cultural background, as some of the linguistic patterns seem West Indian (which makes sense given Cooke’s background). One visitor, the cousin, arrives and wants to fight with the baby, which did give me pause. Everyone else wants to hug and kiss the baby except the young cousin, who wants to fight. I imagine that we will have to have conversations about why hitting and fighting is inappropriate, eventually. However, for now, and even then, we will keep this book as one to read again and again because it is simply a delight: Black families, engaged in preparations for a great surprise, overly positive and loving.
  9. Ask the Passengers, A.S. King: I’m taking a course through a fantastic PD program called Teachers as Scholars. My seminar is about LGBTQI young adult literature in the classroom and this novel is one of the first ones I’m reading for my class. It’s an interesting concept: a young woman is in her senior year of high school, questioning if she’s a lesbian. She lives in a small town with awful parents (her dad’s a pot head and her mother is just…vile), plus her two closest friends are both in their own secret gay relationships. To get through it all, the main character, Astrid, sends her love out to passing airplanes. The book is cute for the first third but I was frustrated with Astrid and her seeming helplessness, though she gets an extra boost from Socrates and her supportive Humanities teacher. I also detested the mother. I found her so awful that she was beyond believable, but, that gives me something to talk about during my seminar. There are also two random mentions of people of color (I think Astrid’s girlfriend is Black and there’s a school board member whose race is mentioned), which absolutely confused me. Then, one of the characters disappears and reappears as the author is trying to tie up loose ends. Okay, so this book is one to add to a classroom library because it’s a portrayal of coming out, small town, lesbian. I’d imagine that this would be useful in a broader collection of LGBTQI stories.
  10. ABCs of African American Poetry, Ashley Bryan: I took to my bookshelves to start reading many of the books I’ve collected over the years to my son. This picture book has excerpts from the work of 26 Black poets. Sometimes the initial letter is not the first letter of the word (that threw me off a bit but once I realized that, it was fun to see where the letter would appear), promoting new discoveries. Additionally, the full information of the poets and their poems is at the end of the book for further reading. Bryan’s colorful, beautiful illustrations provide a wonderful pairing with the poems.
  11. Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan: I LOVED this book. The narrator–or Greek chorus?–felt like many of the friends I’ve known and loved. As the story played out, of two boys who wanted to break a record, of another couple that had been together for a while, of a different, new couple and of a lonely young man, I wanted to know every single story these kids had to tell. Every single one. I didn’t find any parts of the story contrived, and I think that’s because there’s also a part of this story that resonates with older readers, those of us who actually were around when AIDS took so many from us (and still is)…I could write forever about this book. For now, I’ll just recommend it wholeheartedly. An excellent young adult book that is also just write for grown-ups, too.
  12. Gracefully Grayson, Ami Polansky: Grayson is a boy who knows he is a girl. Living with his aunt and uncle in Chicago after his parents die, Grayson struggles to tell others what he has always known to be true. A great middle grade novel, largely because it is thoughtful and gentle and has some great examples of what it means to be an upstander when we see something wrong.
  13. Nino Wrestles the World, Yuyi Morales: In this delightful picture book, Nino wrestles various figures of his imagination in the custom of the Lucha Libre wrestlers. Nino is imaginative and Morales’ drawings are fantastic. Nino does meet his match at the end of the book, and it’s an even bigger challenge than a Lucha Libre!
  14. My Cold Plum Lemon Pie Bluesy Mood, Tameka Fryer Brown: One worry I have is that Black boys get labeled as “angry” far too quickly. Rather than helping them to use their words to express how they are feeling, they are punished. More patience! I think this adorable book will help. The Black boy at the center of this picture book uses all kinds of wonderful adjectives to describe his various moods. Readers can’t help but be encouraged to try their own descriptive words to express the many moods they’re in.
  15. Adaptation, Malinda Lo: This science fiction novel grabbed me at the beginning when birds started falling from the sky. I found it to get my adrenaline pumping as I wondered why the protagonist, Reece, had wounds that seemed to heal quickly, why she and her bestie spent time out in the middle of the desert and can’t talk about what happened. She has an encounter with another young woman that lets her explore her sexual orientation, too. Engaging, compelling, fast read for those who love Sci fi and those who don’t. I am the latter and I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
  16. Too Many Mangos, Tammy Paikai: I love it when friends give us books as gifts! This delightful picture book helps understand the gift of sharing. The illustrations feature a varied cast of Hawaiian characters beautifully drawn. Readers will also get a joyful glimpse of life as they learn about mangos and much more. This book will be in our permanent collection.
  17. Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, Isabel Quintero: Gabi reminds me of a well-developed Ugly Betty if you remember that TV show from the early 2000s. She describes herself at various times as “overweight,” “nerdy,” “Mexican,” but that doesn’t really scratch the surface. Gabi is also a loyal friend to her besties who have their own challenges (including coming out and teen pregnancy among other things), a father who battles substance abuse and a mom and aunt who don’t believe that she is actually a good girl. Oh, and Gabi is also a senior who has her mind set on going to UC-Berkeley. With an irrepressible sense of humor and a voice that rang amazingly true and reminiscent of young people I actually know, this book is one I’d consider reading as a whole class novel. It’s that good.

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Between Tweet Summaries, Shylock’s Defense and Sour Patch Kids: Places Where Learning Happens

I’ve been away for a bit to help with the National Council of Teachers of English annual conference, which was ultimately a wonderful success. While it was a good amount of work, the conference came at exactly the right time: my morale wasn’t particularly high, I was frustrated with administrative structures, annoyed that larger class sizes have slowed my ability to know my kids as well as I usually do, and concerned that the overall vibe of myself and colleagues was one of low morale, too.

Nothing like a conference full of good ideas, friendly faces, chats about books, favorite authors and everything else to change that! What is also important about conferences, and about this one in particular, is that NCTE got introduced to an entirely new audience of younger teachers, or teachers who had been teaching for years but had not been to a conference. I realized how much belonging to a professional organization matters. Already, being back in my school, the teachers who attended (my whole grade level team and most of the grade above me) have been simply ebullient about sessions they attended, new information they learned and are eager to try…there’s a spirit of re-invigoration.

Given that I’ve been away for a few days, I was not necessarily looking forward to returning to my classroom. I worried that my desk would be a mess, kids would have completed none of the work I’d left for them to do with their sub…overall chaos would await me. Luckily, none of that was the case. Desk was orderly, kids were happy to see me, wanted to know about the conference, if I brought them anything (books, books, books), and they turned in the work they completed. (That’s another story about how quickly I will get that all graded–I have to get better about these things).

My student teacher attended the conference. She’s been a great colleague because she actually has the time to observe what’s happening in class between students and me, between students and other students, etc. As is typical of a new teacher, most of her observations focus on behavior and classroom management. I don’t know if you remember, but this is the year I’m piloting a class with a group of sophomores that have a desire to enter Honors English classes but need some skills work (academic and habits of mind). While it’s by far my most difficult to teach, it is my joy every single day. I can see why she gets concerned with their behavior: they talk out, they get off task, they get me off task (I got caught up in a conversation about “Scandal” that was about 10 minutes too long, but it was so compelling…), they sometimes don’t do their homework, they can be resistant, they take everything personally…

So yesterday, on that first day back, after she voiced her thinking about students, I had to remind her about all the reasons I’m quite pleased that these kids are going to be ready to enter Honors in January. I had to give her a different way of looking at student progress that extends beyond classroom management.

In short:

  • We administered the Gates-McGinty reading assessment to get some sort of data about their current reading levels. Once I got the results, I asked the kids if they wanted to know their levels, reasoning that it’s just one type of data, and it’s good to be well-informed, because then you know where you can improve. While a few of them are reading on the post-high school level, many of them are hovering around middle school, but I told them that all they need to do is read more challenging books and write a lot, and they would raise those levels in no time. They just needed to be persistent. Add to that that I told them they needed to read 15 independent reading books over the course of the semester (why not set goals that are ambitious? If they read 10, I’ll be happy; what’s good to know is that they are all reading), in addition to the core texts. Lots of them like reading YA (who doesn’t?), but I told them that they needed to balance their reading diet with some more challenging texts (I have a great analogy that involves Doritos). Thing is, when you make such recommendations to kids who aren’t big readers, you best be ready to start pushing books at them. I’ve been bringing my books from home (I used to have a really great classroom library that I tend to donate to teachers when I leave schools, so I’m not at my current levels, but I still have some good ones), but we also have a fantastic school library. We read for 20 minutes to start every class, and kids go to the library when they need to. Yesterday, five kids needed to go, so I went with them. They wanted to read more challenging texts, and I was tired of them saying that and returning with YA, so we had a spontaneous trip, which yielded some new books and new interests. I also remembered that librarians don’t know all types of kids–my school librarian was recommending texts that I knew they weren’t going to read, or ones that were too challenging at the moment, or too…boring, so I had to pull books myself for them. But that’s progress! They want to read, they want to improve, they are on the path to becoming readers, and I need to step my own game up because they need my help.
  • To get some semblance of a status of the classroom, I had kids write a Tweet summary for an assigned act and scene from our current all-class text, The Merchant of Venice. After having arguments about characters and spaces, they summarized key points, used hash tags to emphasize the most important parts, and created a review sheet for their peers. More progress: they can distinguish between what is most important and what is interesting. 
  • On that same note, they then had to re-read Shylock’s defense and argue if he was a villain or a victim. It’s now become habit for them to remind themselves and each other to include textual evidence to support their claims, and to analyze that evidence. They would have just written their opinions and turned it in a few months ago.
  • I was at the candy store after school yesterday and ran into three of the kids from that class. It’s so great to see kids in environments outside of school, when they are themselves, and funny, and free. I made some fuss about scholars and Sour Patch kids and being happy to see them (why not make a fuss over them? Can’t be sure if anyone else will, so I make sure I do) before they wished me well and made their way into the evening. What is most important, too, is that they see themselves as part of a community of achievers that extends beyond what happens on the fifth floor. That community will see them through.

Progress happens, but sometimes it occurs on such a minute scale that we can miss it. I told my student teacher that we needed to remember those signs, and we spent a moment recounting those and others, just to make sure we don’t get so bogged down in the other stuff that we forget that these kids are moving forward, and that I just know they’re gonna do it. Don’t get me wrong, there have been moments over these last few months where I’ve wondered if it was going to work, but then, something like that happens: I either run into a kid outside of class who wants to show me something they’re reading, or invites me to come see her in the school musical, or submits what is a fantastically written paper, and I remember: we are going to do it, and for that, I’m grateful.

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Filed under Lab Classroom, Professional Development, Reading Lives, Student Interactions