Tag Archives: reading

A Little Help for Some Teen Book Joy

It’s an all-hands on deck type of situation with my classroom now. All my kids are reading, but they won’t go to the library, I can’t get a library cart for them, and the books they want to read aren’t readily available.

So, in the latest attempt to do some problem-solving, I created a Donors Choose project to raise money for books for them and some bookcases.

If people donate before November 3 and use code SPARK, DC will match the donations.

Here’s the link.

#sharebookjoy!!!

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Why Am I Exhausted? Oh Wait, I’m Teaching Huck Finn…

When I decided to teach Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to my sophomores, I decided to for several reasons, many of them about the importance of the text as “American” (whatever that means), and also because the character Jim presents all sorts of conundrums. I also wanted them to come to their own conclusions about whether the text should be taught in classrooms (the culminating debate for the text). That Huck can’t quite resolve the conflict between his conscience and his heart is just as compelling, and, while at the center of the novel, there are numerous other angles that also provide interesting moments of analysis.

I also remembered when I taught the text a couple of years ago that I was absolutely worn out once we got done with the book. With the last 12 chapters to go, I’m feeling that same way, and have been thinking about why.

The additional layer that often gets overlooked in these discussions about appropriateness, N-words and the rest is how much background knowledge you have to build for kids AND how much correcting of historical inaccuracies you also have to resolve. Students are as naive as Huck when it comes to thinking about Jim, and–this is where I understand why I have to teach this text and be on my game every single time I work with the kids–they will remain that way unless you help them think of him otherwise.

They want to call Jim illiterate. They want to say that he’s not “smart”. They want to think him illogical. They also have questions about enslaved Africans: would Jim have known his family in Africa? They ask with a genuine interest.

They also think they know everything about slavery because they saw Django Unchained.

I want to pass out, but I can’t.

I have been building text sets out of necessity (ah, the mother of invention) to give them a broader understanding of the lives of enslaved Africans. I’ve shown clips from Skip Gates’ newest documentary, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross which talks about slavery and fugitive slave laws (and if you don’t cry when you watch the story of Margaret Garner, well, then…), pulled from slave narratives, Frederick Douglass, historical documents, etc.

I am cobbling together supplemental texts as quickly as I can, which is fine. It’s just…frustrating and disheartening and, yes, exhausting. Teaching HF is fraught with my own internal conflicts: is it worth reading a text that potentially takes so much out of me emotionally, through analyzing Huck’s conflict amidst the historical setting and contradictions? Is it worth having to correct so many plain-wrong misunderstandings about enslaved Africans, about romanticized notions of slavery, of fighting to help them see Jim as a person (before that all goes to hell when they reach Phelps’ farm)?

I would say yes, though I’m uneasy.

I think, too, that I’ve come to the point that I think this text should be taught as interdisciplinary, with a History teacher who can set to rights the wrongs that kids have internalized. And I’m not putting this work off on a History teacher; rather, I simply think that the more kids have the opportunity to learn counternarratives, and apply them to texts to broaden or correct their (mis)understandings, the better critical thinkers, writers and people they can become.

Because the struggle is so real right now, and I have never been happier to know that tomorrow is the weekend and I can shore up my own courage before returning down the Mississippi River with them on Monday.

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Finding My Way Back to YA Lit: Aristotle & Dante

The best measure for me to determine if I’m reading a book that is weighty and meaningful (and please keep in mind that these terms hold various currency at different times in my life, dependent on what I’m supposed to be doing or attempting to ignore) is if I’m unafraid to read and cry on the subway.

I’ve read several titles that had me weeping, furtively wiping my eyes, wearing my sunglasses UNDERGROUND because I was overcome with something emotional about a text. I admit that I hope people don’t think I’m insane, but, when a book takes you, you don’t really quite care enough about what people might say. All that matters is, well, the book.

In this frenzied summer of teaching writing with high schoolers and literacy to preservice and new teachers, I have also been attempting to help all of them broaden their understandings of what it means to read and write. The teachers participate in a book club in hopes of remembering what real readers do (funny, they tend to want to impose all of these arcane rules on students that they would never do to themselves. I constantly remind them that, if they don’t want to complete particular activities after doing something,  then students don’t want to either). Given that the class is a mix of elementary, middle and high school teachers, of all subjects (no comment on how much of a challenge this is, but I will say that thoughtful, flexible groupings make everything better), I provided a list of books along the grade-level spectrum.

One of them was Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Now, as much as this is a young adult novel about two Latino young men discovering who they are, falling in love, and being loved by such wonderful parents (oh, I wanted their parents to be my parents or to be parents of kids I taught, or just, I don’t know, hang out with them or go bowling or just be in the same room with them…) it is equally as much a book about literacy. The boys read to each other, share poetry, draw, write letters…I wonder if this is caused because the setting is late 1980s El Paso, Texas and how much things would probably be different (I had a moment when I wondered, why don’t they just text, which sent me rereading for the actual year), but I am so grateful that this novel is set in the time before technology changed everything.

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Aristotle & Dante: Two kids you should get to know

This, too, is a story about boys who love each other. Machismo aside, they cry, they hug, they are true to each other. While one boy’s father is struggling to be demonstrative with his love around his son, the other boy’s father is loving, gentle, kind in ways that encourage his peer to do the same.

It’s a wonderful model for what friendship might mean between two boys who love each other on multiple levels, and who want to be who they are within and without the confines of societal expectations, regional (mis)understandings, and, for lack of a better word, the universe. Don’t we need such nuanced stories, particularly when it’s so easy to think of young men as hard, as uncaring, as ones who definitely don’t cry?

Now, I’m back on the YA lit train and I can’t get enough of it. It’s been years since I really was able to immerse myself in the genre. It’s so well-written, so evocative, so important for young adults and the folks who try to understand them and who value them.

I’m ordering a few copies of Aristotle and Dante (side note: and I’m also happy the Printz award committee selected this book–let’s hear it for diversity!!) and I can’t wait for kids to say to me, “Dr. P, can you believe it when…?” and I’ll nod, and we’ll dig in to those conversations about loving texts, and young folks who figure it out, and who we love as much as if they were real people, too.

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Reading Junot Diaz (with Marvin in the Margins)

Drown always comes up as a book people often use in their classrooms. Kids love it, they say. That refrain, of kids loving it, is usually enough to garner at least one copy of said title in my classroom free reading collection, but I let Drown allude me. Two years ago, while combing through my department head’s binder, I found some stories from Drown with her meticulous notes and queries to push kids into and through the text, and thought that I’d use those stories in my Modern American Short Story unit.

So late to the party, I was.

The kids loved Junot. Rather, they loved the humor, the honesty, the heartbreak of the characters. When we read the New Yorker short story “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” we had an intense discussion about Oscar: fool or hero? Wasn’t dying for love admirable? (Many thought not. Oscar, they reasoned, was just a pitiful loser).

When I knew Diaz was releasing a new collection of short stories, I was more receptive (finally). I often half-listen to adults, but when young people talk, they generally have my full attention.

After being completely floored that my young Dominican students (particularly the boys) had NO IDEA who Junot Diaz was, and after I made several grandish claims (see earlier blog posts), I photocopied his short story “Ms. Lora” from another New Yorker where it ran that summer.

I was so anxious to finally read This is How You Lose Her that I ordered it on Amazon, was promptly struck with book buyer’s amnesia (it’s happened before), and purchased another copy in a local bookstore. (And maybe I was attempting to correct my book buying karma by keeping it local–sort of).

Then, I intentionally took the subway from one end to another, purposely scheduled a meeting and arrived an hour early so I could read and not be interrupted, so I could have the experience that kids have been having all along.

This experience of reading TIHYLH has been infuriating, comforting, endearing…makes me want to reread every page real slow because I don’t have something to read next that’s going to be as good.

I vacillate between wanting to punch Yunior in the face for being so callous with women to hoping to offer him a soft place to land for losing his brother to cancer. I want to shake the women who bide their time with men who see them when their “main women” are otherwise occupied. I want to take others by the hand and tell them to just hold on. It gets better.

I read so many pieces of text in my life that I think I lose my edge of actually feeling…thus, when I read something and it sucker punches me, I’m disoriented, gotta tell everyone about it, intentionally schedule reading time into classes so kids can read (but really so I can read, too).

What am I going to do with that extra copy? Well, I emailed that student who I had in class this summer and told him I’ve ended up with an extra copy of the book. Does he want it? Wait. First, I emailed him to ask if he knew the book was out and he said “Ha, way ahead of you Kim. This Is How You Lose Her, planning on getting it this week. Also, the short story Ms. Lora, was phenomenal. The Dominican culture in it is very similar to my own. I never knew I would ever find such things as the plastic covers on sofas being written about in a book! Hope all is well.”

I’ll make sure that extra copy gets delivered this weekend and follow up in a few weeks. I will listen more than I speak, simply content that a book and an author can create a text that we care about and will talk about for months to come.

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This is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz

Then, he’ll return the favor. “I’ll have a book for you by the summer comes,” he writes.

And he will.

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Filed under Student Interactions, Teaching Writing in the Summer