Saturday, June 28, 2014

Celebrate: Finally!

Discover. Play. Build.

  1. I love that Ruth hosts this linkup every week, and I knew that when I started writing again, this would become part of my writing routine. So I'm celebrating that I'm finally here!
  2. A clean apartment: I confess, I'm not one for cleaning. My classroom is fiendishly organized, but I never adopted the adult habit of vacuuming and dusting and such. I usually wait until I see the dirt or dust, and by then it's too late. It had also been a long time since I had seriously decluttered my space: unwanted TVs, old VHS tapes, a printer I didn't use. So on the last work day after school got out, I bought a new vacuum cleaner. I could write an entire post celebrating my new Dyson Animal Complete. It put a serious dent in my budget (though I did save +$200 off the regular price), but it's so worth it.
    I have spent the last two weeks hauling things to the dumpster, filling my car with things to give away, and deep cleaning. I am sitting in my new office space typing this (in a chair from my classroom that wouldn't have fit pre-cleaning), and the end is in sight. My hope is to be able to spend the whole month of July just enjoying my cleaner, less cluttered space.
  3. A successful shopping trip: I hate shopping for clothes. It is, perhaps, my least favorite chore. However, I have two events this summer that I knew required clothing that I didn't have in my closet, so I asked a friend to take me to the Nordstrom Rack. We spent two hours there (this is a record for me) and I found clothes for both events AND got a start on some new items for school in the fall.
  4. Pride: It's the weekend of the Pride Parade in Chicago, and the neighborhood is filling up with people and rainbows and, well, pride. I've lived here ten years, and I love how far society has come in that short amount of time. (I will also celebrate that this year I WON'T make the mistake of trying to drive into the neighborhood post-parade like I did after ALA last year.)
  5. Change? My teaching assignment is changing this year. This wasn't my choice, and I argued for something else, but it's ultimately out of my hands. That being said, I am excited (will be excited?) to focus my energies in fewer directions. More on that to come, for sure!

What are you celebrating this week?





Friday, June 27, 2014

Recess Football and Reading Community

"Miss Kelley, Miss Kelley!"

It's lunch time, three years ago. It's also a 1:45pm dismissal day, our version of a shortened full day for PD.

"Miss Kelley, the boys won't let us play football with them today."

They're 6th graders at this point. The girls are as tall as the boys. Many are taller.

"They might get hurt," the boys insist.

It's at that point that I know that our first read-aloud when they're in 8th grade will be Catherine Gilbert Murdock's Dairy Queen.

We started the year with Dairy Queen. This class loved football, and played every. single. recess. for three years. I have about 2,000 photos like the one above.

One of the great joys of reading aloud to students is the element of surprise. This is the second time I've used Dairy Queen as a read-aloud, and both times I deliberately kept the plot a secret. Sure, they could look it up online, and a few had already read it, but most had no idea that DJ would decide to try out for the football team. There is a purity to this reading experience that we don't often get today, with reviews and spoilers and jacket summaries that tell entirely too much information.

So I read them Dairy Queen. We were, at this point, starting our journey through A Tale of Two Cities, which is difficult and frustrating for the students, so I was glad to have a read-aloud that was easier to understand. And when we finished it, they begged for me to read them The Off Season.

So I did.

I warned them there would be lots of kissing in the first part of the book. I told them the novel ends on an emotional cliffhanger. They still wanted me to read it, and since I think it's the strongest of the trilogy, a book I had wanted to read aloud but how do you start with the second book, I willingly relented.

I treated the second book as more of a novel study, primarily through written responses. I asked them questions that forced them to get to subtext, we tried to get at the characters, we close read some passages. They were shocked at the twist in the plot, and they felt personally betrayed when the beloved love interest from Dairy Queen let DJ down when it mattered.

I knew, of course, that they would beg me to read Front and Center. I told them they could read it on their own, but they insisted. "Miss Kelley," they argued, "we have to finish it together."

And so we did.

Front and Center was our Friday afternoon reward. As one student said as she entered the room last period on a Friday, "This is my favorite period of the week."

It was mine too.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

We Need More Time

I woke up this morning thinking about Google forms and spreadsheets.


Like most reading teachers I know, at some point during the year I want my students to create and turn in a list of the books that they've read that year. I've done this a variety of ways over the years: handwritten lists, spreadsheets imported from Goodreads, spreadsheets from Google forms.

But that's not what I want to write about today.

As I came more fully awake this morning, and as my brain kept thinking about Google forms and spreadsheets, I had the thought that brought me fully awake: Time spent teaching students to make a Google form is time not spent reading or writing.

I knew this, of course. I'd already had that thought awake, but for some reason my sleeping brain returned to it.

So I'm thinking about time.

I haven't made many decisions about next year, and I'm still waiting for some school-level decisions to be made (like how many periods we will have of humanities next year), but I know that I have to take back control over how we use time in the classroom. Reading and social studies have taken too much time away from writing, and writing needs that time back.

Next year I will most likely have 13 or 14 40-minute periods to teach a combination of reading, language arts, and social studies. (While it's listed as language arts on report cards, I always call it writing.) The 15th period is library.

If I were to add up everything I want to do in a week, and everything I'm mandated to do, and everything my students need, I could easily fill all 45 periods on our schedule each week, including lunch, study hall, and mass. Somehow I don't see that happening.

So how do I find the time? How do I stop to teach a technology skill, valuable and useful though it is, when it takes away from reading and writing? And if I can't find the time, how can English teachers with only one period each day to teach both reading and writing find the time?

So that's what I'm thinking about this morning.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Core Belief 1: I Believe in Students

At the end of Kelly Gallagher's terrific writing book, Write Like This, there's a chapter with his ten core beliefs about the teaching of writing. I have, since finishing his book two years ago, been working on my own core beliefs about teaching. Here is one of them.

I Believe in Students

At some point in my teacher certification program, we were asked if we were going to be a "sage on the stage" or a "guide on the side." For me, with my shiny college degree and plenty of expertise in English and history, the answer was obvious.

I was going to be a sage on the stage.

I still am sometimes. There are days, or moments, or lessons, when I stand in front of my students and tell them, tell them, tell them something, and hope it sticks.

But, in more recent years, I have worked deliberately to not stand in front of the room and teach at my students. I repurposed the podium and rearranged my classroom so it wasn't facing the SmartBoard. I left the walls blank when school started so that we could fill them, together. I let my students influence our next read-aloud; I change course in our history study based on their interests. I skip a lesson, or I teach it twice.

I Believe in Students.

Sometimes they make this difficult. They will work hard to convince me that they cannot do something. "I cannot learn all those countries," they say, and turn in the quizzes and tests to prove it. "I cannot read A Tale of Two Cities," they say, and then they don't. "I cannot use a comma," they say, and they don't, or they throw one in wherever.

I Believe in Students. Even when they don't want me to.

Our students can do difficult things. They can learn where to put 160+ countries on a map. They can follow the situation in Ukraine. They can read fifty books in a school year, and write a novel, and cry for Sydney Carton. They can, each year, learn a few more rules for commas.

I Believe in Students.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

SOL: Ready for Reading

"You know what today is?" I ask the three and six-year-old as I load them in the car. Once a week I babysit my best friends' three kids for a few hours after school.

"Nope," the girls respond as they fasten their seatbelts. The three-year-old can almost do all the parts of her car seat without help.

"It's Babymouse's birthday!" I tell them, and they both cheer. The three-year-old might not read yet, but she definitely knows who Babymouse is.

When we don't find the books on the shelf at the bookstore near their house, I lead the six-year-old to the counter. These kids are not strangers to the booksellers, especially the children's booksellers, but it's still tough for a six-year-old to ask for help in the store.

"Go ahead," I coax. "Even if they don't have the book, they'll order it for us, and they'll know that they should order more for other kids."

She finally asks her question, but before the bookseller can look the title up in the computer, we're rescued by Betsy. She's known these kids since they were toddlers mostly interested in standing over the air conditioning vents and watching their clothes balloon up.

"I'm sure we have Babymouse," she says. "Let's look in the back." She emerges with two copies, and each girl grabs one.

"We'll take both," I say. "Hopefully I'll be able to get one for my classroom." Both girls are already reading their books. I have to keep my arm around the six-year-old's shoulders as we walked to the car so she won't trip.

I leave the six-year-old at the house with her piano teacher when we go to pick up the third grader and his friend at their tennis lesson. The three-year-old brings the new Babymouse for her brother. He is reading it before he's even started buckling his seatbelt, completely ignoring his friend.

"Do you know Babymouse?" I ask the boy.

"No," he answers.

The three-year-old gives him a look of dismay. "Do you know the lunch lady?" she asks.

He shakes his head. "Nope."

"Do you know Squish?" she asks in disbelief.

He shakes his head again. The three-year-old gives a snort of disgust. She can't read yet, but she's definitely judging his knowledge of books and finding him lacking.

The last time I looked, she still had the family copy of Happy Birthday, Babymouse on the shelf in her room.

Monday, June 23, 2014

What I've Been Reading

Fake ID by Lamar Giles

"Do you have time to read right now?" Betsy asked as I checked out at the bookstore. "I have a book that I really want you to read." She came back with a finished copy of Fake ID for me to borrow. And while I really didn't have much time to read at that point, I found myself completely drawn in by Nick (or is he Tony?). This book has a mystery and a conspiracy, and it's about what makes a family, and how to be a friend. Or not. I will definitely be adding this book to my classroom library when school starts again, and talking it up to my students. Thank you, Betsy.

One Man Guy by Michael Barakiva

I had to hunt for this book a little at my local independent bookstore, even though their system said it was on the shelf. I finally found it shelved in the Gay section, not YA. Andrew Smith's amazing Grasshopper Jungle was shelved next to it. I'm not sure if the store was trying to get its adult customers to buy these two books by not shelving them in YA, but I was surprised. And yes, One Man Guy is about Alek and Ethan's journey to becoming one man guys, but it's also very much about Alek and his Armenian family. His changing relationships with his brother and his parents are just as important as his new romance with Ethan, and I loved reading about an ethnic group that I hadn't seen before in YA.

Landry Park by Bethany Hagen

I found this book because it had a glowing shelftalker in the bookstore, but then it got shoved aside by some books-I-have-to-read-this-week books and I didn't get back to it until school was out. I'm glad I picked it up again. It's in the style of a moody classic romance (think Jane Austen's Persuasion or Mansfield Park, and anything by Charlotte Bronte), but set 200 hundred years in our future. Class has replaced race and ethnicity as the defining feature in society, and the wealthy have essentially enslaved the poor. I've seen some criticism of how the book describes the outside threat (an Eastern Empire made up of China, the Koreas, Russia, and the Middle East), but I disagree. The people in the book have been lied to for generations by those in power, so it's not surprising that they see the Eastern Empire as they do. There will be a sequel, though, so while I liked this book, I'd love to see protagonist Madeline think even more critically about the world around her in the next book.

Racing Savannah by Miranda Kenneally

This was definitely the lightest book I've read recently, and I raced right through it (pun not intended, but I'll leave it for now). Catching Jordan is the only other book I'd read by Miranda Kenneally, and I liked but didn't love it. (My DJ Schwenk obsession means I have a pretty high bar for books about girl football players.) I was pleasantly surprised to find that Kenneally has improved as a writer over the course of four books. That's not to say that she was bad before, because she wasn't, but I thought this book was better. And as I sit here writing this, I want to kick myself because I just figured out exactly the reader in my class last year that I should have been giving Kenneally's books to. (Insert mild profanity.) And that is why we read ALL the books. Even the books that are only okay for me might be perfect for a student. Drat.

How to Love by Katie Cotugno

This was a hot title at ALA last year, and our excellent librarian scored us an arc, and then I got a finished copy at ALAN, but it was somehow always in my next-ten-books-I'm-going-to-read list, but never the book I actually picked up. I'm glad I finally did.

How to Love has two timelines, Before and After. After, Reena is a community college student who lives with her parents and her fourteen-month-old daughter, Hannah. Before, Reena is a fifteen-year-old high school student with dreams of travel and early admission to Northwestern. After, Reena deals with the return of Hannah's father, Sawyer, and his place in their life. Before, Reena loses her best (and only) friend when Allie starts dating Sawyer, Reena's lifelong crush. The alternating timelines made this feel like a quicker read to me, but I can also see recommending this to a student who I wanted to push into a more complicated text. We forget, sometimes, what a challenge a book with a structure like this can be for teen readers.

I will also say that it's a mistake to approach this book (or to try to sell it to readers) as a swoony romance. It really isn't. Sawyer is not a boy to swoon over. He has problems of his own, and Before-Sawyer is not a very nice person. He screws up, a lot, and while After-Sawyer wants to redeem himself, it's up to the reader to decide if he ever will. (Brian Nelson is my favorite example of a not-perfect love interest. Does he redeem himself in Front and Center? My 8th graders didn't think so. You'll have to read the fan fiction that only exists in my mind to find out what I think.)

Tessa Masterson Will Go to Prom by Emily Franklin and Brendan Halpin

I picked this up at an independent bookstore here in Chicago that I usually don't visit (not close enough to walk and my two favorite stores have a better YA selection). But I was early to meet friends nearby, so I went in, and since it was nearly closing time, I bought something to justify my visit.

Tessa Masterson Will Go to Prom has two narrators, Tessa and her best friend Luke. As the novel opens, Luke decides he might love his best friend, and decides to ask her to prom in the most public way possible. Tessa, on the other hand, has never told Luke, or anyone except her brother Danny, that she's gay, but she assumes Luke has figured it out.

He hasn't.

I was thinking about this book while I was checking out at the grocery store yesterday, and a young trans woman was bagging my groceries. Since I live in the Boystown neighborhood in Chicago, I have a number of transgender neighbors. I saw some criticism of TMWGtP (okay, Goodreads reviews) that said Tessa is too stereotypical (she doesn't like dresses) and that the two authors are obviously straight. It's good, of course, to think critically about what's written, and to question stereotypes regarding gender identity. Of course wearing or not wearing dresses doesn't have anything to do with being gay or straight. But I'm okay with Tessa not knowing that. Much of the book revolves around how Tessa's small, very unenlightened town reacts to her coming out. When Tessa gets to Northwestern (hey, I just realized I read 2 books in a row with Northwestern-bound teens), she'll learn that lesbians come in all shapes and sizes and fashion sensibilities. Just because my grocery store hires transgender females doesn't mean that every store does.

And even as I was thinking about this post, I saw this engagement video online. If you read the notes, the writers (presumably the couple) discuss the same idea. I felt strange watching such a personal moment between people I don't know, and the couple expresses this same ambivalence about the video getting so much attention, but not everyone lives in Portland. For a teen somewhere, this video, or this book, might make a difference. And this review of TMWGtP is also worth a read.

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series by Maryrose Wood, narrated by Katherine Kellgren

I am slightly in danger of becoming obsessed with these audiobooks. They are fantastic, right up there with the audiobooks for the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness. They're middle grade, which I usually don't read, but The Mysterious Howling was a free download from SYNC one summer, and I started it on a lark and haven't been able to stop. I bought the audiobooks for The Hidden Gallery and The Unseen Guest (at full price!) and even bought a paperback of the first book to read with my favorite just-finished first grader. I don't read nearly as well as Katherine Kellgren, and it's certainly at the very high end of what this very bright just-finished first grader can understand, but she likes it so far. The series gets compared to the Lemony Snicket books, and they do call those to mind, but these are much more joyful and fun. I highly recommend.

What have you been reading?


Thursday, June 19, 2014

What Do You Remember about Jake Barnes?

Setting: A suburban kitchen. The kids are in bed. Mom and dad are both home from work. The babysitter, Auntie Lea, has stayed late to read chapter 2 of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling with the just-finished first grader. All three adults have been close friends since the first week of college over twenty years before.

Me: "Have you guys read The Sun Also Rises?

Both: "Of course! Yes!"

She exits toward the garage to get something.

Him, in pompous voice designed to get a rise out of both of us: "I read it at The Academy." The academy is the local Jesuit school. Most of my students end up there.

Me, not giving him an inch: "Yes, and I read it at the Washington version of your academy. . ." I, too, am the product of a Jesuit education.

She storms back in, pointing at her husband: "We didn't read it at my school, so I read it during the summer ON MY OWN!" She did not go to a Jesuit school. Her grad school, however, trumps both of ours.

Me: "I read it during the summer. It was summer reading." This, of course, is beside the point. She returns to the garage.

After she returns, I tell them that I wrote about The Sun Also Rises on my blog, and that now some commenters said they might read it. I tell them what Jeff said about not missing what is wrong with Jake Barnes. I'm worried people won't like the book.

One of them: "I don't remember what's wrong with Jake Barnes.

The other of them: "I just remember drinking and bullfighting."

Me: "It is just about drinking and bullfighting." I'm tempted to repeat the last few lines of the book, but I resist.

We go on to argue about the end of A Farewell to Arms (Him: "It's so great, with the rain." Me: "All that, and SPOILER REDACTED."). I recommend In Our Time, my favorite of Hemingway's short stories. We debate whether Hemingway wrote love stories or not (Me: "The women are all weak." Her: "There's always a love story." Him: "The Old Man and the Sea?" Her: "Okay, not that one.") We eventually get distracted and talk about something else.

And now I want to read Hemingway again.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Why I Broke Up With Amazon

I remember when I first heard about Amazon.

I was working in my dad's law office, and I would hear them advertised while I listened to the local news radio. They have ALL THE BOOKS, I thought. Later, when it became an option, I tried to get my parents to buy Amazon stock: "They have all the books," I said, but my parents didn't listen. (In an often-told family story, my dad also ignored my mom about a small coffee company that went on to become pretty big.)

People may not remember this, but it used to be a harder task to get all the books. In fact, it used to be a much more difficult thing to even figure out what all the books were. As a young reader, I was obsessed with The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy, but it wasn't until college that I ever saw copies of her other Pimpernel books, buried deep in the stacks of Baker Library. I had never been able to check out any of them from my local municipal library, even when I tried interlibrary loans. It just wasn't possible. I hadn't even known they existed until high school. You used to have to rely on the list of books inside a novel to know what else an author wrote.

Just now, however, I was able to enter "the scarlet pimpernel" into Goodreads, and I found a list of all the titles, in order, and a link to buy them.

From Amazon, of course.

When I lived in Ellensburg, Washington, a town with only a college bookstore, I could order any book and have it delivered without driving over a mountain pass. When I was on a mountain in Vermont for four summers, I could order all the strange and wonderful books that my classmates were recommending without driving down the mountain and waiting for a local store to have it delivered so that I could drive down the mountain again to pick it up. When I moved to Chicago, I could order all the trashy romance novels with lurid covers that I wanted, and no one would judge me.

We have great independent bookstores in Chicago, and most books that I ask them to order for me arrive within a few days. Yet even when I switched most of my non-romance novel buying to my local stores, I still liked that Amazon offered customers the ability to buy all the books. Even when Barnes and Noble rejected a cover (don't even get me started on the power of that one B&N cover guy to drive book purchasing in this country), and it didn't catch the eye of my local store, I could still find it on Amazon. Readers without great local stores could still get any and every book from Amazon, and that, I thought, is good for everyone.

So why did I finally decide to break up with them?

It wasn't the change in price for a Prime membership, though I had decided to let mine expire.

It wasn't when they turned off the MacMillan buy button, or when they messed with the rankings of LGBT books. I watched, but I kept buying.

It wasn't some of their practices that seemed to aim directly at independent stores (Find an item in a store and buy it from us cheaper). It wasn't the many generous events that I've attended because of independent stores, the readings, the teen book events, the dinners. That earned stores my business, but it didn't turn me away from Amazon.

It wasn't even this article, though it certainly pushed me closer.

What finally did it was that, at this moment, you CAN'T buy all the books from Amazon. As part of their ongoing negotiations with a publisher, certain books are either delayed or unavailable.

I don't care so much about the negotiations. Publishers aren't perfect. I've spent enough time with booksellers and sales reps to know that publishers don't do themselves any favors. If Amazon can force their systems to become more efficient, that's probably a good thing.

What I do have a problem with is Amazon refusing to sell me a book. Even though I'm too embarrassed to walk into my local independent to ask them to order me The Duke's Wicked Pirate Bride (oh, that such a book existed!), I could if I wanted to. They will, in fact, order me all the books. I might have to wait for delivery (though not long in Chicago), or they might ask me to pay in advance (not usually). They might even tell me that a book is out of print, and suggest I try the publisher's website or a used bookstore. But they won't refuse to sell me the book.

Amazon is a powerful company. They're addicting. They've moved beyond all the books to all the stuff. I can save a lot of money buying toiletries and pantry items from them. I can't even figure out how to buy some items without Amazon. I love my Kindle Paperwhite.

But I'm not okay when they won't sell me a book, because next time, it could be the books about religions, or political candidates, or monopoly businesses. And now that I've actually thought about that, I'm not okay with giving them my business.

And that's why I broke up with Amazon.

(This won't be the last time I write about this. This article also shaped my thinking, and I read most of the posts and articles it links to as well. Comments and questions are welcomed.)


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

SOL: Poolside with Jake Barnes

When I was in high school, I worked as a lifeguard at our local tennis club.

Many of you are no doubt picturing sunglasses, a deep tan, and summer highlights.

You're wrong.

I grew up in Western Washington. Summer arrives there in late July, if you're lucky, and sticks around long enough to make the first few weeks of school miserable. Really, I never assumed that the sun would be out on the 4th of July. I figured it'd be raining.

The pool would open in June, but the crowds would be thin at best. Most of the time would be spent huddled under a beach towel and a hooded sweatshirt, bathing suit on underneath because you had to wear one on duty.

Usually, of course, we sat in the lifeguard chair, but today it was raining. Or drizzling, more likely. It drizzles more than it actually rains in Washington. There were no swimmers at all, so I was sitting under the covered area near the locker rooms, bathing suit, beach towel, sweatshirt, probably a hat. And Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.

"You taking Ploof's class next year?" Jeff asks, dropping into the chair next to mine. There aren't a lot of customers for tennis either. Jeff is a year ahead of me at Bellarmine, and I'm friends with his younger sister.

"Yeah," I say, holding up the paperback novel. Junior year is a big deal, academically, and Ed Ploof's American Lit class is an important part of that.

"Huh," Jeff says, leaning back in his chair. We watch the rain drizzle. Or mist. Often it's just misting.

"Whatever you do," he continues, gesturing to the book in my hand, "don't miss what's wrong with Jake. I read right past it, and the book makes no sense without it."

I frown. Don't miss what's wrong with Jake, I tell myself.

"His war injury," Jeff says. "It's important. Pay attention to that."

I nod, already worrying. Don't miss what's wrong with Jake.

And I don't.

Monday, June 16, 2014

What Are You Reading This Summer?

I love summer reading, and have since I first joined the Tacoma Public Library's summer reading program after first grade. I read over 100 books that summer and got to meet the mayor.

I don't love summer reading assignments. My freshman year in high school, it was Ivanhoe. Junior year, I read Tom Sawyer and The Sun Also Rises. I could not figure out the Hemingway book at all, and wrote that all the characters did was drink and go to bullfights. (In defense of 16-year-old me, that really is all they do.) It wasn't until later in the school year, after studying both In Our Time and A Farewell to Arms with my class under the guidance of our teacher, that I understood the Hemingway.

As a teacher, I've tried every version of the summer assignment. "Read from this list of classics," I said when I taught AP. "Read from this list of fun books," I said when I switched to middle school. A few years ago I abandoned the teacher-made list entirely and had my graduating 8th graders suggest their favorite books from the year.

This year I didn't even go that far. In fact, if you read what I handed out closely, you'll find that I didn't assign anything at all. Instead, I issued a Summer Challenge. I wrote the following:

See what I did there? There's no points, no assignment, just a little healthy competition with the younger grades and the offer that books read in summer count toward books read in 8th grade. The truth is, I never gave points for summer assignments anyway, because I was always too busy starting the year to sit down with a stack of book reports (and what you get after summer is a book report, regardless of the year in school). I also hated to have students start the year in the hole because of a summer assignment. I don't know what goes on in their families. I don't know what their summer was like, or even the kind of reader they were at the end of 7th grade. How can I grade them before I even spend one day in the classroom with them?

As for my own summer reading, well. . . at the end of the school year, my currently reading sign looked like this:

I've finished three of the books on there (Fake ID, The Hidden Gallery, and Mortal Heart). Now I'm reading Vertigo 42 by Martha Grimes, the 23rd (!) Richard Jury book. I'm listening to the next Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place book. I WILL finish those teaching books, and read Congo.

What are you reading this summer?