Monday, December 22, 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming

One of my Christmas gifts to myself was to read Brown Girl Dreaming from cover to cover. I read about a quarter of it when it first arrived in the library, but I wanted to wait until the winter break and after my Longwood classes were finished. I wanted a clear space in my head to fill with Woodson's poetry. I wanted to binge on everything I love about the South.

I am taking a break on page 191 to write this.

Page 191 opens with, "My grandmother's kitchen is the same/ big and yellow and smelling of the pound cake/ she's made to welcome us back."

Those three lines got me good, so I had to stop. And blow my nose. And pet my cat. And blow my nose again.

I miss my grandparents every day. Every single day. There's a special kind of longing when Christmas is around the corner. I bet you know just what I'm talking about. I know I'm not alone.

My grandmother's kitchen was the same throughout my memory. It was also yellow and often smelling of cake and full of welcome. It was the first room you came to as you stepped in from the porch. Desserts were often tailored to celebrate a holiday or family member. The happy yellow of that kitchen, the tall glasses filled with half-moons of ice waiting for the tea to pour, the perpetually operating oven, the bleach-clean white of the sink with the dish rag laid just so in between meals, the asparagus left forgotten in the microwave until the table was cleared, the breadbox with Mr. Goodbars inside. We all have those slivers of tiny images in our mind's eye that add up to something wonderful.

The magic of the kitchen. There's nothing like it. When their house was sold, the kitchen was still the same. It was a comfort and has become a place I often dream about, when I am not dreaming about their summer garden. I wish I had nicked a chip of the yellow wall, but I did my best to commit the small room to memory.

There's a strange satisfaction knowing that such a beloved place will become the backdrop for another family's memories. I loved driving past the house after it sold and imagining new folks eating in the kitchen, watching t.v. in the den and gazing at the traffic whizzing by just outside of the huge living room window.  Even if it wasn't the same, I could pretend that the kitchen hadn't changed.

The land where my grandparents' home stood.
When the house was demolished to build a Dollar General, I couldn't fantasize anymore. Even so, there's something comforting about being able to step back into their yard and choose an ice cream sandwich from the freezer. 

The Dollar General on Jefferson Ave.

But when I read those three lines tonight, I just wanted to pretend that tonight the dishes are all done. Tins of chocolate chip cookies, spiced pecans, divinity and other treats sit cooling on the porch. My grandparents are in the den watching the news. The light above the kitchen sink is glowing above the asphalt driveway. The Christmas tree in the living room is dressed and blinking. My grandparents are thinking about having a dish of ice cream, Breyer's vanilla in particular. And the sound of car tires cutting through water at 55 mph is on a continuous loop.

What a treat it is to have such lovely memories, to have a family that is so present and to have that nosey eye of a writer as a child. There are so many tiny details of everyday living that I have stored away. Now and then I polish a memory up a bit before sending it back to the archives.

Those "me too" moments are part of what keeps us reading, and I'm so thankful to Ms. Woodson for that bit of comfort tonight.
My grandparents' azalea is still thriving on the edge of the Dollar General parking lot.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Zen and the Art of Shopping for Books at Ollie's

Zen and the Art of Buying Picture Books 
for Older Children and Teens for the School Library:

1. Familiarize yourself with respected authors and artists.

2. Think about all of the classes offered at your school 
and the curriculum needs.

3. Keep an eye out on the web and in trade journals 
for what's new in picture books.

4. Win the lottery.

5. Buy all the books.

Okay...Let's say you didn't do #4. Here's the more realistic version:

4. Sign up to be in Ollie's Army. You have to neither keep nor bear arms.

5. Wait for your coupon in the mail.

6. See which stores are near you.

7. Put on pants.

8. Bring your Smart Phone, if you have one. 
You can use this to access book reviews 
as well as your school's current collection.

9. Make good choices using your school's selection guidelines.

If you are like me, you are too cheap for a Smart Phone. So...

8. Scan the shelves to get a feel for the way Ollie's arranges its picture books.

9. Do a quick pass of all the shelves to pull the books you recognize 
from good reviews you've come across by chance. 
Pull all of the authors that you know as awesome while you are at it.

10. Make a pile in your shopping basket.

11. Make another pass and pull books that look intriguing. 
Examine each book before placing it in your basket.

Check the font for accessibility and the quality of the art as it supports the text.
Is the book one that would support the curriculum?

This is why you are wearing pants. You may need to sit on the floor 
in order to see the bottom shelf of books. Yep. 
You may want to bring a friend, 
if you will need help getting back up.

Sunya Osborn lists these look-fors in her article, 
  • Mature themes
  • More complex illustrations than those that would be easily appreciated or understood by younger readers
  • More text or difficult text than would be appropriate for the short attention spans of younger readers
  • Subtle meanings beyond the understanding of younger readers
  • Two levels of meaning - one for younger readers and one for older readers
  • Fiction or non-fiction
12. Evaluate the quality of the writing.

13. Imagine the readers who may check this book out of the library.

14. Place books in your cart that fit your selection criteria.

15. Look through your first pile of likely "sure bets." 
Return any "lemons" to the shelves.

16. Now, think about your budget, look at the prices and make final cuts 
before getting in the check-out line.

17. Give the cashier the coupon before purchasing. Save your receipt.

18. You may want to set some books aside before processing, 
if you are still uncertain of the content of some titles. 
It's easy to return items to Ollie's.

Why Ollies? Here's the sad truth about picture books. By the time you read a well-researched article about them, sometimes the titles are out of print! Sometimes the price of the picture books will eat away at your budget in big gulps. Are picture books worth every penny? Yes. But we are being realistic here. Shopping at Ollie's requires the same Zen approach as Magnetic Poetry. 
You have to just be open to what is there. 
Also, the Ollie's in my town often plays soul music over the store's sound system. 
This helps when I have to get on up...and get down.

Every now and then you will see a CRAZY deal on a book that you know is amazing. A few years ago, John's Secret Dreams was on Amazon for $3.99. I did what every sane person would do. I bought about 15 copies and hoarded them for a while before sharing them with friends. When I opened my order, three of the copies were signed by the author.

This is more of an exception than a rule.

If there are specific titles that you want to use in class, checking the online catalogs of local public libraries is a good way to try out a title before 
investing in hunting down a copy.

"Selling" the idea of picture books to middle and high school students and teachers may take a little effort, but it's worth it. There is so much to be gained from the richness of story that comes from the visual arts.

Friday, December 5, 2014

"If you are overwhelmed by the size of a problem, break it down into many bite-sized pieces."

Chuck Close said that.

CBS This Morning has a series, Note to Self
that featured the amazing Mr. Close in 2012.

Take note that his "disability" is the lens through which he sees the world. 
And this lens is directly reflected in his art.
And his art is mind-blowing.

If you have the pleasure of seeing his immense portraits in a gallery...
Get as close as you can without setting off an alarm.
Walk backwards (without toppling priceless art).
Walk forwards.
Walk backwards.


After watching this segment, I would like to add that trade school
 is a great place to learn, 
and going to college does not somehow make you 
a "superior" human being. 
Both schooling experiences do not have to exclude the other either. 
I think that Mr. Close is trying to communicate his frustration that he was misunderstood and under appreciated as a child. 
And the adults in his life had chosen a path for him.

As for me, I am going to focus on 
breaking problems down into bite-sized pieces this week.

I first typed that as bite-sized "people." 

I think it's time for a break!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Comfort and Encouragement

I have some good news to go with all the bad news. It's not enough, but it's something.

We talked about Irene Morgan, Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin this week. Our main focus was on 15 year-old Claudette. Months before Mrs. Parks made headlines, Claudette made a similar decision on a public bus. She was pulled off of the bus, insulted and humiliated before being put in a jail cell.

Phillip Hoose's book, Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice, often uses direct transcripts of his interviews with Ms. Colvin. She's endearing, quick and honest in recalling her teen years. You cannot read this book without admiring her courage and her drive. And when she's frightened and thrown in jail, you just wish you could go back in time to 1955 and tell her that help is on the way.

Students identified cause and effect relationships in the second half of chapter three and all of chapter four. Then they wrote a letter to 15 year-old Claudette to comfort and encourage her. The assignment was to imagine that their letters would be in the jail cell for her to find. This was to practice connecting word choice to tone as well as to show their understanding of what they read. was to practice empathy.

What a week it has been and continues to be. It's made me reflect on what goes on in my classroom. There are skills that I am required to teach, and there are others that are just a good idea to include. I am at a loss sometimes for understanding the widening divide in the world outside our classroom window. It's easy to feel powerless in today's climate of fear, but I need to be positive about the time I spend with kids and how I can enrich their lives while we are together.

No matter what, developing empathy is always time well spent.

During the summer that separated Claudette's and Mrs. Parks' acts of disobedience a lot transpired, but Emmett Till's murder and the head-spinning speedy trial of the two men who were very likely the ringleaders of his death took place. (I only say "very likely" because they were found innocent, but I'm confident that enough of the truth will out in the future to indicate their guilt.) I have written at length in previous posts about Till's death at 14 years-old. It's unsettling in every way imaginable.

But is it? There are people who still see humankind in a very divided way. There are people who still consider some people as "other." I'm talking about grown people, not the children in my classroom. We expect that children may need time to grow their perceptions of humanity, but we hope that adults are opening their hearts and minds more each day. Right? Some days are downright disheartening. I wonder what the national reaction would be if Till were murdered in 2014. I used to think I knew.

It's been a tonic to read these letters to young Claudette in the midst of all of the ugliness of the week. Today, a student asked if he could write Ms. I had let the children know that she is still alive. Sure. Sure you can write Ms. Colvin. If you choose to take that option, I said. I am mailing your letters. The first boy wrote something quickly and handed it in.

But I want to talk to you about the second boy.

A second boy thought about this possibility. "Do you have a Bible?" he asked. I didn't, but I said that he could use the computer to pull up what he needed. He was having trouble finding it, and I asked him what he was searching for. "The 23 Psalm," he said. "Claudette said that she was saying that to herself over and over." I pulled it up, printed it out and handed it over.

He cut it out carefully to fit at the bottom of his letter. I wanted to cry at the huge spaces in this child's heart that he keeps open for people. This kid, I know, has a heart with an expanse to stretch between two goalposts. I guarantee that's exactly what it looks like in there....never-ending game time and yards of vibrant green grass.

Teen boys often frighten people for the simple fact that they are teen boys. I wish those people could see all of these glimmers of love and goodness that flicker inside. And teen boys grow into men who still have that capacity for tenderness.

When I see these boys later in the halls of the high school, I wonder if strangers will recognize these same vulnerabilities their teachers and families see in them when they are out in the world.

Will the world welcome them as we have?

I don't think I'm the only person with that question on my mind tonight.

And I don't think I'm the only person drawing lines between causes and effects.

Teachers can model empathy as well as all of the other qualities that make a successful reader, writer, mathematician, scientist, historian, athlete, musician...the list goes on and on.

Developing empathy means that we are always a work in progress, and it's okay to share that truth with children too. Learning and growing should only stop with our last breath.

And let's hope there are many more days until that day arrives.

Let's hope that for everyone.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

"...I contain multitudes."

On the best days, teaching is all about hearing children sing their own songs. Some may need a little tune up, but all of the songs are reflections of who they are. I'm not talking about those kids who cling to the five-paragraph essays until they sweat the structure to the point of echoing an educator or text, stifling their voices in the details.

But maybe I am talking about those kids. Maybe on the field, in first chair, with a brush, writing code, tending gardens, pulling crab pots. Maybe at some point in the day their authentic selves shine through with confidence. Maybe.

How do we bring that same confidence to sharpening their literacy skills when they are so, so far behind? We don't play the blame game. Who knows where those children were functioning when last year's teacher met them? They may have already fought hard to gain the ground that we are see as shaky at best. Let's assume that their parents may be doing the best they can. Blame wastes your mental energy and precious time. Teachers know those are resources we must protect.

Meet kids where they are. There will be times in class when they just have to tackle a text that is out of their ZPDs, or reading comfort zone. As teachers, it's important that we know when that happens, so we can offer support. Read-alouds, modeling, think-alouds, active reading strategies, fix-up strategies...the list is long. Get comfortable with techniques that work for you as you help your students engage with the text. Engagement is key, and engaged students are far more fun to teach. Right?

Sometimes a story may be so far out of their independent reading ability that all of the strategies in the world won't build that scaffold strong and high enough. So is it important that they read that selection, or is it important that they get the story? 

If it's about story, is there another way to get it? Would clips of a film with subtitles turned on make the story more accessible? If the story is a classic, chances are that it has been illustrated by now. I'm not talking about the random art that can show up in the literature book. I'm talking about an illustrator who has read the text. Has it been turned into a graphic novel? Would reading this be a springboard for attacking the original story? Is there a Reader's Theater version of the tale? Scope magazine publishes a script in each edition of their magazine. (I have "The Tell-Tale Heart" ready to go for my collaborative class tomorrow.) And after you have given them this story, can you find a comparable tale that they can read with confidence that allows them to sharpen their independent reading skills?

Is there time set aside for kids to have some choice over their reading within their ZPD? If we were struggling readers, what would it feel like to sit through a double block class with materials that were three or more reading levels beyond our comfort zone? How will they be able to use literature to gain skills that rest on understanding the subtleties of authors' craft when all of the material is out of their mental grasp? And what if their reading class is at the end of the day? For a "third grade reader" in eighth grade, I'm just thankful that they didn't run home screaming before they got to me. (Luckily, I work with great people who do their best to make their curriculum accessible to all learners; I hope you do too.)

No matter how low children are, they can grow. It's never okay for us to tell ourselves that a child cannot. It's also not okay for us to be thankful the troublemakers have their heads down today. And we cannot say to ourselves that a child just is not a reader and take comfort in the fact that they excel in another field in order to quiet our conscience.

Reading is a pathway to community. It's not the only way, but it's a way marked with richness and diversity. 

Libraries are for everyone. Tell a friend. Tell your students. Some will not believe you. You will have to show them the truth.

Some books in the library aren't for everyone, but faced with seemingly infinite possibilities-- there just has to be something in there that fits. We have to help struggling readers use the library. We can still provide choices, but libraries are overwhelming to fledgling readers of all ages. What if we decoded language at such a painful pace, just browsing the shelves caused us to break into a sweat? Teachers and librarians who know the collection can guide the student and provide a few options based on student interest and independent reading level. So many books are out there these days designed to look "on level" while containing vocabulary and style for a "below level" reader. 

And thank goodness for the boom in graphic literature. Bless those writers and artists with swift fingers and fluid lines. Keep at it. One characteristic of some struggling readers is that they do not picture what they read, which is what good readers do. Graphic literature can bridge that gap. If you know an educator who still turns his/her nose up to this style, there is lots of research out there to support your love of these illustrated texts.

So back to Uncle Walt, Mr. Humanity, who contains multitudes. So do we. So do our kids. Walt was talking about all of us. Children aren't one-dimensional beings, although sometimes they like to think they are. 

"I don't need to read. I'm going to work on my dad's boat."

"I don't need to read. I'm an athlete."

"I don't need to read. I'm a musician."

"I don't need to read. I'm going to work on cars."

Students may actually say these words to us. I know. It hurts. We are the adults. Do not expect a child to have the foresight and understanding of the ways that literacy opens and closes doors in the blink of an eye. We can try to explain that, but only some of our message will not land. 

Often in education we have to carry the dreams we have for our students when they can't dream for themselves. That's okay. 

We can flash forward to the miles of forms that it takes to be an adult, the speed that it takes to find the answer to a question on the internet and choose the most accurate response, the times they may have to shuttle children and grandchildren to the library and read to them at night, the dinner table studying sessions when their children may need help, the employment they may seek that requires the ability to communicate through e-mail in a timely manner, the scanning of the newspaper for coupons in order to stretch their family's budget. 

We see all of this. We live it. No one has to remind us.

Every child is a reader. If we can help them believe this between September and June, we have given them a gift that they will not even begin to understand until they are adults. (So don't hold your breath for a thank you!)

This post sounds a little like a Sunday sermon, and maybe it is. This week there were two specific moments that fired me up all over again. 

First, the talented artist and teacher, Clayton Singleton, spoke at Norfolk Public Schools' convocation. Mr. Singleton made a lot of salient points, but something he said at 28:34 spoke to me. Watch the entire presentation, if you want to get lifted. Just perk up at 28:34 and pay close attention when he talks about "the black dude." I want you to hear it for yourself. Again, that child also contains multitudes. Let's not forget it!

Second, CBS Sunday Morning made me cry. They let me see that struggling reader take control of his reading life and find joy, community, pride and self-respect through literacy

Teachers, keep on teaching! 
We'll never get to see the true impact of the time we spend with children, but keep moving forward anyway. 

Here's to your best year yet!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ain't No Thang Like a Chicken Wing

In today's episode of The Diet Starts Tomorrow, I attended a funeral that featured the recurring themes of family, music, compassion and fried chicken. KFC chicken wings, to be exact.

I could go on and on about the amazing life of Rev. Don Ambrose, but perhaps you did not have the pleasure of knowing him.  If so, it would only make you feel like you missed out on a singular sensation. What I want to share with you is simple. It's something we need to hear at the end of a school year, the start of a school year and all the days in between.

One person can make a difference.

Rev. Ambrose was the church's minister of music during my childhood. And he was pure joy. Mr. Ambrose could tickle those ivories like we were shaking our tail feathers at a juke joint. And the ridiculous songs we'd sing! We'd sing about Jesus as well, but I think the missing Beatitude may have something to do with joyful noisemakers being blessed too. It was likely inconvenient considering both time and space to shoulder even a wheeled upright pianny to the tip top of the Mount.

His joy and approachability marked a lifetime of drawing people together. In spite of every pew being filled today for his homegoing service, it was only a teensy tiny fraction of those people Mr. Ambrose has touched with his kindness.

Whatever your spiritual beliefs, many of us feel that we have been called to teach. And that we have been called to teach compassion along with delivering academic instruction. That's what I want to take away from being present for the celebration of Mr. Ambrose's life.

And about that chicken. Mr. Ambrose had a favorite treat that remained unaltered over time. There was a reception following the graveside gathering. Inside the fellowship hall were buckets of KFC chicken! I had every intention of chowing down on a wing, but I needed to hop in my dad's truck and get back to work. (Insert a side-eye to my father here.)

All of the sudden I had x-ray vision. As I was increasing the distance between me and the buckets, I could just picture them standing at attention on the long tables covered with food so common to the Southern Baptist culinary experience. I know it's just a missed wing, but I love ceremony and remembering people through food; I was all aboard that train.

After work, I picked up some FC of my own. (The KFC left my neighborhood.)

The bill totaled $6.66, but the cashier was with me when I got to the window of the drive-thru and asked if we could throw some apple pies on the order to make it better. Done and done.

Blessed are the extra adults I remember from childhood 
who helped grow my heart by sharing theirs with me. 

I am no Rev. Ambrose, but I hope that I can pay forward some of that compassion that he had for the world.

If you were unable to make the service and want to know today's closing hymn, here it is. The page number in your hymnal may differ.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Gotta Go Back in Time

Poetry Month has arrived again. 
My poster came in the mail today. Thanks, Penguin.

This year I asked my friends and colleagues 
to consider this question:

I know what Ponyboy Curtis would choose. 

So far, I have posted the following answers in our hallway:

"The Bagel" from Grace

"And Your Soul Shall Dance" from Susan

"The Girl Who Loved the Sky" from Susan

"The Swing" from Julie & "No Man is an Island" from Michele

Beth and I both like "Forever Young." It was on the first final exam I ever gave.

"You've Got A Friend" from Trish; "I Can See Clearly Now" from Jeff.
"Child of the Wild Blue Yonder" from Jennifer' "You Can Do Magic" from Heather.
"Phenomenal Woman" from Kate; "Alone" from Anne.

Everyone wants to to enjoy 24 hours of "Happy."
"Daffodils" from Susan; "To Live is to Fly" from Rob.

"It Don't Come Easy" from Donna; "Just A Girl" from Lori.

"One of These Things First" from Chris; "Eyes of the World" from Beth.

"The Road Not Taken" from Ruth, Alice & Laura.

"You Can't Hurry Love" from Joyce.

"Wasted on the Way" from Nat

We still have room for you!
If you would like to replicate this display, all you need are manilla folders, a glue stick, a stapler, scrapbook paper, multicolor printer paper, scissors, a photocopier, a printer and a few pals.
You can make QR codes here.
The ones I used here connect to performances of the songs on YouTube.
We have compiled a Spotify playlist for you to listen to here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Namaste, Y'all. For Real!

I just twisted the head off of a bunny, a hollow Godiva chocolate bunny. Last week our school, which contains all 8th graders for the county and no other children, took our state writing tests. I don't know about the kids, but I'm still recovering. Mercy. That was something else.

While I just read that tequila helps with weight loss, it's Miette's Bedtime Stories that I want to share with you here. Priorities, people!

Who is this Miette? Who can say? All that you need to know right now is that she has spent hours speaking into a microphone for the good of humankind. And her voice. Her voice is as gentle as that well-worn favorite blanket of your childhood, the one that casts its calming spell and lulls you to sleep with all of its softness.

You can listen to her stories right now from your computer. Visit the iTunes store and download them there. Do you have Apple TV? Yep. Miette's podcasts are waiting for you and your remote. (Can someone please invent a television that allows us to darken our screens with the flip of a switch, so we can listen in peace?)

There are so many wee stories to choose from. Where does one start? You can peruse the recordings by author's name. If you are one of those English major types, you will recognize some of those lovely classics that often nestle themselves in anthology after anthology. There are many surprises as well, the B sides of short story masters.

My own go-to tale for dozing off is William Faulkner's gem, "A Rose for Emily." I know, but it is so familiar that the nightmares must be too distant in my brain to register now. Faulkner's writing style coupled with Miette's voice swirl  smooth placid circles within my brain until the night is no longer and the alarm announces the new day. There are no sheep needed, just Count No-Count.

The only time I would recommend driving to her podcasts is when she features a guest reader. One of my favorites is a massive collaboration of folks performing Cornell Woolrich's classic, "Murder Was the Case." Some of you may be wondering why you haven't heard of this story. It's the basis for the Alfred Hitchcock film, Rear Window. 

Over the years, Miette's recording equipment has improved, so you may want to browse available stories starting with her most recent offering.

I could go on, but I'm just getting in between you and your new tasting menu. 

If you ever see this dear Miette, please give her our thanks and a word of encouragement. It's nice to know that kind folks are laboring without fanfare to do what they love and share it with others. Doesn't it make you wonder what other treasures are out there hidden amongst the ephemera of the web just waiting to be discovered?

And if you came here to look for my cat's Pick 4 numbers, 
Gracie just walked across the keyboard to the tune of...


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Spring Sprang Sprung

It's snowing as I type this, but spring did arrive last week. In a rare turn of events, it was also sunny that day. If you are reading this from pretty much anywhere in the South, you know how wacky our weather has been.

On February 25th, I was getting a hankering to see something besides all of this's in my hair, it's the color of my cat, it's in the sky, it's the carpet and walls of our classroom. Enough already.

Having not yet figured out my get rich quick scheme, my thoughts quickly turned to paint chips, yellow and orange ones. As my 2A class was enjoying their independent reading time, I got an idea. 

What if we write out the lyrics to "Here Comes the Sun" on paint chips and hang them somewhere in time for spring's arrival? I researched the lyrics to make sure that George Harrison was the only songwriter to credit. Guess what? February 25th was Mr. H's birthday. Well, that settled it. No turning back now.

When the kids were done with their 20 minutes of reading, I said, "I have this idea, and I think we should go through with it."

"Okay," said one male voice. The others listened enthusiastically...I think. I explained the whole alignment of the universe with the March 25 coinkydink, and they were on board. I split the song into lines. They wrote the lyrics on the paint chips. Our dear Mrs. Lassiter, also a George fan, laminated them for us. We punched holes and waited for the day.

Someone who looks a lot like me misremembered the solstice kick-off, but the display was up on the school's wheelchair ramp for the first full day of spring as the students arrived for another day of state testing. Ten bucks at Dollar Tree also got me a fistful of pinwheels, Elton John sunglasses for our tiny potted tree and three smiley face balloons. I know for a fact that at least two kids appreciated the effort, so it was all worth it.

We have packed up our paint chips and are ready to mail them to any location in the continental United States. You will need ribbon or yarn and a place to display them. We'd love to send them to you. 

Just ask. 

After all, who doesn't love this gem of a tune?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

In Support of Strasburg High School's Young Adult Literature Elective (and John Green)

March 13, 2014

Dear Members of the Strasburg School Board,

I am writing in support of the materials chosen for Strasburg High School's proposed elective in young adult literature. I am also posting this letter on my personal blog as censorship is a topic that I am currently exploring in a Longwood University class. The book I chose to re-read, research and discuss for class is on the syllabus for the SHS elective.

Although I have not read all of the books on the list, I recognize a lot of the titles as I have been an eighth grade language arts teacher since 1999 and a partner in helping make selections for our middle school library. We use sources like School Library Journal and Titlewave to search for positive critical reviews before adding to our collection of young adult novels; I have seen these books supported there.

This is an exciting time to guide students in a critical study of young adult literature; I can't deny relishing the idea of teaching such a course myself. Part of my curriculum for advanced students includes a September study of S.E. Hinton's novel, The Outsiders, as one of the first realistic problem novels written for teens. Hinton was in high school when she began writing this 1968 classic, all because she could not find books that contained believable characters. In addition to realistic characters, young adult fiction would sometimes follow another element of this novel. Often fictional teens would have to solve their own problems in the absence of adults. Pony's parents were killed before page one. Darry is trying to raise his younger brothers after just graduating high school. Johnny's parents are abusive. How I loved that book as a middle school student, but as realistic as the characters were, the lack of a parental safety net was not part of my world.

I realize that The Outsiders is not on the proposed reading list in question, but I mention it in order to explain one of the many reasons that I love John Green and count myself as a 40 year-old Nerdfighter. Like me, Miles Halter of Looking for Alaska and Gus Waters and Hazel Grace of The Fault in Our Stars have loving, supportive and present parents. I think that is what most book challenges are about too, right? Supportive parents are trying to make the best choices for their children. 

From what I understand about the current challenge, some parents are trying to make decisions about what other parents' children read though. And that's not okay. The Strasburg School Board Policies have a plan in place for public concerns and complaints about instructional resources in section KEC of the manual. If someone wants to lodge an official complaint, he or she can fill out the appropriate forms and anticipate that the procedures for reevaluating a book will be followed. Before filling out that form, I hope that the complainant would read the novel in its entirety. As you are well aware, the policy you have in place is respectful of teachers, parents, students and books. It is clear that parents are completely in control of asking a teacher to substitute another book, if the class selection is not in line with what parents feel is developmentally appropriate for their children. It does not empower anyone to censor books for other peoples' children.

Brothers John and Hank Green have a powerful web presence. I hope that you spend some time watching their Crash Course videos on YouTube. John also hosts a series for Mental Floss. Be prepared though; he's a big nerd. He's passionate about learning...and thinking critically about the world. If we are among the true educators, he's exactly the way we hope our students turn out to be when they leave our classrooms. He's a lifelong learner who can think for himself.

I have a signed first edition of Looking for Alaska, and it's the title that I chose to research for my coursework towards becoming a school librarian. Sure I cringed as the sheltered Miles Halter went away to boarding school and joined right in with some of those behaviors we like to think that teenagers would resist, but who finished reading the book? Everything in that novel is there for a reason. Green says that he wrote that book to explore the nature of suffering, and the second part of the book brings all of those ideas together. When Miles is left asking all of those big questions after the sudden and mysterious death of a close friend, we see a grieving teen trying to make sense of it all. Teens need those books. They do. Many of use remember the death of a classmate in high school. How did we make sense of it then? Parents can help, but so can books. Books can certainly show you people and characters that we want to emulate, but they also show us behaviors that we want to avoid...for now or forever.

Yes, there are a couple of scenes that teachers would not want to spend time discussing in class, but I am guessing that this teacher has chosen this book because of the sum of its parts. On his website, Green has written, "There are a few explicit scenes, but all of them are pretty nakedly arguments against vapid, emotionless sexual encounters...we are discussing perhaps 800 words in a 70,000 word novel." Looking for Alaska is in no way "criminal and vile, crass and crude" as the wording on the petition states. 

Here is what John Green had to say about a time when Looking for Alaska faced potential censorship in another state:

I had the pleasure of being one of the oldest people in the room when John and Hank Green were invited to speak by Newport News Public Libraries at, get this, my old high school. I wish you had been in the auditorium too. Like most expansive rooms full of teenagers, it was electric. The gathered crowd was pulsing with excitement...about READING! They were also there to hear the words of someone who cherished them for the people they are and the people they are becoming. That is the voice that I want speaking to my students, a voice of compassion, acceptance and celebration.

Since I am an English teacher, I could go on and on about books, but I also could have written a one sentence response too. Why are parents so adamant about challenging books in an elective course? Their children will not have to take this course as a requirement for graduation. 

Thank you for taking the time to consider my letter in preparation for your April 9th meeting. Please contact me, if you have any questions about what I have written here. I would like to close by including a link to the American Library Association's Freedom to Read Statement and listing the awards earned by John Green's Looking for Alaska.

Winner, 2006 Michael L. Printz Award

Finalist, 2005 Los Angeles Times Book Prize
2006 Top 10 Best Book for Young Adults
2006 Teens’ Top 10 Award
2006 Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers
A New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age
A Booklist Editor’s Choice Pick
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection
Borders Original Voices Selection

Back in November of 2008, I got my copy of Looking for Alaska signed. I stood in line behind all of the teenagers because that was their night, not mine. But John Green had kind words for teachers that evening too and the same advice that he gives his young Nerdfighters, "Don't Forget to be Awesome." 

I pass the same advice on to you. Thank you for your service to the students of Strasburg. Having read your policy manual, I feel confident that this teacher will find support for her thoughtful curriculum.


Michelle Davis

Monday, March 10, 2014

YOU get a car!

As you already know, Ollie's is a great place to buy discounted books. 
You can find your nearest location here.

The last time I was cruising through, I found one lonely Hot Wheels car from the 1940s. I walked by it the first time, but I backtracked once I decided that I really did need that $1.99 toy.

We're wrapping up The Diary of Anne Frank in my advanced language arts classes. Each child is completing a reading guide in order to get the big picture of Anne's diary without reading the entire work. As an incentive, I offered this brand new car to the first child to pass the optional open book Accelerated Reader test on the entire diary.

Here's LG with her sparkling new ride!

If you want to see my collection of online resources related to this unit of study, 
including the reading guide, click here. 

Borrow away!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Eliminate passive voice...with zombies.

Zombies are always butting in where they aren't welcome. Now they are working their way into the unassuming passive sentence.

Here's a simple test to help student writers determine if they are using the passive voice. (I learned this one on Pinterest.)

If you can add "by zombies" at the end of your sentence, it's passive.

The cookies were eaten as quickly as they were zombies!

A school bus was driven to the edge of the zombies!

The child was read a bedtime story...BY ZOMBIES!

Only you can prevent a zombie prose invasion. Unless there's a calculated purpose for using a passive sentence, make it active. And don't look back!