What I Read This Week

Books:

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult.  This was a re-read for me.  I picked it up again after quite a few years when I overheard a teacher talking about it in the hallway. I remember how much this book created my love for all things Picoult and knew it would be a great way to pass the time over winter break.  It was as good as I remember – an interesting look at a school shooting and the elements at play.  One of the reasons I love this book is it makes you think about the shooter’s family, in a way that you might not have before.  When someone behaves monstrously, who is to blame?

I am Malala by Malala Yosafzai

I have finally started the memoir, and I am enjoying it so far.  It is an interesting look into a world that I know very little of and one that is often only highlighted in certain ways through the media.  I am taking this one slowly and just reading little by little.

Articles that I particularly enjoyed:

  • All Teachers Should be Trained to Overcome Their Hidden Biases” by Soraya Chemely – posted on time.com on February 12,2015.  This is a really interesting discussion of the dangers facing both boys and girls in school when teachers don’t stop to examine their hidden bias.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if we actually took the time to video our lessons once in awhile and examined our own teaching for potential bias?  New Years Resolution, perhaps.

Some of my student blog posts this week:

 

 

 

The Great 56: What I Read this Year

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I had set a goal of reading 75 books this year.  I did not make it – I blame the fact that I went on a close to two month reading hiatus where I just couldn’t get into reading.  Oh well!  I did manage to finish 56 books, listed and categorized below.  I provided some commentary for the ones I could actually remember!

I’m a bit heavy on the popular fiction and am going to try to branch out a bit more next year when 75 will be reached!

Thanks to OverDrive for letting me download books for free, thus enabling me not to go broke on books this year.  And thanks to Goodreads, for making it so easy to keep track of what I read!  I think I got them all.

My absolute favorite books this year. 

  • We Were Liars (E. Lockhart) – I adored this young adult suspense novel I read over the summer.  Kept me intrigued and surprised me in the end. Plus I loved the island setting close to Martha’s Vineyard – one of my favorite summer destinations.
  • The Nightingale (Kristin Hannah) – Great World War II read.  I am a sucker for this genre, and I have always liked Hannah’s work – though usually I find them more guilty pleasure readings and less thoughtful works.  This was both a bit of a guilty pleasure and a unique look at World War II.  Very well done.
  • Between Shades of Gray (Ruta Sepetys) – Another World War II read, this time by brilliant young adult author Sepetys, this book was recommended by a former student (with a note that it has nothing to do with 50 Shades of Grey).  It is a simply gorgeous book that I fell in love with.  Cannot wait for Sepetys’ new one this year.
  • Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Claude M. Steele) – This book changed the way I think about stereotyping and is a must-read for any teacher, or anyone really.  Fascinating look behind stereotype threat and the effect it has on various identities.  And I read this on the beach – that’s how interesting it is.  Please do yourself a favor, read this book, and grow.

Books that made me think.

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie) – This book was required summer reading for my 8th grade students’ Global Studies class.  LOVED it.  Laugh out loud funny while forcing you to think.  Gave me a whole different perspective to thinking about how to teach through a diverse lens.  This book also encouraged me to seek out other books that allow my students to see things from a different perspective.
  • Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology (Leah Remini) – I have loved Remini since Stacy Kerosi caroused on the Bayside Beach with Zach Morris.  I have also found scientology interesting but didn’t know much about it.  This book was fascinating, and though I know it is told from a single perspective, it made me question the practices of this so-called religion and whether or not Leah’s claims are truthful. I will be doing more reading on this subject, for sure.
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable (Patrick Lencioni) – Read this if you want to better understand how to work with others and what each team member brings to the table.  It’s short, funny, easy, and thought provoking.

Books that reminded me what it is like to be a young adult.

  • Out of the Easy (Ruta Sepetys) – an interesting look at life in New Orleans French Quarter in the 50s.
  • The Beginning of Everything (Robin Schneider)
  • The Impossible Knife of Memory (Laurie Halse Anderson)
  • Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (Meg Medina) – Fantastic book about the real threat of bullying in schools.  Piddy is a character everyone should read.
  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Jesse Andrews) – Another young adult book about kids with cancer.  I enjoyed this so much more than The Fault in Our Stars – it just seemed more real and less melodramatic (though I do love that book too.
  • Fangirl (Rainbow Rowell) – It was good; for me it wasn’t great.  Maybe because I don’t really understand the Fangirl world, I couldn’t get it into it. I found myself skimming through the Simon Snow excerpts.  But I know many adore this book – maybe it’s for a younger crowd.
  • I Love You, Beth Cooper (Larry Doyle) – Didn’t love it, didn’t hate it.

Books I couldn’t stop reading.

  • The Vacationers (Emma Straub) – Thouroughly enjoyed this read about a dysfunctional family vacationing in Mallorca.  Beautiful scenery, well-written, at times laugh out loud funny, and a great depiction of true family life.
  • Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand) – I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book as usually I have a hard time with particularly gruesome war stories.  But this was masterfully written and such an amazing story, I couldn’t put it down.  Another World War II addition to my list and an inspiring look at the human spirit.
  • Where’d You Go Bernadette? (Maria Semple) – Fantastic, couldn’t put down book.  Her flaws make Bernadette easy to root for and identify with.  Original plot and superb characterization left me recommending this book to many.
  • Home Front (Kristin Hannah) – An interesting multi-perspective book about the relationship between a married US soldier deployed in Iraq and her stay at home husband.  Hard to put down.
  •  Defending Jacob (William Landay)  – I really loved this book.  So suspenseful and an ending I did not see coming.

Books I finally read. Continue reading

Rethinking Grading: My Thoughts (Part 1)

115001bMy Dean of Faculty recently gave me a copy of Cathy Vatterott’s Rethinking Grading: Meaningful Assessment for Standards-Based Learning as I will be heading a group of faculty member examining whether our assessment practices actually support the style of teaching we are doing at my school.  Although I am only a few chapters into the book, I must say it is as if Ms. Vatterott reached into my head and pulled out exactly what I have been thinking for years.

As an English teacher, I have always had a particularly difficult time using the traditional grading system as a way to assess my students.  To me, putting a number grade on someone’s reading and writing ability is challenging and sometimes seems impossible.  Rubrics have helped, but I struggle with the idea of putting a final grade on a piece of writing.  Writing, I firmly, believe is a process.  How do you put a final grade on a process?  Even more difficult is evaluating creative and personal writing.  How do you put a grade on a piece of poetry?  On a personal narrative that a student poured her heart an soul into? How can I teach a love and passion for writing and reading through archaic evaluative systems?

More importantly, if we are out to foster a growth mindset in our students, traditional grading systems are not the way to do it.  As much as we can pretend that allowing the student to re-write the D paper doesn’t affect their attitude toward learning, we are kidding ourselves.  That D does nothing to tell the student how far he has come or what he has learned in the process – it is merely a reminder that they are not considered “good enough” no matter how much work and effort they placed.  And if we really sat and thought about it, how often does that D just go away?  Students are very quickly trapped into the grades they receive, or so it seems.  Vatterott writes:

The patterns of school failure in the traditional system tend to reinforce the fixed mindset as the same students fail over and over again.  As those students come to believe they’re just not smart, the mindset becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Struggling students begin to avoid learning. “Given all this, why persist?” they say. For the struggling learner, failure feels like fait accompli – a permanent caste system for C students and below.

– Cathy Vatterott, Rethinking Grading, 31

I am eager to learn more about Vatterott’s thoughts regarding how standard-based grading can help create a shift in a student’s motivation and lead to what most of us teachers are after: working with students who value and appreciate learning and are not just there to get their name on the honor roll.

More to come!

Vatterott, Cathy. Rethinking Grading: Meaningful Assessment for Standards-based Learning. Aleandria: ACSD, 2015. Print.

A Must Read: A Letter to my Students

Photo Credit: Judy van der Velden
Photo Credit: Judy van der Velden

Dear Students,

Recently, I’ve asked you to read for at least 20 minutes a night, and not just any type of reading, but books, preferably fiction – novels.  Some of you have balked at this, rolled your eyes, sighed heavily, screamed bloody murder, and likely cussed me out behind my back.  None of this bothers me, by the way.  But I did feel like I should explain to you not just why this is so important to me but why it is so important for you.

I initially thought I’d overwhelm you with all the statistics that back up my point.  I’d share some of the research that proves the amount of pleasure reading done in the past 10 – 15 years has dropped significantly, directly impacting college readiness. I’d cite the information from Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide that: “Reading for sustained amounts of time is essential for building the parts of your brain that think deeply” and discuss how online reading does not build these skills.

But then I thought to myself – you won’t care about the research.  That won’t make you listen.  You’d just think you’re the outlier – that this doesn’t apply to you.

So I knew I had to take a different approach. I knew I had to somehow show you the power a book can have, how 250 pages could, quite literally, change your life.  And then, as I was sitting watching talk shows with my grandmother, it hit me…Still Alice.

About five years ago, I picked up a novel at Barnes and Noble with this title. Now I’ll be honest, I initially picked up the book because it was on the buy three books get one free table, and I was short one.  Little did I know how consumed with the book I would become and how, five years later, it would constantly be on my mind.

In her early 50s, Alice Howland, a brilliant Harvard professor, is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease – a quick-moving, insidious condition.  Alice goes through her daily life knowing that her memories are dying, knowing that she will not get to see the milestones of her family, and knowing that she may have passed on this horrific gene to her children.  This is Alice’s story told from Alice’s perspective.  It is her struggle to live, and it is heartbreaking.

Never have I been so connected to a character in all my life.  I felt what Alice was feeling; I laughed with her, and I cried with and for her.  It didn’t matter that I had never directly known anyone with Alzheimer’s.  The story was so heart wrenching and the character so vivid that it was impossible to finish without feeling like I was losing a friend.   In fact, I was so moved by the story that I actually remember posting on Facebook that everyone must read this book.  Yes, this is what English teachers sometimes post on Facebook, although it was the only time I ever did.

As many of you know, my grandmother was recently diagnosed with a form of Alzheimer’s disease and she has begun to lose her memory.   Like Alice at the beginning of her journey, my grandmother is still aware that something is amiss, yet she’s not completely gone.  She can’t understand why her memory fails her or why she cannot live the life she’s used to.  And although she remains good natured, I know that at times this is frightening for her, more frightening for her than for me.  I know this because of Alice Howland.

Alice’s struggle has helped me support my grandmother’s struggle, and ultimately my own. Alzheimer’s is a frustrating disease for all involved.  But when I find myself starting to get angry, or tired, or sad, I take a deep breath and remember Alice, what it was like for her, and what it may be like for my grandmother.  Sometimes I don’t feel like I picked up Still Alice off that Barnes and Nobles table.  Sometimes I think it picked me.

At the time, I had no idea what this novel would give me beyond a well-written story.  Sure, I could read loads of articles and message boards online about Alzheimer’s, and I do, but none will ever compare to Still Alice.  Alice gives me strength.

You see, novels don’t just build critical thinking skills; they allow you to fall in love and become friends with a character, help you see things from a different perspective, teach you about life in a way that an article cannot.  Novels can, as cliche as it sounds, touch your heart.  This novel, like many others, touched mine.

Will this happen with every book you read? Not likely.  But I can almost guarantee you it will happen with at least one.  Maybe you’ll remember Atticus Finch and Boo Radley when you need to be courageous.  Maybe thinking of Steve Harmon will help you make a better decision. Maybe reading Ishmael Beah’s story will ignite your passion.  Or maybe reading a book about a woman with Alzheimer’s will help you cope .

This, my dear students, is why you must not just read for 20 minutes, but must read stories…why you should try to find a book and a character that grabs your heartstrings and attaches to your soul.   This is why you MUST read.    Because, really, you’ll never know what book will pick you, until  you do.

Recipe for a Growth Mindset? A Growth Mindset

In order to switch to the growth mindset, you must be willing to grow.What If? That’s the question that seemed to enter my head most often as I read Carol Dweck’s Mindset recently.  What if students cannot move out of the fixed mindset or refuse to?  What if other teachers or parents value grades and the act of being “smart” so much that it prevents students from truly growing? What if parents or others battle you when you refuse to call someone smart or when explaining to them that grades are not as important?  What if I have difficulty moving in to the growth mindset myself?  What if students fail at something after they put in a lot of effort – will they still see the reward of this hard work?  Clearly, I had some concerns.

The fact of the matter is, helping students, parents, other colleagues, and even me start thinking more along the lines of the growth mindset will take a lot of effort.  In many ways, many of us – including our students – have come to believe that what matters most of all is the end result – the grade on the test, what college you get into, who wins the game, etc.  We might all know that Michael Jordan did not make his high school basketball team at first attempt, but we look at that as a “what was the coach thinking” kind of moment.  We forget that he might not have been good enough at that point in his career, and as Dweck notes, that he used his failure as motivation for the player he became.  Effort is often not as important as the end result.

But Dweck proves to us that it not just as important, it is more important.  In order for our students to fully grow and open them to immense possibilities, we must stop valuing individual performances, stop comparing them to others, and let them know that we care more about the process than the end result.  We must let them know that failure is okay, that in fact failure allows us to grow.  We must show them the importance of effort, in knowing one’s own shortcomings, what to do when things go wrong.  Once these things are valued, once students aren’t afraid to fail and embrace growth, the end result will most often be quite good, and in the process students will become more confident and willing to try new things.

There are a lot of what ifs that could come out of shifting mindsets, but what kind of teachers would we be if we didn’t make this attempt?  I know I don’t want my students to submit to cheating because they are afraid of what might happen if they don’t pass the test.  Nor do I want to add to the growing anxiety levels and lack of sleep many of my students face because they are so afraid of failure. I know there might be times when it is a battle, where it will take a lot of effort in order for my students and me to grow, and at times it won’t be easy or pretty.  But isn’t that what the growth mindset is all about?

YA Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars

I sat in bed the other night, crying giant ugly tears like a baby.  No, no one had died.  I was not severely injured or waking from a nightmare and there was no major tragedy going on in my life. I simply was reading a beautiful book with a bright blue cover.  John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars was a superb, heart-breaking novel that, though intended for young adults, could be read by anyone who searches for characters that are complex and easy to adore and plots that are both sophisticated, intriguing, and real.

Photo Credit: TheNerdDilettante
Photo Credit: TheNerdDilettante

I remember reading Lurlene McDaniel’s books about cancer when I was younger.  These books were everything a pre-teen girl could want – filled with love, sadness, and drama.  No, they weren’t award winning, but I adored them and likely read every single work that she wrote during that time in my life. Green takes a different approach to writing about cancer patients and does not hide the hideous ugliness that cancer paints on its victims.  This is what makes this book special and why you are able to fall in love with his characters.  Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters are not just two teenagers in  a book that fall in love while dealing with cancer, they are characters that come to life and force us to really understand how horrific disease can be for youth and all those who connect with them.  Most importantly, it allows us to see that cancer, no matter how hideous it might be, does not define who you are, no matter what your age.

We don’t like to think about children or teenagers suffering from a disease that makes it difficult for them to walk or breathe or forces them to confront their own mortality.  But that doesn’t hide the fact that this is the life of some of the youth in our world.  Green honors these children with a beautiful story by creating an incredibly smart and witty heroine who, even though you know her inevitable fate, you root for.  And although cancer obviously factors in to the story, ultimately, this is not a story about cancer – it is a story about friendship, love, and the great ability that humans have to affect their world and each other.  That’s what Hazel and Augustus are able to do – they make life better for each other and the people that they meet along the way.  No, their life is not easy, but it is still life and they must learn to live it.

Although I do think this book is best suited for students high school and beyond, I believe that it is a book many would enjoy.  I often judge a book by how deeply it affects me and grabs at my soul.  This one not only grabbed it, but held on for quite a while. The fact that I finished it within the last two weeks and already want to read it again should also be a good indicator of how much I enjoyed it.  Though at times it is difficult to read in terms of emotion, – you will laugh at loud and may cry some ugly tears – it is very, very worth it.

YA Book Review: Stranger with My Face

Although I though I had read Lois Duncan’s Stranger with My Face when I was a teenager, reading it last week made me think otherwise.  If I had read it, I didn’t remember a single things about the storyline.  As a huge lover of mysteries – though not necessarily of the thriller genre – I was looking forward to reading a book geared more toward my student’s age group than my own.

Laurie lives on a small island off the coast of New England in a beautiful house and things seem to be going perfectly for her the summer before her senior year.  She has a great boyfriend who has introduced her to a new, more popular, social scene and she enjoys her fun, albeit somewhat different family.  And although she isn’t always confident about her looks and isn’t easily able to identify herself with her parents, she is happy.  This all changes when her boyfriend swears he sees her out and about after she tells him she is sick and cannot be his date at a party.  Laurie knows she was home but cannot make her boyfriend believe her.  As she returns to school that fall, she realizes that her boyfriend isn’t lying –  a stranger exists with her face.  What unfolds is a sometimes riveting tale of Laurie’s attempt to figure out just who this person is and includes some interesting information on astral projection.

As I read this book and thought about whether or not my students would latch on to it, I found both positives and negatives. I  think my students, especially the Pretty Little Liars lovers would enjoy the thrilling aspects of the book – it is quite suspenseful and Duncan does a great job leaving cliff hangers at the end of nearly every chapter.  You do want to keep reading.  I just don’t know if the book has lasting power. Written in the early 80s, there are many things that do not transfer into our modern age.  Whether that be allowing high school students to drink or inappropriate comments about a character with a disfigured face, there is a lack of universality to this book in terms of setting that I think some students would have some difficulty with.  In addition, Duncan jumps in time a great deal.  Major things happen but are not really described well; they are simply mentioned as new things unfold and, as the reader, you are left wanting more. Continue reading

Readicide: Stop Killing our Readers

Kelly Gallagher's Readicide

I had picked up Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide over the summer but didn’t get a chance to actually read it until this past winter break.  I am a big Gallagher fan and think he has a great approach to teaching reading and writing, especially to adolescents.   Readicide is a few years old but it hit the nail on the coffin (pun intended) in terms of how to potentially kill a love for reading in our students.  We English teachers often don’t even realize how much we are actually murdering something we truly love.  I know my eyes were widened after reading this book and am going to think very differently about how I approach teaching Literature.

What I liked most about Gallagher’s points in this book was that he gave practical advice on how to incorporate analysis and critical reading skills into a class without destroying passion for the subject.  He also does not believe in simply allowing student choice and understands that classic literature has an important place in our classrooms.  He accepts that his students won’t always “like” a book as long as they see value in it.  This is something that I have tried to embrace in my last few years of teaching.  It wasn’t always easy not to take a student’s lack of joy in a book that I loved personally, but I’m starting to break away from that (and sometimes actually find pleasure when they say they hate it – hate is a strong emotion, after all!). Continue reading