Category Archives: Reading Lives

Leaving Teaching: Who Gets the Books?

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So MANY Books…going to a good home!

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

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

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

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

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

Hindsight, certainly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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Image from New York Times

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

Humor

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

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

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

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

Hodge Podge

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

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

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

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

And One to Grow On: A Great Read Aloud

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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Image from Amazon.com

Nonfiction

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

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

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

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

Fiction

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

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

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

 

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

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Boy21 image from Matthew Quick’s website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rereading My High School Classics: Killing Mr. Griffin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Summer, Summer, Summer: READING

Re Jane by Patrica Park is on my list

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

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

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

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