It’s Monday! Here’s what I’m reading: Silent Star & Etched in Clay

Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye and Ricki Ginsburg at Unleashing Readers cohost It’s Monday! What are You Reading? 

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For this Monday’s #IMWAYR post I have two books centered around characters who persisted in spite of facing almost insurmountable odds.

In Silent Star: The Story of Deaf major Leaguer William Hoy, Bill Wise tells the remarkable story of William Hoy, who would not let his hearing impairment (caused by a childhood bout of meningitis) stand in the way of his dream to play professional baseball.  Once his talent for the game had opened the door to this seemingly unachievable dream, Hoy made the most of the opportunity by strategizing carefully and working twice as hard as his teammates.  He set many records, some of which still hold today.  This would be a wonderful book for classroom libraries – an inspiring story, well told and illustrated.

I’ve read news articles and pictures books about Dave Drake, a gifted potter  who was born into slavery in  antebellum South Carolina, and whose craftsmanship earned him a reputation far beyond his small town of Edgefield.  Drake was all the more remarkable because he had learned to read as well as write, both of which were against South Carolina law.  Determined to leave a written record of his thoughts, as well as sign his name to mark each of his creations, Dave etched both on the pottery he created – opening himself up to grave danger each time.

Andrea Cheng’s Book, Etched in Clay, re-tells this familiar story in an unusual way, through the imagined voices of many of the characters involved in the story, including Dave himself.   In an interview, the author explains how this technique of creative non-fiction allowed her to tell a more complete story: “I am glad that the lines between fiction and non-fiction seem to be softening. I think if we stick only to the facts, many stories will never be told, especially the stories of those who have less power. With Dave, there is very little concrete evidence beyond bills of sale and the pots themselves. I could not have written the book without imagining how Dave felt the day he was purchased, how Harvey Drake felt when he realized the talent that Dave possessed, how Lydia felt when she was forced to leave the man she loved.”

Hearing from each character allowed for a richer reading experience, and I imagine for meaningful and interesting classroom discussions as well.  I could see middle school students performing this as reader’s theater, as well, with pauses to write about and discuss the experiences of all the characters in this complicated and tragic period of American history.  Cheng’s brilliant and evocative woodcut illustrations add another wonderful dimension to the story as a whole.

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It’s Monday and Here’s What I’m Reading: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

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My resolution for the new year is to read fiction that is neither middle grade nor YA; luckily, I got a head start on that goal over Winter Break with this new, and much-heralded book:

I loved Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, also a wise and lyrically written story about families, parenting, and the ways in which society intrudes and often perverts.  Ng is a fearless writer and an honest one – Everything I Never Told You  was, at times, excruciatingly difficult to read for it made me think about my own efforts at parenting and how they went awry at times, as parenting is wont to do. 

Little Fires Everywhere is an equally brilliant book, although the scope widens to include class, race, and the politics of gender and poverty.  Here the book jacket synopsis:

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenaged daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town–and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides.  Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs.

Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood – and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.

Shaker Heights is the mirror image of the town I’ve lived in for many years, and I therefore understood Elena Richardson and her children all too well.  Our town, too, is said to embody all that a perfect town should, and many of its residents (like those of Shaker Heights) have returned to raise their own families in its perfection.  Elena’s children reminded me of so many young people I’ve come to know over the years, who grew up within the entitled confines of perfection, often at a great distance from truth, introspection, and a sense of genuine empathy.  They live in bubbles of prosperity and a self-congratulatory contentment, and seek to find similar bubbles however far they may wander from home.

I love the way Ng is able to build each character little by little, and weave the sometimes interconnecting narratives expertly through surprises and tragedies.  Each narrative stands on its own quite beautifully, but running through and around each other as they do makes for a captivating reading experience.  I am looking forward to reading it all over again for a Voxer book group, I imagine we will have some lively conversations!

 

It’s Monday! Here’s What I’m Reading: The Ethan I Was Before & Walking With Miss Millie

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts

I continue to make my way through my boxes of summer books, enjoying each of them for different reasons, but these were my standout books of last week, books I know my sixth graders will love to read and talk about:

Ali Standish has created so many wonderful characters in her debut book, The Ethan I Was Before, beginning with Ethan himself.  The “before” Ethan was a happy middle schooler whose life was all about the Red Sox, skate boarding, and hanging out with his best friend and partner in escapades, Kacey.  Then there was a terrible accident involving Kacey, and Ethan’s parents decided to leave their lives in Boston and move to Florida to live with his ornery grandfather.  This was supposed to be a new beginning for Ethan, but there is no getting way from his memories of Kacey for Ethan – or the guilt he feels for causing her accident.  Lonely and sad, he meets Coralee, who seems to have sad secrets of her own.  Finding an unexpected treasure leads them to adventures which help both of them discover what love, truth and friendship really mean.

I loved the compassion woven into each character in this book, and the way the adults step up to the needs of the children they are responsible for and do their best to be there for them.  We need books with kind adults, especially these day.

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Walking With Miss Millie is one of those lovely stories that unfolds gently and fills you with a quiet comfort.  Eleven year old Alice is not happy about having to move to a little town in Georgia so that her mother can take care of her grandmother, who seems to be getting more forgetful by the day.   Rainbow, Georgia seems backwards in every way compared to where she grew up in Ohio, especially when it comes to the issue of race – it’s the late 1960’s after all, and yet the people in this  town seem not to be making much progress.  Meeting Miss Lillie, her grandmother’s neighbor, and taking daily walks with her dog Clarence everyday, begins to open Alice’s eyes to many things: segregation, kindness, forgiveness, and sometimes having to accept that people are sometimes just who they are and not what you hope they can be.  I love the sense of humor  which Tamara Bundy weaves into the dialogue, too, which had me chuckling many times.

 

 

#IMWAYR: Teaching Reading With YA Literature by Jennifer Buehler

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It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts

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My summer PD plans got off to an early start on Sunday(we have three more weeks of school, here in New Jersey!) when  NCTE’s summer book club kicked off with its first discussion.  We are reading Jennifer Beuhler’s Teaching Reading With YA Literature: Complex Texts, Complex Lives, which is a fascinating analysis of how we can teach YA lit in meaningful ways.  Buehler calls for  the “development of a YA pedagogy – one that places student motivation at the center of our teaching while upholding the goals of rigor and complexity” (pg. 8), and her book is a road map for how to get there.

We read chapters 1 and 2 for this week’s discussion, and here are some ideas I tagged:

In the real world, readers are always blending their personal response to a book with their analytic understanding of the text.  Readers also instinctively search for connections between books and real-world contexts…As teachers of YA Lit, we can foster complex reading experiences and promote autonomy if we devise classroom tasks that invite students to engage in these forms of blending and connecting.  We don’t have to create new tasks to achieve this goal. Instead, we can recast and reinvent what we already do. (pg.11)

This idea of recasting and reinventing is one that both interests and excites me.  I love working on teaching efficiency – i.e. taking a fresh look at my teaching practices through the lens of new thinking (especially thinking grounded in current research) and reshaping and refining what I do.  So, I cannot wait to read ahead for Jennifer’s guidance in this process of recasting and reinventing.

We must establish contexts for reading that challenge students to be purposeful and intentional in their choices.  One way to do this is to foreground meta-level questions about why we read.  When we invite students to read for the same reasons that real readers do…they become more capable and committed to reading.  Students can develop agency and autonomy as readers only if we give them room to shape the course of their reading. (pg.11)

Like other teachers, I come at establishing contexts for reading through mini lessons, modeling, and our classroom discussions about shared reading.  I focus on strategies with my sixth graders, but I would love to learn more about how to deepen those meta-level questions in ways they will find meaningful and habitual.

Complexity can be found in the text – in the overall quality of an author’s writing and thinking.  But complexity can also be found in what readers do with texts…This means that as we evaluate texts for their inherent measures of complexity, we also need to explore how and why texts become complex for readers.

Because YA lit can speak honestly and directly to teenagers, and because the issues the books explore lend themselves to discussion and debate, it’s easy to see why YA lit is ideally suited to the task of teaching teens how to find and make complexity.  (pg.29 & 30)

Some of my sixth graders still read quickly and for plot. In fact, I would say that this is the natural inclination of most of my sixth graders.  So, getting them to slow down and think deeply about a character’s journey through a story line deliberately plotted out by an author would, indeed, add complexity to their reading tasks, and a greater seriousness to the way they went about their reading.  Here, again, I have much to learn.

Buehler also makes distinctions between “complexity of style: (language, structure, stylistic elements)  and “complexity of substance” (character, setting, literary devices, topics and themes, how the book is put together), and walks us through the process of looking for these in two books – Matt de la Pena’s We Were Here, and A. S. King’s Ask The Passengers.  This was a fascinating exercise in close reading in its best sense; it allowed me insight into the goals Buehler believes we can achieve with our students:

When we teach students to make nuanced judgments about complexity, we help them better understand what different books can give them.  By providing them with a framework for thinking about complexity, we empower them as readers.  We equip them with tools that will serve them in their reading lives for the long run. (pg.49)

Our task this week was to take what we had gleaned from those first two chapters and contribute to the following:

 

Week 1: Make
This week we’re going to create a curated list of YA novels with rationales for why they are complex texts. These lists may prove useful if you choose to use any of these novels in your class and are asked to justify your selection. Please share the title, author, and a few sentences explaining why a YA text of your choosing should be considered complex. Don’t worry if someone else has already listed a title you were considering; either add to their rationale or write your own. Multiple perspectives will strengthen our understanding of any of these books. Consider the elements listed on p. 37 in crafting your rationale:
  • Complexity of Style—language, structure, other stylistic elements
  • Complexity of Substance—character, setting, literary devices, topics and themes, how the book is put together

Here’s my contribution:

Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart.  I chose this as the first read aloud of the school year because I knew that my students would love everything about this story and that it would be the perfect way to launch our reading community. Joseph Johnson has just been orphaned when the book begins, and his beloved pony Sarah, all he has left of his own the world, has been stolen away.  Joseph sets out to find her, a journey that is filled with unexpected twists and turns and more heart ache.  He comes to realize, of course, that his search for Sarah is really a search to find love and meaning in the world after so much sorrow and loss.

Complexity of style:  Although the story is told in what seems to be a straightforward style with Joseph narrating the events in a chronological order, there are many flash backs for the reader to navigate through to piece together why Joseph is recalling this particular memory at this particular time.  Many of these flashbacks are in the form of things Joseph remembers his parents advising him, and the language of these quotes is formal, deeply figurative, and of a particular voice.

Complexity of substance: Joseph encounters a Chinese boy his age, who cannot speak a word of English.  He, too, is in search of someone – his father, lost somewhere among  the Gold Rush mines.  Ah-Kee  is subject to the racism of the times, which Joseph must both console him as well as defend him from. Other thematic issues such as courage in the face of loss, self sacrifice and keeping the faith when things seem without hope are also explored. The time frame and setting of the book (1890, in the mountains and cowboy towns of Washington State) are also important in understanding the text and making sense of the characters and events.

I’m looking forward to learning about new titles to add to my must read/must have in the library lists.

 

 

 

#IMWAYR-It’s Monday! Here’s What I’m Reading: A Perspectives Flip Book Series

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It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts

Early in their brilliant new book, Disrupting Thinking, Kylene Beers and Bob Probst write:

“We would argue that in today’s world, learning to extract information is not enough.  It’s not enough to hold a reader’s interest and it’s not enough to solve our complex problems. We need students who can do more than answer questions; today’s complex world requires that our next generation of leaders be able to raise questions.  They need to be able to hold multiple ideas in their minds.  They need to be able to see a situation from multiple perspectives. They need to be flexible thinkers who recognize that there will rarely be one correct answer, but instead there will be multiple answers that must be weighed and evaluated.”  (pg.21)

Getting kids to think with this mindset requires being able to offer a wide variety of texts about topics with different points of view, which can be a time consuming task albeit a worthy one.  So it was with delight that I came upon this series: A Perspectives Flip Book.  Each book in the series centers on one topic, examined from two opposing points of view. Here is the one on School Lunches, for instance.  Side one examines the issue from the point of view of why changes should be made,and side two looks at whether these new dietary regulations are either necessary or even good for school aged children.

The bias and objective of the argument is thoughtfully considered from both perspectives, with informative side bars, statistics, and graphics.  The series covers a wide range of  topics, from animal testing to the Civil War, and is written in an informative yet engaging way.

This is a wonderful series for book clubs and for informational and argument writing, as well.  I know this series will  definitely be on my purchase order for next year.

#IMWAYR: Joy Write by Ralph Fletcher

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It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts

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As luck would have it, my copy of Ralph Fletcher’s  Joy Write: Cultivating High-impact, Low-Stakes Writing arrived the week we were getting ready for the PARCC test – i.e. low-impact, high-stakes writing.  I read it with relish and relief – relish because few people write with as much joy about writing workshop as does Ralph Fletcher, and relief because Ralph’s note of caution about current writing workshop practice is something I have been grappling with and needed to hear his voice of encouragement.

For some time now, Ralph Fletcher has been asking us to examine how we structure and prioritize student choice in our writing workshops.  In Making Things From Scratch, he introduced the exploratory notebook and new strategies to help our students move away from the sort of formulaic nonfiction writing they tend to write and towards writing that has authentic voice and creative energy.

In Joy Write, Fletcher expands the scope of his analysis to include all aspects of writing workshop.  Having been there from the very inception of the writing process movement, he brings the force of  his institutional knowledge to this task, and the questions he poses about the way we’ve come to run our classroom writing workshops are both insightful and timely.  In my own sixth grade classroom, for instance, we follow our school’s genre based writing curriculum: we move from one genre to the next through a predictable series of steps, beginning with mentor text studies and culminating in writing celebrations.   Although I see the value of predictable routines and scaffolds in moving my kids through a year of writing in which they grow as writers, I would be the first to agree with Fletcher that hewing only to a genre based workshop saps the creative energy and “buy in” of my young writers; or, as he puts it:

Today in many classrooms we find children being taught exacting writing formulas. When format dominates the writing, there’s little wiggle room or opportunity for kids to make writing their own…They are directed to write in a particular genre in a way that’s highly structured and externally imposed.  From a student’s point of view, the writing is less about me and more about what the teacher tells me to do. (p 22)

So, what’s a teacher to do? If we’ve gotten away from the essence of writing workshop in this age of high stakes, test-oriented writing, and want to find our way back to the joy of student-driven writing within the parameters of our curriculum and state mandates, what is our path forward?  Well, Ralph Fletcher has some ideas:

In this book I am proposing a new concept: greenbelt writing. Writing that is raw, unmanicured, uncurated…I am talking about informal writing..I am talking about low-stakes writing, the kind of comfortable composing kids do when they know there’s no one looking over their shoulders.

… a wild territory where kids can rediscover the power of writing that is:

  • personal
  • passionate
  • joyful
  • whimsical
  • playful
  • infused with choice, humor, and voice
  • reflective of the quirkiness of childhood  (p39)

Greenbelt writing, as described by Fletcher, encompasses everything from blogging to Slice of Life writing to…whatever our students feel moved to write about in the form they choose.  The most important factor in this kind of writing is the fact that we (i.e. teachers) have little to no presence or influence: it’s all about what our kids feel they have to say, in the way they want to.  I loved reading through all the varieties of inspired creativity such freedom invites, and the sense of empowerment it creates:

But many students – more than we might imagine – will find their stride through greenbelt writing.  That’s where they’ll (re)discover the passion of writing, the thrill of saying exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it, savoring how it feels when you create every word, comma, exclamation point and can say with proud confidence: “This is what I wrote, and it’s all mine.”  (p.97)

In my own classroom, thanks in large part to Ralph’s words of caution every time he presents at conferences or takes to Twitter, I have found that making time for greenbelt writing has led to a much greater sense of writing partnership with my students, and (as a consequence) their own sense of personal investment.  Even when it comes to our weekly Slice of Life writing, for instance, “giving over” the platform to my students so that they can propose how they want to write changes the dynamic instantly.   Carving out the time for such endeavors is tricky, after all, do we even have time for the things we are mandated to do, let alone the things we would like to do?

Ralph Fletcher  believes we can:

What will kids remember about writing in school? I want them to remember … writing that is fun, passionate, and joyful, and reflects what matters to each student.  This is the best way I know to create writing classrooms where the student can develop the concept: I am a writer.  (p.40)

Each student as a joyful writer – now that’s something wonderful to consider and work towards.  So, even as we dive into testing season and all it brings, I would urge writing teachers everywhere to go get a copy of Joy Write, read it, and bring greenbelt writing into their classrooms. 

#IMWAYR & #SOLC17: Loving vs. Virginia by Patricia Hruby Powell

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?  is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts

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The story of Mildred and Richard Loving has been very much in the news recently.  A critically acclaimed movie, a sensitively told picture book, podcasts, and the re-airing of documentaries are just some of the ways in which the Loving’s extraordinary battle to challenge Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws has been revisited and retold.

For those not familiar with the Loving’s story, here it is in a nutshell: Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving grew up in the same town, Central Point in Caroline County, Virginia. Things went awry when their friendship blossomed into love, for Richard was white and Mildred was black, and interracial marriage  was against the law in  Caroline County (anti-miscegenation laws, in fact, existed in 24 states at the time).  The young couple have to travel to Washington D.C. to be married, and are arrested immediately upon their return. It takes time in jail,  many years, and many court battles before the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Lovings, and they are allowed to live in peace and raise their children in the place they called home – Central Point, Virginia.

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Patricia Hruby Powell’s Loving Vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case is a welcome addition to this collection, especially because of the way in which it tells the  story: in verse, and through the voices of Mildred and Richard.  The two perspectives allow the reader to better understand how both Richard and Mildred processed the events as they unfolded, and gives us some insight into what they thought and how they felt. 

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I loved that the book included snippets of history (the Civil Rights movement, the Brown vs. Board of Education case) which allow us to put the Loving case in its historical context. Shadra Strickland’s delicate artwork adds so much to the experience of the book, as well:

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Our students take so many of the advances made by the Civil Rights movement for granted today, even as many of those advancements (voting rights, for instance) are under assault. Books like Loving vs. Virginia remind us of the sacrifices made by individuals like the Lovings for such rights and for progress, and they remind us that the fight for civil rights is an ongoing struggle in which we must all participate. Loving vs. Virginia is a must have book in middle and high school classrooms, it would make for an important readaloud, especially now.