Category Archives: School

Finished!

I have always struggled with my identity as a writing teacher.  I love teaching writing; I was just telling my husband today how much I love teaching AP Language because I love that I get to teach writing as the focus of the course.  It’s fun.  I’m not teaching AP Language this year, but writing is still at the center of my classroom.  I love seeing students find their voices and find their perspectives on the world.  It’s a rewarding gig.

But here’s the thing: I don’t consider myself a writer.  I never have.  I’m a reader, for sure.  But I wouldn’t say I’m a writer.  Somewhere in my 31 years of life I got the reputation as a “writer,” and that’s stuck with me.  But if you asked me about the myriad hats I wear, the chapeau of a writer would not be one of them.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe that teachers–all teachers–should be writers.  Science teachers should write about science.  Math teachers should write about math.  Art teachers should write about art.  We should practice what we preach.  And I do that with my students; I write what they write.  But I don’t write for myself.  I write for gradschool, and I write with them.  That’s it.

So I challenged myself to try on the kicky beret of a writer this month.  And I accomplished that goal.  I wrote every day for 31 days, and I read lots of wonderful writing.  My husband asked me today if I’d stick with blogging after the month was over.  Truthfully?  I don’t know.

I found this month that I like writing, but I’m not sure I love it.  I also found that that’s OK.  I have the ability to express myself in writing, and I do sometimes get joy from it if I’m writing about something I care about.  That’s what I hope to impart to my students.  I didn’t enjoy every Slice I wrote.  Some days were a struggle, for sure.  But when I connected with one of my topics, I did enjoy myself.  And I worked through some important ideas this month.  I am adjusting to my new role as mother and teacher and wife all at the same time, and it was helpful to put words to the ideas that were floating around inside.  Plus I like the idea of having something to look back on as I think about my daughter’s babyhood.  (Today was our first trip to the zoo–she’s growing up so fast!)

So I might continue blogging.  If I do it will probably be more about reading and teaching than about my every day life.  I’ll definitely continue journaling.  I’ll try to pop in on Tuesdays for the Slice of Life posts, if I’ve got something that week.  But even if this is my final post until next March I’m glad I participated.  I wrote for 31 days–I don’t think I’ve done anything for 31 days before!  Thanks to the teachers at Two Writing Teachers for hosting the Challenge!  And thanks to the other participants who inspired me daily!

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Admiration

Today I came home from school, packed up the baby, and took her to a local cafe to meet my husband.  My husband is also a teacher, and a coach, and he often works late hours.  Because of his coaching obligations (soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, baseball in the summer), he has little time to spend with students after school.  Rather than say, “Sorry, kid.  You’re out of luck,” my husband spend his precious free time meeting students at the library, at the bookstore, at cafes to try to help them with their work.  With organizing themselves.  With getting themselves back on track.  He does this even though he’s already put in an almost 12 hour day.  He does this even though he’d rather be home with the baby and me.

So today we met him at the cafe.  We played while he helped a student.  When she worked on her own, he came over and sat with our girl, who lit up like a Christmas tree at the sight of him.  It’s easy to complain about how busy I am, to say I don’t have enough time in the day to do all of the things I need to do.  But then I look at my husband, and I admire him so much for all that he’s able to accomplish.  He is a thoughtful coach, a loving husband, an adoring father.  And he still manages to be an amazing teacher who makes time for his students.  I’m thankful to have such an amazing partner, I’m thankful my daughter has such an amazing father, and I’m thankful my students have such an amazing teacher.

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Spring Break

We start Spring Break on Friday.  I have only been back to work for two months, so I don’t feel the all-consuming need to run out of my classroom as soon as that last bell rings.  I’m just getting into a groove with my students, and I’m actually a little annoyed that I’ll be losing them for a week (which really means at least a week and a half between students taking off and checking out).  There are other ways I’m approaching Spring Break differently this year, too.

I usually use Spring Break as my week to do a million things.  I grade; I plan; I take measure of the year so far.  I’m usually a busy bee during Spring Break, spending at least one full day at Barnes and Noble or the library. In fact, the week before Break is usually my easiest because I know I’m saving everything for my time off.

This year, however, I’m trying to get as much as possible accomplished before Friday.  I want to spend time with my girl, and I don’t want grading or planning or emailing hanging over my head.  I want to relish our daytime together, going on walks, the zoo, the park.  I want to just relax and spend time with her.

I’m also hoping to get some work done on my dissertation, which I’ve let languish for the better part of a year.  I have a meeting on Saturday that I’m hoping will energize me and focus me with a plan of attack.  I’m hoping to finish it in the next six to ten months, so I need to get moving.

All of this to say that this week I’ll be working my butt off trying to get ready to do nothing.  I think it will be worth it.

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Those Who Don’t

Today we used the chapter “Those Who Don’t” from Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street as a mentor text in my 11th grade classes.  We’re in our “Landscapes” unit, and we’re writing about places that are meaningful to us.  I haven’t really done any mentor writing with my students this year (I only came back from maternity leave in February and I was finishing up their other teacher’s work for a while), and I was amazed at how good their pieces turned out!  They were thoughtful and reflective when thinking about how other people see places they love.  I wrote with them, as usual.  Here are my two entries. (One class needs a little more . . . hands on attention, so I didn’t write a piece with them today.  Sometimes keeping them on task is like herding cats!)

Those Who Don’t (about the high school I attended, Bishop Kearney High School)

Those who don’t know any better look at our school as sheltered.  They think we’re unsocialized.  They think we are crazy feminists who don’t know how to talk to boys.  They are ignorant people who don’t know the history of our school.

But we aren’t sheltered.  We know that the nun with the habit runs the best library in Brooklyn, and the loud boom on the third floor came from the Physics classroom where future engineers are studying, and the leadership positions like captain and president and editor are all held by girls.

All girls all together we are one.  But watch us go out into the world and our voices get louder and our stances get firmer and our spirits get stronger.  Yeah.  That is how it goes and goes.

 

Those Who Don’t (about the local Dunkin Donuts, which the kids challenged me to write about)

Those who don’t know any better walk into Dunkin looking for caffeine.  They think it serves one thing.  They think Dunkin is only good for coffee and donuts.  They are undercaffeinated people who are tired and craving a jolt.

But Dunkin isn’t one thing.  We know the coffee comes in many varieties, and the breakfast sandwiches are hot and cheesy, and the hash browns are crisp and salty.

All caffeinated all full we are energized.  But watch us go into Starbucks and our voices quiver and our eyes water and our orders get mixed up.  Yeah.  That is how it goes and goes.

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One Month Down–January’s Reading

One month into my new year, and I’m already a lighter reader than I was at any point in 2014.  I’ve read six books in January–not as many as some other people (and probably not even as many as I read last January, high from the adrenaline of my Goodreads challenge).  I can’t say that they were all lifechanging books (although some of them were), but they were certainly all enjoyable.  I enjoyed the process of reading: turning pages, snuggled on the couch, tea in hand; trying to fit in one more page before the day started (or ended).  Here’s a rundown of January’s crop, starting with my favorites.

Tied for Favorite:

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

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I don’t have a good reason for waiting this long to read Brown Girl Dreaming.  I wish I did.  I’d seen it touted on Twitter, seen people reverently sending each other their copies.  I read about the National Book Award controversy, and read Woodson’s powerful response.  But for some reason I resisted actually reading the book until our excellent librarian ordered several copies for a book club.  I like to read the book club books a little early so I can tout them to my students, so I grabbed a copy when it first came in.  Barely two poems in, I knew I’d be ordering my own.  Woodson’s memoir in poetry tells the story of her childhood in Ohio, South Carolina, and my beloved Brooklyn.  It was the kind of book I could immediately see using in the classroom (I’m using one of the poems as a mentor text on Friday).  But more than that, it was the kind of book I immediately loved.  Brown Girl Dreaming is equal parts Song of Solomon and The House on Mango Street, and at the same time unlike anything I’ve read recently.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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I also loved Anthony Doerr’s historical novel All the Light We Cannot See.  I actually started this book in December, but didn’t have the concentrated reading time to actually sit down and read it.  When we had no school last week because of the blizzard that wasn’t, I settled in and finished all 530 pages in two snowy days.  Doerr writes two narratives–that of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl caught in the town of Saint Malo on the French coast during the final days of German occupation, and of Werner, a German engineering prodigy who finds himself hunkered down in the same town.  I tend to like historical fiction, and I particularly tend to like historical fiction about World War II (I even participated in a short-lived but awesome World War II book club), so this novel, which has been on the top of many critics’ best of 2014 lists, seemed like a natural fit.  It was wonderful; Doerr immerses you in Marie-Laure’s world, painting her as a realist character and avoiding the treacly cliches that can come with having a handicapped character.  The glimpses into Nazi Germany through Werner’s story provided excellent counterpoint to Marie-Laure’s Parisian childhood. I loved the cast of supporting characters, including Etienne, Marie-Laure’s reclusive uncle.  The novel is loosely set around a jewel heist (for lack of a better term), involving a valuable gem Marie-Laure’s father is tasked with hiding from the Nazis as they invade France.  This spine provided just enough suspense to differentiate All the Light We Cannot See from other stories of war.  I loved it.

Honorable Mentions:

Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst

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My husband got me this one for Christmas because of my deep-seeded love of World War II and Paris (see above).  It tells the story of Cristian Ferrar, who is working against Franco during the Spanish Civil War.  I liked a lot about this book: it was well-paced, gave lots of historical background on things I didn’t really know, and painted a great picture of Europe on the cusp of war.  The characters were a little flat, but for a spy novel it was an enjoyable read.

Love, Rosie by Cecelia Ahern

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I read this book for two reasons: I read about it in O Magazine (and if Oprah says it, I do it), and it was on sale on my Nook.  It’s definitely a light read, but I finished it in one day and it hit the spot.  Love, Rosie is an epistolary novel (another favorite genre) about Rosie and Alex, childhood best friends who obviously should be together but just can’t seem to get the timing right.   It was fluffy and sweet and a cute read.  Not life-changing, but definitely entertaining.

Just OK

The Care and Management of Lies by Jacqueline Winspear

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It’s not that I didn’t like this book.  I did like it.  I just didn’t really like it.  I’ve read Winspear’s Masie Dobbs series and really enjoyed those, so I guess I just expected more out of this one.  Set during World War I, The Care and Management of Lies tells the story of Kezia and Thea, childhood best friends whose lives abruptly change when war breaks out.  Kezia is left on the home front while Thea, her best friend, and her husband (also Thea’s brother) both go to war.  I liked Winspear’s writing, but there were places where the story dragged–it almost felt like Winspear lost sight of why she was writing what she was writing.  I think a lot of this had to do with the fact that this was an audio listen.  I probably would have enjoyed it a lot more if I’d read it, but I listened to it in a mad-dash effort to reach my goal in 2014.  Lesson learned.

I didn’t review the last book I read this month, We’ll Always Have Summer by Jenny Han.  It was a reread because some of my students were finishing up the wonderful Summer I Turned Pretty series and I got an itch to reread the last book.  It was a delightful experience.

So that was January, a pretty fruitful month!  What are your January reads?  Any plans for February?

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The Fault in Our Stars

I finished John Green’s masterful new novel The Fault in Our Stars on Friday. I’ve been thinking about it pretty consistently ever since. TFiOS has been one of the most highly anticipated books on my to-read list. I read Green’s Looking For Alaska with my book club last year, and I loved how raw and honest his voice was. I’d been hearing nothing but positive buzz about his newest book (lots of it from students and Green’s own twitter ), so I pre-ordered a copy.

The Fault in Our Stars is a book about two young people, Hazel and Augustus, who have cancer. Hazel is being kept alive by a miracle drug that prevents her terminal cancer from being, well, terminal. Augustus is in remission. They meet at a support group. The novel tells the story of their relationship, from their “meet cute” (he thinks she looks like his ex-girlfriend), to Hazel’s reluctance to become emotionally and romantically involved (she doesn’t want to hurt him if/when she dies) to meeting their shared favorite author in Amsterdam (because Augustus has been granted a cancer kid wish).

Here’s what I loved about TFiOS:

–It’s a book about cancer, but it’s not a Cancer Book. Green is careful to make this distinction often with Hazel–she is a kid who has cancer, not a Cancer Kid. He regularly mocks the traditional cancer narrative of other authors (kind-hearted, brave cancer patient shows the world how to live). Hazel and Augustus were not their disease, they were characters who had a disease. Too often, authors (particularly those writing for a younger audience) feel the need to heap on the melodrama. Green is careful not to do this (too often–it is still a book about kids with cancer, after all).

–It’s smart. One of the things I loved about Looking for Alaska is Green’s intelligence. He doesn’t dumb down his references–he writes for the smart kid. If you’re not the smart kid, he encourages you to become the smart kid–to look up the things he’s talking about. The title itself is taken from Brutus’ big exchange with Cassius in Julius Caesar, a personal favorite of mine. Green teases just enough of it to make the reader curious about the origins of the phrase. Hazel and Augustus (or Gus, as she ends up calling him), speak like articulate teenagers because they are articulate teenagers, a group it’s nice to see represented in pop culture. They share a favorite book and a favorite author and they talk about reading and its impact on their lives. And that’s nice.

–I cared about these characters deeply. Probably because they didn’t become stereotypical, two dimensional characters, Hazel and Gus were characters I rooted for and characters I mourned with. They were characters whose world I was glad to inhabit, a real treat in any novel. I wanted to watch America’s Next Top Model with Hazel and I wanted to philosophize with Augustus. Green made them real.

–Green is really a beautiful writer. I think I’ve said this before, but I love writers whose prose sounds like poetry. Green is able to do that wonderfully. The exchanges between Augustus and Hazel are lovely, as are Hazel’s description of the world around her. What’s even better, Green’s language is beautiful and still appropriate for his teenage intended audience. He isn’t F. Scott Fitzgerald, but he’s also not writing for Jazz Age critics. His voice, audience and subject match perfectly.

Of course there were things I didn’t love so much. I will admit that when I first finished The Fault in Our Stars, I didn’t want to think about it critically–it was too haunting and too beautiful for that. I didn’t want to put into words the things that I quibbled with. So I think I won’t. I was planning on a fully rounded review, but even as I write this the small negatives seem so insignificant compared to the overwhelming positives of the novel. It seems so petty to focus on the very few things I didn’t like when I liked so much about the book.

The Fault in Our Stars is firmly rooted in YA, but its appeal is so much wider than that. I’ve already lent my copy to two students (In a week! They’re flying through it), and I have a waiting list five names long. But grown up readers would be wise to grab a copy too. It’s the rare novel that reminds you of humanity’s fragility and immortality at the same time.

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Books I Should Have Read a Long Time Ago (Part 1 of ?)–Fences

A few weeks ago, a friend whose literary taste I greatly respect compared something or someone we were talking about to Fences, August Wilson’s seminal play about family and race in the 1950’s. “Oh, I loved that play,” my husband enthusiastically replied. They both then looked at me for my reaction, knowing my relationship with books. “Idon’tthinkI’vereadthatone,” I hastily replied. Now, I didn’t really think I hadn’t read it–I knew I hadn’t. Because my very fancy shmancy English degree, and my well-crafted reputation as a reader and book connoisseur has several noticeable holes.

I went to an all girls Catholic high school in Brooklyn. It prepared me tremendously for the real world. I learned how to speak when I wanted my voice to be heard, and my marvelous English classes allowed me to read books that connected with the girl I was, not with the person the canon wanted me to be (I’m looking at you, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). When I got to college, my school’s English department was big enough to get lost in, so I did. I managed to take several classes on Hemingway and none on anything non-European.

So I wasn’t surprised to discover that my friends were all talking about this great masterpiece I’d somehow never read. I’ve never read lots of things I should have. The Grapes of Wrath? Got about 100 pages in after loving East of Eden. Anything by a Russian? Nichego. (I looked that up. It means nothing in Russian.) The Canterbury Tales? I’ve read that one! Well, some of that one. There are whole centuries of poetry I’m ignorant about, and I have an embarrassingly un-dogeared copy of Don Quixote.

But usually I’m able to hide the fact that I haven’t read the canon as carefully as I should have. I usually take one of two approaches when I find myself faced with that kind of situation: I pretend I’m too hip and cool and progressive for the canon, or I clam up and wait until the conversation is over. Oh, War and Peace? Sure, I guess that’s worth reading, but I’m really into dystopic YA right now.

But this time I couldn’t avoid the conversation, and these were people who KNEW I wasn’t too cool for the canon, so I had to swallow my pride and admit I’d never read Fences.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when a copy of the play turned up on my desk the next day. After a warning not to picture Denzel when reading it, my colleague left the play in my hands. It taunted my on my desk for weeks. Look what you haven’t read, it seemed to say. You think you’re so literary? You haven’t even read Fences! Finally, New Year’s resolutions in hand, I decided to tackle the play. ALl I knew was that it was about race and baseball, and NOT about Denzel. How bad could it be?

I loved it. I loved it, I loved it, I loved it. I loved how complicated the characters and the relationships were. I really respected Troy for a good part of the play. And then, all of a sudden, I hated him. I was so sad when he told Rose he had had an affair, but I actually teared up at the beautiful two strikes metaphor. I was so proud of Cory at the end, when he didn’t want to go to Troy’s funeral, but I was also so glad he went anyway.

Could Fences have gone the other way? Absolutely. I was afraid at the beginning of the play that it was going to be Death of a Salesman times two (a play I love so much I cried on a public bus when it was over). But it wasn’t. It was so much more complicated than that.

I’m not going to be as hubristic as to say that I’m going to add “reading books I should have read” to my list of New Year’s resolutions. I know that I won’t really do that. But I think it’s worth tackling one of those canonical monsters every once in a while, and I’m going to try to make more of a concentrated effort to do so.

What about you? What Great Books (don’t miss the caps there) have you never read? Any you’re sad to have missed? Any you’ve read and loved or hated?

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