Monday, March 21, 2011

YA Book Review: Ship Breaker

Ship Breaker (Ship Breaker, #1)Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Garnering considerable buzz (Prinz Award, National Book Award Finalist) Paolo Bacigalupi's dysotopian YA novel Ship Breaker tweaked my curiosity enough to read it. I was lukewarm to the idea of it and overlooked it for a few months. Boy was I being foolish. This is a terrific book for middle school readers.

Actually, what grabbed my interest is the fact that the author has received notable attention not only for this novel but for his debut novel which is in the adult sci-fi realm, The Windup Girl (Hugo and Nebula Awards as well as positive ink from Time Magazine). More curious about the writer than the stories, I ordered both and started with Ship Breaker.

I am a very picky sci-fi reader. By that I mean it isn't the first genre I turn to, or even the second, and it ends up being the only genre I do not muscle through and finish if it does not appeal to me. I have no qualms putting down a sci-fi novel. I completely respect it and do enjoy it...when it is done well. That said...I did not put Ship Breaker down when given a choice and found myself looking forward to picking it back up.

One of the things I like most about Ship Breaker is that it could almost be set in any time period--the core story (poor boy helps poor-little-rich-girl helps poor-boy) could easily be fashioned into a western or any other existing sub-genre. The story is strong.

Set on the Gulf Coast deep into the future--long after America has been chewed apart by drastic shifts in nature (caused by human negligence)--we follow the hard-edged life of a 14 year-old named Nailer who survives by crawling through dangerously cramped compartments on beached and otherwise useless oil tankers. He pulls anything worth salvaging which could be melted down and sold...copper wire most notably.

Nailer lives with the dregs in a cut-throat society. The world has hurtled into two volatile and drastic halves--the haves and the have-nots. Both have developed significant venom. The have-nots live in ramshackle huts slapped together with cardboard, aluminum, hubcaps...basically, garbage. They sleep on the ground in the elements and mark themselves with burns and tattoos and their salvage zones with etched symbols to demonstrate their allegiances or claims. And we're not even certain that any of the Haves even know the Have-Nots exist...their domain isn't even marked on a map correctly.

Think the "Housewives of Beverly Hills" not knowing the names of anyone making a living in the seediest and most vicious neighborhood gang in the country--why would they know of them? This is the separation which exists between the two worlds.

The awards and positive ink which Ship Breaker has earned comes as no surprise--this is a book males and females can each appreciate. Filled with equally strong (and vulnerable) male and female characters, each understands that there are only two ways to survive in this primal every-man-for-himself world: luck or loyalty.

I love that the book functions on the foundation of loyalty. For every story resolved by the flash of teeth from a magical vampire or in the swallowing of Friar Lawrence's distll'd liquor, there are those which emerge like Ship Breaker which allows human beings to sort out extraordinary problems with human tools. I felt the same way at the end of The Lord of the Rings as I did at the end of Ship one gets out of that world alive without either luck or loyalty.

And like a lot of things in life, why worry about the things you can't control?

In the end, this is a great book for your middle school bookshelf because the story alone will absolutely please your YA readers. It is exciting. However, based on the fact that your kids will read a great story based and built on that great human virtue loyalty I give it five stars (if I gave out stars) and two thumbs up (if I gave out thumbs).

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Friday, March 18, 2011

YA Book Review: Revolver

RevolverRevolver by Marcus Sedgwick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With a thrilling pace and a clearly sinister villain looming for more than 90% of the novel, Marcus Sedgwick's Revolver flat out knocked me out. I loved it--it is Jaws in a cowboy hat. Built around the Alaskan Gold Rush, any reluctant reader can't help but fall for this story of fourteen-year-old Sig squaring off against a seething old-fashioned brute--Gunther Wolff. Revolver reads like the next great film: visual, gripping, and harsh. If Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, and Martin Scorsese collaborated on a story in early 1970s...this is what would hit the page.

While Gunther Wolff plays the Clint Eastwood-esque stranger who came to town to seize any gold Sig's father may have on the property or in the bank, there is an undeniably galvanizing object which takes center stage and never leaves it: the Colt 45 revolver.

Each character has one. Sig's father's revolver is in a closet, and Wolff's is either gleaming menacingly from his hip, or pointed squarely at Sig.

The core of the story revolves around the idea that Gunther Wolff made a deal with Sig's father, Einar, over a decade ago. The deal was for a 50/50 split of some gold Wolff assumed Einar had in his possession. To protect his family, Einar made the deal...and then ran with his family. For ten years Gunther Wolff tracked them and now he has come to stake his claim.

Einar is indeed home when Wolff comes calling--he is dead on the kitchen table. That leaves the business to be done falls upon Sig, and Wolff has one decision to make: which child of Einar's does he shoot to force the other to tell him where the gold is.

Gold which they knew nothing about...having lived in poverty their entire life.

The book also suits any writer trying to piece together a thriller for the YA audience. It follows all of the advice I have been reading from agents, editors, and authors. For instance...if there is a gun in a story make it work. Take it out of the holster. Point it at somebody! Fire it! If there is a villain in the story, put him into action...he/she does you no good on the sidelines. Revolver is that great combination of gun and villain and the seemingly outmatched adolescent.

Absolutely go out and grab a copy and stick it on your desk at school--kids will read it, they will think it is thrilling and fun, and the best part is I believe it will make them want to read something else. This is a book to celebrate all books. And if you have a son at home, buy it, turn off the XBox and stick it in front of him.

It is my new favorite YA novel of the past year.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

YA Book Review: Inside Out & Back Again

Inside Out and Back AgainInside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

YA author Thanhha Lai recounts her experiences as a child-growing-into-adolescence while the Vietnam War grinds to a halt and the Americans pull out of South Vietnam. The autobiographical Inside Out & Back Again is written in narrative poetry which is sectioned into four parts: Saigon, At Sea, Alabama, and From Now On.

I just had a conference in my class with a student who wanted to make her story sound / read more innocently. Writing from the perspective of a child, she wanted to write how a child sees, what it sees, how it names things. It is more than just changing some words, the writer has to try to recount what is indeed important to a child...a child's priorities are unique and should be treated as such. This is a part of what makes Inside Out & Back Again successful.

Lai's brings our narrator Hå to life with the sensibility of both an artist and also someone who is completely saturated with the experience:

I can't make my brothers
go live elsewhere
but I can
hide their sandals

There is a hint in the book that even at a young age Lai's alter ego understood that she was an artist and on the path towards being someone beautiful:

Mother has always wanted
an engineer, a real doctor, a poet,
and a lawyer.

She turns to me.
You love to argue, right?

No I don't.

She brightens.

I vow to become much more agreeable.

There are many perspectives to consider in a YA novel like this: history, culture, growing up, family, siblings, bullying, racism, war, politics, and even to a much more complex degree love and loss, comfort, acceptance, and inner strength or pride. The mother is a mighty character...her presence is felt within each poem. I could feel her eyes on Hå as I read, even if she wasn't included in on that particular poem.

I chant,
wanting the gentle strokes
to continue forever.

I chant
wanting Mother's calmness
to sink into me.

The book lists itself as appropriate for ages 8-12, but quite honestly I enjoyed it as much as any book written for my age range--and I don't mean as a curiosity. This is a book which brings a slice of history alive (which I love in YA literature) but the history is a backdrop. History is what happens around human beings. Lai has captured the human experience and presented it as a thoroughly enriching experience for the YA audience.

Highly recommended for your middle school bookshelf.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The History of Ideas

This is a really nice online resource for students of any age.  I'm hopeful some of my middle school students could use it or find it interesting to poke around in.  It came to me in a Tweet from Jim Burke (h.s. teacher, NCTE, College Board) this morning.

It is an online edition of The Dictionary of the History of Ideas hosted by the University of Virginia.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Online Reading Challenges

I've signed up for two challenges: the Printz Project Challenge, and the Book Awards Challenge.  Each provides another way for me to find some excellent books I have not read yet.

I like both...while the Printz challenge of course limits me to its taste in books, I have to say that I have really enjoyed everything they have acknowledged.  The Book Awards Challenge will force me to mix in some novels other than YA which will be good for me as I've been on a steady diet of YA since November.

I'm considering trying the Newberry Project which sets the goal for the participants to read every book ever awarded the Newberry Medal which dates back to 1922.  This one intrigues me and seems like something a middle school language arts teachers should be doing...I'm going to sit on this one for a day or so until I settle in with the other two projects in addition to keeping up with books published each month.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

YA Book Review: Lizard Music

Lizard MusicLizard Music by Daniel Manus Pinkwater

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Instead of a current YA novel I reached back to 1976 to find a novel to read and review: Daniel Pinkwater's Lizard Music. My first impression is that the book captures the groovy "anything is possible vibe" of the 1970s. I was 8 years-old in 1976 and playing with my Evil Knievel Stunt Bike while Steve Jobs was busy launching Apple. The Concord flew, an Oil Crisis emerged, and Jimmy Carter became the President. Lizard Music doesn't mention any of it, but the whole feel of the novel was very nostalgic for me as it does not read like anything which could be written today--it is more than the mention of artifacts and names of the 70s. The whole tenor of the book is 1970s. It was clearly born out of the mid-70s.

Lizard Music is the story of a fourteen year-old boy, Victor, left home alone who then goes on a bit of a journey. His parents leave to go on a vacation to work on their marriage. His older sister leaves in a rattling oil-spewing jalopy with a bunch of hippies to camp and sing songs about Mother Nature.

Victor's journey is more adventure more than any type of spiritual journey--there doesn't appear to be anything deep to it, no hidden message exists in the text. It is just Victor's journey to an invisible island run by speaking lizards who worship chickens--surrealism for kids.

Remember, the 70s were groovy and ideas were allowed to be far out.

The journey starts with Victor watching Roger Mudd fill in for Walter Cronkite on the late news. He continues to watch television all night because he can, and after the late movie a half dozen lizards appear on the screen playing musical instruments. There aren't people dressed as lizards...these are real lizards, man. Real lizards playing musical instruments. Trippy.

Unfazed, Victor heads into town because he can and because it is something he couldn't normally do when mom and dad were home. While in town he meets the Chicken Man--an old black man who walks town around entertaining people like a minstrel. He totes a real chicken on his head or shoulder and they perform together for people. The chicken knows things too--the location of an invisible island for example--and plays a integral role in the conclusion of the story.

Far out. A chicken.

The thing is, while the book is quite creative and somewhat fun to read, it falls a little flat for me as the journey wasn't really about anything. Victor makes it to the invisible island with the chicken and then makes it home in time for mom and dad's return from marriage-saving vacation. The End.

Am I supposed to be smoking something when I read this?

Because of the weirdness of it, Lizard Music is definitely something I would have enjoyed as an 8 year-old in 1976, but I wonder how it would hold up to a middle school student today. I'll definitely float it out there to my students and I'll be interested to hear what they think.

It has all of the earmarks of a book kids would love. The parents leave him to be alone. He can eat what he wants when he wants. He watches TV all night and rides the bus all over town, plus he gets whisked away to a fantasy land close to Dali's heart and soul.

I think being 42 has caused me to not give the book a glowing review.

As there is an innocence and purity to it, Lizard Music won't hurt to read, but I don't know that given the choice between it and The Hunger Games that many would pick it up. Maybe they will...I could have missed the point since I grew up and left the Hundred Acre Wood.

If you put it on your classroom shelf you aren't causing any harm to the cultural revolution as the incidents in the story are charming and bizarre and somehow whisper the promise that just maybe a kid will read it and realize that anything truly is possible.

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Friday, March 11, 2011

YA Book Review: Heart of a Samurai

Heart of a SamuraiHeart of a Samurai by Margi Preus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Written in third person, Heart of a Samurai is adventurous YA historical fiction. Author Margi Preus stumbled across the facts of the remarkable life lived by Nakahama Manjiro--a simple Japanese farm boy lost at sea in 1841.

It is a wonderful story--great for middle school boys especially--full of a lot of action and conflict, yes, but also built on the themes of perseverance, honesty, and cultural awareness.

Nestled deep inside the roots of 250 years of isolation from the rest of the world, nineteenth century Japan functioned as a world of Shogun and samurai and distrusted the monsters of the West. Nationalism and loyalty insulated the Japanese from the rest of the world to such an extreme that it was well-know that if a Japanese citizen left Japan it would be assumed they had been poisoned by the West and not welcome to return to their homeland.

Manjiro, 14 years-old at the time, settled on a fishing boat with some friends to help provide food for his family. Without a father, he became the primary the food source for his family. He had recently failed his mother by accidentally destroying a large cache of family rice; returning home with fish was his way to make up for it. Unfortunately, a storm shipwrecks him on a deserted island, and it would be nine years before he would find himself on Japanese soil again. His family feared him dead as he went out on the fishing boat without their knowledge--all his family knew was that he left home one day and just vanished.

Rescued by the American whaling vessel John Howland Manjiro, nicknamed John Mung by the whalers on board, teaches himself English and earns a spot assisting on whaling missions. The captain of the John Howland takes to Manjiro and offers him a place in his home upon returning to America--he treats Manjiro like a son.

In America Maniro goes to school, learns the cooper trade, studies navigation, all while farming the land, riding horses, and enduring the racist taunts of Americans of all ages. He joins another whaling ship only to return to America to join the California gold rush--and he strikes enough gold to send himself back to Japan at the age of twenty-three.

He had experienced the world for nine years--most of it as a teenager.

His return to Japan was not full of pomp and circumstance initially. Treated very cautiously by the ruling Tokagawu Shogun, Maniro found himself imprisoned (and interrogated) for a year and a half before being released to rejoin his family.

After on a short time home in the embrace of his mother, Maniro is summoned by samurai...and he is made a samurai. This was deemed impossible at the time as he was not born of nobility. Yet, the knowledge and eye-witness accounts he had of the West served as a powerful badge of honor and tool. He served as a translator when Commodore Perry's fleet stood at the gateway of Japan and demanded access to its harbors. It was Maniro who convinced his people that America was not full of monsters looking devour their country...that the world was indeed full of strange and different people, but all were beautiful.

He is said to have been among the first Japanese to ride a railroad, in a steamship, to officer an American vessel, and to command a trans-Pacific voyage. He is credited with offering many new things to his homeland, chief among them is whaling.

I highly recommend this Newberry Honor book for a place on your classroom shelf. This is traditional YA literature--accessible to all types of middle school readers, clean, and full of great things to discuss and learn.

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YA Book Review: nothing by Janne Teller

NothingNothing by Janne Teller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pierre Anthon, a 14 year-old-boy, stands in the middle of a class and announces, "Nothing matters." He walks out of the classroom to sit for most of the rest of Dutch author Janne Teller's YA novel nothing in a plum tree.

And so the existential journey begins for the twenty classmates who witnessed Pierre's proclamation and pass him every day on their way to school as he rains plums at them with the reminder that nothing matters.

Twenty classmates find themselves hell-bent on proving to him and to themselves that something matters--and they hatch a plan. If they can each contribute something that matters from each of their lives, and completely give it up for good, then they can show Pierre Anthon that he is wrong and something does indeed matter.

The twist in their plan is that someone else chooses for each of them. For instance, one child told the narrator that she must give up her favorite pair of casual footwear (green flip-flops). This one hurt as the flip-flops were her favorite, but she gave them up nevertheless. The point is, if someone else chooses, and you can't refuse, then we are bound to find things in others which are painful to lose and therefore...meaningful.

They continue to pile their personal belongs together, one by one, in an abandoned sawmill. As we move through the story, each item becomes increasingly cruel and personal...and painful...and, according to the philosophy of their journey--meaningful. The choices the adolescents come up for each other with are eye-opening: forced mutilation, animal cruelty, exhumation, desecration of religious items, loss of sexual innocence, and homicide.

I've read often that the writer's job is to be cruel to his/her characters...well, Teller certainly abides by that formula. It would also come as no surprise to find people offended by at least one of the actions by the characters in this novel. I'm reminded of a time when a perturbed colleague tried to engage me in a debate about a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph which offended him: the crucifix submerged in a jar of urine. Teller's novel can be perceived as just as evocative especially considering it is for the YA audience.

Personally, I found the novel fascinating and very difficult to put down as this existential journey hurtles with skilled recklessness towards the conclusion. The themes in nothing resonate with echoes from The Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye, A Wrinkle in Time--all have been challenged by communities. The novel most likely will find some resistance in public school libraries and classrooms should it ever enter those domains, but I'll stand by my opinion that Janne Teller's nothing would make for some heady and healthy discussion with adolescents--just the opportunities for higher order thinking alone...yet, I can't put it in my classroom. Nevertheless, I am glad that I read it and am aware of it in case the opportunity to discuss it ever arises.

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Operation Pedro Pan: Christina Gonzalez discusses the history behind her novel.

Click the picture above to hear YA author Christina Gonzalez tell my class about the history behind The Red Umbrella.  This is a really interesting, little shared, piece of American history: Operation Pedro Pan--the U.S. government assists Cuban families save 14,000 children from the grip of the Communist Revolution.

YA author Christina Gonzalez (The Red Umbrella)

Christina Gonzalez spoke to my class yesterday (March 10th, 2011) about several topics.  Here she discusses how she created the title for her YA novel  The Red Umbrella  and the process of titling a work in general.

Click the image below to begin the video from our class.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Conference Etiquette by Mr. Manners

I recently presented at a state supported education conference.  Over the past 10 years I have presented a dozen times at education conferences and football coaching conferences.  After this last experience I have to point out a few things which Judith Martin (Miss Manners) never taught us:

1.  As a presenter I had to pay this week.  I couldn't believe it.  Months ago, I submitted a proposal to present to a committee which I assume chooses from a stack of applications.  They found my ideas and expertise valuable enough to include in their conference...they emailed me my presentation date and time and room...and then told me to register.  To pay?  I'm not talking a couple of bucks.  We're talking upwards of $200.

2.  Handouts.  I've seen both camps--the presenter who makes more than enough copies and no one takes their handout with them.  The presentation room remains littered with wasted paper.  Or, of course, the opposite occurs--in the spirit of being green, a presenter offers to email anything they present...and conference attendees complain and harumpf...they have to have that handout!  (Or they leave the room to go to a different session)

3.  This one happens a lot at coaching conferences/clinics: when the presenter does indeed have a handout, word spreads, and, mind you, hustle into the room to scoop up a handout and then leave the presentation so they can attend something else going on at that time...kind of getting two for one.

4.  Finally, this one has only happened once in my experience, but it is worth sharing: in the middle of a presentation someone walked in...saw a friend of his across the room...and yells out, "Pete!"  It gets worse.  Pete leaps up and they climb over other people to each other (like a young wife greeting her husband who was away at war), hug, slap backs, shake each other, and share with the rest of us how great it is that they are seeing each other again.  I watched the presenter's face slowly grow raw with disgust.  To his credit, he let them waste his time without a word and carried on with the presentation.

There is definitely conference etiquette which doesn't always get practiced by all parties.  In the case of a presenter paying to attend the shouldn't happen.  This is a no-brainer and the worst possible scenario.  Every day there are websites, wikis, forums, blogs, twitterers which share (many for for free) professional experiences, information, tips, lessons, and anything you can imagine.  The internet is providing an ongoing, nonstop conference.  I'll go so far as to say that people don't have to go to education conferences anymore.

One such example is the English Companion Ning (  Here educations from around the world have gathered to share ideas and materials, debate, discuss, review, and engage.  It is free.  It offers as much as any education conference has, and I have developed several professional relationships with good people.  Our discussions are now ongoing and it has given everyone access to people and ideas we otherwise never would have.  Currently, I'm in conversation with a teacher in Alabama who wants to join our classes together to discuss and explore The Diary of Anne Frank.

This has never happened to me at a conference.  Why?  Because when people go they tend to want to grab (grub) the handout, listen, and leave.  If there is no handout then you receive a snarky comment on the feedback form to be better prepared.

None of us has to reschedule a day of work, prepare powerpoints, maybe some handouts, and drive to a conference to then write a check to do so.  In the professional world, that fee is waived for presenters.  I'm not looking for a check or to make a nickle when I do it, but I'm also not looking to spend my money when I offer my expertise either. 

Actually, with current financial climate many districts are not reimbursing their teachers should they attend a conference.  If a state education agency is organizing a conference they have to get their act together and at the very least waive the fee for presenters--you'll attract more applications, perhaps you'll attract teachers who never would be able to attend a conference in the first place. 

As far as handouts at conferences are concerned, with the mass availability of computers--most of us have one in our pockets--there is no need to continue to produce handouts at conferences.  Get back to conversation, get back to paying attention and respect and courtesy.  I haven't met an educator or football coach yet who would not share his/her information.  Actually it has been quite the opposite.  It is easily done online, via email, DVD, etc.

Since there isn't a Miss Manners for conferences, I guess that makes me Mr. Manners for today.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

YA Book Review: Angry Young Man

Angry Young ManAngry Young Man by Chris Lynch

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Of the tall stack of YA books I've read since early November, I struggled the most with Chris Lynch's Angry Young Man. I just couldn't read through a chapter without feeling like I was wasting my time, but I pushed through the book anyway to be fair. At times it took me two to three sittings per chapter to move through it; I found other distractions easily...such as filling the dog's water dish.

No offense to the author intended, but I really felt like I wasted my time with this novel.

(Note: I can't speak about the book without including a spoiler here, so if you intend to read Angry Young Man you're better off leaving my review now and experiencing it for yourself.)

The story itself: a pair of post-high school brothers try to find their way in a house barely kept afloat by a single mother struggling to make ends meet. A bill collector intrudes on their house and family, pounding on the door, calling on the phone at all hours of the day and night. One of the brothers spends a lot of time with a local militant hell bent on causing damage and inflicting harm to making the world a better place one night at a time. It all meets at the end where the brothers take a homemade bomb and place it under the bill collector's desk (to prove a point?)--and then think better of it as they leave. They run back in, convince the guy who is just doing his job to chase them (which saves his life as the building goes boom), and live happily ever after because the bill collector suspects someone else and these two kids get off clean...everyone in their family maintains a job and they bond as a family, making it work one day at a time.

The story didn't speak to me on any level--as a reader, teacher, admirer of good story telling... Written in first-person narrative the story contained a lot of summary. I never felt any emotional connection with any circumstance. Their angst, anger, frustration, deviance, love for their mother or each other fell completely flat and ineffectual.

The reader is kept at a distance from a plot which never really sorts itself out. At the moment that you might start to believe that the younger brother is lost in the seedy underbelly of a homegrown terrorist then story conveniently ends with all is well.

I thought a writer's job was to be brutal with his/her characters. Raise the stakes. Raise the what next factor. Lynch totally bails his characters out and left me wishing I bailed when I first suspected a problem existed. For all of the huff and puff of the terms "terrorist" and "bomb" this book delivered as much disappointment as a hollow chocolate bunny.

I do not recommend this for your classroom library--there is too much going on in the world of YA literature to settle for this novel.

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Thursday, March 3, 2011

To Counter the Culture of Numbers

I've been engaged in some meaningful dialogue with English teachers (from middle school through college) across the country about moving to a numberless/letter-less grading system for student writing.

Some of my reading on current and past research has suggested that placing a number/letter grade on writing actually inhibits growth.  However, we are all held to the expectation of giving a grade.  A number.  A letter.  Something tangible must end up in a grade book--it is the reality of public education, isn't it?  The state even hands us a rubric...we've had to display large laminated posters of the state numerical rubric for years.

As I read and asked questions, a colleague on the English Ning suggested Linda Christensen's article My Dirty Little Secret.  She addressed my common concern:
In too many classrooms, grades are the "wages" students earn for their labor. Teachers assign work, students create products, and grades exchange hands. There are problems with this scenario. Students who enter class with skills—especially reading and writing skills—are rewarded with higher grades. They already know how to write the paper; they just need to figure out what the teacher wants in it. 
At the time I'm reading Christensen's article I'm discussing with my students that they are making the same mistakes in their writing and I'm writing the same comments on the essays week after week.  We've been having conferences, we've had lessons, notes, examples...yet, most students seem to want to focus on, "Why did I get a B?"

My feedback needed to improve.

As I read in Linda Christensen's article My Dirty Little Secret, "I see responding to student papers as part of the teaching process rather than the evaluation process."

I thought I was evaluating.

So, I've been reading and asking.  The feedback and research I've been handed back has truly been informative and from a wide variety of sources across the country: middle school and high school teachers, college professors, retired teachers, and everything in between.  I've read the thoughts of these colleagues as well as those from the writers and scholars they turned me on to: Pat Schneider, Peter Elbow, Linda Christensen (Director of the Oregon Writing Project), to articles from the National Writing Project, and the Pennsylvania Writing Project.

Maybe more importantly I pulled my chair to the front of the class and shared the research I had been reading.  I shared the feedback I have received from colleagues across the country,  and then I asked my students for their written feedback--what would be the (most challenging, interesting, helpful, positive, worrisome,______) aspect of our moving to an assessed portfolio of your work (the positive and negative) as opposed to continuing with single grades on individual essays?  How are you handling all of this?

What I learned is that it hasn't been my feedback.

There is clearly a percentage of students who rank the grade above the feedback.  If the grade disappears they can't see how they will understand what is lacking or positive in their work.  This is a real eye-opener for me--the grade dictates whether they feel their work is "good" or "bad."  Then, they think little about it again.

They view the written feedback as something they have to decipher...there is no deciphering a "C" evidently.  Yet I am also hearing that if there is a C on their paper and they feel they worked hard on it, they don't like pulling it out and looking at it to try and figure out my feedback.  They don't like looking at the grade, so they ignore the rest of the feedback.  Amazing.  I share in this.  Yet, why does it surprise me.  Shame on me for being surprised, I guess.

Tom Thompson, professor at The Citadel, replied to my open discussion on the English Ning:
I've used portfolios (in college) for which I gave comments-only feedback on individual assignments during the semester, but still had to assign a grade for the term. I finally gave up (gave in?) because my students were simply too stressed. They're too used to grades. Maybe if we started them in middle school with non-graded assessment, we could carry it over into high school and college. Or maybe if I gave better feedback, they might be less stressed.

I'm still sold on focusing on feedback rather than grades, but we have lots of un-training to do to counter the culture of numbers.

After a day of discussion and a Q&A about the shift in ideology, my classes overwhelmingly want to give this a try.  We will reassess it together after one portfolio of work: four essays/stories in total.

They like the idea that for three papers they'll continue to work on areas of weakness and further develop the positives.  They also liked that their writing grade will evaluate their growth in addition to their product.  While we will conference after each paper is completed, I see the final portfolio conference at the end as an opportunity for them to self-reflect on their growth for the past three papers (the fourth will be a self-reflection/persuasive piece).  They will walk away knowing they had a voice--not a debate--about their growth.  I want to teach them how to speak about their work beyond "Why did I get a B?"

I realize this is a leap I can't just make without some careful thought.  Maja Wilson, a high school teacher on sabbatical and currently teaching 1st Year Composition at the University of New Hampshire, wrote to me:
In my mind, it doesn't make any sense to un-grade unless several critical conditions are in place, among them:  
~students experience the work as meaningful
~students and teacher trust each other
~the teacher is committed to descriptive, specific feedback (as opposed to circling someone else's descriptors on a rubric) and conversation about the work throughout
Kim McCollum-Clark, college professor, commented several times to my questions and concerns:
My students are anxious about this grading strategy until the first paper gets back.  Then they love it.  It relieves their anxiety, helps them focus on learning their own highly personal "process" and "bugbears" as writers.  It keeps the focus on revision, conferring and feedback, and sharing your work to gain more perspective on it.
Finally, I want to share some of the honest feedback from my students--the encouraged and the worried:

Often, I only try to write to the grade which ends in sub-par writing.
The most useful part is the fact that we will know how to improve.
I like the new system because I feel like now I can write what I want without worrying about the grade I get.
It will probably freak me out a bit because I am one of those people who always knows what I have to get on everything.  It will be a challenge for me to make sure that I improve every single paper, though.
When I get a grade, I am unfocused on other points.  I can concentrate on mistakes and correcting them instead of the grade on my paper.
Based on yesterday's discussion I'm feeling more confident about our writing assignments.  I like that our grading system is based on improvement that we make paper to paper rather than a raw rubric.
I think that the portfolio grading system will benefit the class.  To begin with, the new system will shift the focus to improvement instead of a focus on meeting preset guidelines.  There is nothing wrong with preset guidelines, but occasionally writers can get caught up in following them strictly.
I believe the best aspect of change that changing grades into a portfolio will be getting out of the mindset that everything has to have a grade.  I think so many people today in school just complete the work to get a good grade instead of enjoying it.  Most students look at a grade and usually don't know how they got it or what to change to get a better grade.  In completing the portfolio we can improve and look how well we achieved our goals.
I feel that conferencing with you will greatly improve my writing as I am not as worried about meeting requirements to get a good grade, but trying to improve my writing.
I think the most revolutionary aspect of the change will be how there aren't specific grades for each one.  I've always been so focused on getting the "A" or following a rubric that it may have been stifling my ability.  
I don't think the switch from grading the individual essays to grading the portfolio will affect me.  I mean, I'll have to show growth, but that's about it.  I don't think it's that big of a difference.  I would prefer to have each paper graded individually.
I have always been one of those people who needs to see the letter, the percent, and the point value at the top of my paper.  It's rewarding to see that, after I took the time to write an essay that met all requirements, I got a grade that reflects that effort.  The fact that I won't be getting that grade is, in a way, frustrating.  I also feel that this new system of grading is a way to reward the kids who don't put so much effort into their papers.
One thing that will take some time to get used to is not having a written grade on each paper.  Knowing my grade right away is something I've grown used to.
Wonderful. That is what I think this new idea is.
I think the most interesting aspect will be trying to adjust from just looking at a grade to looking at the feedback.  I might end us stressing about my grade instead of looking/reviewing/applying feedback and suggestions.  I really don't know what will happen.
In the past I would take grades to heart, yet not completely understand what I had done to receive those grades.  Now without the confusion of a rubric and the introduction to the more frequent one-on-one conference system, I can change specifically what needs improvement.  Also, I do not mind the number/grade on my paper as long as I can pin point how I did.
Conferencing will make me more confident about what I am writing and therefore make it better.
I like the idea of conferencing after every paper (or even before).  I think that this will help to get a stronger understanding how to improve my work and this will help me focus on how to improve my writing.
I believe this new procedure will definitely help me.  At my old private school there were no such things as grades.  The teachers offered criticism on paper, not numbers.  When I came to this school I became focused on numbers.
It will push me to give 100%.  I think it will also aid my ability to conference over my work.  It will also help me acknowledge my faults and bad habits.
Another good thing about this is that conferencing will help me start planning ahead of time.
I like the change.  It may be challenging but I never ever understood the 4, 3, 2, 1 rubrics anyway.  Isn't that all just opinion?  At least now I can talk about my work instead of trying to understand why it is a "3".
I have mixed feelings, but one good aspect is that we are now required to conference a lot.  When we'd have opportunities to conference on our own I never really took them seriously.
I like the change.  If I get a bad grade now I think "Oh wow I'm a terrible writer," but if we don't have a number written on it then I can truly just look at the feedback to help me.  Also, I won't be as afraid to take my paper back out of folder to look at it again.  I hate looking at Cs.
Usually when I get the grade I enjoy getting the percent and seeing what I got on the rubric.  However, talking it out is also good for what I have stated earlier: growth.
In most classes the only communication is handing in your paper and it coming back with a grade on it.  Conferencing frequently with a focus allows us to get help and actually talk about our writing instead of a grade.  I think a lot of people will benefit from this.
All in all, I respect and love this idea and I wish other classes would adopt some form of this idea.
I don't like the fact that we are grading everything at once.  It doesn't feel right to me.  A grade should come as a grade for one assignment, not for multiple assignments.  However, I do like that I get to meet often with now.
I think this will be a challenge for me because I like see a rubric or grade so I can see where I lost points.  I'm not sure if I like the portfolio yet, but I will most likely have my opinion after I write my first paper and have my conference.
I think it is better to talk in person and to talk about what I can do better next time, than try to decipher the notes on our story.  I like that we are also being graded on our growth through writing rather than in the content of a story or essay.
I think that the best part of the new grading technique will be the fact that you really can't compare the outcomes of a single paper to someone else.  For me, I think it will help me think more about how I can personally improve rather than stressing about how I compare to my peers.  These changes will me not be so competitive and bring off a lot of stress from my shoulders.  I am really looking forward to it.
I think the new grading system will be an overall beneficial change for me.  My first reason for this is because when I get a graded paper back I do tend to just look at the grade, then I put it away.  I will read the comments but I generally will not go back and try to improve my story again.
I though about it and I usually depend on a grade.  You said we have been trained that way and I completely agree.  I usually walk home and go straight to SAM looking for my grade.  Right now I am starting to think that this could help me focus more on improving my writing.  Not that I don't already do that, but instead of doing it for the grade, I can do it for myself.
I've become dependent on letter grades to tell me if I did what was asked and how well I did it.  I don't think this would necessarily be a bad change it would just be different.  I think I will get used to it eventually but it will take some time because ever since we've really started school we've been give a grade on every paper.  It is going to take some time.
The class discussion really opened a whole new door for me.  I began to think about how I am going to be able to cope without the reassuring illusion of a solid grade.  I am sure I will be fine but this will definitely affect my writing directly.  It will be interesting to go through this experience.
I think it will be challenging for me to not get a letter grade.  To me a letter grade tells me how I did, really the only thing I look for on a paper.  Though, I do like the idea of the portfolio and talking more.  I think, actually, that this new way may make me think about becoming a better writer.
The best aspect of this is conferencing more meaningfully.  Before I wouldn't be sure what you thought I did right or wrong.  The comments helped, but some things were still left unclear and I always didn't meet with you.  Now I have way to talk about what was right or wrong.  Usually the grade tells me if my paper is good or bad.  Now maybe that will just happen in a conference.
If I see a grade I just care about that.  If I do not see a grade I do study the paper more.
I have always depended on individual number or letter grades as a source of comfort, even praise, or as a signal that I'm doing something wrong.  At the moment, I am not open to this change.  I would go as far to say that I am defensive of the classic system. 
However, I know myself well enough to know that I will eventually accept the new way of grading or even prefer it. I kind of like the change in the way we will be receiving grades. 
Almost everyone immediately looks for a number/letter grade.  They may read the comments, but do they apply the comments to their future work?
Now I am going to have to really go over my stories and work a lot longer on them to make sure that I am actually getting better as a writer.  It sounds like I need to work harder.  I'm kind of nervous about the conferences because I am not the kind of person who stands up to the teacher.
No offense but I like to know whether I did good or bad so I think we should keep things how they are.
The new way makes it sound like I will be less likely to repeat the same mistakes.
As it will be tough for me at first, I think it will focus my attention more toward improving my writing instead of writing just to get a good grade.  In the end, I am looking forward to improving my writing, and think that I will have a lot of opportunities to do it now.
I'm really just used to looking at the grade and being done with the paper.  I like that you are now making me fix my mistakes .
I think the most difficult and frustrating part of the portfolio will be fixing my weaknesses.  They are, after all, my weak points.  I think it will be fun to adjust to the idea of no letter grades.  But I also think that turning my weaknesses into strengths will help my writing immensely.  I look forward to becoming a better writer.