Saturday, June 30, 2012

YA Book Review: Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Daughter of Smoke and Bone (Daughter of Smoke and Bone, #1)Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At the head of my litmus test for YA literature rests the question, "will my students like the book?"

Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke & Bone presents on the surface as another aberrant fantasy, willed and forged to be the next peculiar and maybe even unsettling HBO series--a modern Romanesque retelling of Romeo and Juliet. Except everyone is a beast.

It is so much more than that.

An attentive reader will note the patience in the writing style. The novel takes its time to develop character history and a depth of conflict. The reader...we can't really say follows because the journey is not linear...the reader steps and veers with the protagonist, Karou, a seventeen year-old female. Who also happens to be in art classes. And who also happens to run errands for a demon.

Yes, an angel falls in love with a devil...more or less. At war for centuries, Juliet and Romeo catch eyes across a crowd...and...wait, Karou and Akiva catch eyes and fall in love. He forsakes angeldom (my word) and she wants to discover who she really is. Aside from a few dramatic fight scenes or revelations of an angels fiery wings to the gasping and awe-struck general public, the angel/devil thing really fades into the background for much of the novel. The story carries the day--and an old, classic story at that--forbidden love.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone does justice to the use of magic by devaluing it (for all its impact on the plot). The real magic, as the story unfolds, is in hope. And one's will. Magic, as a matter of fact, does not solve anything and one of the powerful demons in the story, Brimstone, even speaks to the fact that all of this, the magic the war, must go away. Magic won't end the war and the war won't end anything--all war is useless. The only thing that does matter is the hope and will for a new world...a new perspective...and a coming together. A positive message and one I always appreciate in YA fantasy.

I feel like my students will like this book because its heroine, Karou, presents well. Hip, funky, honest...beautiful, artistic, clever...tough, resilient, brave...Taylor constantly places Karou in situations that reveal another favorable layer. With her long shimmering blue hair, a predilection for hand-to-hand combat, and a sharp artist's hand and eye, Karou is just likeable.

Additionally, Taylor spoon feeds the adolescent (female adolescent especially) heart with ladles of tender and/or romantic moments--the kiss where the male places his hands on her face (who could resist the two-handed face kiss?); the fact that he smells like the sea or is described with other warm and cuddly similes; and the overall patina of one true love, sought for through the centuries..."I will find you!" Etc. Etc. Etc. Adolescent hearts eat this up.

Add the moments of light humor where (with magic) Karou is able to make her ex-boyfriend's butt itch, and redesign the eyebrows of the girl he cheated on her with...into one great furry stripe. I imagine Bert's eyebrow from Sesame Street.

Initially, I pulled the book aside as possible literature circle choice because I remembered the feeling of challenging vocabulary yet one that fell into a clear 8th grade-level context. On a second reading, I started to note vocabulary words to pull for my 8th graders should they chose to read this book: scribe, tout, demurral, melancholy, irrevocably, impending, lapsis lazuli, chivvied, trill, teeming, souks, perverse, squalling, genteel, preened, plummage, lank, emanate, djellaba, plundered, exhumed, dregs, sodden, dirham, scrabble, bedraggled, smite, revulsion, juddered, loathsome, lurched, residue, appalled, keening, susurrous, seraph, seraphim, engorged, abomination, imploring, supplication, moiling, kohl-rimmed, kindled, fervor, tumult, tributaries, souks, skirr, incandescence incongruous, lissome, scapula, parried, mythos, pathos, furrowed, emanated, detonation, hindered...and that was just from pages 80 through 100!

I'm looking forward to working with next year's creative writing classes as we will be adding this book as a literature circle choice. With much to talk about here in a classical context, or in terms of vocabulary, or sentence composition and complexity...Daughter of Smoke and Bone passes the litmus test. I'm confident my kids will like it on its own merits, and then garner so much more out of it in discussion and written reflection...or imitation!

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Friday, June 29, 2012

Nonfiction Review: Every Bone Tells a Story

Every Bone Tells a Story: Hominin Discoveries, Deductions, and DebatesEvery Bone Tells a Story: Hominin Discoveries, Deductions, and Debates by Jill Rubalcaba
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With an emphasis on nonfiction in the Common Core, several nonfiction selections will appear in my creative writing class for the first time: The Ominivore's Dilemma (Youth Edition); Chasing Lincoln's Killer; Flesh and Blood So Cheap; and Every Bone Tells a Story.

I discovered Every Bone Tells a Story in Carol Jago's book on the Common Core, With Rigor for All. With biography and autobiography often being the dominant nonfiction found on our classroom bookshelves or in our students' hands, I dug into Every Bone Tells a Story hopeful.

The first aspect that I like about Jill Rubalcaba's work is that connects to the subjects our students study in 8th grade: Earth Science, Geography, and more to my focus, informative writing. Every Bone Tells a Story may appeal as a literature circle choice for those students with an intensive interest in either Earth Science or Geography.

The individual discoveries, deductions, and debates of four separate hominins unfold in a style developed for adolescents--I'd say it is perfect for 8th grade but could also stretch forward into 9th and 10th grade depending on your needs.

William Blake wrote, "As a man is, so he sees." In Jill Rubalcaba's Every Bone Tells a Story we are asked to see through the lens of archeology...but when we do so, we learn of the many sub-lenses within the field. And each distinct lens, studying a specific and often myopic element of a bone, carries great passion, history, and responsibility. Yet, nothing is ever easy.

Rubalcaba walks us through the often clumsy circumstances by which four high-profile hominins have been discovered. In many cases, everyday people stumble across remains and never realizing what they have before them, damage the bones or other artifacts of the site. In two of the cases, everyone realized the discovery was significant and in their own unique ways (incredibly and unconscionably) consciously damaged some of the evidence! This section of each hominin's story reads as a piece, a fragment, of a narrative. In each case, this "baby" narrative captured my interest and carried me into the second segment of each discovery: deductions.

This is where each story becomes more science oriented.

In general, these sections show the reader that with each year humanity is able to understand more because of the advancements of technology. Moreover, the study of archeologists continues to grow more specialized. I am by no means a "science person" but the easy-to-read (and comprehend) detail of how much a scientist can learn just by studying one tooth, or a fragment of a colon, completely fascinated me. From the fragments of wood or charcoal used to heat their shelter or cook their food, to the pollen that can be painstakingly extracted from samples, scientists can learn where people traveled, to their lifestyle, to the history of our spoken language.

And this leads to what I find one of the strongest elements of this book: debate. I look forward to discussion and writing with my students about how heated and intense science can be...and is. Rubalcaba cites several occasions where scientists vehemently disagree with findings and how many often scramble for a piece of a newly discovered hominin for the chance to view it through THEIR lens. Each sub-region of archeology illuminates something new about these hominins through their own lens--a lens that is powerful, narrow, and...divisive!

As far as writing, the book can used as a mentor text as a whole, or the teacher could use individual hominin stories. Rubalcaba exercises the tenets for good informative writing by keeping the writing at arm's length from the reader--she isn't trying to persuade us or appeal to us as much as she is trying to inform us. Often the information does inspire some head-shaking especially when the readers learns of some of the interference and obstacles the scientists encounter before they can do their important work.

Full of expertise and a wonderful glossary, specialized and accessible for adolscents, I strongly
recommend this book as a boost to the nonfiction in your classroom library...or curriculum.

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Sunday, June 24, 2012

YA Book Review: The House of the Scorpion

The House of the ScorpionThe House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Complex and rich, Nancy Farmer's The House of the Scorpion grows from the family history created by drug lord, El Patron--a character mirroring the often bizarre machinations in characters spawned by Oscar Wilde or Nathanial Hawthorne.

El Patron, the most powerful man in the world, builds an empire on opium, slavery, augmented reality, and cruelty. He keeps himself alive for 148 years by harvesting organs from from clones created from his DNA.

The story follows the life of Matteo (called Matt), created from El Patron's DNA. We follow Matt's journey because unlike the other El Patron clones, his brains were kept intact. He was not drugged and operated into idiocy. He was not to be touched or harmed...yet, he was loathed by most around him.

It seems clones are akin to mongrels...not human. Dirty and without souls, many fear them and cringe when one is near. All, except for Matt, are kept away from humans...some strapped in hospitals or animal pens.

Beyond the main characters and those with the most text devoted to them, Farmer excels at building character. Many characters experience emotional highs and lows, moments of humanity, and moments of darkness--darkness emerging from fear, revenge, greed and several other of humanity's frailties.

In this excerpt, we see a bit of Farmer's ability to use artful dialogue to develop character. You may not know this novel, but we know a little something of Matt, Fidelito, and Consuela in just this snippet of text:

Matt blinked away tears. "How can anyone celebrate death?"
"Because it's part of us," Consuela said softly.
"Mi abuelita said I musn't be afraid of skeletons because I carry my own around inside," said Fidelito. "She told me to feel my ribs and make friends with them."
"Your grandmother was very wise," said Consuela.

The writing is so strong in The House of the Scorpion, that novels such as Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, M.T. Anderson's Feed, and Lowry's The Giver came to my mind as I read.

The plausibility of the circumstances surrounding the novel also engaged me--I didn't have to suspend belief because so much of the tale is woven on morality. Gosh, so many opportunities exist for reflection and conversation on morality, science and nature, as well as what makes us human. I love the opportunities presented here for great discussion and most certainly clean, healthy, challenging thought.

I can imagine adolescents having many questions--often beginning with "Why did he/she..."--and I do love that about this book.

Decorated like a naval hero (National Book Award; Newberry Honor Book; Printz Honor Book; ALA Notable Children's Book; ALA Best Book for Young Adults; among others) The House of the Scorpion once passed from hand to hand in my classroom (only a few years ago). Now, with so many other choices flooding the market and our classrooms, great books sometimes find themselves lost in the boneyard.

It is up to teachers, and teachers who are great readers, to keep great contemporary literature in the
hands of adolescents. Please consider adding this to your classroom library and do a book talk on this gem to keep it alive in the hands of this generation of readers.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

YA Book Review: Goliath

Goliath (Leviathan, #3)Goliath by Scott Westerfeld
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While my review for the second novel in the Leviathan Trilogy was brief, I would like to take this space to summarize my thoughts on the trilogy over--as each novel strikes me as so similar that reviewing each individually would be like taking one novel (such as Cather in the Rye), dividing it into thirds and reviewing each section. The act becomes tedious, and unfair to what is a pretty good book in and of itself when you leave reviewing and blogging and "what did you think" out of the way.

Actually...what a pretty damning exercise in handing our students study guides to answer chapter questions as they read a novel.

My point--the Leviathan Trilogy feels like one Herculean book chopped into thirds to warrant the twenty dollar price tag per book. However, I was missing the engagement I felt in a trilogy such as the Lord of the Rings. Maybe my lukewarm applause comes from protagonist Alek and his Rosalind-esque mate, Deryn, only drifting from one part of the world to another more than engage in a definitive quest. There is no Mordor...even though those nasty Germans threaten to wreak havoc on the earth.

Actually the most interesting piece of all 1500 pages of the trilogy concerns the friendship between Alek and Deryn. More than the bombs, beasts, war machines, and cameos by Pancho Villa, Nikolai Tesla, et al...the trilogy works because it is about friendship and loyalty. The early stages of World War I is only a canvas...or a sneaky way to get a boy to read a book about relationships.

More of an indication of my age than anything else, I have to add that I struggled to finish the trilogy. But I did finish. Full disclosure will also reveal that I am that guy who read the first Harry Potter book and when I picked up the second I'd had enough after the first few pages. The freshness was gone for me...I needed more and read other things.
Remember all of those lines (queues) outside of bookstores?  Fans dressed in character waiting for the next Harry Potter book...that wasn't me.

All of this brings to light that sometimes YA novels do attract adult readers. I just can't imagine many adults reading this trilogy for any other reason than their kids and their classroom.

That said, The Leviathan trilogy will definitely be on my classroom library shelf because kids will like it. And kids are clearly the audience.

(Jeez, rereading what I read sounds so vile. I don't mean to bash and if it comes across that way I apologize to Westerfeld.) I'm such a Muggle.

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YA Book Review: Behemoth

Behemoth (Leviathan, #2)Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Among the books in the Leviathan Trilogy, I see more positive reviews for Scott Westerfeld's Behemoth...and, for me, I don't understand the differences. Not that I mean anything negative at all--I like the trilogy. I especially like the series for young adults.

It is safe, and clean, and a fun adventure. Worthy of your classroom library or your house if you have young kids who like fantasy and sci-fi.

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

YA Book Review: Leviathan

Leviathan (Leviathan, #1)Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I learned a few things about reading and 8th grade students in the last month, and my brain is reprocessing it as I begin to move through Scott Westerfeld books:

a) adolescents read and enjoy a good series
b) many series that my students have liked are built from the sci-fi or fantasy genres
c) steampunk is a sub-genre designed for adolescents...particularly boys

One of my commitments in my burgeoning summer book pile is to read several series that my students are reading. Among those are two by Scott Westerfeld: The Leviathan Trilogy and The Uglies series--both earned the critical and finicky Kirkus Star.

Book One of the Leviathan Trilogy, Leviathan, reminds me of The Golden Compass--an fantastical adventure. And lots of snow and ice.

I read Leviathan in under 24 hours and many disparate thoughts are jostling for space-time on the blog, so I'm going to list the thoughts in no particular order:

a) the Rosalind-esque device of girl disguised as boy (having budding feelings for a boy) has always been popular and is done well in this book...the whisper of a romantic element is very faint but present.

b) alternate history needs as open (young?) much is built on the actual events of 1914 that Leviathan serves as good exposure to people, places, and ideas for young readers
i. the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by Serbian revolutionaries
ii. the assassinations led to war between Austria and Serbia
iii. the war between Austria and Serbia led to World War I
iv. the conspiracy theory that Germany coaxed Serbia into the assassinations to kick-start the war
v. Charles Darwin's discoveries and modern biology
vi. the development of fabricating new life through DNA
vii. Nora Darwin Barlow
viii. the now extinct thylacine (or Tasmanian Tiger)

Again, the novel is a good way for young people to hear the names and the basic ideas behind them, but it is not an exhaustive lesson in biology or the vagaries of the diplomacy between England, France, Germany and friends during the summer of 1914.  (We wouldn't want all of the facts to get in the way of a good story).

c) some of the magic in the book is the message that eco-systems are fragile, but can work together to improve our life and plant--the importance placed on bees, pollen, and birds cannot be denied, and given the current dangers for bees in our natural world it is nice to see them get some positive press in a novel.

d) unfamililar with "steampunk" it took a little getting used to, but I can understand why adolescent boys can enjoy it...a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy that includes social or technological aspects of the 19th century (the steam) usually with some deconstruction of, reimagining of, or rebellion against parts of it. In Leviathan the world seems to be divided between the Darwinist and the Clankers--Darwinists have fabricated new life forms (an enormous dirigible which is a cross between a whale, bees, bats, cilia, and many other species)--Clankers build machines resembling those from the early twentieth century, but with a bit of a twist.

e) I appreciate that human virtues are at the core of problem-solving in this novel: trust, friendship, loyalty to name a few.

A very likable novel, and one worthy of a place on your classroom library shelf, that may grow into a book you really like or love because it may inspire your boys to read...a series.

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Saturday, June 16, 2012

YA Book Review: The Invention of Hugo Cabret

The Invention of Hugo CabretThe Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When you go to bed thinking about the novel you haven't finished reading yet, when you wake up several times thinking about the novel you haven't finished reading yet, when go over in your head what you want to write on your blog before you finishing reading the are reading a good book.

I read Wonderstruck first, a few months back, and heard my 8th grade students mutter that The Invention of Hugo Cabret was better.

While I won't weigh one against the other, I will say that I loved this novel. And I have become a fan of Brian Selznick's voice.

I like the charm and nostalgic atmosphere around his characters. Both Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck takes the reader back towards the silent film era, the early parts of the twentieth century. He brings actors and buildings and real moments from history to life. Ultimately, he weaves a stories together that send me running to Google--I want to see the connections; I want to see the faces.

In the Caldecott-winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the reader follows the journey of Hugo, an orphaned twelve year-old. Hugo steals to eat, and he steals mechanical toys to bring an automaton to life--he believes it belonged to his father, and if he can make it work again, perhaps it would write him a message...a message from his father.

In the process, readers come to know the name Georges Melies (magician, inventor, filmmaker, dreamer)--Selznick has a great knack of resurrecting important and influential history. I love how he uses museums, celestial mythology, and friendship in each.

Museums are places of magic, imagination, and wonder.

The mythology--the lightning in Wonderstruck; the legend of Promethus and the stars on Melies' cape (Hugo) are the centers of that familiar rustling we feel and hear--the ancient bonds we have with the natural world--awestruck, our very core still regards the stars, the moon, the lightning as the forces romanticized by Shakespeare. Humans star at them in the same manner as dogs will stare off towards the woods--a thread of ancestral memory tweaked--feeling more than remembering the days when they roamed free, undomesticated.

The magic in the friendships--boy to girl--and child to adult--distinguishes itself from much of the conflict written today. A year or so ago, I asked YA author Christina Gonzalez if she could think of any YA novels featuring a male adult with a positive influence and connection to the teen protagonist. I had recently read Jacqueline Kelly's The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and connected with grandfather--and respected the relationship Kelly managed to forge between male adult and child. Selznick does that here to a certain degree. While Hugo and Melies' relationship begins with theft, the reader understands (long before we learn who Melies is from history) that the old man feels a developing bond, sees something in the kid, and we can feel that they are destined to come together at the end of the story.

A wholesome adventure--imagine fresh milk and homemade apple pie from your great grandparents--and imagine sitting with them and enjoying it with them for the first time.

Read the book, and then put it in your classroom library. When a kid asks for something to read--you can hand them this book with confidence.

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Friday, June 15, 2012

YA Book Review: The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard BookThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My 8th grade students speak of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book in a different key. Reverential, they utter the word "weird"...and then from that deepest pit of their bellies they almost always agree, "soooo good."

And then they say nothing else. The memory of the book makes them silent--as if they travel back into the experience for a moment.

Obviously, I'm processing my own thoughts about The Graveyard Book by recalling snippets of the reactions of my students--these were my first encounters with the novel. After the fifth or sixth similar reaction, I finally bought the book and read it over the course of a few days.

Gaiman builds the story around a prophecy--a child will be born who will end the reign of a magical, dark, organization. This group's power and influence has infiltrated all walks of society for thousands of years--and they very much would like to see this child dead.

They murder his family, but the infant escapes and finds itself protected and raised by phantasms of the graveyard--the dead rise, those neither living nor dead appear, and witches, ghouls, demons, and shape-shifters round out the rest of the cast.

And as Gaiman notes in his Newberry acceptance speech, he didn't write a book about childhood...he wrote a book about parenting. "It takes a village to raise a child" is deconstructed and reimagined as a graveyard.

I really liked the story--I too have that same visceral respect that I hear in my students' voices. You read this for the same reasons that you read Mary Shelley or watch a Tim Burton film--there are story tellers and there are artists who tell stories. Gaiman's work is art--and like so many museum-goers standing before Van Gogh's color and stroke or a larger-than-life Rothko, silence and awe speaks volumes.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

YA Book Review: An Abundance of Katherines

An Abundance of KatherinesAn Abundance of Katherines by John Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like clever--and clever books...even better. John Green's An Abundance of Katherines strikes me as the kind of clever young adult readers like. Beyond the clever, An Abundance of Katherines is a fun coming-of-age story.

We following protagonist Colin Singleton on his summer journey with best friend Hassan Harbish. They climb into a car and begin another very American tale: the hero lighting out for the territory. Modern tongue knows it as "the road trip."

Their road trip bears the weight and expectation of helping Colin heal from a recent dumping. Over the course of his life, he has dated (1) nineteen consecutive girls named Katherine...and only ever remembers being the Dumpee, and not the Dumper.

Colin's defining characteristics drive his teen angst: intelligence and promise. Most recently, math consumes his attention as he works on a Theorem to help explain himself, or at the very least, explain his story. He intends to create a Theorem that explains the arc of failed romantic relationships--and he hopes to be able to predict the ending of any one relationship in the future. To test his math, he continues to plug in the circumstances of each and every Katherine who ever dumped him.

John Green writes in an Afterword that he has never been good at math, yet has always been interested by it. He recruited the assistance of a friend and math genius to compose accurate and real formulas as they pertain to Colin's machinations (2). Throughout the graphs, charts, and rough drafts of formulas, the reader is kept apprised of the progress of the Theorem.

As someone who generally found his own teenage relationship with math a mutually conceded anathema, I loved the use of math in this novel. I barely understood the forumlas, but I did not have the to--I understood the story. And that is a lesson that Colin learns.

Math can connect some dots, as can story telling--which is just as prevalent a tool for Green as math.

Colin and Hassan agree to a summer job where they record the stories of the citizens of an old Tennessee town only years from being snuffed out by the economy. The numbers just won't work anymore. The only remaining industry in town is failing and can only keep the town afloat for a few more years. The citizens don't know it--Colin and Hassan don't know it--but the recording of the memories serves to preserve the town and they way things once were...all while Colin struggles to come to terms with his own memories of nineteen doomed relationships.

Colin's developing formula is in a way a record of the memories of his failed relationships--something which seems impossible to calculate. It would appear to be much easier to write a formula that predicts the end of the town's relationship with its citizens. (3)

An additional treat, Green uses footnotes as way of adding author commentary (and humor) I've imitated here. I found this another way that Green embedded numbers into the fabric of story I said earlier, clever.

And I liked clever.

An Abundance of Katherines is clever and entertaining in its use of numbers and story telling--that much is true. Yet, like relationships, An Abundance of Katherines stands strong because it is more than math. As Colin learns, relationships are about much more than numbers--they are about people.

And people, unlike numbers, are very unpredictable.

1. "dated" is a loose term as we are counting girls all the way back into elementary school

2. His friend explains the math at the end of the book. None of it made sense to me even though I read his explanations and enjoyed them.

3. This doesn't happen. I'm just saying...

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Speech: in honor of a retiring middle school principal

My speech in honor of our retiring middle school principal, Bruce Vosburgh, delivered to the middle school students and staff.  From the awards assembly on the last day of school--June 11, 2012.

Your teachers are used to change—every year the faces of the students change. Yet we find stability in the fact that the newness is often limited to the unique features of your faces. A twelve year-old boy is a twelve year-old boy; a thirteen year-old girl from 1974 is quite similar to a thirteen year-old girl from 2012. As it is, teachers understand how to hold the attention of twelve and thirteen year-olds.

Students—you too—grow used to change. Your life is built on change. Every year you grow taller, smarter, more talented. You walk into new classrooms each year to find new teachers; fortunately, for you, adults have grown pretty predictable. You learn what makes us cranky and what keeps us pleased—you’ve trained us well this year.

However, the one change neither teacher nor student can comprehend just yet: who will hold the door open next for us?

This 8th grade class is about to walk through those doors and they will be sweeping Mr. Vosburgh out with them and onto a new stage of life. And the doors will close behind them.

Yet, many of us remain here.

Understand me, when you hold doors open for people, you do it so others may enter first. Mr. Vosburgh has done that for all of us in this room—he has never reminded us of how great he is, how many hours he is here, or how hard he works. He simply thought enough about us and held the door open.

The good news is that people like Bruce Vosburgh only leave buildings, they never stop working for young people, helping young people—they never stop holding doors open so others may achieve.

So, here, holding doors is a metaphor for creating opportunities. For everyone.

I’m reminded of all of the doors held open for your teachers—whenever teachers wanted to try something new in the classroom, such as add technology like the newest graphing calculators, Smartboards, or iPads he supported it. When teachers wanted to travel to conferences to learn about what others were doing successfully in their classrooms, he has supported it. Many of your teachers, in this room, were given their jobs by him—we’ve been guests in his home—actually, he has been in my home.

When a teacher builds an outdoor classroom, or plants a vegetable garden so others may eat, or collects books so young people in struggling communities may read for pleasure; when a teacher inspires students to bake cookies and collect letters for soldiers fighting abroad; when teachers create clubs to gather clothes and toys so that some families can have a holiday; when these things happen, they happen because the doors are open—opportunities to be great have resonated all around this building. And these opportunities still can exist.

I’m connecting some dots for you—these things only happen because someone held the doors of opportunity open for us…and he won’t be here any longer. He is leaving.

I need to tell you a little secret about the private pleasure of holding doors—you may never be first, but you’re never forgotten. Holding doors means you were not only on-time, but you were early, considerate, and selfless. When you learn to open doors for others, you show others where opportunity awaits—and you never slam it closed in anyone’s face.

Mr. Vosburgh will leave our building this month—and to the 7th graders, 6th graders, and teachers who remain, hear me when I say our building. A man with quiet dignity is leaving Patton, and leaving it our hands—this is our building now. Who will create the next opportunities? Who will seize this opportunity?

We can’t assume; we can’t leave it to someone else; and we can’t miss this opportunity Change is here.

So, do we sit on our hands and wait for the next principal to tell us what to do, how to lead, before we respond to the change before us? Or do we resolve ourselves this summer to be a part of the change, positive change, and follow in Mr. Vosburgh’s example to be better middle school students, teachers, colleagues, and people?

Finally, the next time someone hold a door for you out in public, see it for what it is…not as a chance to go first, but as a moment to say thank you.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

YA Book Review: Jasper Jones

Jasper JonesJasper Jones by Craig Silvey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Printz Honor winner Jasper Jones begins fast--the title character (the town teen pariah) knocks on the bedroom window of a boy he barely knows and leads the protagonist, Charlie, to the dead body of teen female dangling from a noose.

The novel strikes me as a bit of a homage to Mark Twain. While the protagonist reads Puddin' Head Wilson and discusses Twain with his father, much of the novel smacks of the memorable components from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Puddin' Head Wilson.

Jasper Jones himself is cut from the cloth of Twain--part Injun Joe and part Huck, Jasper appears and disappears. He has dragged Charlie into a crime that no one can solve...and by doing so drags the reader into the tension as well. The piecing together of clues and the reasoning he occurs between Jasper and Charlie draws on the litigious merits of Puddin' Head in addition to Atticus Finch (who Charlie also mentions and regales in the novel).

For page upon page, we wait for the other shoe to drop. We wait for someone in charge to discover the body, to find A clue, to approach Jasper or Charlie and bring them in for questioning. We look over our shoulder for the spotter planes, the detectives, the search parties to find the body of adolescent Laura Wishart.

As the tension grows palpable, and as Jasper and Charlie uncover truths even more horrible than the body of the dead girl, author Craig Silvey develops some wonderful complexities of plot among side characters: Jeffrey, Charlie's parents, Jeffrey's parents, and Mad Jack Lionel (the murderous man the town hates and fears). Charlie's own Becky Thatcher, Eliza Wishart, evokes the spirit of Audrey Hepburn, or rather Holly GoLightly, and continues the very vivid resonance of Twain's influence and inspiration on Silvey...not to mention the fact that the hateful, racist, and judgmental town mirrors the hypocrites of St Petersburg, Missouri.

There's even a body of water--although this one resonates more with Marilyn Robinson's wonderful lake of the damp and eerie fictional town of Fingerbone in Housekeeping. Robinson's cold lake swallowed does Silvey's.

I really like Jasper Jones--mainly because I loved being yanked into adventure immediately, and I thoroughly enjoyed the characters. I felt compassion for Mad Jack; I laughed at and with Jeffrey; bitterness for the townspeople just to name a few emotions.

"By Jingo!" to inoke The Adventures of Tom Sawyer...this is an entertaining coming-of-age adventure combining coming-of-age, crime, and the passage from innocence to experience.

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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

When Students Raise YOU up

Little gems like these arise from time to time--this student has no idea how much this reinvigorates me as a teacher. It makes me want to keep learning, keep getting better, and to keep writing myself.

It reaffirms the shared inspirations with the NWP and everything we read and discuss together. It underscore Fletcher, Atwell, Murray, Graves, Eood Ray, Bomer (and Bomer!)...and the list goes on.

In honor of all that is good about teaching writing, I am sharing something written yesterday by one of my 8th grade students on their final exam:

"This year in CW [creative writing] might have been one of my better years in English. I like how we weren't strapped down to worksheets and projects of research. I appreciated your kindness and willingness to let students discuss their writing with you. I also appreciate the amount of opportunities you gave us as students to be able to send our work out for publication. I think I grew as a person and a writer because you didn't constantly tell me or other students what was wrong with our writing but you told us what we could do to fix it and you showed us ways to bend the rules. I think the things learned and discussed in class this year will stick for many years to come. If not, I'm sure something will happen and it will all come crashing in like waves. It will all surround me and I won't be able to forget it."

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Clearing the Way for Reading

My classes responded to a question posed by Nanci Atwell, [Since September] What 10-12 books do you love so much that you think they might convince an 8th grade girl/boy who's a lot like you--except that she/he doesn't read much--that books are great?  After compiling the responses of 120 students, over 460 separate self-selected titles, the chart above shows the most mentioned titles and/or authors--actually, many students were adamant that they be able to simply list Sarah Dessen, John Green, and Sophie Kinsella simply as authors since anything written by them is gold to my adolescent readers

The fact that kids, mine at least, are reading series stands out to me--yet, my classroom library is largely built on individual, stand-alone, novels.

By the same token, over 330 novels were only mentioned once--what a testimony to the varied tastes of our young readers!

It all helps underscore what I've read recently--it takes a few thousand titles to build a classroom library capable of serving the needs and tastes of our kids. While I continue to spend my own money the sheer numbers are daunting!  While I have the means to keep adding to my classroom library it makes me wonder how many other classrooms sit empty because teachers and schools do not have the means to help build these necessary reading zones.

Kids are reading--whether we want to qualify it as deeper reading, meaningful reading, doesn't matter to me in this moment.  My revelation in this moment is that they are reading--and will read if we give them a chance to read.

While some classrooms may not financially be able to provide the books for a reading zone, I lament when I read and hear is that educators do not have enough time to cover curriculum and promote independent reading--testing, curriculum, and our perceptions and individual beliefs as teachers that we are preparing students for the next grade twists upon and around itself.

Self-selected and independent reading is choked.

After 18 years I can reflect and know that I shared in all of those concerns and have allowed those concerns to be in the way...their way. Kids will read if we let them...if we encourage them.

My students took my Moodle poll this week--"How many books have you read since September?"

23 report reading fewer than 10 (19%)
42 report reading between 11-20 (35%)
33 report reading between 21-30 (28%)
13 report reading between 31-40 (11%)
7 report reading 41+ (6%)

With only light encouragement, guidance, and structure, my kids read.  I'm not perfect at it by any means, but I am aware that I can help my kids read...and I can be better at it next year.  I need to be better at it next year.

If I can help clear the way.

YA Book Review: Marcelo in the Real World

Marcelo in the Real WorldMarcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
My rating: 4 of 5 starsWalk the Walk

The balance of ugly and beautiful, truth and deceit, innocence and experience carries Francisco X. Stork's Marcelo in the Real World.

Marcelo's journey takes the reader through a considerable number of encounters and moral confrontations that would test anyone, let alone someone on the autism spectrum. And I admire the fact that Stork created a journey where it doesn't matter that Marcelo has a form of Aspergers--it both is and is not the story.

The morally bankrupt decisions made by others would occur whether Marcelo was there or not--true, Wendell does try to take advantage of Marcelo, but once the reader gets to know Wendell he'll realize that Wendell would try to take advantage of anyone. And does.

The language, unapologetic and raw, compliments some of the realities we all encounter at some point in the real world. I liked that Stork gave Marcelo a trusted spiritual advisor in the rabbi as well as budding, and patient,friend in Jasmine. Women are victimized and marginalized in this "real world" and it takes young men like Marcelo, the fired Robert Steeley, Jasmine's childhood friend Jonah, or attorney Geronimo Garcia, to balance the assault on men on could perceive in the novel.

Without a deft hand, Stork's novel could have simply fallen into the theme of "Men can be cruel in the real world" and left it at that--but it remains much more than that.

While the implied inevitable romance with Jasmine does feel a little forced or disjointed to me (taking it any further would have marred the book), I enjoyed Marcelo's journey and certainly give the highest recommendations to this novel.

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