July has been an interesting month. I'll admit- I slacked on #bookaday. Life got in the way a little more than I had anticipated, AND I also wanted to read some lengthier, heavier books that deserved more than a day to process. Reading graphic novels and light, fast reads worked for a while, but I got tired of them! Consequently, not all of these book reviews are going to have the classroom application that many of my last texts did- they're a bit meatier and more mature than the quick reads I was devouring in June. You'll also notice there are only 4 books in my picture, that's because I had to return one of them to the library! Details after the break...
When the first Friday of #teacherswrite rolled around, I squirmed a little bit when I saw that the focus of every Friday will be feedback. Then, of course, I had to think about why I had that reaction. I expect my students to be receptive (even grateful) for feedback from me and other students, so why is my immediate reaction negative? I thought about this for a while and here's what it comes down to-- a rabbit hole of self-doubt.
I'm not ready to think of my writing as anything but exercises in a notebook. Why do I need feedback if I'm never going to publish? I'm not planning to be an author. What am I even doing here?!?!?!?
I'm participating in #teacherswrite as a compliant student. It's possible that the first time I saw "your current work in progress" I could have closed my computer and quit. I don't have a work in progress. I don't have an idea for a novel, and I'm not sure I will have one. Right now, I'm just playing along for the learning process. My teachers are telling me it's valuable, and as a teacher, I know they must be telling the truth.
LIGHTBULB: If students don't have a true purpose for writing beyond an assignment given by a teacher, if they're not attached to the work in some way, they're going to feel just as indifferent as I do this morning towards feedback. Especially if, like me, they aren't confident writers.
In the past, I've tried to fix this problem by giving students an audience, and that works to an extent. "You'd better do a good job, because this is going to be PUBLISHED! It's not just for me to read and grade, it's for THE WORLD!" It seems to me now that this just plays on fear of embarrassment, and there are so many 8th graders publishing snapchat screenshots of their contorted faces to instagram that publishing something isn't as "special" as it once was. The internet makes it easy for anyone to find an audience. The motivation to write has to come from the students. They need to have a message to share... a story that only they can tell.
So now the question is, how do I get my students to feel compelled to write? How can I guide them to the stories only they can tell, and then build their confidence enough to make them want to tell those stories? And what happens when there's a student like me, who struggles and feels unmotivated when asked to write fiction, but can write blog posts about whateverwhatever with abandon?
Clearly there are problems to solve, and all I can do is keep writing to find the answers.
In an effort to see myself as a writer so I can better teach my students to become writers, I'm participating in Teachers Write 2015, an online writing camp for teachers. You can find out more about this project here: Kate Messner's Blog
I won't be posting everything I write this month, because that would require more bravery than I have yet to muster. However, I'll post some things that I find interesting or surprising along the way, as well as my reflections about growing as a writer.
Today's prompt was to go to a public place and people watch, creating stories for the characters you find. What a great prompt! I would love to use this with my students. I walked across the street to Starbucks around lunchtime today and found 2 characters to write about. Here's what I came up with...
Since school has been out, I have been a busy reader. Here are the top 5 books I read in June.
5. The One and Only Ivan- Katherine Applegate
Book Talk: This is a book for all the animal lovers out there. Ivan, the main character, is a mighty silverback gorilla who has lived most of his life in an enclosure within "big top mall" which is exactly what it sounds like... a circus inside a shopping mall. Ivan doesn't let his situation get him down, but when his elephant friend is in trouble, he knows he has to do something to get them all out of their "domains" and out into the world. If you've ever read about animal cruelty and wanted to do something about it, this book will definitely interest you. It is a quick read with illustrations interspersed within short chapters.
Read Aloud: To hook potential readers, I'd choose the sections The Littlest Big Top On Earth and Gone. Reading these two sections would take about 3 minutes.
Themes and Connections: I can't wait to bring this book back to my classroom library and see who picks it up. Some people might think this book is too young for 8th graders, but there is a lot of depth in this story, and it shouldn't be overlooked because of the cover or the anthropomorphic characters. This could be used in a unit about environmental issues or problems in the world, a character or voice study, or a unit about friendship.
4. Wintergirls- Laurie Halse Anderson
Book Talk: Before reading Wintergirls, you have to know that it is FULL of self-harm and eating disorder triggers. Do not read this book if these two issues are tough for you to read about. Wintergirls is Lia's journal in which she chronicles her anorexia, the loss of her former best friend, and dealing with her parents' divorce. It's impossible to put down, if at times disturbing. You know when you watch a horror movie, and you don't want to look away, but at the same time you can't fully watch, so you have to peek through your parted fingers with your hand over your face? I read half of this book that way.
Read Aloud: It is hard to find a part of this book that is safe to read aloud (no serious triggers) but also encapsulates Lia's voice and draws in readers. I might go with <4.00>. This section focuses mostly on the mystery of how Cassie died, and why she called Lia in her last moments than on Lia's personal struggles.
Themes and Connections: I wouldn't recommend this book to most students younger than 8th grade. This novel is really dark and edgy, so it takes some strength and maturity to get through it without letting it eat you up. This could work for mystery, coming of age, recovery, an author study on Laurie Halse Anderson (who has tons of incredible work to pull from) or a mentor text about first-person and/or unreliable narrators.
3. I am the Messenger- Markus Zuzak
Book Talk: I loved The Book Theif. That alone would have been enough to get me to read I am the Messenger. To top that off, a student in my ELA class last year recommended this book to me by putting it in my hands and saying, "Read this, it is my new favorite book." It's not like The Book Thief in any way except the writing style. This is the story of a 19 year old taxi driver who lives in a tiny shack with his dog, The Doorman. One day, he gets a playing card in the mail that has 3 street addresses on it. A series of signs leads him to investigate the addresses... and he finds that at each one, he has a mission. Someone's life that he is responsible for changing for the better.
Read Aloud: I'd probably start reading at 3: the Ace of Diamonds and keep going until I ran out of time- the chapter is too long to read all of as a teaser, but it's a good one to introduce the story.
Themes and Connections: What makes this book great is the narrator, Ed, and how much he learns about his community and himself throughout the story. I'd recommend this to students who liked The Book Thief, but don't necessarily want to keep reading historical fiction. I'm not sure I'd use this entire novel as a mentor text or group read in middle school. 7. Harrison Avenue could be used to model character description.
2. Assessment 3.0- Mark Barnes
Teachers, if you've ever questioned the value of grading, this is a worthwhile read. I'm not at a place right now to go totally grade-free in my classroom, but I'm definitely leaning away from traditional grading practices and more towards standards based grading a-la Rick Wormeli. I'm going to re-read this closer to school starting so it is fresh in my head as I set up my online gradebook, begin my classroom blog, and write my syllabus. The biggest thing I took from this book is to really focus on feedback, and Barnes provides many useful strategies for feedback which I will definitely use next year.
1. Sold- Patricia McCormick
Book Talk: I couldn't put this down. Literally, I started it at 9 pm and stayed up until it was finished. Lakshmi is a 13-year-old girl who lives on a farm in Nepal. Her life gets turned upside down when her stepfather sends her away from her family to the city. She doesn't know it at the time, but she's headed to a brothel where she will live with other girls and women who try to pay off their debts and buy their freedom through forced prostitution. Lakshmi's determination and the different ways she copes with the pain she must endure to survive really make this novel compelling.
Read Aloud: I might pick two sections, one from the beginning, and one from about midway through the book. The first is Tin Roof, which I would follow up with Ten Thousand Rupees. These two sections provide a picture of Lakshmi's life in her home village, then her feelings when she first arrives at the brothel, still unsure of what awaits her.
Themes and Connections: Similarly to Wintergirls, I'd preface Sold with a sexual abuse trigger warning, and encourage only students who can read somewhat graphic accounts of sexual abuse with sobriety and maturity to tackle this text. This text would work well to use when focusing on novels told through vignettes, multicultural literature, issues facing children around the world, or even blending prose and verse- many sections play with poetry within the chapters. I am thrilled that this text is one of the choices for summer reading at the high school many of my students from last year are heading to this year- I hope it is indicative of the type of reading they'll be doing in their 9th grade ELA classes.
That's a wrap!
Whew! I'm through my first monthly reading reflection, and now I'd love to hear about what you're reading or additional thoughts you might have about any of the texts I described above in the comments! To see all the other books I read in June, and what I've read so far in July, follow me on twitter: @mrsbennettela or instagram: @mrsbennettreads. I post daily there! :)
I'm Katlyn Bennett- a middle school reading specialist, and bibliophile.