Oh ye Gods and Godesses of YA Non-fiction and all Classroom Library Aficionados

I teach 9th grade English and I’ve been working on building my classroom library this spring. I have a hefty amount of fictional works, but my non-fiction collection still requires some beefing up. It will get there eventually. I’d love to hear any suggestions you might have as far as non-fiction books that would appeal to 13-15-year-old students.

I’m wondering what tips and tricks you all might have found for keeping a classroom library. What words of wisdom do you have?

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Unknown Caller Prompt

That damn phone won’t stop ringing! I thought. Why can’t Isabella just answer the phone? She never answers it, just lets it ring and ring until it goes to voicemail and no one ever leaves a message. FINE! I’ll answer it.

Hello?” Silence. Slightly more annoyed,” Hellooo?” Still nothing. I glanced at the caller ID. “Anonymous,” hmm, that’s odd; since when does caller ID come up “anonymous”? 

“Look, whoever you are, you need to stop calling this number.” The only thing I could think of was that maybe it was one of Isabella’s old boyfriends calling to harass her. “Isabella doesn’t want to talk to you, so just stop calling.”

Just then, there was a crackling noise on the line and deep voice whispered, “The lamb sleeps peacefully among wolves.” What the fuck?

“Who is this?” I demanded. “Who the hell are you and what do you want?” Then I heard the click and the line went dead. Now, what? Who the hell calls repeatedly, refuses to speak and then says something so bizarre? It has to be a prank caller. I’m going to have to remember to ask Isabella about this. 

The next morning I left a note on the table for Izzy.

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Izzy,

Had a strange call come in repeatedly again yesterday. I finally answered because they wouldn’t stop calling. When I picked up no one was there. I was just about to hang up and a male voice said, “The lamb sleeps peacefully among wolves.” Then he hung up. Any idea who would want to prank call us? Whoever it is, can you please get them to stop calling here while I’m trying to sleep? It’s getting a bit old.  

Love ya, Bugsy

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Izzy had called me Bugsy since the day we met and I hoped signing with her nickname for me would soften the tone of the note. I wasn’t mad at her, just tired of the bizarre phone calls at all hours of the day and night. Why can’t I just have a normal girlfriend? Preferably one that doesn’t have a sordid past. One that doesn’t attract all sorts of weirdos. Hmm, what does that say about me?

The Great Wind Down

As my school year begins to wind down, I find myself reflecting on a hard fought year. I could whine about the negatives of my job, but instead I’m making an active effort to focus on the things (in this case, mostly students) that I will miss. I will miss how this group of students has gotten to know me and have come to accept my quirky disposition and fluctuations of temperament. Each year I must initiate a new group of students to my sarcastic and at times macabre sense of humor. I must answer the question, “Why do all our stories have to do with someone dying?”

I will miss how this group of students has gotten to know me and have come to accept my quirky disposition and fluctuations of temperament. Each year I must initiate a new group of students to my sarcastic and at times macabre sense of humor. I will also have to get to know a whole new set of personalities, quirks, and behavioral issues. I must answer the question, “Why do all our stories have to do with someone dying?”

I must answer the ludicrous questions, “Do we have to read in here?” “Why do we have to write an essay?” “Can’t you just read it to me?” And I must answer the question, “Why do all our stories have to do with someone dying?”

“Because that is life, my child; that is life.” Or better yet, “We all die someday, dear, some sooner than others.” All said with a ghoulish look and an air of insanity. Muahahaha. (In all actuality it has nothing to do with me, it’s just the curriculum. But why spoil the fun?)

Anyway, I digress, there are actual students that I will miss and there are classes I will miss. I know that I’ll likely never have the same exact combination of individual personalities in one place again. I will miss the verbal banter of those who truly “get me,” the intellectual discussions of the bookish, the life lessons conversations with those in turmoil. I enjoy teaching English, but I usually enjoy the interactions I have with other humans more. Discussing ideas, literature, means of self-expression and communication hits the sweet spot for me because these activities involve other people – my students.

My Summer Un-plan

The more I think about what I want to do with my summer break, the more I’m convinced that I just want to BE.

I want the freedom of waking up with no agenda, no schedule in mind, and just doing, or not doing, whatever makes me happy. I want to do things leisurely; not rushing from one thing to the next and never really enjoying any of it. This blog post this  morning reminded me of just that. Slowing down to enjoy the space created by my summer break will hopefully help me to relax and re-energize.

Time in the park, walking, birdwatching, reading, writing, or doing yoga sounds like such a luxury right now. These shouldn’t be luxuries and I need to make time in my schedule to do the things that keep me motivated and feeling alive. I guess sometimes I just need a reminder that I don’t have to wait for summer to be happy.

Though We Continue

I must start by saying that this weekend was fantastic. I spent time outdoors with family, bought books, ate homemade food, and just enjoyed life. It was a good weekend for healing.

My grandmother (maternal) passed away one year ago yesterday (May 24, 2014). I had been home for the weekend that weekend as well and I remember it clearly.

My grandmother had been struggling with health issues for about a year and a half at that point, when you’re 78, that’s not all that unusual. That Saturday night we’d gotten a phone call from my grandfather saying that he thought maybe Gram had had another stroke because she woke him up, but couldn’t get out of bed. It was late, probably close to 12:45 – 1 am. My mom had gotten me up and asked if I wanted to go to my grandparent’s house with her and I’d agreed. Thankfully. We got to the house and the ambulance had just gotten there. As they wheeled my grandmother past me I grabbed her hand and said, “Grammy, I’m here. I love you.” She mumbled a response I couldn’t comprehend and all I knew was that she’d acknowledged my presence.

We followed the ambulance to the hospital where they told us she’d had another stroke. She wasn’t able to respond; she couldn’t talk. Doctors informed us that essentially there wasn’t anything they could do but keep her comfortable which they did.

I spent the next 14 or 15 hours by her side until she passed later that evening. I talked to her even though she couldn’t respond. I repeatedly told her I was there and that I loved her – we all did. It is an odd feeling knowing that you’re awaiting the death of a loved one; this wasn’t the first time I’d had the honor of attending the death of a loved one, but I would have to say, this one has hit me the hardest. It has stuck in my memory most vividly.

I remember watching as she struggled to breathe and how distressed I’d become. They’d had a hard time convincing me that she was in no pain though I’m sure she wasn’t. I remember her passing and I remember thinking, now what? I’d spent hours with her preparing myself for the fact that soon she wouldn’t be with us, but now that she was no longer in this life, I was having difficulty figuring out what to do with myself. I couldn’t seem to get my brain to work. Deciding whether I needed to sleep or eat had become a monumental task.

The days that followed passed in a blur. I remember emailing work to request time off. I remember helping to pick out a box for Gram’s ashes. I remember laughter and tears, family and friends. I remember spreading her ashes and saying my goodbyes.

Fast forward to this weekend. Saturday night I woke up out of a dead sleep at 1:15 am. I tossed and turned for at least an hour before eventually falling back to sleep. And thought it didn’t occur to me at the time, I can’t help but wonder if my body wasn’t just going through the motions of memory. Whether coincidence or not, I choose to believe it was Gram’s way of letting me know she’s still with me.

Several times though out this year I have thought of her fondly. Those times creep up on me and often take me by surprise. Like when I picked up an adult coloring book and began using colored pencils and found mixed in among my pencils ones that had belonged to Gram. Or when I’d cleaned out the basement and found old photos from Gram and Pap’s 50th wedding anniversary. Or when I’d gone looking for a blanket to wrap myself in on the couch and found one my Gram had made me. These moments are the ways I prefer to remember Gram; not in the way that she died, but how she lived. The things she created. The love we shared.

So though we continue on, Gram is still in our hearts and on our minds. She lives on in me through my creativity and love of art. That is how I choose to remember.

Reflections on Current Reading

It has been quite sometimes since I’ve kept any type of readers’ journal, but I’ve always found them to be enjoyable and worthwhile. They offer me insights into my own reading life that I might otherwise never pick up on. One does not reflect on breathing…it just happens naturally, but perhaps by reflecting on my own reading life I can help my students to become better, more thoughtful readers.

So without further ado, here are my thoughts on my current read (WARNING: Potential Spoiler Alert):

I’m currently 82 pages into Dinner with Buddha by Roland Mercullo and I’m finding it difficult to put down. I’m drawn in by the characters and can sense their warmth. I am particularly fond of the childlike Rinpoche. I’m feeling somewhat skeptical of Seese’s “prophetic” dreams, but I’m willing to humor her for the time being. I’m curious to see if or how my thoughts on this will change throughout the novel. So far I think I’m more indulgent than Otto on this front, but still not convinced that this novel will pull off the promised world of peaceful co-existence by the end of its 344 pages. Or is it truly more about the journey they take to get there than the end result? I guess I’m waiting to see just like Otto.

Quotes that have made me think or that I just plain enjoyed, so far:

“You can listen to the skeptical voice and go back to New York and the life you were leading there, or you can see all the awful things that have happened to you as a preparation, a turning over of the soil so it will be ready for a new crop to be planted” (64).

“Feels like you go in circle, yes? Like you come again back on the same place, many times. Same trouble, same thinking. But it’s not true, Otto. Meditation is like a wind here in the middle pushing you up, up. You want to go up in a straight like the rocket but you really go like this, this, how you say?”

“Spring” (65).

“Americans were half-crushed by the passage of time. Our spirits were dampened, twisted, mottled, trimmed. I don’t mean we all turned into semi-humans, but, well, speaking for myself at least, there was some leaching out of the vibrancy, the joy, the faith in my absolute uniqueness, in my claim to part ownership of this earth” (70).

Thinking about the Comments Section Trolls

Just thinking aloud tonight…

I’m one of those individuals who has a rather large soft spot for other people. I tend to think with my heart more often than my head, according to my husband, and I can’t really argue. The thing is – I’d rather be this way than be a cynic. Sure there are times when people have certainly taken advantage of me, I’m no fool. I have a strong sense of empathy for others. I also tend to see both sides of disagreements. These traits, while generally being positive characteristics, also cause me a fair amount of stress and anxiety.

I’m a curious individual and I like to keep up on current events, particularly local issues. I read articles from my local newspaper online via Facebook and Twitter. Recently I read an article about a family who had come upon hard times due to the major illness of one of the main breadwinners that eventually took his life. The wife and her children are currently living in a motel as they could not afford the security deposit along with rent for an apartment.  I read the article and then made the mistake of clicking on the comments section below the post on Facebook. There, among a few generally sympathetic responses, were some of the most vitriolic statements I could imagine.

This is not my first experience with this sort of degrading and vile commentary. The county I live in is almost stereotypical in its white, Christian, conservatism; when tragedy occurs these same people pull together in a show of amazing love and unity with one another; however, at the same time the same values they uphold in one instance of human need seem to completely vanish in others.

The issues are much more complex than the manner in which I am painting them here simply because human hypocracy is not my point, or at least I don’t think it is. What I’m really thinking about is how I have this tendency to open myself up to feelings of anger, resentment, and hurt by looking at the comments sections of articles I read. Perhaps I seek drama; that isn’t how it feels, but I’m open to that criticism. I am curious as to how others feel about the issues I’m reading about. I often want to hear the arguments of the opposition; it isn’t opposition that bothers me, but more the manner in which people express their opposition.  Since when did it become outmoded to consider others’ feelings, or mere civility, when commenting on issues that affect others’ lives?

Time and again I have sworn I will no longer read the comments sections; however, curiosity often gets the better of me. I don’t know why I let them bother me so much. I know that is what many of them are hoping for – to antagonize someone to the point of heated argumentative response. I have only ever responded by commenting back one time, but in the end it didn’t make me feel any better. Perhaps that’s the lesson I need to take away from these experiences.

Defining Relaxation

I have so many things I’m interested in and want to do, see, and explore; I have a hard time doing what other people refer to as “relaxing;” I don’t generally sit and vegetate. I can’t.

On my time off from work I run errands and do house work, I volunteer, I read and write, I organize and plan things that I want to do the next time I have free time. Yes, I am a procrastinator too.

Our summer beach vacation is filled with nature hikes, activities and exploring. I people watch. I bird watch. I kayak the marshy areas hoping to glimpse the wildlife. I eat amazing meals at my favorite restaurants. I take pictures. I play rooftop mini golf and skeeball to my hearts content.

I currently find myself longing for the days of summer break. Days when it’s easier to make plans with friends and go on road trips. Days when I can go hang out downtown and walk around, see what there is to see, sit and read and write in the park, take a leisurely lunch (anything over 15 minutes is leisurely in my book), and hear the street buskers play. Maybe this summer I’ll even break out my own guitar and see if I can’t learn a song or two; it’s been a while. I want to chase the fireflies and hear the crickets chirp from the comfort of my back porch.

This is my relaxation, my reprieve. I won’t sleep my life away. I’m too busy relaxing!

Reflection: What It Means to Teach

Teaching Philosophy

I believe that teaching is a noble profession. What we do as teachers is important and it affects not only our students, but also our local communities and our world. I enjoy being able to touch students’ lives positively by encouraging their intellectual development, critical thinking skills, personal growth through self-reflection, and natural curiosity. I enjoy getting to know my students as individuals, watching them learn and grow, cheering on their successes and guiding them past their failures. I feel a sense of pride when I see one of my students overcome an obstacle through perseverance, take a stand for what they know is right, accept a challenge head on, or step outside their comfort zone in order to demonstrate their knowledge and skills. It is important to me that my students all feel that they are welcome in my classroom and that I create an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding.

For the past nine years, I’ve taught freshmen; in my mind teenagers embody the essence of humanity. They’re just starting to figure out who they are, what they believe, and where they belong. It’s a tough time, but it is also an exciting time. They are bound to make mistakes and stumble on the way, but that is what we, as members of their adult support team, are here for – to guide them through the bumps and hiccups of adolescence. This is where my teaching style has its strengths. I am at heart a facilitator, a guide, a coach. I believe that students learn best when they are allowed to interact with each other, discuss concepts and strategies for understanding, and engage in questioning and supporting their claims with detailed evidence in order to demonstrate their knowledge. In order for these things to occur, it is often necessary for teachers to scaffold their approach and materials, model skills and metacognitive thinking strategies, and differentiate instruction for individual learners.

Literacy isn’t just part of what I teach, it is something I’m passionate about. Literacy has many different facets and is one of the cornerstones of success – in academics and in life in general. It is a skill and knowledge base that directly affects the quality of one’s life. Today’s students must be able to read and write effectively, speak articulately, and be good listeners to get ahead; however, there are other facets of literacy which are becoming more and more important in today’s global economy. It a world where we are surrounded by digital media, digital literacy is just as important as being able to read and write. Students must not only be able to locate information and read or interpret it, but also evaluate its relevance, accuracy, and reliability. It is essential for students to be able to think critically about what they read and view.

When it comes to methodology, I often favor a combination of class discussion, group work, and mini-lessons to keep students engaged and scaffold instruction for students who require more support. I use formative assessments to gauge my students comfort with new concepts and skills and to allow for review as needed. Summative assessments in my classes often include differentiated projects, essays, tests, and quizzes. Differentiated projects allow me to provide a challenge for students who are capable of digging deeper into content or are interested in demonstrating their knowledge via more creative means. It is also important to provide appropriate accommodations for students with special needs; it is essential to keep an open line of communication with special education teachers, guidance counselors, and parents in order to ensure the success of all students.

Reflection is the foundation of growth for me as a teacher. Taking the time to jot down little notes after a lesson or in the margins of a novel in order to improve my instruction or delivery the next time I teach a unit or a specific concept allows me to learn and grow as an educator. I appreciate student, parent, and administrative feedback because we all have our blind spots and they may see and bring to my attention something I haven’t noticed.  Afterall, we don’t stop learning just because we’ve graduated, earned a degree, or become a teacher. There are always new recipes to try, new books to read, new trails to hike, new hobbies to discover, and classes I’d love to take. Learning is an ongoing process throughout life and I’m a naturally curious individual. I’m a life-long learner and I hope to instill that desire in the students I teach.

Childhood Nostalgia: “A little from here makes a little for there.”

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Hiram’s Red Shirt by Mabel Watts and illustrated by Aurelius Battaglia

When I was a little girl I had a favorite book, Hiram’s Red Shirt; I made my mom read this book to me almost every night. Once I learned to read for myself this book stayed on my shelf and periodically I’d still come back to it just for fun, but eventually I outgrew it and it went to live in the attic.

Around the time I graduated from college, Hiram’s Red Shirt came up in conversation. I remember looking for the book among my old things in the attic, but much to my dismay I couldn’t find it. My mom and I searched and search, but to no avail. I was sad, but I figured my copy had been passed down to my little cousins at some point and hopefully someone somewhere was enjoying Hiram’s antics. Meanwhile, we kept our eyes open at yard sales and flea markets, hoping to snag someone else’s old copy.

When my husband and I started dating and eventually moved in together we worked at combining and sorting through all our individual lives and “stuff” deciding what to let go of and what to keep. One thing I kept was a bunch of kids’ books that I’d found while rummaging through my parents’ attic looking for Hiram, but I lamented to my husband (boyfriend at the time) that I missed Hiram’s Red Shirt and told him how much I’d loved it as a child.

When my next birthday rolled around, my husband surprised me with my much-beloved book. I was so excited to see it again and I couldn’t believe he’d found a copy, but he had. It was truly a special gift and one that I’ll cherish always.

Tonight I cracked this book open once again just for fun. Hiram was still there with his red hair doing his farm chores. I wondered what had drawn me to this particular book as a child. Was it the familiar depictions of farm life? Was it that I could understand the comfort of old well-worn clothes? Or was it just the fact that it was a good story with colorful pictures? I love looking back at the pictures and thinking, “I remember looking at these pictures over and over again, memorizing every detail.” Whatever it was, Hiram’s Red Shirt still captivates me to this day and it will always be my favorite childrens’ book.