Eight Quick Book Reviews

If Only by A. J. Pine

20798976Although romance isn’t exactly my default reading genre, a guy needs to stretch, right? If they’re all as good as A. J. Pine’s If Only, I might dabble in this again. Everything I want in a story is here: likeable characters, humor, a dash of the exotic, and a narration that drives through to a satisfying conclusion.

College student Jordan Brooks, the protagonist of If Only, is beginning a year of study in Scotland. On the train ride to her Aberdeen campus, she makes out with two different guys—one is a bad boy, and the other has a girlfriend. And we’re off!

The dialogue is witty, flirtatious, and funny, but these characters are smart too. The Great Gatsby, A Room with a View, and Much Ado about Nothing all play important roles in the plot, although a reader not familiar with those titles will have no trouble understanding what is going on.

Travel narratives have two appealing conventions: descriptions of a locale’s most interesting features, and the knowledge that our traveler must eventually go home. If Only capitalizes on both of those ideas, providing a charming, vicarious vacation for readers.

Disclaimer: I was surprised to find myself in the acknowledgements, but I’m proud to be there. A. J. Pine is my friend and former colleague. Friendship is a theme that runs through If Only, reminding us what it’s like to be in an interesting circle of friends.

Knockout Games by G. Neri

20670086Maybe you’ve seen the videos. Random strangers attacked on city streets by kids who seem to have no purpose other than assaulting their victims.

G. Neri, author of the Coretta Scott King Award-winning Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, takes us inside a St. Louis knockout club, a group of middle school and high school kids dedicated to pursuing random violence and capturing it on video. Narrated by the newest member of the club, Erica (nicknamed Fish), a skilled video artist, Knockout Games is as brutal and edgy as it is authentic and important.

Neri doesn’t provide easy answers for why attacking unsuspecting strangers is a gratifying experience for some young people, but readers gain insights into a street culture rarely glimpsed beyond those shocking videos.

Andre the Giant: Life and Legend by Box Brown

18465496Because professional wrestling is pop story-telling filled with melodrama and cartoon-ish characters, a graphic novel is the perfect marriage of format and content for Box Brown’s Andre the Giant: Life and Legend. Arguably the best known professional wrestler of all time, Andre the Giant weighed 600 pounds and stood well over seven feet tall. He was world-famous in the wrestling ring, and eventually appeared in movies and on talk shows. Cartoonist Box Brown portrays Andre as a human excessive in his vices but also kind and gentle at times, as well as a sympathetic figure whose size was due to a disease (acromegaly) that made people stare at him in fear from an early age, caused him daily physical pain, and led to an early death.

Andre the Giant: Life and Legend includes a few eff-bombs and sexual situations that may make it questionable for some younger readers, but this is perfect for those who want to read something like Derf Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer.

Deep Shadow by Randy Wayne White

6642072Deep Shadow, the seventeenth Doc Ford novel by Randy Wayne White, is one of the best in the series. I’m not sure what makes this such an excellent thriller–the bumbling mass murderers, the giant reptiles, or the healthy helping of Florida lore. The book’s entire action takes place within a few hours and much of it occurs underwater. Alternating points of view between Ford, Tomlinson, and the bad guys, make this a real page-turner. I recommend reading the Doc Ford books in order, and this one is definitely worth the wait.





Night Vision by Randy Wayne White

8662018Set against a backdrop of human trafficking and illegal steroid manufacturing, Night Vision, the eighteenth Doc Ford novel by Randy Wayne White, is captivating but not one of the best in the series. The elements which make this series so enjoyable for me are still here but they are almost in the background. Tomlinson, Doc Ford’s hippie best friend, appears briefly at the beginning and end of the story. Doc Ford himself is off stage for what seems like more than half the book, as we are brought up close to the bad guys for long stretches with the understanding that Doc Ford is on the way to the rescue. If you’re a fellow fan of the Doc Ford series, don’t skip this one, but it’s also not one of the better installments in the series. The alligator attack at the beginning of Night Vision is my favorite part.

Sisters by Raina Telegemeier

17801394Although it kept my attention, I couldn’t quite get a handle on Sisters. Raina Telgemeier’s two previous graphic novels–Smile and Drama–were satisfying stories, but this one seemed to be in search of what it was really about. Tied together by a family car trip, other episodes are juxtaposed to show how the sisters relate differently to what is going on around them. Young readers may connect with the various episodes involving cousins, pets, and the need to keep electronics fully charged, but I thought Sisters skimmed along too lightly on big issues involving family. To be completely honest, it’s possible that my enjoyment was affected by the fact that the graphic novel e-galley I received was mostly in black-and-white, although the publisher included a note saying that the final version “will be in full color throughout.” So, it was kind of like reading a novel with most of the adjectives removed. I hope to read the full color version after publication.

Congratulations, by the way by George Saunders

18373298Writing a review for Congratulations, by the way—the newest title from George Saunders—feels a little bit like writing a review for an expensive greeting card. But it’s presented to us as a book, so I’ll try to regard it as a book. Actually, it’s a Syracuse University graduation speech, with a good and important message: Be kind.

That deceptively simple message is presented with humor and pathos, and in this edition it is illuminated by a series of abstract drawings that effectively enhances the idea that kindness is a choice we make not only for the good of others but for the benefit of “that luminous part of you that exists beyond personality—your soul, if you will.” Saunders gives us an intellectual defense of why kindness matters, as well as some practical advice on how to get started on being kinder. George Saunders will probably eventually publish a follow-up to The Braindead Megaphone, his excellent collection of nonfiction pieces, and this text would have fit nicely there, but as a stand-alone book, Congratulations, by the way will likely and deservedly reach more people.

I’ve read this brief book three times. Since then, I’ve had a few failures of kindness. In a couple of cases, George Saunders has popped into my mind, and I’ve gone forward with a renewed commitment to kindness. Most graduation speeches flicker out by the time that caps and tassels hit the ground, but this one is sticking with me.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

17333223I see why The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize this year. The story begins with a child, Theo Decker, involved in a compelling tragedy, and then his life is twisted by the fascinating cast of supporting characters. At the heart of it all is a small painting exerting its artistic energy on Theo, leading readers to consider and reconsider the works of art that matter to us.

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SlouchingCvr_211If you followed the St. Paul Saints of the Northern League in 1996 and 1997, you probably remember that your team included several memorable characters. The team leader was a convicted felon with Hall of Fame credentials. His name was Darryl Strawberry. One of the other outfielders under consideration in spring training had no legs.

The pitching ace was Jack Morris, a former major league all-star trying to launch a comeback with personal charm somewhat akin to a rabid Rottweiler. Another pitcher was a converted outfielder who threw a no-hitter in his first start on the mound. Of course, you remember Ila Borders, the first female to play in an all-male professional baseball league. The closer was so handsome that he could use the world’s worst pick-up lines in country bars around the Midwest and leave within minutes with the most beautiful girl in the place.

The St. Paul Saints were also surrounded by quirky individuals off the field. One of the team’s owners was Mike Veeck. The worst promotion in major league history, Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in Chicago, was Mike’s brainchild, although his father, 20th century baseball imagineer Bill Veeck, took responsibility for the fiasco. The St. Paul Saints ownership also included arguably the finest comedic actor of our time, Bill Murray, who liked to show up at game time, sometimes selling beer in the stands or coaching first base or tossing out the first pitch by throwing it high over the press box and out of the stadium. The third base coach was Wayne Terwilliger, one of only three men to spend fifty years in uniform.

In the stands you could get a massage during the game. The masseuse was a nun. And one of the radio announcers during the 1997 season was blind.

I don’t know when I’ve had as much fun reading a baseball book as I did with Neal Karlen’s Slouching Toward Fargo, a wildly entertaining account of two seasons with the St. Paul Saints, a very successful independent league team. The Saints motto—Fun Is Good—definitely carries over to Slouching Toward Fargo.

Why did I enjoy it so much? The characters are so fascinating that you could probably make a pretty good book out of any one of them. But they were all in St. Paul at the same time, and Neal Karlen had access to them.

Because my favorite major league team—the Chicago Cubs—is woeful, again, this year, I’ve been paying attention to the Frontier League, another independent league. It’s a competitive circuit with its own quirks (seven-inning games for double-headers, one team that plays all of its games on the road, etc.). Everything I like about independent leagues is on full display in Slouching Toward Fargo.

A bonus for me was two of my favorite former Cubs—Hector Villanueva and Dwight Smith—make cameos appearances as they played for the Saints during these seasons. (Villanueva was tagged with the honor of having the biggest butt in the Northern League.)

But Slouching Toward Fargo isn’t just about fun. The players are trying to live their dreams, although those dreams have various shapes. Mike Veeck is trying to regain major league credibility after the disco demolition debacle from years earlier. Bill Murray is searching for a place where he can find peace. Author Neal Karlen frames the book as a Rolling Stone assignment originally designed to be a hatchet piece on Murray that evolves into something more meaningful in his life as a writer.

I don’t know how I missed Slouching Toward Fargo when it was originally published in 1999, but I’m glad that Summer Game Books has brought it back in a new edition with a fresh foreword by Mike Veeck.

Slouching Toward Fargo is the book you need when you start to miss what you liked about baseball in the first place.

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BBQ_FnlCvr_eBk_-_min_1400x2000_225x225-75As I write this on June 13, 2014, the Chicago Cubs, my favorite team, are twelve games under .500 and twelve-and-a-half games out of first place. I search the standings for signs of hope. A winning record at home and a 6-4 record over the last ten games might be enough to fan the flickering flames of my attention, but I’m going to need some baseball books too.

Thank goodness for Summer Game Books, a publisher of high quality, interesting, new and classic baseball books. Thank goodness too for A Whole Lot of Bar-B-Q and other Baseball Stories by prolific baseball writer and editor Mike Shannon, published this spring by Summer Game Books.

Mike Shannon’s excellent collection appropriately leads off with a story that begins in childhood, and just as appropriately ends with a story about the death of a major leaguer and the legacy he leaves behind for his family. In between are a rich helping of baseball stories dealing with the many ways that the game powerfully intersects with off-the-field situations.

Several of Shannon’s stories involve baseball books and journalism.  Others relate to how baseball’s history is preserved and conveyed to later generations of fans. “Dead Roses,” for example, includes a character who tries to curate a display of Pete Rose memorabilia but is shaken by the recurring appearance of a ghostly vision of Pete Rose as a child.

Of course, baseball’s history also includes segregation and outright racism. Mike Shannon uses that era as the backdrop for two stories, including my favorite in this collection “The Day Satchel Paige and the Pittsburgh Crawfords Came to Hertford, N. C.” When Paige’s barnstorming team meets the town bigots who refuse to serve them before their game against the local team, the Crawfords’ revenge is sweet, perfect, and hilarious.

Although the stories are not specifically related to each other, they do seem to have a thoughtful order. The last half of the book features players trying to adjust to life after the end of their careers as major leaguers. One character must live with making a World Series-ending error. Another considers becoming a team owner.

I highly recommend Mike Shannon’s A Whole Lot of Bar-B-Q and other Baseball Stories to help you get through a long season, if that’s what you’re dealing with, or as a complement to a great year for those of you with a winning team–like all of you Brewers fans.

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Goodbye, Fremdland

On the last day of the last year at the school where I’ve worked for a very long time, it seems sort of oddly perfect to be sitting by myself in a room monitoring detention students who are not here, which gives me a little time and space to reflect. So, what have I been thinking about lately as this year winds down?

1. So many good people have passed through my life within these walls. I’m grateful for the relationships. It doesn’t matter whether they were students or colleagues. We were humans growing and learning together. That’s the most important thing.

2. At a retirement celebration earlier this week, I asked one of my pals who’s been retired for a few years if he had any advice for me. His answer: “Yeah. Don’t get hit by a bus on Friday. That would be really stupid.”

3. The question I’ve been asked the most is “So, what are you going to do next?” The best answer I can give right now is “I’m going to take some time and figure that out.” In recent years I’ve become pretty clear on the distinction between my job and my work. My job is ending. My work isn’t done. I have some inklings of what I’d like to do, but it keeps shifting. I have definite ideas about what I don’t want to do, but that’s not a good platform for decision-making. I’m well aware of how fortunate I am to be 55 years old and retired from a gratifying job.

4. The other question I’ve been asked quite a bit is “So, how does it feel?” Well, it feels pretty weird, probably because it’s a mixture of emotions. I’m happy because I have new opportunities in front of me, even though I don’t quite know what they are yet. I’m happy because I know too many good people who didn’t get to have a retirement, and I’m sad as I think about those friends I lost too soon. The frustrations with my job in recent years have not been resolved, but they will no longer matter to me personally in a few hours, and I believe the issues will soon evolve in a positive direction for the colleagues I’ve leaving behind.

The strangest feeling is one I don’t know if I can articulate. For the last few decades I’ve been soaking up experiences and ideas with this in mind: “How can I use it in class?” The products of my professional life and thinking have played out in my classes, and I no longer have classes. I can’t stop thinking and learning, so how will I spend that processing? That’s an interesting challenge and part of my larger upcoming decision-making.

4. I’ve worked really hard this year. I worked hard every year, but this year I put extra pressure on myself to do things as well as they can possibly be done. I gave thorough feedback to writers in a variety of ways. I spent every ounce of enthusiasm I had on helping students see themselves as authentic readers and writers. When anyone asked me for something that would help their lives, I tried to do it. I never said, Sorry—too busy. I honored my pledge to my students that I would only ask them to do things that I thought had authentic value, and if we had to do something that I didn’t believe in, I would tell the truth about that. I stayed up to speed on important issues in education and used that knowledge for perspective on what I said and wrote throughout the year. I used every possible opportunity to integrate technology into my curriculum. I continued to try new approaches, new materials, and new activities. I feel like I’m crossing the finish line at full speed.

5. My family is the most important thing in my world. Always has been, always will be.

6. So many people have said nice things to me and about me over the last few months. I might even start believing some of it. When my passions boiled over a couple of times this year, I’m especially grateful for those who told me that I was being … difficult.

(The detention student just showed up. She said, “Hi, Mr. Anderson. Are you excited that it’s your last year?” I told her, Yes. She said, “You should write another book.” When I asked her what the book should be about, she said, “Everything.” I like that idea.)

I know I’m lucky because I don’t have to wonder if my career (so far) meant anything. There will be no existential debate about that. The biggest lesson is that Yes, what teachers do matters, so we had better do it well and right. The ripples go on and on, affecting people we remember vividly, some we may not remember clearly, and still others we will never know. Most of the noblest people I’ve known in my life are teachers, and our job is profoundly important. Being a part of that tribe is an inspiring responsibility and opportunity.

So, my future blog posts will be from a guy who used to work at Fremd High School. Thanks to everyone who reads this and uses it as a catalyst for appreciating teachers. Share that appreciation with teachers who have meant something to you or your children.

Career and retirement advice is welcome below. Mwah!

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The Journal Topics

journals photoToday members of our Expository Composition class wrote their final journal entries and handed in their well-worn spiral notebooks. I’m so proud of how many words and pages they wrote, and the profound wisdom and entertaining writing found in those notebooks.

In a previous blog post, I wrote about integrating journal writing into a writing class, how I set it up, grade it, etc. As some readers know, for the past few semesters I have posted our class journal topic on Twitter each day, and it’s always fun when someone tweets a response. Thanks to those who have played along.

Recently I’ve had some requests for the list of journal topics I have used. So, here it is.

Some of these are adapted from other sources, but I’m a little worried that some of the topics listed below are borrowed from sources that I’ve forgotten. If you see something I should attribute to someone else, please do me a favor and let me know.

Those familiar with Natalie Goldberg’s work will immediately see her influence on this list. In some cases, I know exactly who inspired it, and I’ve provided attribution in those cases.

I hope this list helps teachers and inspires young writers to think and write deeply about their influences, outlooks, and experiences.

The Journal Topics

Begin with this:  I remember …

Begin with this:  I don’t remember …

Tell about your favorite clothing item.

Tell about something that happened near water.

Tell about when you’re most comfortable.

Tell about the time you didn’t go.

Tell about a trait you probably inherited.

Tell about when you feel awkward.

Tell about when you feel confident.

Tell about when you don’t want to be disturbed.

Tell about a work of art (painting, song, film, poem, etc.) that has meant something
to you.

Tell how you knew it was over.

Tell what normal means.

Tell about green.

Tell about a memorable car ride.

Tell about something someone (maybe you) said yesterday that is still relevant

Tell about what you don’t understand.

Tell about the games you like (or don’t like) to play.

Tell about something from your refrigerator.

Tell how to do something that you do really well.

Tell about what isn’t fair. Should we expect to be rewarded for doing the right thing?

Tell about your luck.

No words today. Just draw.

Tell about when you tried to be perfect.

Tell about the difference between passion and obsession.

Tell about a memorable meal.

Tell what you think about at night.

Begin with this: I Am From …

Tell about something that starts w B.

Tell about your ideal college.

Tell about an argument.

Tell about your stress.

What else do you need?

Write a 26-sentence alphabet entry. The first sentence should begin with A, the second sentence with B, all the way through to the last sentence beginning with Z.

If you could do whatever you wanted, what would you do right now?

Tell about trust.

How are you intelligent? (from Sir Ken Robinson in The Element)

What food or drink best represents your personality?

What’s your subplot?

Tell how your hair has changed over time.

Tell about leftovers.

Tell about a change you would like to see in your school.

Tell about when you were surprised.

Tell about your favorite elementary school memory.

What are you waiting for?

Tell about what you’ve never been asked.

Tell about a time you couldn’t see.

Tell about a baby.

Without complaining, tell why you felt (or feel) stuck.

Write in praise of something not usually praised–fleas, garbage, mold, etc.

Tell about a first meeting.

Tell about an interesting non-English word or phrase.

Tell about a person you see regularly but don’t really know.

Tell what you wish more people knew about you.

Tell about what surprised you.

Tell about what you tried to fix.

Tell about your music.

Begin with this:  I’m glad my name isn’t …

Tell about wearing high heels or neckties.

Tell about what doesn’t matter.

Tell about one of your responsibilities.

Tell what you would do if you were invisible for a day.

Look through your journal. Tell about what you see in there.

Tell about something minor that turned major.

Write the apology you should give, or receive.

Begin with this: “I used to believe…”

Do we get the lives we deserve?

Begin with this:  No thank you. (from Natalie Goldberg)

Tell about what you see in the mirror.

Tell about a smell you encounter frequently.

Begin with this:  What if…

What do you have stored or saved?

Begin with this:  I want to be ____ because _____.

What did you recently realize?

Tell about your favorite lie.

Tell about your favorite picture of yourself.

Tell about when you won.

Make a list of all you’ve learned in the past week, in school and out.

Tell how you want to live.

Tell about an interesting family member.

Tell about the best advice you have received (or given).

Tell about something someone said yesterday that is still relevant today.

Make a list of your strongly held beliefs.

Tell about your favorite animal.

Tell about a time you screamed.

What is a current trend (fashion, music, media, technology, etc.) that you particularly like or dislike?

Tell about yourself as a little kid. How are you still kind of the same? How are you different?

Tell about something you earned.

In one page, tell about your mother or father.

Tell about one of your dreams.

Tell about a class that should be offered at your school.

Tell about being alone.

Tell about what you eat.

Tell about your manners.

Tell about the oldest person you have known.

Who do you believe (or not believe)?

Tell the president/principal/governor/mayor how she’s/he’s doing.

Choose one word for this year and tell about your choice.

If you could make one rule that would be strictly enforced in the community around you, what would it be?

Tell about someone important to you. Include all 5 senses. (from Kathryn Janicek)

What is your FREMD acrostic–F is for …, R is for …, etc. (“Fremd” is our school.)

Tell a true story involving a liquid other than water.

Tell about Fridays.

Tell about a disguise or costume you once wore (inspired by Natalie Goldberg).

Begin with this:  I wish I had more time to …

Tell about someone you’re glad you know.

Tell about something you think is infinite.

Tell what it would take for you to be more like _____.

Do you consider yourself young? (inspired by Alyse Liebovich)

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#engchat on Monday, May 12: “English Teachers and Families”


On Monday evening, May 12, I hope colleagues near and far will join me for #engchat on Twitter. The topic is “English Teachers and Families.” We will focus on how the lives of families—those of our students as well as our own—intersect with our classrooms and with our profession in general.

Our guiding questions:

  • What circumstances are mostly likely to bring parents into contact with English teachers and how can we best handle those situations when they arise?
  • When are students’ family situations mostly likely to positively or negatively affect teaching and learning?
  • What lessons have we learned about how to help our students’ families understand our classrooms and bring them into closer contact with us?
  • What’s it like to be both an English teacher and a parent? Do the roles ever overlap?

The one-hour conversation begins at 7 p.m. Eastern, 6 p.m. Central, and 4 p.m Pacific, 1 a.m. Tuesday in central Europe, and 9 a.m. Tuesday in Australia. Others elsewhere are welcome too. Please let me know if I can help you figure out the time.

I’m looking forward to a lively hour with thoughtful literacy educators on a topic that touches us all. Thanks for joining in.

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thriveI’ve read quite a bit lately about the many issues plaguing education. What a refreshing change to read a book by an author who understands all of that, sees through the morass, and cares enough about her profession to help save it one colleague at a time. Meenoo Rami’s new book Thrive: 5 Ways to (Re)Invigorate Your Teaching is for all of us.

For those who are having trouble connecting (or re-connecting) to the joy of teaching, Meenoo Rami tells how to take steps toward finding support and meaning. For those who thrive in the classroom but are troubled by other factors in their schools, Meenoo suggests ways to provide context and balance.

For those intrigued by the idea of empowering students but uncertain about how to proceed, Meenoo has it covered. “When students create content rather than just consume it, their engagement grows capaciously,” she says. If we want authentic engagement, and who doesn’t, the key lies in how students interact with our content–actively or passively, with compliance or with enthusiasm.

For those who are doing just fine but looking for ways to get better, Thrive is full of practical suggestions for how to connect to other educators, our subject matter and students, as well as our own internal sources of inspiration and motivation.

My favorite section of Thrive deals with how fear can affect our professional relationships, classroom behavior, and job satisfaction: “Students do not benefit from your true passion when that passion is hidden beneath layers of doubt, insecurity about being ridiculed, or fear of failure. The question becomes: How do we manage this fear to make it productive instead of corrosive?” The advice that follows this question comes from a deep understanding of what it means to be a passionate educator and a work-in-progress human.

No matter where we are in our career paths as educators, Meenoo Rami’s Thrive gives us inspiration, hope, and pragmatic clarity about how to move forward in creating or reclaiming the professional lives we’ve always envisioned.

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Our Book Graffiti Wall

graffit signAs a big believer in the power of choice in nurturing young independent readers, I’m always looking for interesting ways to activate and motivate students in that direction. Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2014) gave me quite a few ideas. One I’ve especially enjoyed is book graffiti. It’s a pretty simple idea: Provide a place for “selecting and sharing the lines and words from our books that stood out as remarkable or special to us” (Miller 114).

Although the pictures here show the story pretty well, I’d like to tell about the book graffiti wall in room 231. In the early days of second semester, I explained this idea to my student intern Nina. (You will quickly understand that Nina is indispensable.) Nina rounded up some light-colored construction paper and covered a large bulletin board in the classroom. We added some bookish posters that I had laying around. Then Nina and her boyfriend Danny made a cool Book Graffiti sign. Then Nina bought a bucket of markers to hang on the wall. On her graffiti wall Donalyn Miller added, “May the odds be ever in your favor” from The Hunger Games to spark student contributions. I used “Our thoughts are stars we cannot fathom into constellations” from John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars as the seed for our wall. (Actually, Nina wrote that quote on the graffiti wall so that it would legible.)

Here is how the book graffiti wall looked in its infancy.
graffiti wall infancy

Then I explained to the class that they were welcome to add any sentences they found in their books that they liked for any reason. And the quotes started to appear.

graffiti 1 quotes

The graffiti wall has now been active for more than twelve weeks, and I have never once seen anyone write on the wall, but the quotes and artwork are there. (We share classrooms in our school, so it’s not uncommon for students to arrive in the room before I do.)

graffit 2 quotes

After #engchat a few weeks ago I added a few QR codes linked to various movie trailers or other bookish sites. I was also delighted when one of the other teachers assigned to room 231 asked if her students could contribute to the wall.

graffiti 3 quotes

If I were re-doing this, I would like to have a bulletin board that is not behind the students. That would be difficult with the room’s configuration, but there is probably a way to make it happen. If we need more room to write graffiti, I can remove the posters. Because we started this halfway through the school year, that might not be necessary before the end of this school year, but if we need the room, it’s easy to do.

graffiti wall top

What I like best about this wall is the intellectual mini-voyage behind each contribution. Before a quote goes on the wall, a reader must say, “This–this right here–is a sentence that resonates with me. This is a big idea, or at least a funny idea. It must be shared.” In order to add an idea, a reader must respond authentically to something in a book, note its linguistic parameters, and then choose to share it communally. From individual response to communal contribution–that’s the kind of activity and attitude that strengthens independent readers.

I hope anyone else with a book graffiti wall like this will post a link so that we can see other variations on this idea.

Thanks for reading.

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Guest Blogger: Blythe Baird on Filming DIVERGENT

Blythe Baird

Blythe Baird

One of the best-known and best-liked members of our school’s Class of 2014 is Blythe Baird. Although Blythe has never been in one of my classes, we have worked together on various aspects of our school’s Writers Week. I admire the way Blythe thinks big and makes things happen, all while being one of the friendliest people you could ever meet. Blythe appears in the new hit movie Divergent, and I thought readers of this blog would enjoy hearing about what led her to that experience and what happened on the set. I greatly appreciate Blythe agreeing to share her story here. Please visit Blythe Baird’s web site and follow her on Twitter at @blythe_baird.

In elementary school, I was quite the force to be reckoned with. I was loud, opinionated, outspoken, and sometimes a compulsive liar for the sake of precious entertainment value. I believe I actually hold the record for most detentions acquired in a calendar year at that school. Maybe it’s because I’m a Leo, or maybe it’s because I have a severe case of youngest-child-attention-craving syndrome. I sorely lacked athletic ability. On the softball field, I was the chump playing with anthills in the outfield. My parents, determined to find an outlet for my ruthless spunk, ignored my protests and enrolled me in every sport in the book–swimming, basketball, golf, track, you name it. To say the least, I was a poor excuse for a team player.

After much begging and prodding on my part, my folks finally agreed to let me do community theater. I got hooked. I did every musical or play our local park district offered. After my first show, I started getting leads. I would pore over my script for hours, highlighting my lines and penciling in stage cues. The whole process was enthralling and fascinating to me. However, after years of grueling rehearsals, tech weeks, backstage drama, and itchy costumes, I wanted a change. At age twelve, I set my sights on television and film.

The first phase of action was research. I checked out every website, column, and book at the library about acting for the screen. I learned the qualifications for the Screen Actors Guild. I learned that if I wanted to get anywhere, I needed an agent or manager. I presented my parents with a PowerPoint presentation regarding these goals. Their response was less than I’d hoped. My father said, “I ain’t payin’ for nothing.” I mythbusted that real quick. I explained to them that agents and managers only get paid when you get work. They only represent talent they believe will bring in money. Still, my parents were unconvinced. I stuck with junior high theater but didn’t give up my lofty aspirations. I knew Chicago, only a forty-minute commute, was a growing venue for on-camera work. I submitted myself for casting calls online, but my chubby (okay, borderline obese) childhood frame was often rejected for being “too big.” This didn’t bother me. I kept at it.

Freshman year, I booked a cameo appearance as a young shoplifter on the USA network series “In Plain Sight.” I flew off to Albuquerque, New Mexico to get dolled up in hair and makeup, wardrobe, and eat meals with the cast between shooting takes. When I came back home, my parents noticed my grades had been slipping, so I had to slow my roll and focus on school for a bit. The summer going into junior year was when everything changed. I lost sixty pounds and dyed my hair back to blonde, after a horrendous but brief ginger stint. I self-submitted for a lead role in a short film shot in Chicago called “Disconnected.” To my utter delight, I booked it. It was so different from the things I had done before. In theater, you have to be huge and gregarious because you’re performing all the way to the back row. I had to unlearn that. In film, the camera is right there, front row. You have to be meaningful, subtle and not cheesy. Less than a month later, I got a call from a crew member of the film asking me to be in a 121 Help commercial they were shooting, providing hotlines for children in danger.

Shorty following all of that, I got signed by my wonderful management company followed by my equally wonderful agency, MbM and Big Mouth Talent. I started going on downtown auditions frequently, and going into my management to film audition tapes for sending to Los Angeles casting offices to be considered for bigger parts. One day I was at school when I got the call from my manager–“We got you a part! It’s a feature film shooting in Chicago this summer!” I freaked out. It was for Divergent. I had known about the Divergent book series because the author, Veronica Roth, had come to speak at my school for Writers Week that year.

In Tris's choosing ceremony, Blythe Baird is on the left at Shailene Woodley's shoulder.

In Tris’s choosing ceremony, Blythe Baird is on the left at Shailene Woodley’s shoulder.

When I went in for my Divergent costume fitting, they immediately placed me in Amity, the hippie faction. Typical. It was amazing to see the skeleton of this huge production–the costume holding place was about the size of Costco. I was floored. A few weeks later, we were told that a couple of featured extras–extras who had representation were given priority screen time–would be picked for a special cameo role in the choosing ceremony. It was intimidating, to say the least. A group of about fifty of us had to mime getting our hand cut and walking for the director. From that, a smaller group was selected and we had to stand in a line. One by one, Neil Burger looked us over and had us turn to the side, then back to front. He tapped some of us on the shoulder and said, “Thank you. You can go.” When he got to me, he said, “Step forward, please.” They then did the same with two of my friends, young actors from the Candor and Abnegation factions. We were to be the chosen kids who would go up and have a special part in the ceremony. They even gave us names since they would be called during the scene; mine was Erin Quinn. When we filmed it at this beautiful Scientology church in downtown Chicago, we got to go up and do our thing and close-ups every shot. It was awesome.

Because the movie is already so long, they ended up cutting a lot of the original shots out. All three of our little features were nixed. However, you can still see me in the choosing ceremony and the scene where Jeanine is lecturing the factions. It was a great experience. Shailene Woodley is a genuine sweetheart, Kate Winslet is a goddess, and everyone was just very down to earth on the whole.

Post-Divergent, my world opened up. I booked the lead in an Auslynn Films indie feature that’s set to release on Netflix, iTunes, and DVD in May called The UnMiracle, in which I play a teen hippie princess who struggles with substance abuse. It’s definitely my grittiest role yet. I also appeared on the premiere of NBC’s latest hit show, “Crisis.” In the past year, things have really been taking off and I love it. I have a fascination with the science of on-camera production. Hopefully, this is something I’ll be able to continue doing for the rest of my life. My plan is to go to college next year, of course, but follow wherever life takes me in terms of film and television. Que sera, sera.

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What’s Not Wrong? April 3 Edition

Whatd-not-wrong-blueyellowEvery so often my classes do a little activity called What’s Not Wrong? It takes about four or five minutes. The idea is to forego thinking about all of our problems and simply write down one thing that is absolutely and incontrovertibly not wrong. Then I read them aloud anonymously, and we enjoy a breeze of positivity in what might otherwise be a gloomy day–like today.

Today’s list provides some testament to our brutal Midwestern winter, as well as on-going concerns with food, college, homework, and quite a few other things. In several cases more than one student wrote exactly the same word or words, even though they may have been in different classes.  Those are indicated in parentheses.  Here is today’s What’s Not Wrong list compiled from five classes.  Enjoy.

I have my pencil.
4096 tile
It rained this morning.
Roll Tide
How I live my life
Apple pie
Summer (2)
My family (2)
My college decision
God (2)
Food (3)
Off to college soon
Using your phone on a test
The practice of religion
Being happy (2)
It’s almost summer.
School’s almost over. (2)
6-hour baseball games
Having fun
Food of any kind
Baseball is back.
Basketball (2)
My job
Being pretty
Comfy chairs
It’s thunderstorming outside. Yay.
I farted just now and no one knows.
It’s getting warmer.
Life (2)
I volunteered at CARE yesterday.
Eating snacks before dinner
I got into the college I wanted. (2)
Tomorrow’s Friday. (5)
Today was a rare day where I managed to have no homework and nothing (that I can remember) after school.
Homework tonight, 0
Mr. Anderson’s 8th period English class
Some damn good food
Got a new workout plan and it’s awesome.
The rain today because that means it’s getting warmer
It’s only going to get better. Even though I stumble I’m still breathing. It’s one thing to walk the line, but it is even better to have a sense of direction.
My wifi being fixed
My book
This class
I’m here early.
My spring break baseball suspension is over.
Chicken wings
Sleeping in
Cubs are 0-2.
Expository Composition
It’s Thursday.
I beat 2048.
My grandma made peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies.
There is a form of cryptocurrency called the doge coin.
There are, as yet, no sub-quantum irregularities that might cause unusual things to happen, like spontaneous conversion into an unfortunate hard-shelled reptile.
It’s raining.
I’m Batman (maybe).
The disappearance of snow
Stopping for pedestrians
Summer is coming.
My god-like body! and Culver’s, Shamrock Shakes, and food in general
Leda and Mario
Man United tying Bayern Munich in the Champions League
My quarter grades
Career Treks
It’s a rainy day.
When your family says they love you
High school is ending!
It’s not winter.
My health (2)
Being able to relax after school
My friendships
On track with last class
Documents got in
Teachers that care
I only have history homework.
We get finals off.
My best friends
Having a good time
Getting accepted into college
Giving to charity
My phone works.
Weather getting warmer
I’m leaving for California today at 12.
Captain America 2 comes out tomorrow.
Blog posts
Hardwell is in 7 days.
Hardwell in 8 days
Even through recent struggles, I am satisfied with myself and my life, and I’m writing a pretty good poem.
Nerd-ing out with friends
Dog Frisbee
Going to see Captain America: Winter Soldier at midnight tonight
Hour-and-a-half practice
Rain, rain, rain, rain
Rice cookies
Hot showers after working out
Co-ed sleepovers (2)
I only have studying for homework tonight.
Dark chocolate
Banana smoothies
It’s finally spring!!!
2 more months of school
Fun !!!!

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