Review: WRITING WITH MENTORS by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell

41dIMvzIynL__SX395_BO1,204,203,200_In their remarkable new book Writing with Mentors: How to Reach Every Writer in the Room Using Current, Engaging Mentor Texts (Heinemann 2015), Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell show how they use mentor texts as the foundation for their writing classes and provide detailed guidance on how other teachers can do the same.

Most writing teachers know that students learn well from mentor texts—relatively short pieces or passages that demonstrate a certain principle under consideration. We may trot out an occasional editorial or classic text to make some rhetorical point, but frequently the modeling potential of what is available to us is left un-mined. Reasons for that sporadic approach can vary, but student writers greatly benefit when they study how other writers practice their craft and solve writer-ly problems.

One of the most impressive aspects of Writing with Mentors is how thoroughly they treat the topic of working with mentor texts—from finding the texts, to planning a course, to using them for whole-class lessons, small group processing, and individual instruction. Several times during my reading, I thought “Yes, but what about …,” only to have my questions anticipated and addressed.

Although the authors give readers the tools to develop their own banks of mentor texts, Writing with Mentors provides QR codes linking to every one of the plentiful examples mentioned in the book.

This book is much more than a how-to guide. It’s an example of dynamic teachers at work. Marchetti and O’Dell are clearly passionate professionals, eager to search for the best materials and the best delivery methods. But that’s just the start. They also illuminate their collaborative and reflective practices that culminated in such a fine book.

The authors’ expertise in collaboration and reflection is passed on to their students. I’ve struggled to find ways to effectively use small groups in writing classes. Unless the group members are relatively accomplished or relatively equal in ability, the social dynamics of the groupings sometimes overwhelm the writing concerns, at least in my class. Marchetti and O’Dell have solved this by using mentor texts as the basis of grouping. Group members discuss how the mentor texts relate to their own work rather than directly commenting on the strengths and weaknesses of each other’s writing. That, my friends, is brilliant.

Another big take-away for me was how the authors use mentor texts when doing the important work of conferring with students. They say, “It’s like having a third writer present, an expert writer whose knowledge we draw on as we work through various writing situations.”

Students in these classes not only learn to write in many genres, but they are also led to reflect on their reading, their writing, and themselves. All of this is geared toward helping students become independent, courageous, and creative. Those are worthwhile qualities for writers, sure, but they are also valuable for living a rich life.

That big picture is always in focus for these authors: “Remember, students won’t be in school forever, so they need to see purposes for writing beyond school.”

Writing with Mentors is a great choice for self-guided professional development in English/Language Arts, and it is also an excellent choice for group study.

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My Ten Favorite Interview Questions for Hiring English Teachers

mala one childAfter interviewing dozens of candidates for English teaching positions, I developed some approaches and questions for seeing the best in each candidate. I’m mostly interested in figuring out if the candidate is a good person with an educator’s instincts, even if those instincts are not yet fully developed.

I try to avoid context-specific questions. For example, I don’t like to ask about school policies. Candidates cannot be expected to be current on the policies within your school, so questions about late work, grading scales, detention, etc. are not particularly fair or important. After all, those policies change from time to time, so do we want to hire people based on their alignment with a temporary policy?

With that in mind, here are my favorite interview questions.

What were you like in high school? How are you still the same, and how have you changed? This will give you some hints about the candidate’s reflective capacity as he talks about his growth, as well as a picture of which students this candidate is mostly likely to relate to easily.

Tell about a writing challenge you dealt with and how it can help you as a writing teacher. Writing teachers should be writers. Writers struggle. The ability to articulate ways to handle those struggles is a good sign that the candidate will empathize with and develop student writers.

What have you been reading lately that wasn’t required for a class? If a teacher is going to develop lifelong readers, she must be a reader. College students nearing graduation are busy, busy, busy but readers are always reading. If the candidate says, “I only have time for textbooks these days, but I hope to get back to pleasure reading soon,” that’s a candidate who won’t light fires for reading in her students. If the candidate claims to “only read the classics,” that’s a potential danger sign too. Although it’s possible that you have a Renaissance-level candidate, it’s also possible that you have one who only reads what is assigned, and maybe not even that. If a classics-only answer comes out, ask what contemporary books might be considered classics a hundred years from now. It’s OK if a candidate is reading what you might consider fluff. That’s a person who gets that books are not just for school, and she has the authenticity to engender that understanding in her students.

How do you engage reluctant learners with poetry? This question not only gets at the candidate’s ability to differentiate instruction but is also likely to reveal some attitudes about engagement. The poetry angle provides a specific context for that engagement.

If you could design a classroom starting with bare walls, what would you put in there? This will tell you a lot about the candidate’s actual philosophy, as opposed to the “educational philosophy” carefully crafted for his portfolio. What the candidate chooses to include or exclude, and how he arranges those elements will tell you a lot about the philosophy he puts into action. This question isn’t intended to see how closely the candidate can match the physical attributes of your school’s classrooms; it’s more about the candidate’s ideals.

What are you pretty good at as a teacher, and what are you still working on? The second part of the question is more important than the first part. In addressing the latter part, a humble candidate will probably say a version of “Everything,” but you should press for more specifics. A candidate may equate “still working on” with weakness, but a mature candidate will be more specific: “I’ve seen master teachers conduct a whole-class lesson while simultaneously touching base with individual students. I’m not there yet, but I want to work on developing that ability.”

Do you think boys learn differently from girls? There is no perfect answer to this, but again it helps you see the candidate as a thinker and problem solver.

What are factors affecting student performance that you cannot control?
This will give you an understanding of whether or not the candidate has the big picture. Someone who has a lot of classroom tools might not understand how what goes on outside of his class can affect a student’s learning and behavior.

How would your students describe you? One time I asked a candidate this question, and she said, “I think they hate me.” Then I tried very hard not to start staring at the door I hoped she would soon use as an exit. In fairness, it’s a hard question, but it gives some sense of how the candidate perceives herself in relation to her students. As you listen to the answer, look for some signs of emotion: “I think they like me,” or “They know I care.” You may also hear things about fairness, respect, and rigor. That’s fine, but listen for whether or not she has any emotional commitment to her work.

Which would you rather have: the ability to jump really high or super-bendy limbs? Again, no right answer, obviously, but watch the reaction when you ask the question. If the candidate’s eyes light up and she smiles, that tells you something about how she will handle surprises and her comfort with spontaneity. If, on the other hand, you see blind panic, that tells you something too. Either way, the fact that you ask this question will let the candidate know that you like to have fun and are likely to encourage a friendly working environment.

Here are some post-interview considerations. As you reflect on a candidate’s responses, factor in your own answers to these questions gleaned from a former principal with whom I conducted many interviews: (1.) Would you want to go on a four-hour car ride with this person? and (2.) Would you want your own children to be with this person for an hour a day for a whole year?

Before making a hiring decision, seeing a candidate interact with students is also extremely helpful, but it’s not always possible or practical.

Receiving some kind of follow-up from a candidate always makes a good impression on me. Something in the mail is fine, but an email is just as good and much quicker. I remember finishing an off-site interview with an appealing candidate and thinking, “She has other offers. I hope we made a good impression on her.” By the time I got back to school, there was a thank-you email from her. I responded positively to it, and we hired her within a couple of days.

I hope these thoughts are helpful as you make important decisions that will impact your school, colleagues, and most importantly, the students in the new teacher’s classroom. Thanks for adding your favorite interview questions and experiences in the comments section.

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Some Baseball Books for the 2016 Hot Stove League

In last year’s round-up of baseball books, I said I’d be happy if the Cubs won 85 games, and the season ended up being quite a bit more successful than that with the most exciting season we’ve seen for a while and a legitimate playoff run. Although the Cubs won’t sneak up on anybody this year, it will take more than 85 Ws to win my satisfaction in 2016. This time, I’ll be happy with a National League championship and a trip to the World Series. Anything less will be a disappointment. (I can’t believe I just wrote that.)

With spring training still a few weeks away, those who miss baseball might enjoy reading a baseball book or two. Here are some thoughts on the baseball books I read in 2015. I hope you find something here that gets you through. (You can also search “baseball” on this blog to find recommendations from the past several years.)

One Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and a Magical Baseball SeasonOne Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and a Magical Baseball Season by Chris Ballard

Certain things just didn’t happen in small Ilinois towns in the early 1970s. Hippie English teachers didn’t coach baseball for one thing. The team scorekeepers were always boys, and small schools like Macon High could not expect to compete with big-city and suburban powerhouses like Lane Tech and Waukegan.

But as one of the players on the 1971 Macon Ironmen said, “There’s no rule against it.” So they played the game their way. Practice was optional. The players decided among themselves who would play which position. The coach kept the play in “play ball.” And the farm boys just kept winning.

One Shot at Forever is Chris Ballard’s terrific story of the 1971 Macon High Ironmen and their improbable state championship run. Wrapped around their journey are the Vietnam War, small-town pride, and petty jealousies that sometimes play out among the grown-ups in a high school. I have vivid memories of each of those, and Ballard gets them absolutely right.

I hope it’s not a spoiler to say this book ends differently than I expected, but I should have known to expect the unexpected where the Ironmen are concerned. Thanks to Lauren D. for recommending One Shot at Forever, now one of my favorite baseball books.

The Grind: Inside Baseball's Endless SeasonThe Grind: Inside Baseball’s Endless Season by Barry Svrluga

Those involved in major league baseball call it “The Grind,” the day-to-day existence in the longest season in professional sports. “A baseball season, stretching from the tail of one winter to the cusp of the next, erodes the bodies and minds of the men who play. How they handle those demands can determine their performance, there for the world to see nearly every single day,” writes Barry Svrluga in The Grind: Inside Baseball’s Endless Season. Svrluga provides insights into The Grind from the perspective of numerous individuals associated with the Washington Nationals, including star players, a relief pitcher, wives, executives, scouts, and other personnel.

Although The Grind may sound like it would be a litany of complaints, it is really more objective than that as the various people tell how they go about their lives in the flow of a long baseball season, a lifestyle different from any other. The most interesting part for me was how details of life on the road are painstakingly handled by clubhouse manager Rob MacDonald who does everything he can to keep things running smoothly so that players can concentrate on baseball. Although the book strays from its theme in places, The Grind is well worth any baseball fan’s time.

Curveballs & Changeups: Bleeding Blue and Seeing RedCurveballs & Changeups: Bleeding Blue and Seeing Red by K.P. Kmitta

Scott Banks is a lifelong Cubs fan from a family of lifelong Cubs fans. That means, of course, that the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry is in his blood. When Banks finds himself relocated to Cardinal territory and married to a Cardinals fan, he’s a little queasy. Then he wins a contest that puts him on the field at Busch Stadium. Saying more here would ruin the fun, and K. P. Kmitta’s Curveballs and Changeups is a lot of fun.

Kmitta clearly loves the Cubs, baseball, and “base ball.” The Scott Banks plot line is the main narrative, but it is blended with a historical thread about the beginning of professional base ball in St. Louis … and its debt to Chicago. This is a thoroughly enjoyable baseball book, although some scenes seem to be there for reasons other than keeping the story moving forward.

Curveballs and Changeups will be a fun read for any baseball fan, especially those who favor blue or red.

The Pitch That Killed: Carl Mays, Ray Chapman and the Pennant Race of 1920 (Summer Game Books Baseball Classic)The Pitch That Killed: Carl Mays, Ray Chapman and the Pennant Race of 1920 by Mike Sowell

I’ve always known that in the early part of the last century a pitcher named Carl Mays threw a ball that struck and killed a player named Ray Chapman, the only fatality ever to occur on a major league field during a game. Intriguing as that was, I never thought much more about it other than as a bit of trivia.

Then last fall Summer Game Books brought out a new edition of Mike Sowell’s The Pitch That Killed: Carl Mays, Ray Chapman and the Pennant Race of 1920. Sowell’s writing combines the weight of a historian’s approach with a sportswriter’s flair to create an excellent reading experience that illuminates an era, its players, and an unparalleled baseball tragedy.

Sowell provides in-depth context for the Mays pitch that killed Chapman by giving us not just the life stories of those two men, but also those of their teammates, family members, opponents, and bosses. I was surprised to find that Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Joe Sewell are large figures in this story.

Maybe that’s what I liked best about this completely satisfying book: It’s a captivating story with fascinating characters, internal and external conflicts, a century-old setting vividly rendered, and a tragedy more complex than any trivia question.

The next several books are geared for younger readers but fans of all ages may find them worth a look.

Baseball GreatBaseball Great by Tim Green

This one falls in the category of “not recommended,” although it may be just what some readers are seeking.  Baseball Great came on my radar when it was announced as the required all-school summer reading selection for our district’s two middle schools.

The wheels start to come off early in Tim Green’s book when it presents a 31-year old minor league pitcher at the AAA level in the Toronto Blue Jays system. That didn’t sound right, so I checked into it. A 31-year old pitcher might be hanging around in an independent league somewhere, but no major league farm team has had a pitcher that old on a AAA roster for as far back as I could find. (The only exceptions are a few major league pitchers on short rehab assignments.)

How about this for another credibility lapse? A character gets on a team bus, sits in the back, and reads a book on a long trip. OK, fine. A couple of chapters later the same character is on a school bus and sits up front because sometimes he gets motion sickness when he rides in the back of the bus. What? He was perfectly fine in the back of the bus earlier with no mention of motion sickness!

The cover shows a young player with the letter C on his batting helmet. No team anywhere in this book has a C in its name, school, or location.

In the book’s climax the bad guy figures out something pretty remarkable about our hero and heroine, but we are never told how he put it all together.

The actual at-bats and game situations have tension and drama, but there are surprisingly few of those scenes. Most of the plot is predictable, and the characters are wooden and uninteresting.  Even for the students at each school who might like baseball stories, it’s not a very good book.

Baseball Is . . .Baseball Is . . . by Louise Borden

This is a fine, comprehensive tribute to America’s game. I can easily imagine young baseball fans spending hours exploring the artwork’s nuances.

The Unforgettable Season: Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and the Record-Setting Summer of1941The Unforgettable Season: Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and the Record-Setting Summer of 1941 by Phil Bildner

Phil Bildner captures both the excitement and the historical significance of the 1941 season that saw Joe DiMaggio set a new hitting streak record and Ted Williams pursue a .400 batting average. The text is crisp and engaging, although the artwork’s quality is inconsistent, especially in how Ted Williams face changes significantly from page to page. Young baseball fans will appreciate how Bildner provides context for how every season and every player has the potential for the drama of 1941. Until it happens though, 1941 remains a singular season.

The last two titles are picture books by Matt Tavares, author of Mudball, one of my all-time favorite baseball books.  I had the chance to meet Matt Tavares in November.  He’s a great guy, and I was glad he recorded this little video for my wife’s second grade class.  (Tip for teachers:  Authors are usually happy to record these clips, and I recommend asking whenever you meet an author students like.)

Growing Up Pedro: How the Martinez Brothers Made It from the Dominican Republic All the Way to the Major LeaguesGrowing Up Pedro: How the Martinez Brothers Made It from the Dominican Republic All the Way to the Major Leagues by Matt Tavares

Matt Tavares baseball books are always excellent, but to me Pedro Martinez will always be the guy who humiliated 72-year old Don Zimmer by flinging him to the ground. I’m sure Martinez has done a lot of good things in his life, but this Zimmer fan has a hard time getting past that ugly episode which goes unmentioned in this otherwise fine book.

Becoming Babe RuthBecoming Babe Ruth by Matt Tavares

By focusing on Babe Ruth’s earliest years, Matt Tavares is able to portray the human being behind the myth and avoid getting into Ruth’s bad behavior in his prodigious Yankee years. I admire the body of work Tavares is creating to enhance young baseball fans’ understanding of the game’s history.

Please feel free to leave comments or recommendations for other baseball books!  As always, thanks for reading.

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Review: BIG MAGIC by Elizabeth Gilbert

Don’t you just love how certain books come into your life?01-big-magic-book-review I have a friend who is a writer. A few weeks ago she sent me a message asking if I’d read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. I responded with a smart-alecky comment along the lines of “I’ve heard good things about it, but I think it might be too girly for a manly man like me.” Nothing more was said, but a few days later a package appeared on my porch containing a copy of Big Magic and a funny little note.

So I read it, and I’m glad I did. My primary creative pursuit is writing, but lately it’s felt sort of joyless. Everything I’ve been writing is for some professional situation, and although I can do it, it hasn’t been all that fun. Meanwhile, I’ve pushed aside some other appealing ideas in order to work on these things that seem more urgent. Big Magic helped me think differently about this dilemma.

The central metaphor of Big Magic is that creative ideas are alive. They pay us visits and invite us to take them in. If we turn away, they take their business elsewhere. On the other hand, if we embrace the ideas, or at least flirt with them, the creative process will catch spark (hopefully), and we will make something of value to ourselves and possibly others. This may sound overly metaphysical or just plain goofy to some, and that’s OK. Maybe Big Magic isn’t for you. All I know is that within fifteen minutes of finishing it, I’d written a satire piece about Donald Trump that is completely different from anything else I’ve ever written. And I greatly enjoyed the process!

Elizabeth Gilbert’s previous book Eat Pray Love is apparently a big deal. I haven’t read it or seen the movie. To be truthful, it doesn’t sound all that interesting to me. However, that book’s wild popularity gives Gilbert credibility about how creativity relates to success, luck, satisfaction, and persistence. Because Gilbert is a writer, obviously, most of her examples deal with writing, but there are also explanations involving visual art, music, dance, carpentry, cooking, gardening, and other creative pursuits.

One of my favorite aspects of Big Magic is how Gilbert uses memoir to illuminate her explanations. Some chapters tell interesting stories that cohere to her theories about creativity. For example, she was deep into writing a novel when circumstances forced her to put it aside. When she returned to the manuscript, her enthusiasm for the project was gone. From Gilbert’s perspective, the idea had left in search of another artist. Imagine Gilbert’s surprise to discover upon meeting an author she admired that an identical idea was the subject of that author’s most recent work: The idea had found another creator.

So, is Big Magic “too girly”? Apparently not, although in a couple of sentences Gilbert seems to be addressing a specifically female audience. That’s fine though. If you identify at all with the label of artist, or would like to identify as an artist, Big Magic will provide useful inspiration and practical advice for creative growth. This copy of Big Magic that came to me as a gift has some pretty good mojo in it, but I’ll gladly pass it along. If you want it, please let me know privately, and I’ll get it to you. What happens after that is up to you and the creative ideas that come your way.

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My 2015 Reading

goodreads 2015

Before getting too far into 2016, I feel a compulsive need to gather in one place a list of the books I read in 2015. Each book we read changes us a little bit, so this list represents some of the ways that my perspectives evolved in the past year. Instead of doing a top five or top ten, here are some more or less random observations about these books.

First of all, I read a lot of graphic novels this year, especially in the fall as I served as a judge for the 2015 Cybils Awards. I was impressed with the breadth of approaches in this platform. Some of the works were stunning in how they conveyed stories and effects by combining visual and textual elements. The stand-outs for me were Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona and Don Brown’s Drowned City, although there were many other excellent titles. (You can see my ratings and reviews elsewhere on this blog or on Goodreads.) I also dipped into manga for the first time. After acclimating to reading manga-style backwards, I began to appreciate what separates the strongest manga from the rest: great stories and detailed drawing. The artist’s approach to the backgrounds in the panels says a lot about how much craft has gone into a particular book.

Nonfiction titles outnumber the novels this year. I tended to focus on books about baseball, American history, and the music I like (country, classic rock, and bubble gum pop from when I was a kid). No surprises there. (I’ll post my annual round-up of baseball books soon.) In addition, I admired two of Walter Isaacson’s books about American thinkers: The Innovators and Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. I hope to get around to his books on Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs in 2016.

Although it wasn’t a goal, I feel like certain books were accomplishments. How had I gotten this far in life without reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea? What a great read.  If winter is getting you down, grab that slim book and head out to sea with Santiago. I’m also caught up on Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford and Hannah Smith thrillers. (The twenty-third Doc Ford book comes out in March!) These novels are set in Florida and other tropical locations, so they are also good winter-busters.

There were five authors with three titles in my 2015 reading: Bill Bryson, Jimmy Carter, Jane Smiley, Noelle Stevenson, and Mo Willems. I wonder if anyone else in the world has those five writers clustered together for anything.

My list has one omission that I need to explain. One of my favorite books published in 2015 is Read Between the Lines by Jo Knowles. It’s not on the list below because I read it in 2014 before it was published, but when I blogged about my 2014 reading, I didn’t think it was right to promote something that wasn’t available. It’s out now, and I hope readers who haven’t yet experienced Read Between the Lines will like it as much I do.

I was also in a book published in 2015! Schooled: Ordinary, Extraordinary Teaching in an Age of Change by Anne Lutz Fernandez and Catherine Lutz (Teachers College Press, 2015) focuses on how American teachers do their jobs in a challenging era, and I was over the moon to be featured in a chapter of that fine book. If you want to understand American schools today, Schooled is a great place to start.

So many good picture books came my way in 2015. I tend to like funny ones, like I Will Take a Nap! by Mo Willems, but the two that are sticking with me are animal stories: Trouper by Meg Kearney and The Stranded Whale by the venerable Jane Yolen.

Finally, here is the list of the books I read in 2015.

  1. A. S. King:  Reality Boy
  2. Kadir Nelson:  We Are The Ship
  3. William Kuhn:  Reading Jackie
  4. Walter Isaacson:  The Innovators
  5. Randy Wayne White:  Haunted
  6. Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang:  In Real Life
  7. Bill Bryson: A Walk in the Woods
  8. Allison Hoover Bartlett:  The Man Who Loved Books Too Much
  9. Meg Kearney:  Trouper
  10. Dan Santat:  The Adventures of Beekle:  The Unimaginary Friend
  11. Anna Kang: You Are (Not) Small
  12. Katheryn Russell-Brown: Little Melba and her Big Trombone
  13. Mo Willems: Waiting Is Not Easy!
  14. Yuyi Morales:  Viva Frida
  15. Alan Rabinowitz: A Boy and a Jaguar
  16. Lauren Castillo: Nana in the City
  17. James M. McPherson:  Embattled Rebel:  Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief
  18. Anthony Doerr:  All the Light We Cannot See
  19. Bill Bryson:  I’m a Stranger Here Myself
  20. Armando Galarraga, Jim Joyce, and Daniel Paisner:  Nobody’s Perfect
  21. Misty Copeland: Firebird
  22. Amy Dyckman: Wolfie the Bunny
  23. Chris Haughton: Shh!  We Have a Plan
  24. Jimmy Carter: A Call to Action:  Women, Religion, Violence, and Power
  25. Jane Smiley: Charles Dickens
  26. Jennifer Fisher Bryant and Melissa Sweet:  The Right Word:  Roget and His Thesaurus
  27. Phil Klay:  Redeployment
  28. Anya Kamenetz:  The Test
  29. Andrew Smith:  The Alex Crow

    FullSizeRender (1)

    I finally had the chance to meet Andrew Smith, author of The Alex Crow and many other books, at the NCTE convention in Minneapolis in November.

  30. Lester Laminack: Saturdays and Teacakes
  31. Jane Yolen:  You Rest Here with Me
  32. Lynda Mullaly Hunt: Fish in a Tree
  33. Matt Tavares: Growin Up Pedro
  34. Al Michaels:  You Can’t Make This Up
  35. Kathleen Flinn: Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good
  36. Jane Smiley:  Some Luck
  37. Ian McEwen:  The Children Act
  38. Randy Wayne White:  Cuba Straits
  39. Holly Hughes, Ed.: Best Food Writing 2014
  40. Matt Tavares: Becoming Babe Ruth
  41. Jimmy Carter:  A Remarkable Mother
  42. Jon Ronson:  So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
  43. Kwame Alexander:  The Crossover

    FullSizeRender (5)

    Kwame Alexander (left), author of The Crossover, won the 2015 Newbery Medal in January.  In November, he put me in a friendly headlock at the Nerdy Book Club party in Minneapolis.

  44. Greg Pizzoli:  Tricky Vic:  The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower
  45. Brian Grazer: A Curious Mind:  The Secret to a Bigger Life
  46. Louis L’Amour:  The Haunted Mesa
  47. Amy Krouse Rosenthal: The OK Book
  48. Mary Oliver: Dog Songs
  49. Jeffrey J. Selingo: College (Un)bound
  50. Emma Yarlett: Orion and the Dark
  51. Gretchen Rubin: Better than Before
  52. Sarah Darer Littman:  Backlash
  53. Elizabeth Green:  Building a Better Teacher
  54. Kevin Fenton:  Merit Badges
  55. Bobby Hart with Glenn Ballantyne:  Psychedelic Bubble Gum
  56. Cristina Henriquez: The Book of Unknown Americans
  57. Ernest Hemingway:  The Old Man and The Sea
  58. Cece Bell:  I Yam a Donkey
  59. Tim Green:  Baseball Great
  60. Ben Fountain: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
  61. William Joyce: Billy’s Booger
  62. Heather Lende: Find the Good
  63. Zachariah OHora: My Cousin Momo
  64. Salman Khan:  The One World Schoolhouse
  65. Kazuo Ishiguro:  The Buried Giant
  66. Louise Borden:  Baseball Is …
  67. Silas House:  Eli the Good
  68. Allison Bechdel:  Fun Home
  69. Jonathan Safran Foer:  Eating Animals
  70. Charles Dickens: The Mystery of Edwin Drood
  71. Kent Haruf:  Our Souls at Night
  72. Ben Clanton:  Something Extraordinary
  73. Barry Svrluga: The Grind:  Inside Baseball’s Longest Season
  74. Willie Nelson: It’s A Long Story:  My Life
  75. Jane Smiley:  Early Warning
  76. Harper Lee:  Go Set a Watchman
  77. Elizabeth Bram: Rufus the Writer
  78. John Green:  Paper Towns
  79. Anne Lutz Fernandez and Catherine Lutz:  Schooled:  Ordinary, Extraordinary Teaching in an Age of Change
  80. Emily Jenkins: A Fine Dessert
  81.  Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go
  82.  Charles Sobczak:  Six Mornings on Sanibel
  83.  Alan Cumming:  Not My Father’s Son
  84.  George R. R. Martin:  A Game of Thrones
  85. Derf Backderf: Trashed
  86. Jimmy Carter:  A Full Life:  Reflections at Ninety
  87. Frann Preston-Gannon:  Sloth Slept On
  88. J. Ryan Stradal:  Kitchens of the Great Midwest
  89. Don Brown:  Drowned City:  Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans
  90. Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm:  Sunny Side Up
  91. Jane Yolen: The Stranded Whale
  92. Tom Angleberger: McToad Mows Tiny Island
  93. Ken Robinson:  Creative Schools
  94. Alex Gino:  George
  95. Kevin Henkes: Waiting
  96. Walter Isaacson:  Benjamin Franklin:  An American Life
  97. Brian Selznick:  The Marvels
  98. Melanie Watt:  Bug in a Vacuum
  99. Anna Quindlen:  Good Dog.  Stay. 
  100. Becky Cloonan:  Gotham Academy, Vol. 1:  Welcome to Gotham Academy
  101. Jack Baxter:  Mike’s Place
  102. K. P. Kmitta:  Curveballs and Changeups
  103. Eric Colossal:  Rutabaga the Adventure Chef:  Book 1
  104. Nadja Spiegelman: Lost in NYC:  A Subway Adventure
  105. Gareth Hinds:  Macbeth
  106. Scott McCormick:  Mr. Pants:  Trick or Feet!
  107. John Allison:  The Case of the Simple Soul (Bad Machinery #3)
  108. Maxwell Eaton III:  The Flying Beaver Brothers and the Crazy Critter Race (The Flying Beaver Brothers #6)
  109. Wes Moore:  The Other Wes Moore
  110. Noelle Stevenson:  Nimona
  111.  Michel Chikwanine: Child Soldier
  112. Mary Karr: The Art of Memoir
  113. Deb Lucke: The Lunch Witch
  114. Craig Thompson: Space Dumplins
  115. Philip Pullman:  The Golden Compass Graphic Novel, Volume 1
  116. Robert Venditti:  Attack of the Alien Horde (Miles Taylor and the Golden Cape Book 1)
  117. Colleen Frakes: Prison Island
  118. G. Willow Wilson: Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal
  119. Chris Ballard: One Shot at Forever
  120. Judd Winick: Hilo Book 1: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth
  121. G. Willow Wilson: Ms. Marvel, Vol. 2: Generation Why
  122.  Yvan Pommaux :  Orpheus in the Underworld
  123.  Alexandra Robbins: The Nurses
  124.  Svetlana Chmakova: Awkward
  125.  Jorge Aguirre:  Dragons Beware!
  126.  Doug TenNapel:  Nnewts:  Escape from the Lizzarks
  127.  Ta-Nehisi Coates:  Between the World and Me
  128.  Andi Watson:  Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula
  129.  Jacob Chabot:  Hello Kitty:  It’s About Time
  130.  Beth Ferry:  Land Shark
  131.  Victoria Jamieson:  Roller Girl
  132.  Marika McCoola:  Baba Yaga’s Assistant
  133.  Noelle Stevenson:  Lumberjanes Volume 1:  Beware the Kitten Holy
  134.  Emily Jenkins:  The Fun Book of Scary Stuff
  135.  Mike Maihack:  Cleopatra in Space #2:  The Thief and the Sword
  136. John Robert Lewis:  March:  Book One
  137. Jennifer McMahon:  The Winter People
  138. John Robert Lewis:  March:  Book Two
  139. Lark Pien: Long Tail Kitty:  Come Out and Play
  140. Mara Rockliff:  Mesmerized:  How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France
  141. Hiroshi Sakurazaka:  All You Need is Kill
  142. Dasha Tolstikova:  A Year Without Mom
  143. Noelle Stevenson:  Lumberjanes, Vol. 2:  Friendship to the Max
  144. Susan Casey:  Voices in the Ocean
  145. Ben Hatke:  Little Robot
  146. Kadir Nelson: If You Plant a Seed
  147. Sally M. Walker:  Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh
  148. Maggie Thrash: Honor Girl
  149. Kate Beaton: The Princess and the Pony
  150. JonArno Lawson: Sidewalk Flowers
  151. Gene Luen Yang:  Secret Coders
  152. Russell Hoban: Jim’s Lion
  153. Maris Wicks:  Human Body Theater
  154. Deborah Underwood: Interstellar Cinderella
  155. Daniel Miyares: Float
  156. Henrik Rehr: Terrorist
  157. Frank Cammuso:  Dinosaur Dilemma (The Misadventures of Salem Hyde, #4)
  158. Sam Garton: Otter in Space
  159. Michael Hall: Red:  A Crayon’s Story
  160. Stacy King:  Manga Classics: The Scarlet Letter
  161. Emmanuel Guibert: Ariol:  Where’s Petula?
  162. Matt de la Pena:  Last Stop on Market Street
  163. Jimmy Fallon:  Your Baby’s First Word Will Be Dada
  164. Scott McCloud:  The Sculptor
  165. Nanette McGuinness:  Light, Camera, Stilton!
  166. Mo Willems:  I Will Take a Nap!
  167. Sara O’Leary:  This Is Sadie
  168. Dr. Seuss:  What Pet Should I Get?
  169. Katie Cotton:  Counting Lions
  170. Ben Towle:  Oyster War
  171. Phil Bildner:  The Unforgettable Season
  172. Jenny Lawson:  Let’s Pretend This Never Happened
  173. Mary Lyn Ray:  Goodnight, Good Dog
  174. Sean Koo:  March Grand Prix:  The Fast and the Furriest
  175. Otis Frampton: Oddly Normal Vol. 1
  176. Debbie Ridpath Ohi: Where Are My Books?
  177. Robert Goodin: The Kurdles
  178. Peter Guralnick:  Sam Phillips:  The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll
  179. Ray Benson: Comin’ Right at Ya
  180. Kate Clifford Larson:  Rosemary:  The Hidden Kennedy Daughter
  181. Bill Bryson: The Mother Tongue
  182. Bob Shea: Ballet Cat:  The Totally Secret Secret

Please let me know if something here sparks your interest and leads you on a great reading adventure in 2016!




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2015 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 24,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 9 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Review: A STEP TOWARD FALLING by Cammie McGovern

24723223I’m glad authors like Cammie McGovern are writing books like A Step Toward Falling. McGovern’s 2015 novel gives us two alternating narrators: Belinda, a young woman with cognitive disabilities nearing the end of her high school years who is reluctant to return to school after being sexually assaulted under the bleachers at a football game; and Emily, a high school senior who witnessed the attack on Belinda but, because she did nothing about it, is required to “volunteer” in a Boundaries and Relationships class at a center for intellectually impaired young adults.

Just as Emily’s friends and enemies struggle to figure out how friendship, relationship, and sexual intimacy relate to each other, Belinda and the other disabled students wrestle with the same questions. The disabled students have the added complications of not completely understanding the complexities involved in these issues, as well as societal prejudices about what is appropriate for them to experience. A Step Toward Falling provides insights into how these students see themselves, as well as how they relate to their peers and family members.

But McGovern’s novel is more than just another “social problem” book. The author explores how all of us are defined and affected by the choices we make when confronted with uncomfortable situations. Several years ago our school had some special education students clean the glass in the hallway doors. I suppose the idea was to give them some responsibility and some stake in school pride. Although most other students simply walked around the window cleaners without giving them much notice, there were also those who chose to say things like, “Hey, retard. You missed a spot.” We can easily characterize the despicable nature of that kind of response and recognize it as evidence of a certain kind of impairment itself. But what about those who witness such abusive actions and do nothing? Of course, doing nothing is actually a conscious or unconscious response, so it’s not really “nothing,” and that absence of an overt response can have profound effects on those who just stand there or turn away, not to mention the victims of the negligence.

A Step Toward Falling deals with how to move forward. How does Belinda move forward after being subjected to violence and humiliation? How does Emily move forward after discovering something unpleasant in herself? Other characters in the book make these kinds of decisions too, and readers will easily relate to their struggles, epiphanies, and choices. As the title suggests, moving forward isn’t always easy or smooth, but reading books like this one can help readers know they are not alone as they take wobbly steps in the right direction.

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From “Oops!” to “Aha!”: A Story of Reflection and Reflexivity


I’ve said this before: We can write our way out of dark places. I know because I’ve done it. But how much of the writing that we assign in school nurtures that kind of ability? If we want to students to better understand their own reflective and reflexive abilities, it helps if we develop those capacities in ourselves. Which brings me to a story …

Once upon a time I was stuck. I wasn’t stuck in everything. Home life was great. My classes were great. My colleagues were great. But my professional development just sucked, and I was stuck within some unconsciously self-imposed boundaries.

I’m not going to dwell on what was wrong with the professional development I was experiencing at my school. I don’t really want to re-live that other than to set up what came after. I didn’t agree philosophically with the ideas and practices that were being mandated and imposed. I despised the role I was being asked to play in promoting those ideas and practices, and I was horrified at how quickly this ugly blob was expanding.

My dissatisfaction with this one area of my professional life wasn’t really affecting my classroom or personal and professional relationships, but it was affecting my self. As I drove to work or mowed the lawn or wrote in my journal, I found myself reflecting on what I disagreed with, but I found that I couldn’t do too much about it. I knew exactly what was wrong but felt relatively powerless to change it.

Have you seen that video of people stuck on an escalator? They are riding up an escalator in a mall or business center, and it suddenly stops. They go into full meltdown about how awful it is, and how they hope someone will fix it soon. In reality, all they have to do is take a few steps, and they will be off the escalator and on to wherever they were headed. Of course, there is no reason to be stuck on an escalator. Just get off the damn thing. But that was me. I was stuck on the escalator of ugly professional development for a while, too long.

This is where reflexivity comes in. As I processed all this in my journal, first I complained, then wondered, and then epiphany: Get off the escalator!

Even though I couldn’t change the problem, I could reflexively re-define how I engaged with it. So that’s what I did. I just stepped back and stopped investing in that part of my job. I still had to go to meetings and do stuff, but I did the minimum amount, and I tried not to dwell on it.

But professional development is important! As I reflected on this some more, I realized that I had a narrow understanding of what professional development opportunities were available to me.

Then some doors opened. At the NCTE convention in San Antonio, I was talking to Jodi, a teacher from suburban St. Louis. She said she thought I would like Jim Burke’s new social media site English Companion Ning.

I went home and jumped on that, and boy did I carpe that diem! I found even more incredible colleagues, including people who have become dear friends. I found a place to help other teachers, ask questions, write about my ideas and opinions, and actually collaborate with others to build online professional development opportunities for a larger community.

Those energizing connections have led me to all kinds of rewarding relationships and valuable professional experiences, including writing, publishing, and speaking opportunities; renewed energy for the classroom; and authentic collaboration.

So, exactly what realizations did I gain from all of that active reflection? Here are three:

1. I had two sets of colleagues, one on-site and one mostly online. I valued both of them, and it seemed strange to me that they didn’t know each other. To my great satisfaction, many of my online colleagues are now people I see with some regularity, and my on-site colleagues and online colleagues have even worked together on some projects.

2. I realized the difference between my job and my work. My job is where I report each day, practice my craft, try to help as many people as possible, and earn a paycheck. My work is deeper and goes beyond the school where I worked. This realization served me extremely well when I retired from that job in 2014. My job ended, but my work has not ended at all. My work continues in all kinds of interesting, rewarding ways. I’m the most un-retired retired teacher you can imagine.

3. Although my job dissatisfaction never affected my work in the classroom, it did affect my underlying attitudes. When those attitudes became more positive and when the new professional development resulted in actual learning, my teaching and professional life became even more energized.

To put a fine point on all of this, reflection helped me understand the problem. Reflexivity helped me solve it.
At last month’s National Council of Teachers of English convention in Minneapolis, I was honored to be co-chair of a session entitled “From ‘Oops’ to ‘Aha!’: Reflection as a Creative Act.” This is a slightly different version of what I talked about in that presentation. Thanks to everyone who joined us on that Sunday morning and contributed to this powerful session at NCTE15, and thanks to everyone who read about it here.

I always welcome and appreciate your comments, especially if you have ideas on how to expand on this idea at next year’s NCTE convention.

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Thirteen More Graphic Novels for Classrooms and Libraries

This set of reviews includes graphic novels for older readers, younger readers, and those somewhere in between. I’m officially against categorizing books by age, but this set has such a wide range that I’m organizing it roughly by age appeal with the hope that you can find what you’re most interested in clustered together here.

Thanks to the generous publishers of these books for providing me with review copies in exchange for my honest opinions.

Terrorist: Gavrilo Princip, the Assassin Who Ignited World War ITerrorist: Gavrilo Princip, the Assassin Who Ignited World War I by Henrik Rehr

Henrik Rehr’s Terrorist is a brave graphic novel, newly published in the US. In a time when “terrorist” conjures up nothing positive, Rehr gives us the story of Gavrilo Princip, the self-described terrorist whose assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand touched off World War I. Rehr never asks readers to condone the actions or sympathize with the emotions of Princip and his associates, just as we are never required to condemn them. We are simply asked to see and understand how the mind of a terrorist works, and then we are free to apply our own ethical rubrics to the documentary we’ve been presented. If Rehr has a political agenda in this book, it was not obvious to me. I can easily see how rich discussions can emanate from this book, and I can easily think of a dozen students who would find this book fascinating.

The black-and-white artwork is dramatic, almost resembling etching in places. Although some of the characters are hard to distinguish, the overall visual effects are compelling. The political discussions weigh down the narrative in places, but Rehr creates a suspenseful plot as he alternates between the activities of Princip and the Archduke as they move toward the moment of the murder.

Terrorist is a worthwhile addition to middle school and high school classrooms and libraries.

Honor Girl: A Graphic MemoirHonor Girl: A Graphic Memoir by Maggie Thrash

In this graphic-novel memoir, 14-year old Maggie finds herself at an all-girls summer camp transitioning from a celebrity crush on Backstreet Boys singer Kevin Richardson to a very real crush on Erin, one of the camp’s counselors. What I love about Honor Girl is its authenticity. Complex emotions are rendered accessible without simplifying them. Maggie isn’t trying to be a lesbian, or really anything other than a person figuring out what her emotions mean. And imagine doing that while surrounded 24 hours a day by teenage girls and only teenage girls. I’m crossing over into cliché here, I know, but author Maggie Thrash had me living her life while reading Honor Girl.

Thrash made all the right choices as she created this book. The free-form artwork is a perfect way to convey this story as it seems like how a 14-year might doodle her way through memories. The colors are slightly muted but not somber, which also reinforced the life-like quality of Honor Girl. Thrash also gives us several catchy uses of panels, sound effects, and perspective.

I hope Honor Girl finds its way into the hands of many readers. Although clearly appropriate and important for high school classrooms and libraries, those choosing books for younger readers should be aware of several instances of profanity. Thanks to Candlewick Press for so consistently producing such high-quality works of literature for young readers.

The SculptorThe Sculptor by Scott McCloud

The Sculptor is a powerful and interesting graphic novel, and it is a novel. David Smith is a twenty-something sculptor who is at loose ends artistically, financially, and emotionally. He makes a Faustian deal and, sure enough, things begin to swing his way. Author Scott McCloud creates fantastic sculptures that leap from the pages in ways that transcend the possibilities of actual sculpture.

The interplay between life and art is a primary theme in The Sculptor, and the plot is suspenseful and well-paced. The best audience for this book is probably comics fans interested in what it means to have an artistic life. I could be wrong, but I don’t think the “kid appeal” of this one is all that strong, although I know I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.

Manga Classics: The Scarlet LetterManga Classics: The Scarlet Letter by Stacy King

I’ve always taught Nathaniel Hawthorne through a selection of his stories rather than investing class time in his longer works. Hawthorne’s themes emerge clearly in the shorter works and students experience the flavor of early American Romantic writing through lessons that take one day rather than the extended time required to teach a novel. Now along comes this Manga Classics edition from Udon Entertainment that reinforces those themes so critical to understanding Hawthorne and early America: hypocrisy, sin, isolation, etc.

At first I was a little put off by the idea of rendering Hester Prynne as a doll-faced manga character. But you know what? It works. Hester is an imperfect older adolescent set upon by those who surround her. Reverend Dimmesdale is also presented as only slightly older than an adolescent, which also works. So these early American puritans have more in common with typical manga characters than one might think.

The artwork conveys the central story line very well, although some Hawthorne threads have been condensed or taken out. The emotions come through clearly, although I was distracted by the blank backgrounds in many of the panels. The best manga is intricately detailed, and this comic falls short in that area.

This manga version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is well worth adding to libraries and classrooms.

Oyster WarOyster War by Ben Towle

Pirates are rapidly depleting the oyster supply along the Eastern seaboard in the years after the Civil War. Civic leaders call in Commander Davidson Bulloch, a blustery submarine officer fond of spouting inspirational quotes although with at least one mangled word. Bulloch agrees to assemble a crew and go to war against Treacher Fink and his band of oyster pirates in Oyster War, a grand adventure that looks and feels like a throwback to the comic adventures of the 1930s.

Bulloch’s colorful sailors and Fink’s motley crew are wildly entertaining as they go to battle in a plot that is both complex and easily understood. Throw in a dash of historical accuracy and splashes of mysterious maritime legends, and you have a completely satisfying graphic novel that I didn’t want to end.

Human Body TheaterHuman Body Theater by Maris Wicks

Human Body Theater is a thorough explanation of bodily organs, systems, and functions, with a few common maladies thrown in along the way, all delivered in graphics form. The “theater” is hosted by a goofy skeleton who makes appearances at just the right moments when the science starts getting a little dense. The kid appeal of this is probably pretty good if it’s delivered or used in small doses–for example, one bodily system at a time–but only the rare youngster would navigate through the entire book from start to finish. Still, Human Body Theater is a unique achievement in the graphics platform, recommended for homes, schools, and libraries.

Jim's LionJim’s Lion by Russell Hoban

This is an affecting story of a hospitalized young boy whose dream life gives him the courage to face his waking life. The illustrations take readers into Jim’s dreams and provide perspectives on his emotional state.

Oddly Normal Vol. 1Oddly Normal Vol. 1 by Otis Frampton

In an ultra-lite version of Harry Potter, we have Oddly Normal, the daughter of a witch and a human. Because her parents are currently out of commission, she is sent to a school located in a dimension slightly out of sync with the reality we know. There she is looked after by an off-kilter aunt and taunted by those who deem themselves superior.

The story of Oddly Normal is easy to follow, and the drawings are crisp and interesting. Although there are some shortcuts in the coloring, the visual appeal is still strong. Currently there are ten volumes in this saga, but Volume 1 ends with a cliffhanger which might be frustrating for readers without immediate access to the next book.

Oddly Normal is a breezy comic story that will appeal to young readers who want a little adventure mixed with some fantasy elements.

Secret Coders (Secret Coders, #1)Secret Coders by Gene Luen Yang

Secret Coders breaks some new cartoon territory as Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes make the process of coding visually comprehensible. The characters are clever and appealing, and the plot has just the right amount of mystery that doesn’t cross over into labyrinthine chaos. My only gripe is the to-be-continued ending. This episode could have been resolved fairly easily, and I think readers deserve some measure of resolution.

Dinosaur Dilemma (The Misadventures of Salem Hyde, #4)The Misadventures of Salem Hyde:  Dinosaur Dilemma by Frank Cammuso

The Misadventures of Salem Hyde is a good series for young readers. With three or four large panels per page and a funny one-liner every couple of pages, the Salem Hyde books are just right for those fans of Babymouse or Lunch Lady. Salem reminds me of Dennis the Menace, but he has some magical powers, which I don’t fully understand.

“Dinosaur Dilemma” involves Salem wanting a pet and needing to do a science project. (Who dislikes science projects more–students or parents?) Salem ends up with a dinosaur egg, and that’s all I’ll say about the plot, except that the ending is exciting and completely satisfying.

If Salem Hyde books are in your elementary school libraries, I’m sure they will quickly become favorites.

March Grand Prix: The Fast and the FurriestMarch Grand Prix: The Fast and the Furriest by Kean Soo

March Grand Prix contains three little stories about animal race car drivers. The characters are physically distinct, and their expressions are clear, but they don’t really have much personality separating them from each other. The colors are appealing, and the action is easy to follow, but the backgrounds in each panel are plain and uninteresting. Although most of the language and situations are geared for younger readers, some of the technical information about the cars seems fairly sophisticated. The excitement of the races is accompanied by nice morals about family and friends, and the right young readers may find March Grand Prix interesting, but I’m not sure they will exactly hunger for more.

Ariol: Where's Petula?Ariol: Where’s Petula? by Emmanuel Guibert

Ariol: Where’s Petula? is the first book-length episode featuring Ariol, the little donkey with enormous glasses. In this tale, he is invited over to the home of Petula, the young cow who is his current crush. Their families make them both a little anxious, but it all ends well. Along the way, there is some discussion of mythology and rap. The activity in this funny, brightly-colored story is kind of frenzied, but that’s probably how things seem to Ariol.

Lights, Camera, Stilton! (Geronimo Stilton Graphic Novels, #16)Lights, Camera, Stilton! by Nanette McGuinness

This colorful Geronimo Stilton tale does a great job of sneaking in a little history with its adventure. All the familiar characters are here, although if this is a reader’s first exposure to the Geronimo Stilton books, plentiful background and character development are provided.

Although this story starts off at a concert given by the famous pop group “Top Direction,” most of it takes place in Paris as the Lumiere Brothers attempt to launch their movie-making enterprise. The Pirate Cats want to steal the Lumieres’ technology, but not if Geronimo and crew can help it!

“Lights, Camera, Stilton!” is likely to satisfy most young readers with its mix of humor (cheese puns galore) and suspense. Although it’s not as weighty, this little graphic novel might pair well with The Invention of Hugo Cabret as they both explore the origins of cinema.

Thanks for reading this! I hope it’s helpful. Your comments are always welcome.

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Life in the College Writing Center


Although I’m busy doing several different jobs in my un-retirement, one of my favorites is tutoring in a college writing center. Maybe some understanding of my work there can be useful to high school teachers as they seek to fulfill the elusive nature of what it means for their students to be “college-ready” writers.

I work with college students on their writing for classes from across the curriculum. About half of the writing I see originates in English classes; the other half comes from other departments, most commonly nursing, art, history, engineering, speech, and psychology. I also see students seeking help for writing personal statements as they prepare to transfer to other schools, applying for internships or other work experiences, and developing ideas to use in their first-year seminars.

Here is the dilemma for college writers. Each student takes an English class, right? In that class he may work on organization, argument, voice, synthesizing ideas from a variety of sources, and overall coherence. Then he goes to his next class—let’s say it’s a nursing class—and the writing expectations are completely different. The writing in a nursing class is expected to be devoid of any personal flavor—no synonyms, no transitions, and definitely no opinions. Then he goes to his history class where his writing is expected to be objective at times and subjective at other times. In each class, the instructor sees writing a certain way and usually has very little understanding of the writing expected of the student in his other classes. But that student must navigate all of these expectations and switch gears for each writing assignment. My work in the writing center is to help our students see that dilemma more clearly: Although the instructors contradict each other, they are merely responding to the needs of their disciplines.

What do I find so gratifying about this work? First of all, it’s one-on-one. Each student comes in with a writing-related problem, and we work together to make progress on it. Sometimes that involves a quick lesson on a mechanical or usage issue. Sometimes they know they are missing transitions, or a conclusion, or examples. Some are mystified by documentation requirements. The guiding principle in the writing center is this: Developing the writer is more important than developing the writing. In other words, we’re not focused on “fixing” this paper right now; we’re more interested in helping the student become a better writer.

My favorite tutoring sessions are those that involve brainstorming. This happens when a student arrives and says, “I have this assignment, and I don’t know how to start.” I take a look at the assignment, clarify the student’s understanding, and then I ask, “Is it OK if I take some notes while we talk?” Then I ask some guiding questions, writing down the parts that sound most interesting. As the student continues to explain her thoughts, I try to see what parts fit together, and how it might work as a coherent response to the assignment. At some point, I’ll say, “How about this?” and then show her a rough outline of her own ideas that might just work as an approach. The looks on their faces when they see an outline of their own words just waiting to be fleshed out in paragraphs is enormously gratifying.

Another very cool aspect of working in the writing center comes from the fact that so many of our students are new to America for a variety of reasons. I learn so much from them! I’ve had fascinating conversations about Jamaican cooking, Polish World War II heroes, Nigerian schooling, and how Russians view themselves as different from Americans. (“Americans like to have fun. Russians are sooooo serious all the time.”) I’ve always known that one of the advantages of being a writing teacher is improving my understanding of human nature, and working in the writing center definitely reinforces that advantage.

What implications does all of this have for high school teachers trying to achieve “college-readiness”? Well …
1. We can avoid drinking the kool-aid of the standardized testing industry that tries to define college-ready writing in terms of their for-profit test platform. I’ve never seen a standardized test that approximates the writing expected in college. The new ACT writing test is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t come close to the demands of a typical college class.
2. We need to prepare students for writing in many different modes. Expressive, narrative, objective, research, expository, analytical, and persuasive writing are all alive and well on college campuses—and students frequently must write in more than one of those modes during the same semester in different classes.
3. We can help students become comfortable with talking about their writing. Conferring with high school students about their writing, and helping them become comfortable with asking questions about their papers will serve them very well as they meet with professors and tutors to discuss their work. A bonus for high school teachers who do writing conferences is the relationship-building that happens when we talk with students about their words and ideas.

As always, thank you for the work you do, and for reading this. Your comments are always welcome.

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